The Man Behind Madison’s Name: James Duane Doty

September 27, 2010

by Brian D’Ambrosio

James Duane Doty was born in Salem, New York, in 1799, and died in Salt Lake City, Utah, in June 1865. During his 66-year lifespan, his distinguished life included overseeing the creation of Wisconsin and giving the City of Madison its name.

After studying law as a teenager, Doty moved to Detroit, Michigan and took on the role of secretary of the territorial council and clerk of court. Two years later in 1820, he took part in the Mississippi Headwaters expedition under the famed military officer and politician General Lewis Cass. The expedition “explored the upper lakes in canoes, stretched 4,000 miles, and enacted treaties with regional Indian tribes.” Afterward, he spent nearly a decade as a land speculator and U. S. judge in northern Michigan, holding his first court at Prairie du Chien military settlement. There, in 1830, he ordered a congressional-appointed commission to blaze a cavalry road from Green Bay to Prairie du Chien.

Four years later, Doty became a member of the Michigan legislature, where he assisted in dividing the Michigan Territory into the three Territories of Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. Doty had hoped to govern the Wisconsin Territory, but was met with extreme disappointment when President Andrew Jackson appointed Doty’s rival, Henry Dodge, to the position.

Despite this setback, Doty continued create what would soon become the City of Madison — and the state’s capital. After contracting to have the land surveyed, Doty began to create plans for a city nestled between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona. He chose the name Madison in honor of the fourth president James Madison. Doty lobbied for recognition of his city and proposed that it be named Wisconsin’s capital. In his proposal, he gained support by mapping transportation plans and offering land to legislators who voted in the city’s favor. Madison was named Wisconsin’s capital city at the end of 1836 and construction began the next year.

Doty served as the Wisconsin Territory’s elected congressional delegate to Congress from 1837 to 1841. He continued serving as a public official in 1841 when he regulated as governor of the territory, beginning a period marked by great tumult. According to information provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society, his tenure “was marked by bitter contentions and a collision with the legislature, and after the appointment of his successor he was placed by the war department on a commission to treat with the Indians of the northwest.” When Doty’s term ended in 1844, Vice President John Tyler did not reappoint him.

Two years later, Doty became a member of Wisconsin’s first state constitutional convention. He served two more terms as a congressional representative following Wisconsin’s admittance to the Union before leaving Congress to lead a more private life. But in 1861, he returned to public eye after he was named superintendent of Indian affairs by close friend President Abraham Lincoln. Three years later, Lincoln appointed Doty to govern the Utah territory. He held this position up until his death in 1865.

Read more of Brian D’Ambrosio’s  Wisconsin history and travel articles.