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Wisconsin is a public-domain ("Federal-Land") state where unclaimed land was surveyed, then granted or sold by the government through federal and state land offices. The first sale of a piece of land from the government was called a land patent and the first owner of the land was called a patentee. Later, when the land was sold or mortgaged by private owners, the document was called a deed. The first federal and state transactions were recorded and the paperwork kept at the federal and state level, while all future transactions were recorded at the office of the county register of deeds. Family History researchers usually use land records from county offices, however, records from federal and state offices may also have genealogical value. For detailed descriptions of land record types see United States Land and Property.
If you are new to land research, you may wish to read the Beginner’s corner and other articles included on the United States Land and Property page.
The year 1834 was a good year for acquiring land in Wisconsin. In June, Congress approved two new land districts; the Green Bay district which was east of a line from the northern boundary of Illinois to the Wisconsin River, and the Wisconsin land district which was west of this boundary. By November 1834, the first land offices in Wisconsin opened in Mineral Point, Iowa county, and Green Bay, followed by Milwaukee in 1836. Even before land was opened, licenses to mine were issued as early as 1822. This was because of the abundant lead in Wisconsin and the need for ammunition. The struggle for ownership of land between the native Indians of the area and settlers ended in a grim massacre of Indians in 1832 which prompted many of the native Indians to give up their lands and leave the state. Soon after this, the land was flooded by immigrants from Britain, Scandinavia, Germany and Switzerland as well as lead miners, and they along with other early settlers may have applied for government land, homestead land or mining claims. All of these records should be searched because the information found in the early applications may contain valuable information regarding ancestors.
Fur trading was the main attraction to the Wisconsin area prior to statehood. Even though Wisconsin became a territory of the United States in 1783, it remained somewhat in control of the English until after the War of 1812. It was around this time that fur trading shifted to lead mining; one reason was because of the need for ammunition. The hope of gaining wealth through mining attracted many immigrants, and this along with the increase of other settlers eventually led to Wisconsin's statehood in 1846.
Kaskaskia and Cahokiawere important early Indian and French settlements. Their records include the Cahokia books which is included in the Raymond H. Hammes collection maintained at the Illinois State archives. This collection is valuable in that it contains early land and historical records from Kaskaskia in Randolph county, Illinois and settlements along the Mississippi River, including the Cahokia settlement in St. Clair county, which at the time covered a large portion of present-day Illinois as well as Prairie du Chien which was and is in present-day Crawford county, Wisconsin.
- The early land office records are at:
Commissioner of Public Lands
127 West Washington Avenue
Madison, WI 53703.
- The early land office records are at:
- Hammes, Raymond H. Cahokia books B and C, land records (1800-1820) and historical material (ca. 1671-1819)-, 1671-1820 Salt Lake City, Utah : Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1988. FHL Collection, film 1543598 item 1. Both books B and C include historical documents and transcriptions. Book B includes a historical chronology of events, 1671-1818. Includes general indexes with each book.
- Land records: AL, AR, FL, LA, MI, MN, OH, WI, 1790-1907 [S.I.]:Broderbund, c1996. FHL Collection, CD-ROM no. 9 pt. 255. Summary: Records show who obtained what land from the U.S. Government and when. Source documents include homesteads, chas sales, warrants, private land claims, swamp lists, state selections and railroad lists. Records included may not be comprehensive for the time and region covered.
- Ainsworth, Fern Private land claims, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin [Natchitoches, Louisiana : F. Ainsworth, 198-?] FHL Collection, book 977 R2a. This book contains a private land claims docket index for the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin.
- The Territorial papers of the United States; the territory of Wisconsin, 1836-1848 : a microfilm supplement Washington, District of Columbia:National Archives and Records Administration, 1959. 122 microfilm rolls beginning with film 1601731, FHL Collection. Each roll has a list of materials on the rolls in the series. The targets for the maps give an explanation of the maps. Letters and journals have an arrow which points at Wisconsin material. Dates noted are for the roll and are not necessarily in that order.
- Wisconsin, State Historical Society. Wisconsin Domesday book, town studies. [Madison:State Historical Society of Wisconsin], c1924-(Minasha, Wisconsin:George Santa Pub. Co.) FHL Collection, book 977.5 E3w. Includes index.
Government Land Transfers
When the area that is now Wisconsin became part of the United States, a few prior land claims by early pioneers were settled in the courts, though most of the land was unclaimed. This unclaimed land became the public domain, was surveyed, and then sold through land offices with the first land office established at Mineral point in 1834. Since Wisconsin was a Federal land state, the land was divided into townships (36 square miles), range, and section (one square mile within the township). The paperwork involved with these Federal land purchases are contained in a case file held at the National Archives. In order to obtain the case file, a legal description of the land is needed which may be found in a deed, plat map, tract book, or patent books. To learn how to obtain this land description, see the wiki article under United States Land and Property - Federal Land - Obtaining a Legal Description of the Land.
- The Bureau of Land Management and General Land Office (BLM-GLO) has an on line Land Patent Search which is an index to millions of ancestors named in federal land patents and warrants from 1788 to the 1960’s located at the National Archives. This is the best place to begin when searching for a land patent because of the ease of navigation when searching for an ancestor. This internet web site also provides many images of patents.
- United States. Bureau of Land Management. Card Files. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Land Management, 19—. On 160 Family History Library films beginning with film 1501522,FHL Collection. Each card contains the following information: Certificate number District Land Office Kind of entry (cash, credit, warrant, etc.) Name of patentee and county of origin Land description Number of acres Date of patent Volume and page where document can be located . Because these index cards are arranged by township and range within each state, the researcher will need to already have an approximate legal description in order to access these cards.
Wisconsin uses the rectangular land survey system of section, township, and range.The townships were six-mile square blocks of land, divided into 36 one-mile squares called sections. The township was numbered north and south, starting from the center line, and the range was numbered east and west starting from the center line.
Two different surveys were done resulting in two number sequences. Land east of the Mississippi River was part of the Northwest Territory. Townships in that area of Minnesota are numbered between 22 and 70 north of the (Galena, Illinois) base line. Ranges run east or west of the 4th principal meridian. Land west of the Mississippi River was part the Louisiana Purchase. Townships in that area are numbered between 101 and 164 north of the (Clarendon, Arkansas) base line. Ranges are counted west from the 5th principal meridian. The Bureau of Land Management has an index and digital images of the original survey maps for Minnesota. The original survey creates land boundaries and marks them for the first time.
- Maps showing these surveys are included in:
Andriot, Jay. Township Atlas of the United States. McLean, Virginia: Documents Index, 1991. FHL Collection, book 973 E7an 1991. This book is arranged alphabetically by state.
- Commissioner of Public Lands, 127 West Washington Avenue, Madison, Wisconsin 53703. On line: Original Field Notes and Plat Maps, 1833 - 1866, and Resurvey Maps 1858-2009
- United States. Department of the Interior. Bureau of Land Management. Wisconsin, 1820–1908 Cash and Homestead Entries, Cadastral Survey Plats. Version 7.3. Springfield, Virginia: BLM Eastern States, 1994. FHL Collection, CD-ROM no. 38 supp. Not available at Family History Centers. These records are patents issued by the federal government. Researchers can search for information about land titles through any one of six categories: land description, patentee name, patent authority, land office, certificate number, or county.
Tract and Plat Books
Tract books may also serve as indexes to the case files. They are arranged geographically by township and range, so you have to have some idea of the legal description of the land where your ancestor lived to be able to use them. Some legal land descriptions are included in county records.
- The Wisconsin Historical Society Library has some county maps, land atlases, and plat books
- United States. Bureau of Land Management. Tract Books. Washington DC: Records Improvement, Bureau of Land Management, 1957. (The Family History Library films for Minnesota are 1445629–76. FHL Collection Use the Author/Title Search of the microfiche catalog to find film numbers. The tract books devote a page or so to each land section in a township. They list the name of the first owner of each quarter section or the certificate number or both.
- United States. Bureau of Land Management. Tract Books. Washington, D.C.: Records Improvement, Bureau of Land Management, 1957. On 1,265 Family History Library films beginning with 1445277 FHL Collection.
- Microfilm copies of the tract books and township plats of the Wisconsin land offices are available at the Family History Library. Plat books for counties in Wisconsin are listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
- [name of county], Wisconsin – Land and Property
When federal land was finally transferred to private individuals, it was said to be patented.
- The actual patents may be found on line at the Bureau of Land Management - General Land Office web site (BLM-GLO) as indicated in the section on indexes. They may also be found at the following office:
- Bureau of Land Management Eastern States Office
7450 Boston Boulevard
Springfield, VA 22153
- Bureau of Land Management Eastern States Office
Land Entry Case Files
Also known as Land Entry Files or Patent Files, the case file is the accumulation of paperwork gathered during the land transactions which occurred when the land is transferred from the U.S. Government to private ownership and are kept at the National Archives in Washington D.C. These documents are the most helpful records for researchers because some files contain valuable information and may include personal or family information, such as military discharge papers, proof of citizenship, former residences, birthplaces and more. While not all files have pertinent information for the researcher, they are often worth obtaining. For further information regarding case files and how to order them, you will want to read the article Locating the Land and it's Associated Records at the United States Land and Property wiki page. The physical address of where the records are kept at the National Archives is as follows:
- Old Military Civil Records Branch
National Archives and Records Administration
7th and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20408
- Old Military Civil Records Branch
To obtain copies of a case file you will need the following information which may be found in the land patent records indexed at the BLM-GLO web site:
- Name of the purchaser
- State where the land was purchased.
- Name of the land office.
- Type of certificate (homestead, cash, bounty-land warrant, mining, timberland etc.)
- Certificate number or patent number
Individual Land Transfers
After land was transferred to private ownership, all subsequent transactions, including deeds and mortgages, were recorded by the register of deeds and are generally kept at the county courthouse. These records usually date back to the time of the county's organization and frequently have grantor (seller) and grantee (buyer) indexes. Many of the county indexes and deeds are on microfilm at the Family History Library. For example, the library has copies of Milwaukee County mortgage records and indexes (1836-1916) on 103 microfilms and Dane County deeds (1883-1886) and indexes (1835-1915) on 87 films.
- Land records for Wisconsin are listed in the Family History Library catalog Family History Library Catalog Place Search under:
- WISCONSIN - LAND AND PROPERTY
- WISCONSIN, [COUNTY], - LAND AND PROPERTY.
- The Office of the Secretary of State of the State of Wisconsin has a deed search for the grantor of a deed.
A wiki article describing an online collection is found at: