Lapham, Increase

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A resident of Wisconsin since before it was even a state, Increase Lapham holds the place of Wisconsin’s first scientist and one of its most important, yet least remembered, citizens. Based on his research in Wisconsin, Lapham wrote numerous books, articles, and pamphlets detailing Wisconsin’s unique environment and native species.[1] His work in this topic and his concern over the destruction of Wisconsin’s forests lead to him being “considered the founder of the conservation movement in Wisconsin”.[2]

Photo of Increase Lapham from
Photo of Increase Lapham examining a meteorite. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Early Life

Map of Wisconsin created by Increase Lapham found at
Map of Wisconsin created by Increase Lapham in 1865. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although he would eventually make his home in the state of Wisconsin, Increase Lapham was born in Palmyra, New York on March 7, 1811. Increase was the fifth child of 13 to Quaker parents. Increase’s father, Seneca, worked as a canal contractor, so the Lapham’s frequently moved around the United States to places like New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Because his parents couldn’t afford to send him or his siblings to school, Increase spent most of his early life working as a laborer on his father’s construction crews. [3] Despite a lack of formal education, Increase proved to be a very bright young man and used his surroundings and inquisitive nature to educate himself. This is pointed out by Milo M. Quaife, who stated that, by 16 years-old, Increase’s “…habits of observation and his powers of reasoning and of expressing himself in clear and convincing English” was that of a college undergraduate. [4]


As previously stated, Increase’s first job was working for his father on canals. Specifically, Increase cut stone for the canal’s lock gates. It was this close proximity with natural resources that first sparked Increase’s interest in mineralogy and his extensive collection of fossils. [5] While working on the canals, Lapham also showed an early talent for topographical sketching and, at the age of 17, he drafted most of the plans for a canal in Shippingsport, Kentucky. Lapham continued to rise in the ranks and in the 1930s he became an engineer and surveyor of canals. It was during this time that Bryon Kilbourn gave Lapham an offer to become the chief engineer for a canal planned to be built in city of Milwaukee. Lapham accepted Kilbourn’s offer and moved to Milwaukee, which was then part of the territory of Wisconsin. Although the canal was never built, Lapham decided to stay in Wisconsin and married Ann Maria Alcott in 1838. During his time in Wisconsin, Lapham was appointed deputy surveyor of Wisconsin and helped to make Milwaukee into a thriving new city. Lapham also spent much of his time in Wisconsin writing and creating maps of the new territory. [6]


Increase Lapham passed away at the age of 64 from a heart attack.[7] His death was mourned heavily in his adopted state of Wisconsin, as seen in an article from the Wisconsin State Journal announcing his death in 1875.

“A sad calamity has fallen upon Wisconsin! One of its most eminent and useful citizens has been called to his Fathers! Increase A. Lapham, LL. D. of Milwaukee, is dead! This announcement by telegraph, gave a sudden and great shock to our people! No man was better known or more highly respected in Wisconsin, than was Dr. Lapham.” [8]

Written Works

Increase Lapham wrote over 80 books, articles, and pamphlets over his lifetime about Wisconsin’s environment, native species, and indigenous people. A few of his more well known works are listed below.
Page from Increase Lapham's book, The Antiquities of Wisconsin. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Geographical and Topographical Description of Wisconsin

This book was published in 1844 and was the first geographical and topographical description of Wisconsin ever made. The book came with maps of the state created by Lapham himself and was very popular among immigrants moving to Wisconsin because it provided them with a detailed description of their new home. [9]

The Antiquities of Wisconsin

In this book, Lapham described the evidence of aboriginal habitations in Wisconsin before colonization occurred. He specifically describes the different mounds found around Wisconsin that were created by Native Americans, detailing the different types and purposes of these mounds. [10]

Report on the Disastrous Effects of the Destruction of Forest Trees, Now Going on So Rapidly in the State of Wisconsin

This was an important report for Wisconsin forest conservation and detailed the different uses of trees, the impact of trees on the environment, the climate’s influence on human life, and suggestions on how to properly conserve trees for future use. This work proved to be unsuccessful in influencing legislation favoring forest conservation, but still stands as one of the earliest promotions of forest conservation in Wisconsin.[11]

Contributions to Wisconsin

Milwaukee Public High School & The Milwaukee Female Seminary

Lapham worked hard to help the city of Milwaukee grow and, due to his love of education, helped to establish the Milwaukee Public High School program and the Milwaukee Female Seminary. Lapham donated “...thirteen acres of land...for the purpose of establishing the first high school” in Milwaukee in 1846.[12] In addition to helping establish the Female Seminary, Lapham also served as the president of its executive board. Lapham was offered a position at the college as a professor, but turned the offer down because he felt his lack of a formal education and teaching experience would make him an unfit teacher.[13]
Photo of the National Weather Bureau's logo from 1870. Source: NOAA

State Historical Society of Wisconsin

Lapham was happy to help found the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1849 and helped to draft its original constitution. Once the society was formed, he helped “to promote its collections” and served as the society’s President and Vice President for a total of 22 years.[14]

National Weather Bureau

Increase Lapham was instrumental in the establishment of the National Weather Bureau in 1890, which was the predecessor to today’s National Weather Service. [15] Lapham spent twenty years trying to prove that the establishment of a government weather bureau would be beneficial to the entire country. He felt that only the national government had the resources and ability to successfully gather and distribute critical weather information to the public.[16]


As previously mentioned, Lapham made donations to Milwaukee Public High School, but he also donated a large portion of his plant collection to a newly established University of Wisconsin.[17] In addition, Lapham donated many of his specimens to the Milwaukee Public Museum in its early years.[18]


  1. [“Lapham, Increase, 1811-1875: Wisconsin's First Scientist,” Wisconsin Historical Society, accessed November 21, 2017,]
  2. [“The Conservation Movement,” Wisconsin Historical Society, accessed November 21, 2017,]
  3. [“Lapham, Increase."]
  4. [Milo M. Quaife, “Increase Allen Lapham, first scholar of Wisconsin,” 1917,]
  5. [Ibid.]
  6. [“Lapham, Increase.”]
  7. [Ibid.]
  8. [Wisconsin State Journal, “Death of Increase A. Lapham, LL. D.,” September 15, 1875,]
  9. [Increase Lapham, “A geographical and topographical description of Wisconsin; with brief sketches of its history, geology, mineralogy, natural history, population, soil, productions, government, antiquities, &c. &c.,” 1844,]
  10. [Increase Lapham, “The Antiquities of Wisconsin,” 1855,;view=1up;seq=108.]
  11. [Increase Lapham, “Report on the disastrous effects of the destruction of forest trees, now going on so rapidly in the state of Wisconsin,” 1867,]
  12. [Quaife, “Increase Allen Lapham.”]
  13. [Ibid.]
  14. [Ibid.]
  15. ["Lapham, Increase."]
  16. [Quaife, “Increase Allen Lapham.”]
  17. [Ibid.]
  18. [W.C. McKern, “Milwaukee Public Museum--past, present and future,” 1956,]

Additional Published Resources

Martha Bergland and Paul G. Hayes, Studying Wisconsin: The Life of Increase Lapham, early chronicler of plants, rocks, rivers, mounds and all things Wisconsin (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2014).

Archival Resources for Further Research

The Wisconsin Historical Society's website contains many primary sources on Increase Lapham, including copies of many of his works (

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