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    Lisbon - Why Did They Name it That?

Written by Michael R. Reilly

Last Revised 09/07/2010

    By act of the Territorial Legislature, approved January 2, 1838, the land included in the present towns of Lisbon, Pewaukee, Brookfield and Menomonee, was erected into the Town of Lisbon [1838 - the Town of Lisbon is formed within the Milwaukee County Territory along with the Towns of Summit to the west), Muskego (to the southwest), and Mukwonago (to the south). 

    1839/December 20 - the Town of Lisbon (which was 12 miles by 12 miles square) is split into the towns of Lisbon,  Menomonee (Township 8, Range 20, East), Pewaukee and Brookfield (each 6 miles by 6 miles square). This was approved by the Wisconsin Legislature, but not effective until after March 1, 1840. Each of the other three original Towns (see 1838) divided themselves up in like manner, but all still part of Milwaukee County. 

    1846 - the Town of Lisbon becomes part of the newly created Waukesha County when the 16 western most towns split from Milwaukee County. ]; the first election to be held at the house of Charles Skinner. A Subsequent act, passed March 9, 1839, established the town lines as they are now.

     The following is an opinion of this website Editor:

    The Town of Lisbon was in turn named after Lisbon, Portugal (the country's capital and largest port city)  SOURCE: "Milwaukee Streets: The Stories Behind Their Names", by Carl Baehr] [Note: The name Lisbon more likely came from an early settler from a town or city called Lisbon or New Lisbon in New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, Ohio or Illinois. It certainly wasn't named after the plank road that wasn't built until the early 1850's!]

    To think that the Town of Lisbon was named after the city in Portugal (as noted by a Milwaukee historian below) is somewhat ludicrous, it's not even a seaport! More likely it was named for some early surveyor or settler who came from a town, village or county in another state by that name. 

    BUT who was it?

How was Lisbon named? Historians disagree

Source: Sussex Sun, Tuesday, March 16, 2004, page 4, Letters from Readers

    In Fred Keller's four-part series, "Sussex-Lisbon: past-future", the conclusion printed February 3, 2004, contained the last paragraph titled "Why "Lisbon"? His reply was the town was named after the capital of Portugal, no historical significance.

    I wish to differ with Fred here. The name Lisbon has been applied to several eastern U.S. communities, established long before our Town of Lisbon. For a couple of those, their name is linked to the capital of Portugal because of their proximity to water, or that they were a seaport trading with the Portugal. Our Lisbon had none of these attributes.

    As settlers moved further west to establish new communities, they often named them after the town or county they came from. If you look at the names of towns surrounding Lisbon, you'll find that they were named after local Indian terms, physical features, or important early settlers. New Lisbon, Wisconsin may have been named after settlers from our Lisbon, according to published history. Fred does say that no Portuguese were early Lisbon settlers, so why the name Lisbon?

    From late 1835 the town was simply known as "Township 8 North, Range 19 East of the 4th Principal Meridian". The township surveying started in 1835 and completed in 1836. A preliminary investigation as to the birth places of those early surveyors provided no link to an Eastern Lisbon. Nor has it yet been found for any early Town of Lisbon settler, yet. But many early pioneers died before leaving a mark, or simply moved on to somewhere else.

    About 1838 the name "Lisbon" was applied to the township, as a political entity and unit of surveyed land. It's my opinion that if someone dug deep enough into early Milwaukee County (of which Lisbon was part of), or into Wisconsin Territory records of the time, we'd find that someone named it after their birth place. It definitely wasn't named after the plank road which was built much later, as reported on one internet website.

Mike Reilly


Lisbon's Name - Putting the Cart in Front of the Horse?

Compiled and Edited by Michael R. Reilly

Last Revised 09/07/2010

    I found several articles on the legislative acts endowing the township with the name Lisbon in early newspapers of the Wisconsin Territory, such as the Milwaukee Advertiser and Sentinel (available on microfilm at the Milwaukee Public Library), but no hint about the author(s) of the legislation.

    The Wisconsin State Historical Society kindly checked the Laws of Wisconsin , 1838 as well as the Territorial Papers of the United States, vol. 27, Wisconsin Territory 1836-1939. The civil township of Lisbon is called by the name Lisbon, with no mention of where the name came from. Unfortunately, for that time period, bill drafting information which might have provided some idea of where the name came from is not available. Also checked were place name files and country histories that are in their collections, but they did not shed any light on its' origin. Many of the towns names were chosen by early settlers from names they were familiar with from back east or perhaps from their homeland.

    Further reading into the early history of the area convinces me that the town was named Lisbon because of the planned prospect of it becoming a port on the yet to be built Milwaukee and Rock River Canal. This canal, the grand idea of Byron Kilbourn who had much influence in the territory, was initially proposed to the legislature in 1836, though the act to create the canal corporation didn't occur until early 1838.

    Back in January 1838, the name Lisbon appeared as a political identity consisting of present-day townships Lisbon, Menomonee, Pewaukee, and Brookfield. But back then it was all one, and the Milwaukee and Rock River Canal was coming thru the lower portion of of this political real estate. Later it was broken up into four distinct townships; which didn't begin independent government themselves until several years later. David Bonham's house was one of two places where settlers first voted in the 1838 original political Lisbon.

    Mr. Kilbourn had Garret Vliet, the principle surveyor of the area, in his back pocket; his engineer, Increase Lapham, had worked with him on the Ohio canals; and he was in silent partnership with the General Surveyor, Mr. Micajah Williams of Ohio, speculating in land sales. He was a good friend and supporter of Governor Dodge as well. I acquired a book written in 2001 titled, Byron Kilbourn, and it provides some interesting insights.

    As late as 1839, newspaper articles showed support and enthusiasm for the canal project by a number of Lisbon township settlers, namely one David Bonham (most famous for his role as murderer). It appears that several of them may have very well speculated in land sales in the area with the coming of the canal. By 1840, with the exception of Mr. Bonham, and a few others, these" speculators" were gone according to Census information when the canal was no longer a viable project..

    It would be interesting to learn, if any of Kilbourn's letters/papers, either written by him to people such as Bonham, or to him by any settler(s) in the Town of Lisbon exist. Apparently Mr. Bonham made more than a few enemies during this time, as by the number of area residents that made the journey to Racine to see him hang, and later protested his pardon by Governor Dodge.

    Even years later, I found an article talking about Christmas activities in the Town, and how the presents were arriving at the port of South Lisbon, though no such water port ever existed, except in the minds on a few early settlers, and one Byron Kilbourn. A plat map I saw in the Kilbourn book shows the proposed canal running north of, and somewhat parallel to I-94, through the southern portions of Pewaukee and Brookfield townships. The Christmas article I referred to, was probably referring to Pewaukee as the "port of South Lisbon" since much of Lisbon's goods and mail came first through there.

    Who the naming person was is yet unknown, I suspect Kilbourn, because he had the most influence in the legislature and had grand dreams, while the town's earliest settlers had survival utmost on their minds, though apparently Mr. Bonham took an political interest quite soon. Why our township, of the four, was named Lisbon? Perhaps it was due to the canal project support of several early settlers. As I said earlier, the reason and the who remains to be discovered, but now we have some historical significance to its' name origin, though it may only be the opinion of one.

Mike Reilly


The following are questions and replies to/from the Wisconsin State Historical Society regarding the origin of the name Town of Lisbon.

3/21/04 8:54:48 PM 
Name: Michael R. Reilly
Reference Request: I' trying to find out if the State Historical Society has in its' possession a copy of Wisconsin Territorial Legislative action occurring on January 2, 1838 ? On this date the Legislature created the first civil townships in the Territory of Wisconsin. I'm specifically looking for the Town ship of Lisbon, then in what was Milwaukee County. I'm trying to determine the reason it was named Lisbon. Any help would be appreciated. Thank you
I have forwarded your question to the Government Publications Librarian, Nancy Mulhern. She should answer you soon. [email protected]


Susanne Villar, Night Librarian
Wisconsin Historical Society
816 State Street
Madison WI 53706-1482
(608) 264-6535
[email protected]


Mr. Reilly,

Concerning your inquiry as to the origins of the name Lisbon.  I checked the Laws of Wisconsin , 1838 as well as the Territorial Papers of the United States, vol. 27, Wisconsin Territory 1836-1939.

The civil township of Lisbon is called by the name Lisbon, with no mention of where the name came from.  Unfortunately, for that time period bill drafting information which might have provided some idea of where the name came from is not available.

I also checked place name files and country  histories that we have in our collection, but they did not shed any light the the names origins. Many of the towns names were chosen by early settlers from names they were familiar with from back east or perhaps from their homeland.

I am sorry that I wasn't  unable to locate any information to assist you. Good luck with your research.

Nancy Mulhern
Documents Librarian
Wisconsin Historical Society Library
816 State Street
Madison, Wisconsin  53706-1488

Wednesday, March 24, 2004 6:17 PM

Nancy, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my question. If there are no government records available, are there any copies of Milwaukee's first newspaper, I believe it was called the Advertiser, then there was one called the Sentinel? Or other newspapers of the same period, like Madison or Green Bay?

Are these available from the 1837-38 time period at the Historical Society?
Mike Reilly
Sussex-Lisbon Area Historical Society

Something new from Mike Reilly: I was reading Jeremiah Smith's Scrapbook and found on page 26, this article originally printed in the Waukesha Dispatch newspaper on Feb. 26, 1891.

"Town of Lisbon - The name of this town is a very pretty one, but how it came to be so called there are but few living that can tell. The way it came about was something like this: While some of the old first settlers were trying to attach their own names to perpetuate themselves, they lost time, so the [Wisconsin] territorial legislature came to their relief, and gave it the present name which is likely to stand until something overtakes it stronger than that which so nearly obliterated its namesake in Europe."

Editor comment - From this short article it appears that the naming originated from Wisconsin Territorial Legislature decree because the town settlers couldn't agree amongst themselves. But I still wonder why "Lisbon" and why as the article "might imply", that the town was named after its namesake Lisbon, Portugal? The article's author may have made this assumption, or from whoever the source of this information may be from? Still I don't see a connection, unless there was a tie-in as I suggest above.

Lisbon communities in America 1854. Source: 1854 U.S. Gazetteer

LISBON, a post-township of Lincoln co., Maine, on the left bank of the
Androscoggin river, about 25 miles S. W. from Augusta. Population, 1495.

LISBON, a post-township of Grafton co., New Hampshire, on both sides of
the Ammonoosuck river, about 81 miles N. by W. from Concord. Population,

LISBON, a post-township of New London county, Connecticut, about 20
miles N. by E. from New London. It intersected by the Norwich and
Worcester railroad. Pop., 937. 

LISBON, a post-township of St. Lawrence co., New York, on the St.
Lawrence river. Population, 5295. 

LISBON, a post-village in the above township, on the Northern railroad,
9 miles E. of Ogdensburg. Here is a railroad station. 

LISBON, a village of Burlington co., New Jersey, about 22 miles S. S. E.
from Trenton. 

LISBON, a post-village in Howard co., Maryland, 40 miles N. W. from

LISBON, a post-village in Bedford co., Virginia, 150 miles W. by S. from

LISBON, a small village of Lincoln county, Georgia, on the Broad river,
105 miles N. E. from Milledgeville. 

LISBON, a post-office of Claiborne par., La. 

LISBON, a small post-village of Union co., Arkansas, 12 miles N. from El

LISBON, a post-office of Noble co., Indiana, 135 miles N. N. E. from

LISBON, a post-township in Kendall co., Illinois. Population, 519.

LISBON, a thriving post-village in the above township, is situated on an
extensive and fertile prairie, 51 miles S. W. from Chicago. It has an
academy and several stores. Population, about 400.

LISBON, a post-office of Linn co., Iowa. 

LISBON, a post-township in the N. part of Waukesha co., Wisconsin.
Population, 1036. 

LISBON CENTRE, a post-office of St. Lawrence co., New York. 

Note: Holdings and services in McIntyre Library’s Special Collections and Area Research Center (ARC) at University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire

  • Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 (1987), William Thorndale & William Dollarhide, G1201 .F7 T5
  • Origin and Legislative History of County Boundaries in Wisconsin (1942), WPA F587 .A15 H5



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Copyright Sussex-Lisbon Area Historical Society, Inc., , 2002 - 2016, Except as noted: All documents placed on the website remain the property of the contributors, who retain publication rights in accordance with US Copyright Laws and Regulations. In keeping with our policy of providing free information on the Internet, these documents may be used by anyone for their personal research. They may be used by non-commercial entities, when written permission is obtained from the contributor, so long as all notices and submitter information are included. These electronic pages may NOT be reproduced in any format for profit. Any other use, including copying files to other sites, requires permission from the contributors PRIOR to uploading to the other sites. The submitter has given permission to the website to store the file(s) for free access. Such permission may be revoked upon written notice to the website webmaster. Website's design, hosting, and maintenance are donated by Website Editor & Webmaster: Michael R. Reilly (Mike)