Tiny Belmont was the birthplace of state government not just for Wisconsin, but for Iowa and Minnesota, too. Wisconsin Territory, organized from the Michigan Territory in 1836, encompassed all three presentday states, along with parts of the Dakotas bordered by the Missouri River. Soon after President Andrew Jackson signed the bill creating the territory, Governor Henry Dodge made Belmont its capital. The choice made more sense than it might seem. At the time, Belmont sat near a thriving lead-mining district, the most densely populated part of the new territory. As it turned out, the legislature held just one session in Belmont, in late 1836. After much political wrangling, Dodge’s nemesis James Doty, a federal district judge from Green Bay, persuaded the territorial assembly to seat the new territorial capital on the swampy isthmus that is now Madison.
Today, the reconstructed First Capitol commemorates Belmont’s fleeting glory days. Like many structures in hastily built frontier towns, the original two-story clapboard building had a false front, which masked the front gable and made the structure more imposing. Legislators entered through an off-center entrance. Five evenly spaced windows, with twelve-over-eight sashes, lit the chambers inside. After the legislature left, the Council House (as it was then called) fell into disrepair. By 1906, souvenir hunters had stripped it down to its frame, doors, and casings. At that point the Wisconsin Federation of Woman’s Clubs campaigned to preserve it. State funding for the project began in 1917, and the women’s federation dedicated the reconstructed First Capitol in 1924. The gabled building next door was the Territorial Supreme Courthouse.