Milwaukee Reverberations

8 Titles, Surveys, & Floats

From History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from pre-historic times to the present date (1881)

These parts of a major popular history of the city produced by A.T. Andreas describe the white settler colonial legal & extra-legal processes how the Indigenous homeland of Milwaukee became the private property of white settlers.


The Indians having been found in possession of the land on which Milwaukee now stands, with rude structures of bark, skins and rushes for dwellings, the Government of the United States had no title to the country. Although the Milwaukee band was a mixed one, yet two tribes laid undisputed claim to the lands in this vicinity. The Menomonees occupied and claimed the land north and east of the Milwaukee River, which the Government obtained possession of by a treaty held with the Menomonee chiefs at Washington, February 8, 1831. After that date therefore all the lands on the east and north side were open to pre-emption, or private entry. The boundary line, in the words of the treaty, was one “beginning at the south end of Winnebago Lake where the City of Fond du Lac now stands and running in a southeast direction to the Milwaukee or Manawky River; thence down said river to its mouth; thence north on the shore of Lake Michigan.”

The Pottawatomies claimed and occupied the lands south of the Milwaukee River and continued to do so up to 1838. However, a treaty was made at Chicago, September 26, 1833, between the Government and the Pottawatomies by which the title to this land became vested in the General Government. The Indians stipulated that they should be allowed to remain undisturbed on their ceded possessions for three years after the treaty was perfected. By a resolution of Congress passed in May, 1834, some amendments to the treaty were added. This delayed the completion of the article until February 21, 1835, when it was fully ratified by both the Government and the Indians. The proviso to allow the Pottawatomies to occupy the land three years appears in the following description of the ceded tract, as written in the treaty: “All their lands along the west shore of Lake Michigan, bounded on the north by country lately ceded by the Menomonees, and on the south by the country ceded at the treaty of Prairie du Chien, made on the 29th of July, 1829. * * * It being understood that the said [Pottawatomie] Indians are to remove from all that part of the land now ceded which is in the State of Illinois, immediately on the ratification of this treaty; but to be permitted to retain possession of the country north of said State for the term of three years without molestation or interruption, and under the protection of the laws of the United States.”

These three years expired on the 21st of February, 1838, but the Indians were not wholly removed until June, 1838. Soon after the treaty was ratified the land north of the river was surveyed. In doing this a serious trouble came very near being precipitated. Of this I. A. Lapham once wrote: “The coming south of the river, in order to get a full township for Milwaukee, during the survey made by Wm. A. Burt, in 1835, caused much dissatisfaction, the Indians claiming the land as theirs; that the whites were interlopers, and should not occupy it before the expiration of the time specified in the treaty, carrying their hostility so far, in fact, while the men were mostly attending the land sale held at Green Bay, October, 1835, as to plot the massacre of all the whites in the settlement, which they certainly would have done, had they not been prevented by Mrs. Juneau, who remained in the streets all night watching over them. Such was the power of this noble woman over these wild Bedouins of the wilderness, and such was the skill with which she managed this difficult matter, that many of the whites were unaware of the danger which had environed them, and the fate from which they had been rescued, until the following day.”

Another version of this story appears in part of James S. Buck’s Pioneer History of Milwaukee called “The First Murderers” that appears later in this part of this digital reader (“Milwaukee Reverberations”).

No other trouble was encountered in transferring the title to what is now the most valuable land in the West, from its original owners to the Government, though the compensation given for these lands was most meager and insufficient, as it was nearly everywhere else.


The United States survey of public lands was commenced in Milwaukee County late in December, 1834, by William A. Burt, who ran out the two fractional townships, seven and eight, in range twenty-two, completing the work in February, 1835. This was designed to include only the peninsula between Milwaukee River and the lake, which was a part of the lands purchased of the Menomonees; but, in order to fill the townships, the survey was extended west and south of the river into the lands reserved to the Pottawatomies. This tract was brought into market at Green Bay, in October, 1835. Immigrants were now pouring into this region in advance of the surveyors, hence the Government took measures to have the Pottawatomie purchase surveyed as soon as possible after the reserved right of occupancy by the Indians elapsed, by letting the contracts throughout the remainder of the present county in December, 1835, and January, 1836. The survey of the present towns of Lake, Oak Creek, Franklin and Greenfield, was made by Elisha Dwelle, and completed in June, 1836 ; that of Wauwatosa, by Garret Vliet, and Greenville by Burt, and completed in May, 1836. By act of Congress, June 15, 1836, the Milwaukee land district was established, being almost identical with the original limits of the county. The office was opened at Milwaukee village, September 15, for pre-emption entries, by A. D. Morton, Register, and Rufus Parks, Receiver, and after due notice, the sales commenced four days later.


The term “float,” or “floated claims,” is one frequently made use of in pioneer history in connection with describing how lands were lost and secured in early times. The real meaning of it is known only to a few of the old settlers and to none of the younger generation. It is a proper part of historical narrative, therefore, to describe floats and their origin.

Permanent pre-emption laws are comparatively modern enactments. There were none in existence when Milwaukee was first settled, and for many years thereafter. Every person who settled, or “squatted,” or staked a claim upon government land was a trespasser. No matter if a settler had erected a palace of marble and expended fortunes in improvements on a piece of land, if that land had not been surveyed and offered for sale at public auction by the government, its occupant was a de jure and de facto trespasser, and liable at any moment to be ousted.

In case two persons had settled upon and claimed the same quarter-section of land, before it had been surveyed and placed in the market, each one was given half of the double-claimed quarter-section and a “float” ‘by which each was enabled and given authority to claim any eighty acres in the same land district that had not been placed in the market. Thus, if John Smith and Thomas Brown both chanced to settle on the same 160 acres in the town of Greenfield, that tract would be divided equally between them and each given a “float” by which to claim and secure eighty acres at some other point in the district. John Smith comes to Milwaukee, therefore, and finding that the rich claim on which Richard Roe had built a fine suite of houses and barns, or mill and stores, had not been offered at public sale, “floats” the tract on which the houses, mills or stores stand and Richard Roe is compelled to abandon it, together with all the means expended thereon. And Thomas Brown, if he was heartless and dishonest enough, could serve any other settler as Richard Roe had been served by John Smith. It frequently proved to be, in its practical workings, a most vicious and unjust law. For instance: Geo. H. Walker very early settled upon Walker’s Point and erected a house, and expended a large sum of money before the land came into market. Mr. Walker had made improvements upon public land. According to law, therefore, he could be floated, and he was. This put back the growth of the South Side nearly a dozen years, and struck a blow from which that portion of the city never fully recovered, although years afterward Mr. Walker succeeded in obtaining a title to his claim, through Congress.

A.T. Andreas, proprietor. History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from pre-historic times to the present date (The Western Historical Company, 1881).