State Research Guide: Wisconsin

By Rick Crume Premium

Where can you get great cheese and beer, be a subject of a progressive state government and seriously up your chances of meeting a German-American? Wisconsin, of course. The area’s first Europeans actually were French fur traders who trapped the Green Bay area in the 1700s. Lead miners from the South came in the 1820s, followed by settlers from northeastern states in the 1830s. It wasn’t until the 1840s and ’50s that hundreds of thousands of immigrants poured in from Europe, mainly Germany. Catholics from southern Germany dominated until 1847, when eastern German Protestants surpassed them. Before World War I, Rhinelanders made up most of the state’s population, though others hailed from the British Isles, Norway and Eastern Europe. In the 2000 US census, 42 percent of Wisconsin’s residents reported German ancestry; only North Dakota has a higher concentration.

Wherever your Wisconsin ancestors started out, a plethora of resources will help you find them. Start with the introduction to Wisconsin in The Family Tree Resource Book for Genealogists (Family Tree Books, $29.99). Browse the Cyndi’s List Wisconsin page <> for links to research guides, indexes and digitized records. Then read over FamilySearch’s <> Wisconsin Research Outline (see resources) for a handy rundown of the most useful records, especially those you can borrow on microfilm through Family History Centers (FHCs). FHCs are branches of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library (FHL) — go to FamilySearch and click on “Find a family history center near you.”

Census sense

Federal censuses, taken every 10 years, reveal places of residence, occupations, years and places of birth, and family relationships. They list only heads of household up through 1840, but everyone beginning in 1850. Residents of what’s now Wisconsin were first counted in the 1820 Indiana Territory census; in 1830, they’re grouped with Michigan Territory.

Two subscription services offer online access to US census records through 1930 (the most recent census open to the public).’s < > every-name indexes cover all censuses. HeritageQuest Online, free at subscribing libraries, has head-of-household indexes for censuses from 1790 to 1820, as well as 1860, 1870 and 1900 to 1920. Family Search offers free access to several censuses.

Wisconsin took territorial and state censuses every two years from 1836 to 1842, in 1846, in 1847 and every 10 years from 1855 to 1905. Except 1905, all list only heads of household. Pre-1865 records are missing for many counties. Do a place search in the FHL online catalog on Wisconsin and your ancestors’ county names to find microfilm of federal, territorial and state census records and indexes. You also can borrow the Wisconsin Historical Society’s (WHS) territorial and state censuses from 1836 to 1905 — among other records — through interlibrary loan (see resources for contact information).

The USGenWeb Project has online indexes to the 1830 and 1836 censuses at <>. See the USGenWeb Census Projects, <> and <> for transcriptions of a few Wisconsin census records from 1840 to 1930 (some are linked to images).

Landed gentry

Land records can help you track a person’s movements and even identify past residences. They often provide occupations, relatives’ names and other clues.

Did your ancestors file land claims with the US government? The Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records site <> not only has a searchable index, but in many cases, links to images of your ancestors’ land patent certificates.

Once a private citizen acquired land, sales of the property would be recorded at the local county courthouse. The FHL has microfilmed deed indexes and some land records for many counties. Do a place search of the FHL catalog for your Wisconsin county, then look for the subject heading Land and Property.

On the march

During the Civil War, Wisconsin aided the Northern cause with 91,379 soldiers. See <> for instructions on getting Union service and pension records from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Many large libraries also have the microfilmed indexes. Before requesting copies, you may want to search’s Civil War Pension Index, with nearly 2.5 million entries, and its Civil War Service Records database. (Both require a subscription to the US Records Collection.) The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System <> has 127,559 records of Wisconsin soldiers from Union muster rolls.

You also can view the pension index at a Family History Center. To find the microfilm number you need for the index, search the catalog for film 540757, first in the series of films. You can order a pension file from NARA without checking the index, but the index can help you request the right file, especially if multiple soldiers had the same name.

Several online resources give details on Wisconsin soldiers. The Wisconsin Historical Society <> has the digitized 1886 Roster of Wisconsin Volunteers, War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865, complete with a searchable index. You can search a roster of soldiers from the Badger State who died in World War I through both Access Genealogy <> and HeritageQuest Online. The Milwaukee Public Library Web site <> has an index to people shown in 3,192 photos of World War I military personnel from Milwaukee County. Offline, consult John Goadby Gregory’s Wisconsin’s Gold Star List (State Historical Society of Wisconsin, out of print) of servicemen who died during World War I.

Vital advice

Vital records — government records of births, marriages, divorces and deaths — are some of the most important documents for genealogical research. Some Wisconsin counties started keeping marriage records in the 1820s and birth and death records in the 1850s, but most started later. Fortunately, you can check statewide indexes even for these early years.’s US Records Collection and the libraries-only Ancestry Library Edition offer indexes to Wisconsin births, marriages and deaths up to 1907. Most FHCs have indexes to pre-1907 Wisconsin births, marriages and deaths in their permanent reference collections. Once you find a name in an index, you can order microfilm of the actual record. Do a place search in the FHL catalog for Wisconsin and look under the topic Vital Records to determine the microfilm number you need. Also, WHS’ Online Genealogical Research Service lets you to order copies of pre-1907 Wisconsin birth, marriage and death records (research requests cost $15).

The state of Wisconsin began keeping vital records in 1907. Order uncertified copies of birth certificates for $12, and marriage, divorce or death certificates for $7 from the Wisconsin Division of Health <>.

RootsWeb <> and the Wisconsin GenWeb Project <> host various indexes, such as those covering Sheboygan County vital records from 1841 to 1912 <> and Richland County deaths through 1998 <>.

Records roundup

County and local histories often profile residents, particularly early settlers. Do a place search of the FHL catalog for a county name and Wisconsin, and look under the topics History and History — Indexes. You can search the text of Wisconsin county and local histories through HeritageQuest Online’s Family & Local Histories collection. offers the same collection to home users. Heritage Books Archives: Wisconsin Volume 1 CD (Heritage Books) includes five books covering Milwaukee County burials, abstracts from the Wauwatosa News (1899 to 1904), and histories of Wisconsin Territory and Milwaukee.

A place search of the FHL catalog will net you other microfilmed Wisconsin records, including naturalizations and probates, both of which are available for many counties. The University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee library Web site lists its genealogy resources and request forms for church, cemetery, naturalization and property records at <>. It also tells where to find other records and gives you contact information for county records offices as well as historical societies at <>.

Wisconsin may be a melting pot, but a distinctly Teutonic attention to orderliness makes tracing your ancestors in this state a relatively simple pursuit — even if your own veins don’t carry a drop of German blood.

From the April 2005 Family Tree Magazine