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Jean Nicolet first explored Green Bay and the Wisconsin region for France when he landed there in 1634. A Roman Catholic mission and French trading post near present-day Ashland were established in 1660.

After the French and Indian Wars ended, in 1763, Great Britain gained control of the Wisconsin area. In 1783, after the Revolutionary War ended, the United States Acquired the area, but the British continued to control it until the War of 1812 ended. From 1800 to 1836, the area was part of Indiana, then Illinois, and finally Michigan territories. Then it became its own territory.

Wisconsin is one of the most agriculturally-rich states in the U.S. It is famous for its cheeses and dairy products. In fact, it has the nicknames “America’s Dairyland” and “Cheese Capital of the United States.” Most of Wisconsin is plains land, which is perfect for cattle and crops. Nevertheless, some areas of the state are industrial, particularly areas along Lake Michigan, such as Milwaukee.

Getting Started with Wisconsin Genealogy and Family Trees

Learning to Search for Wisconsin Genealogy Materials – Wisconsin is often viewed as an abundant place where agriculture and farming are the primary activities and interests. This is unfortunate because it is a very diverse place in which peoples of many cultures have settled. This is the reason that there is such an interest in methods for Wisconsin genealogy, and this article is going to serve as a primer in some of the best methods to use.

Basic Methods for Wisconsin Genealogy Work – Genealogists today will have a lot of resources available for Wisconsin genealogy research, and many of their best resources are found with a computer. In fact, it is now possible to view state’s online resources as one of the best ways for gathering data or requesting copies of the materials needed for Wisconsin genealogy work.

Of course, not every resource is available in the electronic format. Many of the best archives, libraries and museums are just now beginning to go digital, and this means that those doing work for Wisconsin genealogy projects will have to also identify their real world or offline resources too. It is always going to be beneficial for a genealogist to be familiar with the different locations and online tools for Wisconsin genealogy, and to discover which are the best for their needs.

The First Steps for Wisconsin Genealogy – Some of the most comprehensive sets of data for Wisconsin genealogy researchers will be the groups of public records listed below:

  • Vital Records – these are comprised of the birth, marriage, divorce and death records from county, state, and national archives, and can also contain cemetery or obituary information, newspaper items, military records, census records, immigration and naturalization details, passenger lists and records as well. These are available as online and offline resources for Wisconsin genealogy.
  • State Records – from probate information to birth certificates, cemetery information, death records, deeds, estate information, genealogical folders, land records, maps, marriage details, military or veterans information, newspapers, private manuscripts, state census information, surname lists and more. These are available as online and offline resources for Wisconsin genealogy.
  • Local Records – those looking for Wisconsin genealogy will start in a county clerk’s office or website, and then head to the local genealogical societies, small local libraries, historical societies, and school or college libraries for Wisconsin genealogy data. These are things that are usually offline and viewable by appointment or special arrangement.

Best Tools for Wisconsin Genealogy – We already mentioned that the Internet is among the best of the new tools for Wisconsin genealogy projects. These provide some of the most vital information, and with the least amount of effort. We have indicated the best of these tools for Wisconsin genealogy below:

  • WI Vital Records Office, 1 West Wilson Street, P.O. Box 309, Madison, WI 53701-0309; Website: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/w2w/wisconsin.htm .
    This is the site from which can request birth, death, marriage and divorce records via a written notice, or even online.

Additional state and local records can be found at the:

  • Wisconsin Historical Society, 816 State Street, Madison, WI 5370; Website: http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/genealogy/ .
    Their Genealogy pages are full of an amazing number of resources that includes everything from local histories and maps to images and newspapers.

Finally, these three websites provide many state-specific details to those in search of details for Wisconsin genealogy projects.


Wisconsin Ethnic Group Research

African American Research – According to records, African Americans came to Wisconsin in the early part of the 18th century. They served as interpreters, guides, and boatmen for French fur traders and explorers. Some of them were also trappers. When southerners came to Wisconsin throughout the territorial period, drawn to the area by its lead mines, many of them brought their slaves with them. They came mainly from North Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia, settling in Iowa and Grant counties. Some of the African Americans who came to Wisconsin were runaway slaves or freemen. Others were slaves of military personnel who came to the area. An 1840 record shows that 11 slaves were living in Wisconsin Territory at the time, along with 185 free African Americans. By 1850, there were no slaves and 635 free African Americans recorded as living within the borders of Wisconsin Territory.

Based on those census records, Wisconsin’s position regarding slavery at the time is clear. In 1840, Racine County was the site of the formation of the first abolitionist society. In 1843, the anti-slavery newspaper, known as Wisconsin Aegis, was published. The Underground Railroad was also a major fixture in the state, especially during the 1850s. It was used to move slaves up into Canada, where they could be free. Wisconsin passed its “personal liberty law” in 1857, which made it difficult for slave owners from other states to recover runaway slaves staying in Wisconsin. Many records have been collected and continue to be collected by the Wisconsin Black Historical Museum. They include papers, photographs, books, and various artifacts.

  • “Wisconsin Defies the Fugitive Slave Law: The Case of Sherman M. Booth.” Chronicles of Wisconsin. Vol. 5. Madison, Wis.: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1955.
  • African American Newspapers and Periodicals: A National Bibliography. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • Negro Slavery in Wisconsin and the Underground Railroad. No. 18. Milwaukee, Wis.: Parkman Club Publications, 1897.
  • Papers, 1860–1901. Wisconsin Historical Society. These papers include muster rolls for the 58th Infantry Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops from Wisconsin, MS 62-2651 at Wisconsin Historical Society.
  • Wisconsin African American Books (amazon.com)

Native American Research – In 1634, when Jean Nicolet first came to Lake Michigan’s Red Banks, there were many members of the Winnebago tribe living in the area surrounding Green Bay. In the 1600s, other tribes are Sioux, Potawatomi, Sauk, Fox, Mascouten, Miami, Kickapoo, Huron, Ottawa.

The containment and removal of those tribes caused several problems with tracking Wisconsin Native Americans. There were also problems relating to land sales and treaties because, in some cases, one tribe moved onto a piece of land previously occupied by another. That could mean that multiple records exist for the same piece of land.

From 1829 to 1848, there were 11 treaties with various tribes in Wisconsin. Those treaties caused various tribes to move to other areas. For example the Potawatomi, Kickapoo, and Winnebago moved to Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, and Mexico. Although a few stayed on specific reservations. Some of the Potawatomi stayed in Wisconsin, as did many of the Chippewa and the entire Menominee Nation.

Northern Wisconsin was home to 6 Chippewa reservations in 1984. At that same time, Menominee County was home to a Menominee reservation, and Forest County was home to some federal trust tribal land, on which the Potawatomi resided. The Brotherton tribe has become part of the Stockbridge-Munsee reservation, which is located in Shawano County. Outagamie and Brown counties contain the Oneida reservation. The Winnebago tribe of Wisconsin was never moved to a Nebraska reservation. Instead, they live in various tribal settlements across Wisconsin.

County court records can sometimes contain information about lawsuits between white settlers and Native Americans, most often over land claims. Guardianship records can be found in collections of probate documents. Researchers should also check the annuity rolls and treaty collections held by the National Archives.

Researchers looking for Native American newspapers should consult the Wisconsin Historical Society, which holds the largest collection of such papers in the country.

  • Guide to Catholic Indian Mission and School Records in Midwest Repositories (Milwaukee, Wis.: Marquette University Libraries, Department of Special Collections and University Archives, 1984)
  • Wisconsin Indians (Revised. Madison, Wis.: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 2002)
  • Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15, “The Northeast” (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978–1998)
  • Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal (Madison, Wis.: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2001).
  • Native American Periodicals and Newspapers, 1828–1982: Bibliography, Publishing Record and Holdings (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984)
  • Wisconsin Native American Books (amazon.com)

Other Immigrant American Research – The earliest Europeans to come to Wisconsin were the French-Canadians. They came for both military and fur trading reasons and settled in Green Bay, Prairie du Chien, and other places in the western part of the state. Many of them married Native Americans. More French-Canadians traveled to Wisconsin later on to work in the growing lumber industry there. Other settlers came from New York and other states. It should also be noted that some immigrants to Wisconsin from Canada were not French-Canadian. Many of those immigrants came from the Atlantic provinces and Ontario, while the French-Canadians primarily came from Quebec.

As of 1850, more than 21,000 Irish people were recorded in Wisconsin. They made up the largest foreign group that spoke English in the area at the time. They lived mainly in Wisconsin’s southern counties. Most of them settled in and around Lafayette or Milwaukee counties. The southern counties of Wisconsin were also home to many settlers from English, especially in 1827, when lead mining was becoming popular in the area. Dane, Columbia, and Racine counties all had large English populations. Meanwhile, settlers from Scotland moved into the eastern parts of Wisconsin, and settlers from Wales came to Wisconsin mainly between the 1840s and 1850s. Starting in the late 1830s, large groups of Germans began to immigrate to Wisconsin. The first German colony was established in 1839 near Milwaukee. Records indicate that it may have included as many as 800 people. Around 12% of the population of Wisconsin was made up of first-generation Germans, as of 1850. Researchers should note that the U.S. government distributed leaflets in coastal regions to try to attract Germans to the area starting in the 1840s. A commissioner of immigration was appointed in the 1850s to live in New York and encourage people to migrate to Wisconsin. That occurred due to the passing of a law in 1852. Another branch office opened in Quebec in 1854. Nevertheless, many Germans who came to the area were not enticed by those efforts. Instead, it was letters from family and friends already living in Wisconsin that encouraged them to immigrate to the area. Those letters spoke of freedom and lots of available land.

In 1850, about 33% of all Norwegians living in the United States made their homes in Wisconsin. However, there were not a lot of Norwegians as compared to the numbers of Germans in the area. Milwaukee, Sheboygan, and Brown counties became home to large groups of early Dutch settlers. Some immigrants from Switzerland came to the area in 1834, but more began to move to the area in the 1840s. In fact, to this day the heritage of the original Swiss settlers who came to New Glarus in Green County is still maintained by that village.

Dane county, as the name suggests, was home to many early Danish immigrants, as were Winnebago and Racine counties. They settled in those counties before 1870. A group of immigrants from Iceland came to Wisconsin in the 1870s, settling in Door County, on Washington Island. Wisconsin also became home to groups of immigrants from Poland and Russia. The former settled in the area between 1870 and 1920, while the latter settled in Wisconsin in the 1890s. A group of Russian Jews moved to Milwaukee between 1910 and 1911, while Italians and Finns also came to the area in the early 1900s.

Many Norwegian Records are maintained in Decorah, Iowa by the Norwegian-American Museum. They maintain a division in Madison, Wisconsin. That division can be contacted at the Vesterheim Genealogical Center, 415 W. Main St., Madison, WI 53703, or their website can be viewed online. There are more than 1,800 family histories, 4,000 reels of church records on microfilm, and countless other records in that collection, including passport records and immigrant lists. Some of the records can be accessed through inter-library loan programs.

Fifty-five boxes of personal family papers covering the years of 1841 to 1931 can be found in the Rasmus B. Anderson papers, which are held by the Wisconsin Historical Society. Madison, Wisconsin is the home of the Wisconsin Memorial Library, which has a large collection of files on the United Kingdom and Norwegian history. Some Irish records are available at the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center’s Irish Emigration Library. That collection includes maps of Ireland and microfilmed indexes of sub-denominations.