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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

© Collection, Wisconsin Historical Society
© Collection, Wisconsin Historical Society

February 2007

Citizen scientist

Wisconsin's first Renaissance man, Increase A. Lapham merits renown as surveyor, engineer, mapmaker, historian, self-taught botanist, geologist, forester, meteorologist and a prescient conservation voice.

Erika Janik

On an early summer evening in 1836, the steamship New York docked on the Milwaukee lakefront and a young naturalist and engineer stepped ashore. Only 25 years old and already gaining notice for his scientific skills, Increase A. Lapham had come to Milwaukee from Ohio to help dig a canal.

Barely two years old when Lapham arrived, Milwaukee was a bustling settlement of nearly 1,200 people. With skyrocketing land prices and immigrants pouring into the surrounding countryside, lakeshore promoters had proposed constructing a canal from Milwaukee westward to the lead region as a way to ensure Wisconsin's continued prosperity.

The canal was never built but young Lapham, like thousands of other new settlers, decided to cast his lot with the new Wisconsin Territory. By the time he died in 1875, Lapham had spent nearly 40 years observing and recording the Wisconsin landscape and writing his life upon this land.

Something about this place attracts generations of people committed to Wisconsin's environment in a passionate way. Yet while Sigurd Olson, Aldo Leopold, John Muir and Gaylord Nelson are familiar names, the state's first great scientist and naturalist – a man who saw the need for conservation a generation before his peers – is often forgotten.

There is much for which Increase Lapham might be remembered. He authored the first book published in Wisconsin, drew the first published map, investigated Wisconsin's effigy mounds, native trees and grasses, helped establish a public high school and the Milwaukee Female Seminary, led the State Historical Society, served as chief geologist, and founded the National Weather Service. For all these accomplishments he was respected in his own day and should be remembered in ours.

Perhaps Lapham's more important contributions, however, were his exhortations to protect Wisconsin's natural resources, particularly its forests. Lapham believed that the landscape was a source of great national wealth, providing benefits to people, animals and climate, all of which he feared were under threat of permanent destruction.

His abiding senses of history and of the historical value of the landscape underlay his urgency to record and preserve the world around him and prevent its destruction. He encouraged people to connect with nature and to observe the wonders around them. And he encouraged them to teach their children to love and appreciate nature.

Lapham developed an intimate knowledge of Wisconsin through an obsession with scientific inquiry. In a letter to his brother in 1844, he apologized for not writing sooner because his "head has been so full of topography, geography, etc., that it would not contain the material for a letter."

His sense of a natural world vanishing before his eyes informed his mission to record his adopted home before it was too late. Like Aldo Leopold, Lapham understood that every action changes nature and the question was not whether to change nature, but how.

Increase Allen Lapham was born in Palmyra, New York, on March 7, 1811, the fifth of 13 children. His Quaker parents could not afford to have their children attend school so Increase, whose father was a canal contractor, became a laborer on canal construction crews.

He got his first job at age thirteen, cutting stone for lock gates at Lockport, New York. Even without formal education, Lapham demonstrated an early talent for topographical sketching. When he was fourteen, Lapham began supplementing his dollar-a-day income by drawing and selling plans of the lock to townspeople. He became so proficient that in 1828, when only seventeen, he drafted virtually all of the plans for the canal at Shippingsport, Kentucky.

Surveying and excavating canals sparked an interest in the natural sciences that would define his adult life. Lapham wandered the fields, forests, lakes and rivers of the Ohio Valley in his spare time. He gathered plants, rocks and shells that he tirelessly classified and recorded in a diary he called "A Journal of Science and Arts with Miscellaneous Nonsense by the Auther."

Lapham also kept notes of the many books on natural history, geology and botany that he read to educate himself on his surroundings. At the age of sixteen, he published his first article on the geology of the Old Northwest in the American Journal of Science and Art.

On the strength of his drafting skills, Lapham rose from a common laborer to an engineer and surveyor of canals in the 1830s. He surveyed part of the Ohio Canal, and in 1835, he was appointed deputy surveyor of Franklin County, Ohio. Though the job was low-paying, the position gave him plenty of free time each day to devote to his scientific pursuits.

By this time, Lapham had become well-known in several scientific fields. The Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio commissioned him to compile a catalog of the state's plants, animals and minerals, and the Ohio legislature sought his counsel on a statewide geological survey.

Early in 1836, Lapham received an invitation from his former employer, Byron Kilbourne, to come to Milwaukee. Ten years before, Lapham had worked under Kilbourne on the engineering crew of the Miami (Ohio) Canal. Kilbourne had recently begun land speculating in Wisconsin and believed the construction of the Milwaukee and Rock River Canal would allow Milwaukee to become the preeminent lakeshore city.

Lapham, initially reluctant to leave his position in Ohio, accepted Kilbourne's offer and arrived in Milwaukee, a town "improving as rapidly as the timber will allow" he wrote, on July 1, 1836.

Only months after Lapham arrived, however, financial panic jolted frontier optimism about Milwaukee's future and hopes for the canal fell by the wayside. Plans for the canal were completely abandoned three years later, when railroad development quickly trumped the canal as a superior means of transportation. No matter, Lapham had plans of his own.

Despite the hardships of the frontier and the urgings of his brother to return home to Ohio, Lapham decided to stay in Wisconsin. Lapham had moved around enough: in October of 1838, Lapham and his new wife, Ann Maria Alcott, settled in Milwaukee.

Over the next 20 years, Lapham helped his new hometown grow from a village to a booming city. Appointed deputy surveyor for Wisconsin Territory, Lapham surveyed city plots and registered land claims until the government land office opened in Milwaukee. He arbitrated land claims and drew the basic plat of the city.

At the same time, Lapham pursued the scientific work that truly captivated him. Within a year of his arrival, he published Wisconsin's first scientific imprint, a Catalogue of Plants and Shells Found in the Vicinity of Milwaukee (1836). He also began work on what he called a "Gazeteer of Wisconsin."

Lapham's "Gazeteer" became, in 1844, his Geographical and Topographical Description of Wisconsin, the first commercially published book in Milwaukee. A 255-page compilation of facts and descriptions of the state's geography, topography, history, internal improvements, geology, government, lands, schools and climate, that "furnish in a cheap and convenient form, a large amount of useful information, which it would be difficult to obtain from any other source."

The book proved incredibly popular, particularly among new settlers. One thousand copies were printed and within two years, a second expanded and revised edition was needed to meet the demand. Immigrants used Lapham's book to learn about the area in which they were to live. The second edition featured an accurate and detailed map of the Wisconsin territory, the first published map in Wisconsin. He produced many of these general maps throughout his life.

Besides his work on maps and books, Lapham kept up a growing correspondence with people from around the country who requested information and specimens. He shared plants, fossils, rocks, meteorological observations and fish with such leading scientists as botanist Asa Gray and naturalist Louis Agassiz. No request was too great and no person too insignificant to receive a response. Lapham even sent Agassiz two live turtles.

Lapham took great interest in city improvement and in the diffusion of learning on the Wisconsin frontier. In 1840, he helped establish a lyceum that met every Friday for lectures and debates on various topics. Besides lecturing on science at the lyceum, Lapham spoke at the Milwaukee High School, which he had helped found, and the Unitarian Church. Lapham was also one of the founders of the Milwaukee Female College, a pioneering institution for women's education, and served as president of its board of trustees.

Lapham had his hand in institutions outside Milwaukee too. He donated an herbarium of over 1,000 plant species to the newly established University of Wisconsin and supported the State Agricultural Society. He also helped found the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and served as its president for 10 years.

During one of his many trips outside Milwaukee, Lapham discovered something that would inspire one of his most important books: a man-shaped mound near Waukesha. Distressed that advancing settlement was destroying the mounds before they could be studied, Lapham began a comprehensive survey to "delineate accurately their form and proportions [before] it will in many cases be forever too late!" At the time, no one knew the origin of these mounds, but many believed that they had been left by a "lost race" of superior peoples.

Eager to discover their origins, Lapham found and mapped hundreds of circular, animal and man-shaped mounds. Traveling north to Lake Winnebago and west to the Mississippi, he discovered skeletons and artifacts that he compared with known Indians living in Wisconsin. The Smithsonian Institution published Lapham's findings in a book called The Antiquities of Wisconsin, in 1855. In it, he concluded that the mound builders were not a lost race but were, in fact, the ancestors of Wisconsin's own Indian tribes.

The Antiquities of Wisconsin provided an invaluable detailed record of Wisconsin's archaeological heritage and effectively ended the debate on the origins of the mounds. Archaeologists continue to use it to help reconstruct Wisconsin's ancient cultural landscape.

Unfortunately, like so many of his projects, the mound survey brought him little financial reward. The Smithsonian did send Lapham 50 copies that he could sell for a small profit if he so desired.

Lapham followed this archaeological accomplishment with a pioneering work in forest conservation. His brief survey of Wisconsin forests, published in 1855, celebrated the importance, utility and beauty of trees. Lapham strongly encouraged people to plant trees, which he hoped would one day become a civic duty.

At the time of his survey, Wisconsin's lumber industry had penetrated deep into the Chippewa and Wisconsin River watersheds. Although the forests seemed limitless to most people, Lapham urged that greater care must be taken if Wisconsin were to have an adequate supply of lumber for the future. "Though we have at present," he wrote, "in almost every part of Wisconsin an abundant supply of wood for all our present purposes, the time is not far distant when, owing to the increase of population, and the increased demands from the neighboring states...a scarcity will begin to be felt."

Another decade would pass before Lapham's words prompted any action. In 1867, the legislature appointed him chair of a special forestry commission to study the conditions of Wisconsin's forests and make recommendations for government action. The report title said it all: "On the Disastrous Effects of the Destruction of Forest Trees, Now Going on So Rapidly in the State of Wisconsin."

With prophetic insight, Lapham forecast a time – growing increasingly closer – when Wisconsin's natural resources and history would be lost to short-sighted needs of a rapidly developing state. He urged state government to intercede for the good of the people and develop a plan to actively manage "timber as shall be needed for future use by her people." He further recommended that "scientific experiments or investigations should be made to ascertain the best methods for growing and managing forest trees."

Despite his foresight, Lapham's report fell on deaf ears. As long as the pursuit of profit drove farmers to clear land for cash crops and logging companies to clear-cut lumber from northern forests, Lapham's arguments would be totally ineffective. Not until after his death, when much of the north had been turned into a wasteland, would Progressive Era policy makers begin to appreciate the magnitude of the situation that Lapham had first identified nearly a half century earlier.

Lapham's report on forest trees had included a plea for a more widespread system of weather observations. His close study of weather patterns had convinced him that weather could be predicted if the meteorological data was reported, recorded and mapped. He emphasized the value of weather predictions to farmers and to Great Lakes shippers who often suffered disastrous financial blows and loss of life from fierce storms. With Lapham's help, the National Weather Bureau, forerunner of today's National Weather Service, was established in 1870.

Lapham, never one to stay in one place for long, left the Weather Bureau in 1872 and began another large project – a geological survey of Wisconsin. Commissioned by the legislature, Lapham began mapping and collecting rocks, soil, ore and clays in 1873.

Unfortunately, the survey soon became mired in political controversy. Although Republican Governor C. C. Washburn had appointed Lapham to the post of State Geologist, his appointment had never been confirmed by the legislature before Washburn left office. So in 1875, when Governor William Taylor, a Democrat, appointed party loyalist O.W. Wight to the position, Lapham was left without a job and without credit for his years of work.

Lapham retired to his farm on Oconomowoc Lake, near Milwaukee, where he continued to collect data on the lake and its fish. Suffering from heart trouble, Lapham was found adrift in his rowboat, dead from a heart attack on a September evening in 1875. His death, proclaimed a "sad calamity" by the Wisconsin State Journal, marked the end of a life unceasingly devoted to Wisconsin's resources.

From the moment he had arrived on the Milwaukee lakefront in 1836, Lapham worked to make Wisconsin known to both itself and the nation. For Lapham, the study of the natural sciences provided "pure and unalloyed pleasure...seldom found anywhere else."

Lapham's pleasure has been our gain for over a century as his work provided the foundation for countless educational institutions and a body of unparalleled scientific knowledge and insight. His lifelong interest in outdoor observation and investigation provides a model for how each of us can learn to use, protect and conserve natural resources for today and for future generations.

Freelancer Erika Janik writes about arts, culture and history from Madison. She also makes historical publications accessible for digital use for the Wisconsin Historical Society.