How to Research Family History | Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

Getting Started Researching Your Family History

How to Research Family History | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeBlack and white illustration of the Ames-Angier Family Tree.

Ames-Angier Family Tree

Drawing of Ames-Angier family tree of North Easton, Massachusetts, 1560-1937. View the original source document: WHI 50491

Researching your family history is a challenging, exciting and rewarding endeavor. Before you begin, have a plan in place for organizing your information. By having names and dates at your fingertips, you'll be able to quickly determine if an item you find relates to your family.

Build Your Family Tree in Stages

There are many ways to conduct family history research. And many websites offer instruction. As a broad overview, we recommend building your family tree in three stages:

  1. Stage 1 -  Build the foundation of your tree

    Use the resources below to find the core information about your ancestors that will create the foundation of your genealogical research. They often contain clues that will point you to other resources to investigate.

    Census records, birth records, marriage records, death records, newspaper clippings, obituaries.

  2. Stage 2 – Research what other people have already written

    Once you have gathered the core information about your ancestors, the next step is to add context by researching what others have written about communities and the families in them. Many of these sources are available to read both online and in our Library.

    Local and county histories, books of family histories.

  3. Stage 3 – Fill out your family's story with other resources

    At this stage, you are ready to fill out the stories of your ancestors by researching these family history resources.

    Cemetery records, passenger lists, naturalization records.

Be Efficient with Your Time - Search Online First

Before making a trip to the Society, first see what you can find online. After searching the Society's resources, search the websites of other organizations offering genealogical information.

  • Search All Items in Family History Resources
    Search over three million records of the following types: birth, death and marriage record indexes; newspaper clippings; visual materials; property listings for the National Register and State Register of Historic Places properties as well as for the Wisconsin Architecture and History Inventory (AHI).

When you find an item that you think might be about an ancestor, print out the detail page for your records. Keep in mind that our online resources represent only a small portion of our vast family history collections, however, they offer an excellent place to start your research. 

Search other Society Online Resources

Click on the links below to learn more about each resource. All have online materials for viewing, plus many more physical materials in the Society's Library and Archives.

Search Other Genealogy Websites

Numerous websites offer access to genealogical information. Some are free, most are not. Remember to print out the detail page when you find an item that you think might be about an ancestor.

Here are some websites that may be helpful. A note about You can search from home with a subscription, or go to your local library to search the Ancestry Library Edition for free.

Record TypeHelpful Family History Research Websites
Family HistoriesGoogle
Land Ownership (patents) (maps)
Military Records
Vital Records (indexes)

Next, Visit the Wisconsin Historical Society

The Society's Library in Madison, Wisconsin, has hundreds of family history resources. Our staff of experts is available to help you with any challenges, questions, or "brick walls" you may have. In addition, the bright, airy, 5,568 square-feet, 2-story high Library Reading Room offers you a comfortable place to do your research.

Here are the kinds of things you can do during a family history research visit.

ResourceWhat it Offers
View Vital Records on MicrofilmSearch the vital records online index, print the index page containing the information about your ancestor, and then view the actual record on microfilm.

Learn more about our Pre-1907 Wisconsin Vital Records.
Study Census RecordsMost North American censuses are available on Library Edition, which is available free in our Library.

Learn more about our Census Records. Or see Census Records Research Tips.
Explore Community and County HistoriesCounty histories include pioneer recollections, biographical sketches and other local data not recorded anywhere else.

Learn more about our Local and County Histories Collection. Or see our Local and County Histories Research Tips.
Scroll through Newspapers on MicrofilmNewspapers are a good source for obituaries and other family news and events. The Society owns newspapers from the 17th century to the present for over 1,600 Wisconsin newspapers and 2,500 out-of-state newspapers.

Learn more about our Newspaper Collections. Or see Newspaper Research Tips for Family History.
Read Family HistoriesFamily histories include stories along with names, dates and places of our ancestors over many generations. The Society owns more than 40,000 compiled family histories, available in both the open book stacks and the pamphlet collection.

Learn more about our Books of Family Histories Collections. Or see Family Histories Books Research Tips.
Dig into Cemetery RecordsCheck documents that list where ancestors are buried.

Learn more about our Cemetery Records. Or see Cemetery Records Research Tips.
Examine Immigration RecordsPassenger lists and naturalization records reveal our ancestors' immigrant experiences.

Learn more about our Immigration Records. Or see Passenger Lists Research Tips and Naturalization Records Research Tips.
Investigate Land Ownership Maps and AtlasesLand ownership maps and atlases show who owned what parcels of land and the names of their neighbors.

Learn more about our Land Ownership Maps and Atlases of Wisconsin. Or see Land Ownership Maps and Atlases Research Tips (to come).
Research Military RecordsSubstantial documentation on military activities, wars, the domestic impact of military actions, and the service and experiences of individual soldiers.

Learn more about our Military Records (to come). Or see Military Records Research Tips (to come).

Finally, Visit Other Organizations that Keep Records

PlaceWhat it Offers
Public LibrariesCounty histories, family histories, newspapers
County CourthousesVital records, land ownership records, court records, tax records
Local ChurchesChurch records, cemetery records
Cemetery CaretakersCemetery records
Village HallsCemetery records
National ArchivesMilitary records

Learn More

Offered in the spring and fall of each year, programs are geared to all levels of experience and offer something for everyone, from beginners to veterans. Register early – space is limited.

See more articles about researching your family history.

Have Questions?

Contact our Library and Archives staff by email.