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
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


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.

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