Wisconsin Family History Research

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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
Wisconsin sil.png
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

History of Wisconsin

County Map of Wisconsin

Called the 'fairest portion of the Great West,' Wisconsin was first observed by Europeans in 1634. Late that summer a young but seasoned voyageur, Jean Nicolet, sent by New France administration in Canada, arrived at Red Banks on the Green Bay of Lake Michigan. He explored the area and returned to Canada to explain to Samuel de Champlain that he had not found the passage to China. In the spring and summer of 1673, Louis Joliet, a cartographer and explorer, Father Jacques Marquette, and five others made a journey that would greatly expand the French knowledge of this territory. The course of their canoes was guided by two Miami-nation guides down the Fox, Wisconsin, and Mississippi rivers. They traversed the Mississippi south to a Quapaw village near the present boundary of Arkansas and Louisiana.

Nicolas Perrot, born in France about 1644, and Toussaint Baudry, one of his partners in a trading company in New France (Canada), visited Green Bay in 1668 by invitation of the Potawatomi they had met in an earlier visit at Chequamegon Bay. Perrot, known as an expert in tribal diplomacy, visited many natives, creating valuable alliances with them. His influence with the Wisconsin tribes continued at least through 1698.

Jesuit Father Claude Allouez opened a mission in 1669 in what is now Brown County. The mission became a major point in the French fur-trading empire until it was closed in 1728. Fort Francis, built on the Fox River in 1717, was rebuilt by the British as Fort Edward Augustus, establishing their presence in the area in 1763. Charles de Langlade and his family arrived at Green Bay in 1765, establishing the first permanent white settlement in Wisconsin.

The Treaty of Paris in 1783 put Wisconsin under U.S. control, although in actuality the British remained in command of the area. Four years later, Wisconsin was included in the newly organized Northwest Territory and in 1800 was included in Indiana Territory. When Michigan Territory was created in 1805, Wisconsin remained in Indiana Territory. On 3 February 1809, Wisconsin, except for the Door County Peninsula, became part of Illinois Territory. Nine years later Illinois became a state, and Wisconsin was redefined as Michigan Territory. Wisconsin became a territory in 1836 and a state in 1848.

Just two years after statehood, the population of Wisconsin had reached over 300,000. The ratio of American-born to foreign-born was two to one, with immigrants' birthplaces being Canada, England, Switzerland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, the Netherlands, and Norway. Approximately one-fifth of the American-born were Wisconsin-born, and most were children. The migrants came from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, New England, New York, the Mid-Atlantic, and the South. New Yorkers numbered about 68,600 in Wisconsin in 1850 (see Smith in Background Sources for Wisconsin).

A few generalizations are important in researching immigrant or migrant Wisconsin ancestors. Most of them traveled directly from their home state or their port of debarkation. Some Germans and some Dutch stayed temporarily in the east for financial reasons, and the Irish often took years to work their way west from the east coast or Canada. Those from New York, Pennsylvania, and New England traditionally made the journey in stages, as indicated by birth records for their children who may be found from the Northeast through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.