Tracking Your Past

Doris Green

When several boxes of archival materials came to light in my local township, they sparked interest among family historians. Brightly colored quarantine placards for typhoid fever, poliomylitis, scarlet fever, whooping cough and small pox caught our attention now, as they were designed to do 70 years ago. Property tax assessment rolls dating to 1912 got us thinking about their value to genealogists. Reasonably reliable, tax records can help trace residences along with U.S. census reports.
With the 2020 U.S. Census looming and the 1950 census set to be released in 2022, genealogists are more aware than ever of the knowledge these records contain. But what about the years between one census and the next? Fortunately, sources exist to fill these gaps.
Property tax rolls are generally available through the county treasurer’s office. The UW-Platteville Southwest Wisconsin Archives and Area History Center also holds some River Valley tax records on microfilm, as does the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison. (Search the UW-Madison Libraries catalog at https://www.library.wisc.edu/ to find records at both locations.)
Besides location, tax valuations can indicate new buildings and improvements on a property. Additional lists of taxpayers and overdue tax payments can sometimes be found in newspaper articles.
Other resources—for instance, birth, death, and marriage records—can place an ancestor in a specific location at a specific time. If your ancestors resided in cities that published city directories, these can yield information about family relationships and employment, as well as location. If your ancestors lived on a farm, the Wisconsin Agricultural Censuses of 1885, 1895 and 1905 may provide useful mid-decade details about animals and crops raised in the years before Wisconsin became the Dairy State.
Wills and probate records can provide information about an ancestor’s death and illnesses, heirs, inventory of property, value of possessions and debts. Other court records may reveal stories about accidents, misdeeds and more. You can begin your search online but may need to visit the county courthouse in person. Recent Wisconsin records are available at http://wcca.wicourts.gov/index.xsl. Older records may be available at the office of the county Register in Probate or the State Historical Society, www.wisconsinhistory.org.
Plat maps may also be helpful and reveal the identity of neighbors or how an ancestor’s holdings increased or decreased over time. Thanks to studying local maps, more than one family historian has learned that a nearby neighbor was actually a lost ancestor, or that over several years a farm grew to reach a river or a roadway.

Doris Green authored “Elsie’s Story: Chasing a Family Mystery” and “Wisconsin Underground: A Guide to Cave, Mines, and Tunnels In and Around the Badger State.” Both are available from http://henschelhausbooks.com, Amazon or your bookstore. Contact Doris at https://dorisgreenbooks.com.