Wisconsin Emigration and Immigration

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The "Emigration and Immigration" section of the United States Research Outline(30972) lists several important sources for finding information about immigrants. These nationwide sources include references to people who settled in Wisconsin. The Tracing Immigrant Origins Research Outline (34111) introduces the principles, search strategies, and additional record types you can use to identify an immigrant ancestor's hometown.


Small groups of French fur traders came to the Green Bay and Prairie du Chien areas in the 1700s. They were followed by lead miners from the Southern states who settled near the Galena diggings on the Illinois border in the 1820s. Substantial immigration from the northeastern states began in the 1830s. Later, American-born settlers were usually from New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Vermont.

Between 1840 and 1860, hundreds of thousands of immigrants came from Europe. Most of them came by way of the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes to the port of Milwaukee, or they came up the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers and then by the railroads, which crossed the area soon after Wisconsin statehood.

The most numerous of the foreign-born immigrants were from Germany. They came from the Catholic provinces of southern Germany and from Protestant eastern Germany.

Before the Civil War, the Irish were the second largest immigrant group in Wisconsin. There was also considerable emigration from England, Scotland, Wales, and British North America.

Many Norwegians came to Wisconsin before the Civil War and by 1900 had become the second-largest foreign-born group in the state. They were joined by settlers from southern and eastern Europe, especially Poles and Czechs, and by smaller groups of Russians, Yugoslavs, Italians, and Greeks. At the beginning of World War I in 1914, the majority of Wisconsin residents were of German origin or descent, but this had declined to 40 percent by 1930.


The main port of entry to Wisconsin was Milwaukee, but no passenger lists are available for it or for other Wisconsin ports. Most immigrants from overseas landed at east-coast ports, primarily New York City, before proceeding to Wisconsin. If an immigrant identified Milwaukee as the port of entry, it is probable that he or she arrived first at the port of Quebec in Canada, and then came through the St. Lawrence/Great Lakes to enter the United States at Wisconsin. This was an important route particularly for the Norwegian immigrants.

There are Canadian border crossing records for 1895–1949 (FHL films 1561087–499) and soundex indexes for 1895–1924 (FHL films 1472801–3201) and 1924–1952 (FHL films 1570714–811).

An important nationwide source for locating published information about immigrants who came to America before about 1920 is P. William Filby, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index. See the United States Research Outline (30972) for information about this source.

The Family History Library and the National Archives have passenger lists or indexes for American ports for the years 1800–1921 for Philadelphia, 1820–1943 for Boston and New York, and 1865–1900 for Canadian ports. Indexes are being published for many ethnic groups, such as the Czechs (1846–), Italians (1880–), Germans (1850–), Greeks (1885–), and Russians (1875–). More detailed information on immigration sources is in the United States Research Outline (30972).

You may also want to read these histories:

Sachtjen, Maude. Immigration to Wisconsin: A Thesis. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin, 1928. (FHL book 977.5 W2s; film 844952 item 4.)

Current, Richard Nelson. "A German State?" in Wisconsin: A Bicentennial History. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1977. (FHL book 977.5 H2cr.)

Records of various ethnic groups, including Blacks, Danes, Finns, Germans, Norwegians, and Welsh, are listed in the Family History Library Catalog under WISCONSIN - MINORITIES. Records of Dutch, Danes, Belgians, and Germans from Russia are listed under WISCONSIN - EMIGRATION AND IMMIGRATION.