Ethnic Groups of Wisconsin

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This entry was originally written by Dawn M. Knauft and Carol L. Maki in Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
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the Wisconsin Family History Research series.
History of Wisconsin
Wisconsin Vital Records
Census Records for Wisconsin
Background Sources for Wisconsin
Wisconsin Maps
Wisconsin Land Records
Wisconsin Probate Records
Wisconsin Court Records
Wisconsin Tax Records
Wisconsin Cemetery Records
Wisconsin Church Records
Wisconsin Military Records
Wisconsin Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
Wisconsin Archives, Libraries, and Societies
Wisconsin Naturalization
African Americans of Wisconsin
Wisconsin County Resources
Map of Wisconsin

African American

Records indicate, according to Zachary Cooper in Black Settlers in Rural Wisconsin (Madison, Wis.: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1977), that African Americans were in Wisconsin as early as the 1700s serving as trappers, guides, boatmen, and interpreters to the French voyageurs and fur traders. Southerners from Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina who migrated to Wisconsin during the territorial period settled in the lead-mining, southwestern counties of Grant and Iowa, some bringing their slaves. African Americans also came as slaves to military personnel or immigrated as freemen or runaway slaves. In 1840 Wisconsin Territory counted 185 free African Americans and eleven slaves. Ten years later there were 635 free African Americans and no slaves counted.

The numbers from that 1840 census exemplify the state's position on slavery. The first abolitionist society was formed in Racine County in 1840, followed by the publication of the anti-slavery newspaper, Wisconsin Aegis, in 1843. African Americans from the South were assisted in the 1850s through the 'underground railroad' of Wisconsin to freedom in Canada. In 1857 the legislature passed a 'personal liberty law.'

The Wisconsin Black Historical Museum, 2620 W. Center St., Milwaukee, WI 53206, is collecting museum artifacts, photographs, papers, and books related to Wisconsin's African-American population, especially from rural areas.

For additional information see:

Clark, James I. '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.

Danky, James P., ed. African American Newspapers and Periodicals: A National Bibliography. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Davidson, John Nelson. Negro Slavery in Wisconsin and the Underground Railroad. No. 18. Milwaukee, Wis.: Parkman Club Publications, 1897.

Gilson, Norman Shepard. 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.

Native American

When Jean Nicolet landed at the Red Banks of Lake Michigan in 1634, he would have been met by the Winnebago tribe, which lived in large numbers in the Green Bay region. The Native Americans in the seventeenth century included the Sioux, Potawatomi, Sauk, Fox, Mascouten, Miami, Kickapoo, Huron, and Ottawa. In the early nineteenth century, the removal and containment of the natives began its deceptive chronicle. In some cases, land vacated by one tribe was occupied by another, resulting in two treaties on one parcel of land, requiring at times the repurchase of the same land.

There were eleven treaties between 1829 and 1848 with the Native Americans of Wisconsin. The Kickapoo, Winnebago, and Potawatomi migrated to Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Mexico after surrendering all their land except for their reservations. The Menominee nation remained in Wisconsin, as did a few Potawatomi and many Chippewa.

In 1984 there were six Chippewa reservations in northern Wisconsin, a group of Potawatomi on federal trust tribal land in Forest County, and a Menominee reservation in Menominee County. The Stockbridge-Munsee reservation is in Shawano County, and the Brotherton tribe has been assimilated into this group. The Oneida reservation lies in Brown and Outagamie counties. The Wisconsin Winnebago, unlike those removed to a reservation in Nebraska, live in tribal settlements and scattered tracts of land across the state. For further information refer to Stewart Rafert, 'American-Indian Genealogical Research in the Midwest: Resources and Perspectives,' National Genealogical Society Quarterly 76 (September 1988): 212-24. This excellent and informative article identifies pertinent local and county level records, extensive federal documentation, and miscellaneous resources.

A search of the county court records could be useful. Many Native Americans tried to sue those settlers who they believed had unjustly acquired their Indian land allotments. Probate files may contain guardianship records. National Archives collections of treaties and annuity rolls are of utmost importance (see pages 11-12).

Also see Philip C. Bantin, Guide to Catholic Indian Mission and School Records in Midwest Repositories (Milwaukee, Wis.: Marquette University Libraries, Department of Special Collections and University Archives, 1984); Nancy Oestreich Lurie, Wisconsin Indians (Revised. Madison, Wis.: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 2002); William C. Sturtevant, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15, 'The Northeast' (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978'1998) and Patty Loew, Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal (Madison, Wis.: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2001).

The Wisconsin Historical Society has the largest collection in the United States of Native American newspapers and periodicals. Refer to James P. Danky, Native American Periodicals and Newspapers, 1828'1982: Bibliography, Publishing Record and Holdings (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984).

Other Ethnic Groups

French-Canadians were the earliest European immigrants in Wisconsin. They had crossed the border as fur traders and military personnel, settling in Prairie du Chien, Green Bay, and points west, marrying into the native families. Later French-Canadian immigrants came to the state with the lumber industry, and many migrated from previous homes in New York state. There were also numerous Canadian immigrants who were neither of French descent nor from Quebec. Many came from Ontario and the Atlantic provinces.

In 1850 there were over 21,000 Irish living in Wisconsin. The Irish were the largest English-speaking foreign-born group in the state. Their population was spread across the southern counties, with the largest number in Milwaukee County and a sizable number in the lead-mining county of Lafayette. The English also settled in the southern counties, coming to the lead region as early as 1827. Colonies of English settlers were established in Racine, Columbia, and Dane counties. The Scots settled, although not in great numbers, in the southern and eastern sections of the state; the Welsh immigrated to Wisconsin in the 1840s and 1850s. The German influx began in the late 1830s, the first German colony of 800 (possibly an exaggerated number) landing in Milwaukee in 1839. By 1850 first-generation Germans constituted about 12 percent of the state population. The government had actively sought German immigrants, beginning in the 1840s, by distributing leaflets in Germany's coastal areas. Later they established, via an 1852 law, a commissioner of immigration to live in New York and promote Wisconsin's advantages. In 1854 a branch office was established in Quebec, although German immigration through that port was small. However, it was the letters sent from Wisconsin to Germany by the first settlers that actually stimulated the continued immigration to Wisconsin. Many of the letters, telling of good available land and the freedom to prosper, were published in Germany.

Although there were not large numbers of Norwegians in Wisconsin compared to Germans, two-thirds of all Norwegians in the United States in 1850 resided in Wisconsin. Most of the Dutch who had immigrated early to Wisconsin, lived in Sheboygan, Brown, and Milwaukee counties. A few Swiss were in the state as early as 1834 but came in larger numbers in the 1840s. The village of New Glarus in Green County still maintains the Swiss heritage of the original settlers in 1845. Danish immigrants to Wisconsin settled in Winnebago, Racine, and Dane counties prior to 1870. Icelanders settled on Washington Island in Door County in the early 1870s. From 1870 through 1920 there was immigration from Poland to Wisconsin, and by the 1890s Russians made their way to this Midwest state. Finns and Italians arrived after 1900 as did Russian Jews who relocated to Milwaukee in 1910 and 1911.

Sources for ethnic study in Wisconsin include the following centers and publications:

The Vesterheim Genealogical Center, 415 W. Main St., Madison, WI 53703 is a division of the Norwegian-American Museum of Decorah, Iowa. The collection holds 800 Norwegian local histories, over 4,000 reels of microfilmed church records, 1,800 family histories, immigrant lists, passport records, and more. Some records are available on microfilm on interlibrary loan. The center acts as a clearinghouse for Norwegian-American research.

The Wisconsin Historical Society holds the Rasmus B. Anderson papers (1841'1931), fifty-five boxes of family and personal papers.

The University of Wisconsin Memorial Library at Madison has extensive material on Norwegian local history and United Kingdom research.

The Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies holds material on German-speaking immigrants and their descendants. It is located on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The institute holds conferences and publishes books on German Americans and maintains a library of material on the subject.

The Irish Emigration Library located at the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center, 2133 W. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53233 has a small but growing collection of resources. Included are Griffith's Valuation and one of the two copies of the microfilm index to sub-denominations (hard-to-find place-names) in the six-inch Maps of Ireland. See also:

Rippley, La Vern J. The Immigrant Experience in Wisconsin. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1985.