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Genealogical Research in Wisconsin

Genealogy Research Wisconsin

There is a wealth of genealogical records and resources available for tracing your family history in Wisconsin. Because of the abundance of information held at many different locations, tracking down the records for your ancestor can be an ominous task. Don’t worry though, we know just where they are, and we’ll show you which records you’ll need, while helping you to understand:

  • What they are
  • Where to find them
  • How to use them

These records can be found both online and off, so we’ll introduce you to online websites, indexes and databases, as well as brick-and-mortar repositories and other institutions that will help with your research in Wisconsin. So that you will have a more comprehensive understanding of these records, we have provided a brief history of the “Badger State” to illustrate what type of records may have been generated during specific time periods. That information will assist you in pinpointing times and locations on which to focus the search for your Wisconsin ancestors and their records.

A Brief History of Wisconsin

During the 17th century, the Ojibwa, Fox, Potawatomi, Sauk, Kickapoo, and other tribes settled in Wisconsin. They engaged in hunting, fishing, and agriculture, but their attention turned to the fur trade when Europeans arrived in the area. The French were the first to explore the area, with Jean Nicolet landing on the shores of Green Bay in 1634, and twenty years later the fur traders Pierre Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart des Groseilliers spent time exploring the northern parts of Wisconsin.

The explorer Louis Jolliet crossed and the Jesuit priest Jacques Marquette traversed the entire state in 1673, and soon the Jesuits established missions awhile the fur traders set up trading posts. After the French and Indian War the British took ownership of the area, ruling it as part of Quebec province for nine years from 1774 to 1783. Even after being ceded to the United States after the Revolutionary War, the area remained very British in nature, until 1816 when the Americans established forts at Prairie du Chien and Green Bay.

Wisconsin was made part of the Northwest Territory in 1787, and was subsequently incorporated into the Indiana Territory, the Territory of Illinois, and eventually the Michigan Territory. Lead mining brought an influx of white settlers in the early 1820’s, a hearty bunch known as “Badgers” because many lived in holes they dug in the ground. After the Black Hawk War ended Indian resistance in 1832, many tribes such as the Winnebago were moved to reservations outside of the state, while others such as the Menominee, Ojibwa, and some eastern tribes were permitted to settle on reservations inside Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Territory was formed in 1836 and initially included all of Iowa and Minnesota, along with a portion of the Dakotas. In 1838 the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Iowa became part of the Iowa Territory. The 1830’s brought a land boom fueled by scores of Yankees from New England and Southerners, who would settle in mining country, migrating to the area. Both the economy and population expanded rapidly, and after endorsing statehood in 1846, Wisconsin became the 30th state on May 29, 1848.

Wisconsin supported the Union cause during the Civil War, and almost 100,000 men from the state fought on the union side, over 12,000 dying. After the Civil War Wisconsin continued to prosper, as lumbering, food processing, and dairying became major industries, and Milwaukee developed into an important industrial center.

Immigrants from Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland were attracted to Wisconsin as early as 1839, and large numbers of Germans and Irish soon followed. The majority of foreign born people living in Wisconsin in 1850 were mostly English speaking, but within ten years they were outnumbered by Germans. Additional industrial development soon brought Hungarians, Lithuanians, Greeks, Italians, Belgians, and especially Poles, who continued to arrive steadily until the restriction of immigration in the early 1920’s.

  • Important Genealogical Dates in Wisconsin History
    • 1634 – Explored and partially settled by French fur traders and missionaries
    • 1760 – Occupied by British Colonial forces
    • 1763 – Ceded by France to Great Britain
    • 1774 – Governed by British as part of Quebec
    • 1783 – Ceded by Britain to US
    • 1787 – Part of Northwest Territory
    • 1800 – Part of Indiana Territory
    • 1809 – Part of Illinois Territory
    • 1818 – Part of Michigan Territory
    • 1836 – Created as separate territory
    • 1848 - Statehood

Famous Battles Fought in Wisconsin

There have not been many great military battles fought in Wisconsin, though there was one encounter on Wisconsin soil during the War of 1812, the Siege of Prairie du Chien. Although no battles were fought in the state itself, Wisconsin troops fought in over 500 encounters during the Civil War. Much fighting took place on Wisconsin soil between white settlers and the Native American tribes that made the state their home, most notably during the Fox War, Winnebago War, and the Black Hawk War.

The battle accounts that exist can be very effective in uncovering the military records of your ancestor. They can tell you what regiments fought in which battles, and often include the names and ranks of many officers and enlisted men.

Common Wisconsin Genealogical Issues and Resources to Overcome Them

Boundary Changes: Boundary changes are a common obstacle when researching Wisconsin ancestors. You could be searching for an ancestor’s record in one county when in fact it is stored in a different one due to historical county boundary changes.

The Atlas of Historical County Boundaries can help you to overcome that problem. It provides a chronological listing of every boundary change that has occurred in the history of Wisconsin.

Name Changes: Surname changes, variations, and misspellings can complicate genealogical research. It is important to check all spelling variations. Soundex, a program that indexes names by sound, is a useful first step, but you can't rely on it completely as some name variations result in different Soundex codes. The surnames could be different, but the first name may be different too. You can also find records filed under initials, middle names, and nicknames as well, so you will need to get creative with surname variations and spellings in order to cover all the possibilities. For help with surname variations read our instructional article on How to Use Soundex.

Wisconsin Genealogical Organizations and Archives

Genealogical resources include not only records, but the organizations that house them, or can direct you to them. These institutions include: Archives, Libraries, Genealogical Societies, Family History Centers, Universities, Churches, and Museums.

Following are links to their websites, their physical addresses, and a summary of the records you can find there.

  • Archives and Libraries
    • Wisconsin Historical Society - One of the largest genealogical collections in the United States, contains: Cemetery records, Census records, Church records, Family Histories, Images, Immigration records, Local Histories, Maps, Military records, Naturalization records, Historical Newspapers, Vital records
      816 State Street
      Madison, WI 53706
      Tel: 608-264-6460
    • University of Wisconsin at Green Bay - Vital Records, Citizenship Records, Court Records, Probate Record, Census Records, Land Records, School Records
      UW-Green Bay, 2420 Nicolet Dr
      Green Bay, WI 54311-7001
      (920) 465-2539
    • La Crosse Public Library Archives – Local histories, Obituaries, Vital records, Census records,
      800 Main St.
      La Crosse, WI 54601
      Tel: (608) 789-7136
    • University of Wisconsin - Madison - Genealogical information on former faculty, staff, and students
      Library Archives
      425 Steenbock Library
      550 Babcock Drive
      Phone: (608) 262-5629
      Madison, WI 53706
    • McIntyre Library - Federal and Wisconsin censuses, Pre 1907 vital records, Local government records, including naturalization, school, probate, tax, land, and court records (civil, criminal, and divorce), Church records and congregational histories, Diaries, letters, and organizational records, County and Local Histories, Genealogy Reference Books
      University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
      Eau Claire WI 54702-4004
      Reference Phone: 715-836-3858
      Circulation Phone: 715-836-3856
      FAX: 715-836-2949
    • University of Wisconsin - Stout Library – Local histories, Circuit/county courts, probates, naturalizations, and funerals between 1855 and 1955, Birth/death/probate notices from newspapers, 1862-1930
      712 South Broadway St.
      Menomonie, WI 54751
      Tel: 715/232-1353

Genealogical and Historical Societies

Genealogical and historical societies have access to extensive catalogues of genealogical data. They are also able to offer expert guidance for genealogical researchers. Many members are professional genealogists who are most willing to share their expertise in finding ancestors. 

  • Genealogical and Historical Societies
    • Wisconsin State Genealogical Society – Cemetery records, Surnames lists, and many more genealogical resources concentrating on research in specific counties
      P.O. Box 5106
      Madison, WI 53705-0106
    • Friends of Scandinavian History – Census records and many resources for tracing ancestors of Scandinavian ancestry in Wisconsin
      P.O. Box 15
      Scandinavia, WI 54977
      Phone: (715) 467-2729
    • German Interest Group - Wisconsin - Surnames lists and resources for tracing ancestors of German ancestry in Wisconsin
      P.O. Box 762
      Janesville, WI 53547-0762

Additional Wisconsin Genealogical Resources

Wisconsin Mailing Lists

Mailing lists are internet based facilities that use email to distribute a single message to all who subscribe to it. When information on a particular surname, new records, or any other important genealogy information related to the mailing list topic becomes available, the subscribers are alerted to it. Joining a mailing list is an excellent way to stay up to date on Wisconsin genealogy research topics. Rootsweb have an extensive listing of Wisconsin Mailing Lists on a variety of topics.

Wisconsin Message Boards

A message board is another internet based facility where people can post questions about a specific genealogy topic and have it answered by other genealogists. If you have questions about a surname, record type, or research topic, you can post your question and other researchers and genealogists will help you with the answer. Be sure to check back regularly, as the answers are not emailed to you. The message boards at the Wisconsin Genealogy Forum are completely free to use.

Wisconsin Newspapers and Periodicals

Many genealogy periodicals and historical newspapers contain reprinted copies of family genealogies, transcripts of family Bible records, information about local records and archives, census indexes, church records, queries, land records, obituaries, court records, cemetery records, and wills.

  • Wisconsin newspapers and periodicals that you can search online or on-site.

Historical Wisconsin Maps and Gazetteers

Maps are an integral part of genealogical research. They help us to locate landmarks, towns, cities, parishes, states, provinces, waterways and roads and streets. They also help us to determine when and where boundary changes might have taken place, and give us a visualization of the area we’re researching in.

For locating place names, a gazetteer is the best possible resource for any genealogist. Gazetteers are also sometimes called “place name dictionaries”, and can help you to locate the area in which you need to conduct research. Below are links to the maps and gazetteers for research in Wisconsin.

Peabody GNIS Service – Wisconsin

Color Landform Atlas – Wisconsin

1985 U.S. Atlas

Wisconsin Hometown Locator

Wisconsin City Directories

City directories are similar to telephone directories in that they list the residents of a particular area. The difference though is what is important to genealogists, and that is they pre-date telephone directories. You can find an ancestor’s information such as their street address, place of employment, occupation, or the name of their spouse. A one-stop-shop for finding city directories in Wisconsin is the Wisconsin Online Historical Directories which contains a listing of every available online historical directory related to Wisconsin. Another useful site is US City Directories which identifies printed, microfilmed, and online Wisconsin directories and their repositories.

Wisconsin Genealogical Records

Birth, Death, Marriage and Divorce Records – Also known as vital records, birth, death, and marriage certificates are the most basic, yet most important records attached to your ancestor. The reason for their importance is that they not only place your ancestor in a specific place at a definite time, but potentially connect the individual to other relatives.

  • Below is a list of repositories and websites where you can find Wisconsin vital records.
    • Wisconsin Center for Health Statistics - Births October 1, 1907 to present, Deaths October 1, 1907 to present, Marriages October 1, 1907 to present, Divorces October 1, 1907 to present
      Dept. of Health and Social Services
      P.O. Box 309
      Madison, Wisconsin 53701
    • Wisconsin Historical Society - Births, 1852-September 30, 1907; Marriages, 1836-September 30, 1907; Deaths, 1852-September 30, 1907 816 State Street Madison, WI 53706 Tel: 608-264-6460
    • University of Wisconsin at Green Bay - Statewide index to births, marriages, and deaths that were registered before 1907 UW-Green Bay, 2420 Nicolet Dr Green Bay, WI 54311-7001 (920) 465-2539

Census Records

Census records are among the most important genealogical documents for placing your ancestor in a particular place at a specific time. Like BDM records, they can also lead you to other ancestors, particularly those who were living under the authority of the head of household.

Wisconsin Church Records

Church and synagogue records are a valuable resource, especially for baptisms, marriages, and burials that took place before 1900. You will need to at least have an idea of your ancestor’s religious denomination, and in most cases you will have to visit a brick and mortar establishment to view them.

Most church records are kept by the individual church, although in some denominations, records are placed in a regional archive or maintained at the diocesan level. Local Historical Societies are sometimes the repository for the state’s older church records. Below are links archives that maintain church records, as well as a few databases that can be viewed online.

The Family History Library contains many church records from a variety of denominations on microfilm.

McIntyre Library – Variety of Church records and Congregational histories dating from mid-19th century to present; includes; Lutheran, Episcopalian, Congregational, Catholic, Indian mission records, and more
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
Eau Claire WI 54702-4004
Reference Phone: 715-836-3858
Circulation Phone: 715-836-3856
FAX: 715-836-2949

Central Repositories for Denominational Records

  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons)
    • Early Mormon Church records for Wisconsin can be found on film located at the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City and can be searched via the Family History Library Catalog
    • The Church History Library has an even broader collection of historical church records than the Family History Library.
      Church History Library
      15 East North Temple
      Salt Lake City, Utah 84150-1600
      Phone: (801) 240-2272

Wisconsin Military Records

More than 40 million Americans have participated in some kind of war service since America was colonized. The chance of finding your ancestor amongst those records is exceptionally high. Military records can even reveal individuals who never actually served, such as those who registered for the two World Wars but were never called to duty.

  • Number of links to websites and archives that contain Wisconsin military records.
    • Wisconsin Historical Society - Large variety of records such as Muster Rolls, Service records, Draft Registrations, Pensions Indexes etc. covering the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War
      816 State Street
      Madison, WI 53706
      Tel: 608-264-6460
    • National Archives and Records Administration - World War I Draft Registration Cards
      Microfilm Roll List
      8601 Adelphi Road
      College Park, MD 20740-6001
      Toll free: 1-866-272-6272
    • US Department of Veterans Affairs Nationwide Gravesite Locator – includes information on veterans and their family members buried in veterans and military cemeteries having a government grave marker.

Wisconsin Cemetery Records

As convenient as it is to search cemetery records online, keep in mind that there are a few disadvantages over visiting a cemetery in person. They are:

  • Tombstone information is not always accurately transcribed
  • The arrangement of the graves in a cemetery can be crucial as family members are often buried next to each other or in the same grave. This arrangement is not always preserved in the alphabetical indexes that are found online.
  • Databases that can be searched online for Wisconsin Cemetery records
    • Wisconsin Tombstone Transcription Project - death and burial records
    • Wisconsin Historical Society - Records from Wisconsin public and private cemeteries, Guyant Collection of Tombstone Inscriptions; includes tombstone inscriptions copied from seventeen Wisconsin counties 816 State Street Madison, WI 53706 Tel: 608-264-6460
    • McIntyre Library – County cemetery records and transcriptions covering the entire state of Wisconsin University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Eau Claire WI 54702-4004 Reference Phone: 715-836-3858 Circulation Phone: 715-836-3856 FAX: 715-836-2949 EMail:
    • African American Cemeteries Online – African American, slave, and Native American cemetery records
    • Access Genealogy – database of Wisconsin cemetery record transcriptions
    • Find a Grave – over 100 million grave records can be searched on this site. Search can be conducted by name, location, or cemetery name.
    • - A free online database containing approximately 4 million cemetery records from around the world.
    • Billion Graves – as the name implies, you can search a billion records including headstone photos, transcriptions, cemetery records, and grave locations.

Wisconsin Obituaries

Obituaries can reveal a wealth about our ancestor and other relatives. You can search our Wisconsin Obituaries Listings from hundreds of Wisconsin newspapers online for free.

Wisconsin Wills and Probate Records

The documents found in a probate packet may include a complete inventory of a person’s estate, newspaper entries, witness testimony, a copy of a will, list of debtors and creditors, names of executors or trustees, names of heirs. They can not only tell you about the ancestor you’re currently researching, but lead to other ancestors.

University of Wisconsin at Green Bay – County Probate records, 1821-1976
UW-Green Bay, 2420 Nicolet Dr
Green Bay, WI 54311-7001
(920) 465-2539

McIntyre Library - County Probate records, 1854-1953
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
Eau Claire WI 54702-4004
Reference Phone: 715-836-3858
Circulation Phone: 715-836-3856
FAX: 715-836-2949

Family Search has the following indexes that can be searched online for free:
Wisconsin, Outagamie County Records, 1825-1980 Wisconsin, Probate Estate Files, 1848-1948

Wisconsin Immigration and Naturalization Records

The naturalization process generated many types of records, including petitions, declarations of intention, and oaths of allegiance. These records can provide family historians with information such as a person's birth date and place of birth, immigration year, marital status, spouse information, occupation, witnesses' names and addresses, and more.

If your ancestor lived in or near a large city, or near a city where U.S. courts convened, you may find naturalization records in the U.S. District Court before 1906.

Wisconsin naturalization records can be found in municipal, county, circuit, supreme, and United State territorial and district courts. Most naturalization records have been transferred from the Wisconsin court system to the Wisconsin Historical Society. Records from various jurisdictions have been brought together and are available for research at the Society's Area Research Centers.

Wisconsin Historical Society - North American Passenger Lists, 1565 - 1954; Customs Passenger Lists, 1891-1954; Immigration Passenger Lists, 1991-1954
816 State Street
Madison, WI 53706
Tel: 608-264-6460

University of Wisconsin at Green Bay – County Naturalizations, 1848 - 1984
UW-Green Bay, 2420 Nicolet Dr
Green Bay, WI 54311-7001
(920) 465-2539

US National Archives – Immigration records, Naturalization records, Ship’s Passenger lists
The National Archives and Records Administration
8601 Adelphi Road
College Park, MD 20740-6001
Tel: 1-866-272-6272; 1-86-NARA-NARAS

Wisconsin Native American Records

Missing Matriarchs – Resources for Researching Female Wisconsin Ancestors

Looking for female ancestors requires an adjustment of how we view traditional records sources. A woman’s identity was often under that of her husband, and often individual records for them can be difficult to locate. The following resources are effective in locating female ancestors in Wisconsin where traditional records may not reveal them.


  • On Wisconsin Women: Working for Their Rights From Settlement to Suffrage, Genevieve G. McBride (University of Wisconsin Press, 1994)
  • Searching for your Wisconsin Ancestors in Wisconsin Libraries, Betty Patterson (State Genealogical Society, 1977, 1987)
  • Sketches of Wisconsin Pioneer Women, Florence Chambers Dexheimer (W.D Hoard & Sons, 1925)
  • The Uncommon Lives of Common Women: The missing Half of Wisconsin History, Victoria Brown (Wisconsin Feminist Project Fund, 1975)
  • Dressing the Beds: Quilts and Coverlets from the Collection of the Milwaukee Public Museum, Donald Hoke, (The Museum, 1985)
  • Wisconsin Women in the War Between the States, Ethel Alice Hurn (Wisconsin History Commission, 1911)

Selected Resources for Wisconsin Women’s History

McIntyre Library
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
Eau Claire WI 54702-4004
Reference Phone: 715-836-3858
FAX: 715-836-2949

Wisconsin Historical Society
816 State Street
Madison, WI 53706
Tel: 608-264-6460

Common Wisconsin Surnames

The following surnames are among the most common in Wisconsin and are also being currently researched by other genealogists. If you find your surname here, there is a chance that some research has already been performed on your ancestor.

Adams, Allen, Amy, Anderson, Ann, Asheim, Atterberry, Bagley, Baker, Banks, Barlow, Barnett, Barngrover, Beck, Bennett, Benton, Betty, Bice, Bobb, Boner, Brockus, Brown, Brubaker, Bullock, Bunton, Call, Campbell, Carr, Carson, Carver, Casebolt, Cassady, Catharine, Cerka, Chaffin, Chase, Clark, Clarke, Clough, Compton, Converse, Cook, Couse, Crisman, Culp, Curtis, Dabney, Davis, Dean, Dooley, Doolin, Eastburn, Eckles, Edwards, Emily, Etcheson, Etheridge, Evans, Everett, Farlin, Faulconer, Fenton, Fergerson, Ferguson, Flasher, Francis, Fry, Galpin, Gay, Geiher, Gibson, Gjeide, Gooden, Goodwin, Gotham, Graham, Grim, Grimes, Hagin, Hancock, Hannah, Happle, Harbin, Harris, Hatch, Henderson, Hildreth, Hinderlighter, Holmes, Homer, Hopkins, Hopkirk, Howell, Jackson, Jenalee, Johnson, Julina, King, Kinnick, Knapp, Langdon, Leach, Lee, Lindsay, Little, Lyman, Malcom, March, Margaret, Marion, Martha, Martin, Mary, Matthews, McFarland, McMain, McMains, McNelly, Meier, Mercy, Merrit, Merritt, Meyer, Michener, Miller, Mock, Moore, Myers, Norton, Owens, Paulson, Peterson, Phillips, Pirtle, Raburn, Raybourn, Rayburn, Reavis, Rector, Reuter, Rheinhardt, Rhodes, Richardson, Riddle, Ring, Roberts, Rogers, Rortvedt, Ross, Rowell, Runyon, Russell, Rymes, Schnee, Scott, Sheek, Sheila, Shookman, Shropshire, Sigourney, Slate, Sluder, Small, Smart, Smith, Snider, Somerville, Stevenson, Stilley, Stookesberry, Stump, Todd, Turk, Vaetch, Vanderford, Vanlandingham, Vaughn, Wager, Walker, Weeks, West, Wheeler, White, Whitman, Wilson, Wright, York

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