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Wisconsin History and Research Overview

By Family Tree Editors Premium


LaVerne and Shirley bottled beer in Milwaukee, just as one of your German ancestors may have done decades earlier. But long before the first German was spoken on the western shores of Lake Michigan, the area was home to the Winnebago, Ojibway (Chippewa), Menominee, Oneida, Sauk and other Indian tribes driven west by the Iroquois.

The first European in what would become Wisconsin was Jean Nicolet in 1634. In 1690, Catholic missionaries established a mission at Michilimackinac (now Mackinac, Mich.), a focal point for traders. French traders first came to the Green Bay and Prairie du Chien areas in the 1700s. In 1763, the British gained control of the area from the French. The United States acquired it in 1783. It became part of Northwest Territory in 1787, Indiana Territory in 1800, Illinois Territory in 1809, and Michigan Territory in 1818.

Lead mining along the Illinois/Wisconsin border attracted settlers from Southern states beginning about 1820. Migration to the Lake Michigan shoreline increased in the 1830s. Many later settlers were from New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Lumbering, mining, and farming were major enterprises.

In 1836, the new Wisconsin Territory included lands as far west as the Missouri River. In 1838, much of that western land was transferred to Iowa Territory. Wisconsin became the 30th state in 1848, and the last Indian lands were obtained by treaty.

In the 1840s and 1850s, large numbers of foreign immigrants arrived. Before the Civil War, Germans, Norwegians and Irish were the largest immigrant groups, with substantial numbers from other British Isles countries as well as Canada. Later groups arriving in the state included Poles, Czechs, Austrians, Swedes, Danes, Italians, Greeks, Finns, Russians and Yugoslavs.

Wisconsin sent more than 90,000 soldiers to serve with the Union in the Civil War. Its Great Lakes towns became industrial centers; the northern lakes and woods became a vacation, hunting and fishing mecca; and the southern and western farmlands earned the state its nickname of “America’s Dairyland.”

(click to enlarge)
Wisconsin state map with county outlines


  • The Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) holds Wisconsin newspaper titles, a large collection of city directories, histories, genealogies, indexes, periodicals, WPA inventories, abstracts and reference material on every state and Canadian province. It holds virtually all available US and Canadian censuses, as well as microfilmed immigration passenger lists.
  • You can search an index to Wisconsin vital records and other information through the Wisconsin Genealogy Index
  • Norwegians were the second-largest immigrant group to Wisconsin. Research them at the Norwegian American Genealogical Center and Naeseth Library in Madison
  • WHS is part of a network of 13 area research centers located around the state. See locations at


  • Federal census: 1820 and 1830 (with Michigan), 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930
  • Federal mortality schedules: 1850, 1880
  • Special census of Civil War Union veterans and widows: 1890
  • State/territorial census: 1836, 1838, 1842, 1846, 1847, 1855, 1875, 1885, 1895, 1905


  • The Bench and Bar of Wisconsin: History and Biography by Parker McCobb Reed (P.M. Reed, 1882)
  • Biography Index to the Wisconsin Blue Books by Darlene E. Waterstreet (Badger Infosearch, 1974)
  • Black Settlers in Rural Wisconsin by Zachary Cooper (State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1997)
  • Brethren in Northern Illinois and Wisconsin by John Heckman (Brethren Publishing House, 1941)
  • The Catholic Church in Wisconsin: A History Of the Catholic Church in Wisconsin from the Earliest Time to the Present Day by Harry H. Heming (Catholic Historical Publishing Co., 1895-1898)
  • Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 24 vols., by Lyman Copeland Draper (State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1855-)
  • Columbian Biographical Dictionary and Portrait Gallery by David I. Nelke (Lewis Publishing Co., 1895)
  • Cross and Flame in Wisconsin: the Story of United Methodism in the Badger State by William Blake (United Methodist Church, Wisconsin Conference, 1973)
  • Dictionary of Wisconsin Biography (State Historical Society, 1960)
  • Directory of Churches and Religious Organizations in Wisconsin from the Historical Records Survey (Wisconsin Historical Records Survey, 1941)
  • French-Canadian Families Of the North Central States: A Genealogical Dictionary, 8 vols., by Paul J. Lareau and Elmer Courteau (Northwest Territory French and Canadian Heritage Institute, 1980)
  • Genealogical Research: An Introduction to the Resources of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin by Jame P. Danky (State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1986)
  • Ghost Towns of Wisconsin by William F. Stark (Zimmermann Press, 1977)
  • Guide to Church Vital Statistics Records in Wisconsin from the Historical Records Survey (Wisconsin Historical Records Survey, 1942)
  • Guide to the Manuscripts of the Wisconsin Historical Society edited by Alice E. Smith (State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1944, 1957)
  • Guide to Wisconsin Newspapers, 1833-1957 by Donald E. Oehlerts (State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1958)
  • History of the Catholic Church in Wisconsin by Leo Rummel (Wisconsin State Council, Knights of Columbus, 1976)
  • History of Methodism in Wisconsin by Pansy S. Bennett (Cranston & Stowe, 1890)
  • History of Northern Wisconsin (Western Historical Society, 1881)
  • History of the Presbyterian and Congregational Churches and Ministers in Wisconsin by Stephen Peet (S. Chapman, 1851)
  • History of Wisconsin, 6 vols., (State Historical Society, 1973-1988)
  • An Illustrated History of the State of Wisconsin: Being a Complete Civil, Political and Military History of the State from its First Exploration Down to 1875 by Charles Richard Tuttle (B.B. Russell, 1875)
  • Index to Green Bay Newspapers, 1833-1840 by Barry Christopher Noonan (Wisconsin State Historical Society, 1987)
  • Introduction to Wisconsin Indians: Prehistory to Statehood by Carol I. Mason (Sheffield Publishing, 1988)
  • Men of Progress, Wisconsin by Andrew J. Aikens (Evening Wisconsin Co., 1897)
  • Newspapers in the State Historical Society of Wisconsin: A Bibliography with Holdings, 2 vols., by Jame P. Danky (Norman Ross, 1994)
  • Notable Men of Wisconsin (W.C. Cox Co., 1974)
  • Printed Resources for Genealogical Searching in Wisconsin: A Selective Bibliography by Margaret Gleason (Detroit Society for Genealogical Research, 1964)
  • Regathering of the Scattered Saints in Wisconsin And Illinois by Pearl Wilcox (P. Wilcox, 1984)
  • Searching for Your Wisconsin Ancestors in the Wisconsin Libraries by Carol Ward Ryan (Carol Ward Ryan, 1988)
  • Subject Bibliography of Wisconsin History by Leroy Schlinkert (State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1947)
  • United States Biographical Dictionary and Portrait: Gallery of Eminent and Self-made Men: Wisconsin Volume (American Biographical Publishing, 1877)
  • Wisconsin Doomsday Book: Town Studies from the State Historical Society of Wisconsin (George Santa Publishing Co., 1924)
  • Wisconsin’s Early French by Jo Bartels Alderson (Heritage Books, 1988)
  • The Wisconsin Fur-Trade People by Les Rentmeester (L & J Rentmeester, 1991)
  • Wisconsin Genealogical Research by Linda M. Herrick (Origins, 1996)
  • Wisconsin History: An Annotated Bibliography by Barbara Dotts Paul (Greenwood Press, 1999)
  • Wisconsin: Its History and Its People, 1634-1924, 4 vols., by Milo Milton Quaife (S.J.Clarke Publishing Co., 1924)
  • Wisconsin Indians by Nancy Ostrich Lurie (State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1980)
  • Wisconsin Research Outline by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (online at
  • Wisconsin: Its Story and Biography, 1848-1913, 8 vols., by Ellis B. Usher (Lewis Publishing Co., 1914)

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From the Family Tree Sourcebook
Also available: the State Research Guide Book, State Research Guides CD and The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy.