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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
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:
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. 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. .
The following important events in the history of Wisconsin affected political jurisdictions, family movements, and record keeping.
- 1634: Jean Nicolet (Nicollet) de Belle Borne at the request of Samuel de Champlain of New France, landed at Red Banks on the shore of Green Bay.
- 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.
- 1763: The British took possession of the area from the French but discouraged new settlers.
- 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.
- 1804: Land ceded by the Sauk and Fox Indian tribes.
- 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.
- 1827: Winnebago Indians War
- 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.
- 1831, 1836, 1848: Land ceded by the Menominee Indians
- 1832: The Black Hawk War ended the last serious Indian threat to white settlements.
- 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.
- 1837: Land ceded by the Chippewa and Sioux
- 1840s: Many families arrived from Germany and New York. Norwegians begin settling in large numbers in Koshkonong area.
- 1848: Wisconsin, with its present boundaries, became a state. This is a beginning of a large German immigration into Wisconsin.
- 1851: First railroad opens, linking Milwaukee and Waukesha.
- 1857: Railroad completed from Milwaukee to Prairie du Chien.
- 1861– 1865: 96,000 men from Wisconsin served in the Union armed forces during the Civil War, 12,216 die in the conflict. Civil War Histories are kept by the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs.
- 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.
- 1887: Marshfield almost destroyed by fire.
- 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. 
- 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.
- 1916-1921: Federal Highway Acts created and improved roads.
- 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.
- 1930's: The Great Depression closed many factories and mills sending many Wisconsinites to join labor unions.
- 1930: Train And Auto Collision occurred in Kenosha killing 11 and injuring 100.
- 1939: Interstate Highway System was renewed in 1939 and finished in 1970.
- 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.
- 1948: State centennial celebration.
- 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.
- 1964–1972: More than 165,400 Wisconsin residents served in Vietnam War 1,239 did not return. For more information see the Vietnam War page.
- 1990: Wisconsin's population reaches 4,891,769
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 has a large number of county and regional histories, which contain much family history information.
- Wisconsin WIGenWeb
- The Wisconsin Historical Society has placed 80 digitized county histories online at a searchable site.
- The Wisconsin State Genealogical Society has prepared every-name indexes to about fifty of the histories. The Family History Library has most of these indexes.
- 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
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 Territorial Papers of the United States. 28 vols. (Family History Library book 973 N2udt; films beginning with 1421059.) Volume 26 is at the Family History Library. Volumes 27 and 28 cover Wisconsin Territorial papers 1836–1848. The Family History Library does not have volumes 27 and 28.
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>
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.
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:
- Wisconsin, Birth Index (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Wisconsin, Death Index, 1820-1907 (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Wisconsin, Death Index, 1959-1997 (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Wisconsin, Marriage Index (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Wisconsin, Shawano and Oconto Counties, Indexes and Records from Shawano Family History Center (FamilySearch Historical Records)
FamilySearch Catalog Surname Search lists many more histories under topics like:
- WISCONSIN - HISTORY
- WISCONSIN, [COUNTY] - HISTORY
- WISCONSIN, [COUNTY], [TOWN] - HISTORY
- WISCONSIN, BIBLIOGRAPHY
- Border Crossings: From Canada to U.S., 1895-1956 $ Ancestry has manifests.
- Cyndi's List for Wisconsin provides many links pertaining to the history of the State.
- Atlas of Historical County Boundaries gives an Atlas of Wisconsin's Historical County Boundaries
- Disasters in Wisconsin
- Doorway to Wisconsin is the American Local History Network (ALHN) who furnishes students, educators, and genealogical researchers with historical and genealogical information.
- French-Indian Intermarriage And The Creation Of Métis Society the impact of the French in the 1600's.
- Great Lakes Maritime History has a collection of history and memorabilia surrounding Marine and Ship Captains and Sailors who dedicated their lives to Great Lakes Shipping and Transport.
- Historical Sketch of Wisconsin Official Guide and History by USGenWeb Archives
- Our Wisconsin Ancestors is a collection of sources hosted by USGenNet.
- Recollection Wisconsin (formerly Wisconsin Heritage Online) is an expanding digital collection featuring thousands of historic photos, postcards, maps, letters, diaries, books, artifacts, oral histories and other digital collections from dozens of Wisconsin libraries, archives, museums and historical societies.
- Wisconsin Historical Society has among other things, newspapers, Wisconsin Biographical indexes, State and Federal Censuses.
- Wisconsin GenWeb Project is a collections of sources hosted by The Wisconsin GenWeb Project.
- Wisconsin State Genealogical Society Inc.'s Wiki.
- Wisconsin History Online holds a wide variety of information and links from Native American's history to migration, industrialization, and much more.
- Wisconsin Trails helps you track your ancestors through time.
- 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.
- Wisconsin Historical Society. 19th Century Immigration.
- Norman K. Risjordemissary, "Jean Nicolet’s Search for the South Sea", Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 84, no. 3, 34-43.
- Wisconsin Historical Society.Spanish-American War.
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- James F. McIntosh, Wisconsin at War. Black Earth, WI: Trails Books, 2002.
- 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 .)