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Western Upland

Eastern Ridges and Lowlands

Central Plain

Northern Highland

Lake Superior Lowland

Editor's Notes


Words in the text shown in blue are explained in the Glossary.

These pages are excerpted and adapted from Lawrence Martin, The Physical Geography of Wisconsin, published by the University of Wisconsin Press, copyright © 1965 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Used by permission of the publisher. This work, originally published in 1916, is still available from the University of Wisconsin Press as a reproduction of the second (1932) edition. It is considered a timeless work on its subject and is recommended for the library of anyone interested in the natural history of Wisconsin. To purchase a copy, go to your local bookstore or visit the University of Wisconsin Press web site.


The Geographical Provinces of Wisconsin

The Physical Geography of Wisconsin

The position of Wisconsin as one of the states on the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River is its chief geographical asset, for, as was well said by Theodore Roosevelt, these states are "destined to be the greatest, the richest, the most prosperous of all the great, rich and prosperous commonwealths which go to make up the mightiest republic the world has ever seen."

The capacity of this state for population depends chiefly upon topography, soil and climate, hence it will be of advantage to study the nature of the surface features of Wisconsin and their origin.

The state of Wisconsin is located about a third of the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, near the northern boundary of the United States. It lies in what is commonly called the Middle West, between Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River. Its greatest length is 320 miles, its greatest width about 295 miles, and its area 56,066 square miles.


Wisconsin includes a large area of the oldest rocks, called pre-Cambrian, and a still larger area of rocks of later, though very ancient, formation, called Paleozoic. The rocks of middle age, called Mesozoic, are not represented here but the state includes rocks of Cenozoic age. The latter is represented by widespread, unconsolidated surface deposits made (a) by the decay, or weathering, of older rocks, (b) by river, wind and wave deposition, and (c) by the ice sheet of the Glacial Period.

The Soil as a Resource

[We should never] overlook the soil of Wisconsin as our greatest natural resource. Two centuries and a half ago [this edition was written in 1931] Wisconsin's great resource was its fur-bearing animals. Forty years ago the pine forest was our greatest asset. Indeed raw lumber and farm produce then approached equality. Wheat raising came and went. Hay, oats, and corn are now the most valuable crops; and dairying is the dominant business of today. Yet even at the last census, the manufacturing industries [have added significantly to the state's economy].

Throughout our progress from the fur trade to agriculture, from agriculture to dairying, and from the agricultural- diarying stage to the industrial stage, we have been dependent upon the soil. The utility of the fertile soil depends on (a) favorable topography, (b) favorable climate, (c) markets. The productivity of these soils results from the operation of three physiographic processes — weathering, erosion and deposition, for long periods of time.

History of Physiographic Features

The geological history of Wisconsin has included the following:

  1. All Wisconsin was mountainous, after the pre- Cambrian rocks were deposited and folded.

  2. Before the Paleozoic sediments were deposited, the whole state was a low plain, or peneplain, with a few isolated hills rising above the general level. Thus a long period in the ancient history of Wisconsin was devoted to erosion rather than to deposition.

  3. All of the state may have been alternately submerged beneath the waters of the ocean and slightly elevated, while the sedimentary rocks of the lower Paleozoic were being deposited.

  4. Wisconsin was again dry land, and was being fashioned into something similar to its present form. This was another period of erosion, but, because the land lay low, less was accomplished during this period than during the second one referred to above.

  5. All but the southwest corner of the state was buried beneath an ice sheet like those now found in Greenland and Antarctica.

  6. The ice sheet melted away, leaving Wisconsin somewhat as before the Glacial Period, but with notable modification of topography, soil and drainage. The Glacial Period may have lasted more than a million years. It ended in the geological yesterday, perhaps only 35,000 to 50,000 years ago.


The state lies between 42° 30' and 47° north latitude. Although free from the extreme conditions of the tropics, the state is far enough south to escape the polar extremes and to have a year divided into four seasons. It receives sufficient heat from the sun to give a temperate climate. The position of the state, 900 to 1000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, results in its having a continental climate — that is, in having very cold winters and rather hot summers. Modifying this is the influence of the water in Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. Wisconsin lies in the belt of prevailing westerly winds.

Applied Climatology

The important points about the Wisconsin precipitation are (1) that the region is humid and has the topographic development characteristic of a humid region. There is enough precipitation so that all but the smallest streams have water the year round. (2) The rainfall supports such vegetation that run-off is well regulated; at least it probably was before the conditions were modified by settlement, the forest land in northern Wisconsin denuded, many swamps drained, and many of the fields ploughed. (3) The heaviest rainfall comes after the cessation of spring floods due to the melting of the winter's snow, so that stream erosion and transportation are fairly well distributed in spring, summer and autumn.

[The first chapter of the book is an introductory survey of Wisconsin's geology, soils, geography, climate, topography and hydrography, with reference to their implications for European exploration and settlement.]

The Nature of the Provinces

Driftless Area and Glaciated Region

One simple way to describe the state of Wisconsin is to divide it into two parts: the Driftless Area and the Glaciated Region. A large part of the Driftless Area is hilly. It preserves most of the types of topography that formerly existed throughout Wisconsin. The Glaciated Region is mostly a plain. Glacial erosion and glacial deposition, wave work, postglacial stream erosion and other processes have greatly modified the topography originally made by the weathering and preglacial stream work.

Plains, Plateaus and Mountains

From another point of view Wisconsin may be said to consist of three natural regions: a large area of plains, a smaller area of low plateaus, and a large area of worn- down mountains. The plains are not all of the same level. The plateaus are so cut up by streams as to retain no flat- topped uplands. The former mountains are now worn down so low as to constitute a rather simple plain, although it includes the highest land in the state.

Five Geographical Provinces

It seems best, however, to divide the state into five natural regions. Three of these geographical provinces are uplands and two are lowlands. These provinces are related to the use of the land by plants, by animals, and by man. Each differs from the others in roughness or smoothness of topography, infertility or sterility of soil, in climate, in adaptation to occupation by wild plants (including forests), by cultivated plants (including crops and orchards), by animals, and by man, as well as in the extent to which men have developed such resources during the march of Wisconsin history.

The boundaries of all five provinces are determined largely by the variations of texture and structure in the underlying rocks. That geographical regions so delimited have internal unity and notable contrast with neighboring regions in uses of the land by living things, including man, is a high testimonial to the truism that man adapts himself to his environment and is molded by it.

The Geographical Provinces of Wisconsin

Western Upland | Eastern Ridges and Lowlands | Central Plain | Northern Highland | Lake Superior Lowland
Editor's Notes | Glossary
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