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Wisconsin Genealogy Resources

Court Records

The Northwest Ordinance provided a flexible framework of government that operated in the region until the Wisconsin Territory was formed in 1836. Government over the area of Wisconsin was, however, minimal during the territorial periods. Civil law at the wilderness outposts of Prairie du Chien and Green Bay was difficult, if not impossible. Travel was dangerous, literate citizens were few and far between, and the upper Mississippi fur-trading frontier seemed somewhat capable of governing itself.

Beginning in the 1820s justices of the peace were appointed. Early records from Green Bay's justices of the peace can be found in the Grignon, Lawe, and Porlier Papers (1712-1884) at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Lewis Cass, who had been appointed governor of Michigan Territory in 1813, began making county divisions and announcing civil offices in 1818. The justice courts dealt with minor civil cases of $20 or less. County courts covered civil cases not to exceed $1,000 and non capital criminal cases. The state supreme court, meeting annually in Detroit, had jurisdiction for larger civil cases, appeals from lower courts, and capital criminal cases. In the winter of 1822-23, a separate circuit court was established for three western counties of Michigan Territory. The new court was, in effect, a supreme court. It was not given a title, however, and was generally called an "additional court." Native Americans accused of crimes were not included in the jurisdiction of the court unless a white person was involved.

When Wisconsin Territory was created in 1836 the judicial system included a supreme court, district courts, probate courts, and justice of the peace courts, which were retained when statehood was attained in 1848. There were territorial courts in Green Bay, Prairie du Chien, and Mineral Point.

County Government in Wisconsin, vol. 2. Madison, Wisconsin: Wisconsin Historical Records Survey, 1942, explains the creation, structure, and function of courts in Wisconsin.

Probate and related files can be found in the county courts, while criminal and civil cases are in the circuit courts. Old court records are generally located in the county's courthouse or may be found at the appropriate Area Research Center of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Wisconsin Court Records - Court records include probate records (which include wills), guardianship, naturalization, and a wide variety of other sources, ranging from criminal trials to simple road orders. All contain information about individuals within the area.

It should also be remembered that there are different levels of jurisdiction for courts in the United States, all of which should be considered for research under various circumstances. Court of Common Pleas, Orphan's Court, Probate Court, District Court, Superior Court, Supreme Court, and other titles are among those encountered.

To study more about court records in general, see "Research in Court Records," by Arlene H. Eakle, In: Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, editors. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, Rev. ed. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1997.

Because the interest in genealogy has burdened many courthouses with many requests and have crowded their work areas with genealogists, some counties have microfilmed their records and have made them available in libraries and/or Area Research Centers.

Many courthouse records are also being microfilmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah of the LDS Church and are available at their Family History Centers.

The Vital Records Section, Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services, has birth, marriage, divorce and death records for the entire state. As Wisconsin did not require civil registrations until October 1907, the earlier records are incomplete. The Wisconsin State Genealogical Society micro-processed the entire collection of the Vital Records Section. The entire collection is available at the SHSW Library and partial holdings are owned by larger public libraries. The Area Research Centers have the microfilms for their designated counties. The index is on microfiche and the actual records are on microfilm.

In Wisconsin, the vital records and land records are kept in the Register of Deeds Office; the Probate records, including wills, are housed in the Register in Probate Office; and the naturalization and all other court records are kept in the Clerk of Courts Office. Many of these early court records have been transferred to the Area Research Centers.

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