Wisconsin History

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Beginning Research
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Jean Nicolet
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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Effective family history research requires some understanding of the historical events that affected your family and the records about them. Learning about wars, governments, laws, migrations, and religious trends can help you understand political boundaries, family movements, and settlement patterns.

State, county, and local histories often contain biographical sketches of local citizens, including important genealogical information. This may be one of the best sources of information for some families

Historical Sources[edit | edit source]

Histories are great sources of genealogical information. County and local histories often contain biographical and historical information about residents and their families, including occupation, previous residence, birth date, or birthplace. Information about a family may be found under the married name of a daughter or sister. Relatives or clues are often found by studying the pages that have biographies of residents or that tell the history of the town or township where an ancestor lived.

Information may include:

  • Parents' names
  • Maiden names of women
  • Place of birth, death, or marriage
  • Occupation
  • Migration
  • Military service
  • Descendants

Native Americans were the main inhabitants of Wisconsin prior to the Black Hawk War in 1832. By 1850 the Indian's had ceded most of their lands to the federal government. [1]For more information about the Native Americans in Wisconsin, see the Indians of Wisconsin. European immigrants settled the vacated Indian lands, increasing the European population from 11,000 in 1836 to 305,00 by 1850. These settlers were from Europe with a some from the East coast. One-third of the State's population was foreign-born by 1850. [2].

Timeline[edit | edit source]

The following important events in the history of Wisconsin affected political jurisdictions, family movements, and record keeping.

  • 1690–1820: Roman Catholic missionaries established the mission of St. Ignace de Michilimackinac, at Mackinac (now Michigan). The mission was the center for traders going to and from what is now Wisconsin. For records of baptisms, marriages, and burials, see the Church Records page.
  • 1787: Wisconsin officially became part of the U.S. Northwest Territory, but British fur traders effectively controlled the region until 1816.
  • 1800: The present Wisconsin area was included in the Indiana Territory.
  • 1806: Battle of Mole Lake - Ojibwe battled the Sioux over control of a local wild rice producing lake. Some 500 warriors died.
  • 1809: The Wisconsin area was part of the Illinois Territory.
  • 1818: The Wisconsin area was included in the Michigan Territory. The territorial governor of Michigan created the first two Wisconsin counties, Brown and Crawford.
  • 1820s: High prices for lead attracted settlers to the mines of southern Wisconsin. The Michigan 1820 census lists residents of what is now Wisconsin.
  • 1829, 1832, &1837: Land ceded by the Winnebago Indians 1830s: Heavy settlement began along the Lake Michigan shoreline at the sites of present-day Milwaukee, Racine, and Kenosha. The Michigan 1830 census lists of residents of what is now Wisconsin.
  • 1836: Congress created the Wisconsin Territory, which included lands west of the Mississippi River to the Missouri River. Much of the western portion was later transferred to the Iowa Territory, created in 1838.
  • 1848: Wisconsin, with its present boundaries, became a state. This is a beginning of a large German immigration into Wisconsin.
  • 1871: The deadliest fire in United States history occurred in the timber industry town of Peshtigo, killing between 1,200 and 2,500 people. The Peshtigo Fire burned 1,875 square miles of forestland around the town. Three Hundred and fifty people were buried in a mass grave without being identified, as those that would have known them perished in the fire also.
  • 1889: Mine Fire occurred in Ashland, putting 400 miners out of work.
  • 1898: The Spanish-American War was fought mainly in Cuba and the Philippines. Technically, Wisconsin troops in the Spanish-American War were part of the state's National Guard. Official service record information is found within certain Adjutant General's records held by the Archives. There is an alphabetical index, which is useful in determining if a given individual served in a Wisconsin unit during the Spanish American War. [4]
  • 1912: A washed out bridge caused a train to plunge into the Lemonweir River near Camp Douglas carrying all of the passengers and cars downstream.
  • 1917: African Americans from the rural South begin moving to Wisconsin communities, especially, Milwaukee, Racine, and Beloit.
  • 1917–1918: The U.S. enters World War I. Wisconsin becomes first state to meet draft requirements; 120,000 soldiers serve in the military, and almost 4,000 die in the war. For information concerning records about this war see WWI US Military Records.[5][6][7][8][9]
  • 1940–1945: World War II. 332,000 Wisconsin residents serve in U.S. military, including 9,000 women. 8,390 Wisconsinites died in this war. Over 50.6 million men ages 18 to 65 registered with the Selective Service. For information concerning records about this war see the World War II Military Records page.[10]
  • 1950: Wisconsin population grew to 3.4 million.
  • 1950–1953: The Korean War claimed 726 Wisconsinites. For information concerning records about this war see the Korean War page.
  • 1990: Wisconsin's population reaches 4,891,769

Local Histories[edit | edit source]

Local histories are valuable sources for family history research. Published histories of towns, counties, and states usually contain accounts of families and describe the settlement of the area and the founding of churches, schools, and businesses. You can also find lists of pioneers, soldiers, and civil officials. Even if your ancestor is not listed, information on other relatives may be included that will provide important clues for locating your ancestor. A local history may also suggest other records to search. Local histories are extensively collected by the Family History Library, public and university libraries, and state and local historical societies. The United States Research "History" page cites nationwide bibliographies of local histories which include histories of Wisconsin.

  • Wisconsin WIGenWeb
  • The Wisconsin Historical Society has a site for Wisconsin Local History & Biography Articles. This is a search-able site where you'll find thousands of historical newspaper articles on Wisconsin people and communities.
  • American History and Genealogy Project has information on individual counties.
  • Recollection Wisconsin includes digitized county and city histories from communities across the state, including Appleton, Blanchardville, Eau Claire, Fond du Lac, Janesville, Kaukauna, La Crosse, Menasha, Mt. Horeb, New Glarus, Oshkosh, Slinger, Sheboygan, Waterford, Wausau, and Wisconsin Rapids.

State Histories Useful to Genealogists[edit | edit source]

Good genealogists strive to understand the life and times of their ancestors. In this sense, any history is useful. But certain kinds of state, county, and local histories, especially older histories published between 1845 and 1945, often include biographical sketches of prominent individuals. The sketches usually tend toward the laudatory, but may include some genealogical details. If these histories are indexed or alphabetical, check for an ancestor's name. Genealogy Book Links gives many references to books available on the History of Wisconsin.

You can learn about the pre-statehood era of Wisconsin in the many published volumes of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Two good sources are the Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and the Northwest, Illinois, and Michigan, and Wisconsin Territorial Papers. Indexes to the territorial papers are in:

The Wisconsin territorial papers collection has a few court records for 1836–1848: Bureau of Indian Affairs records 1836–1848; appointments of postmasters 1836–1848; maps 1836–1848; records of lighthouses and customs, and many other governmental records in:

  • The Territorial Papers of the United States: the Territory of Wisconsin, 1836–1848: a Microfilm Supplement. Washington, D.C.: National Archives, 1959. (On 122 Family History Library films beginning with 1601731.) </ref>

Much historical information is included in the Wisconsin Magazine of History published by the Wisconsin Historical Society. (See the "Periodicals" page.)

A source for early Wisconsin historical information for the 1690s to the 1860s is:

A source with excellent bibliographies concerning the early French traders and Indian records is:

  • Hansen, James L. "Voyageurs and Habitants: Tracing the Early French in the Great Lakes Region, in National Genealogical Society Conference in the States (1995: San Diego, California). San Diego, A Place to Explore: Syllabus. 2 vols. [Arlington, Virginia] National Genealogical Society, 1996, 2:688–91. (Family History Library book 973 D25ngsc 1995.) </ref>

Useful sources for studying the history of Wisconsin are:

  • History of Wisconsin. Vols. 1–6. Madison, Wisconsin: State Historical Society, 1973–1988. (Family History Library book 977.5 H2sa.)
  • Quaife, Milo Milton. Wisconsin: Its History and Its People, 1634-1924. 4 vols. Chicago, Illinois: S. J. Clarke, 1924. (Family History Library book 977.5 H2q; film 1036176; fiche 6046726.)
  • Smith, William Rudolph. The History of Wisconsin in three parts: Historical, Documentary, and Descriptive. Madison, WI: Brown,1854. Google Books: Vol. 1, Vol. 3

Draper Manuscript Collection. Look for Wisconsin ancestors 1740-1830 in the Draper Manuscript Collection. These manuscripts cover the history of the "trans-Allegheny West," a region including the west Carolinas and Virginia, all the Ohio River Valley, and part of the upper Mississippi Valley. There are 491 volumes of partially-indexed manuscripts, papers, and books.

Research Helps[edit | edit source]

To find more books and articles about Wisconsin 's history use the Internet Google search for phases like "Wisconsin history." For more information about individual topics see the Vital Records, Emigration and Immigration, Military Records and Bible Records pages.

A wiki article describing an online collection is found at:

FamilySearch Catalog Surname Search lists many more histories under topics like:


Websites[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Robert Eugene Bieder, Native American Communities in Wisconsin, 1600-1960: A Study of Tradition and Change. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995. ISBN 0299145247, 9780299145248.Full text available at Google Books.
  2. Wisconsin Historical Society. 19th Century Immigration.
  3. Norman K. Risjordemissary, "Jean Nicolet’s Search for the South Sea", Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 84, no. 3, 34-43.
  4. Wisconsin Historical Society.Spanish-American War.
  5. Ted Beach, Field Service Diary, Mar. 3 to Nov. 28, 1918: Battery F, 121st Field Artillery, 32nd Division in World War 1. Wisconsin: s.n., 2000. Beach, of Racine, WI, was a private/corporal in Battery F, 121st Field Artillery, 32nd Division. His diary contains short entries reflecting on each days’ events. An appendix includes Beach’s complete biography. Worldcat
  6. Celestine Nicholas Charles Bittle, Soldiering for Cross and Flag: Impressions of a War Chaplain. Milwaukee, WI: Bruce Pub. Co., 1929. Bittle took a leave of absence from St. Lawrence College of Mt. Calvary, WI, to serve as an army chaplain. Stationed at Motor Transport Reconstruction Park at Vereuil, he was the sole chaplain for over 8000 people. Worldcat
  7. Robert C. Andersen, The Hingham Boys Muster of 1918. Hingham, WI: Author,1990. Includes biographical monographs of all 29 World War I veterans buried in the Hingham Cemetery of Sheboygan County, Wisconsin. In addition to researching written sources, the author conducted personal interviews with relatives of the soldiers, creating biographies of the veterans’ lives before, during, and after the War.Worldcat
  8. Doris Litscher Gasser, Lachmund Cramer VFW Post #7694: Stories Written in 1996 for 50th Year Celebration. Prairie du Sac, WI: Author, 2003. This contains articles written about veterans from Sauk City and Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin.Worldcat
  9. James F. McIntosh, Wisconsin at War. Black Earth, WI: Trails Books, 2002. This collection of interviews with Wisconsin veterans focuses on those serving in World War II, with two brief interviews with World War I veterans. Worldcat
  10. James F. McIntosh, Wisconsin at War. Black Earth, WI: Trails Books, 2002.
  11. Draper, Lyman Copeland, ed. Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. 21 vols. Madison, Wisconsin: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1855–1915. (Family History Library 977.5 B2wc; also digital copy; films 924580–590 .)