Wisconsin: Commentary

Wisconsin Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

John H. Long, Editor; Peggy Tuck Sinko, Associate Editor; Gordon DenBoer, Historical Compiler; Douglas Knox, Book Digitizing Director; Emily Kelley, Research Associate; Laura Rico-Beck, GIS Specialist and Digital Compiler; Peter Siczewicz, ArcIMS Interactive Map Designer; Robert Will, Cartographic Assistant

Copyright The Newberry Library 2007

Between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River, the United States installed a succession of territorial governments for the lands formerly claimed by some of the original thirteen states on the basis of their colonial charters. The state of Wisconsin developed out of this network of federal territories. The area within present Wisconsin was claimed by Virginia under its colonial charter and was incorporated into Virginia’s Illinois County (1778–1784). After Virginia ceded its charter claims to the United States in 1784, the area of present Wisconsin was part of the Northwest Territory (1787–1800) and the territories of Indiana (1800–1809), Illinois (1809–1818), and Michigan (1818–1836). Wisconsin Territory (1836–1848) initially included all of present Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, as well as parts of North and South Dakota. The maps in this digital atlas show all of the state, territorial, and county configurations under these various jurisdictions.


Virtually all boundary changes in Wisconsin have been made by the successive legislatures that controlled the area. The Territorial Papers of the United States, which include acts passed by the territorial legislatures as well as decrees by territorial governors, are an indispensable source for tracing Wisconsin's territorial history. The session laws for Wisconsin Territory (1836–1848), Laws of the Territory of Wisconsin, and for the state of Wisconsin, Laws of Wisconsin, are available in most law libraries in printed volumes and in microform. These sources are supplemented by specialized collections cited in the citations and bibliography.

There are compilations of county creations and changes for a number of states, including one for Wisconsin, but they vary greatly in content and in accuracy. In Origin and Legislative History of County Boundaries in Wisconsin, produced by the Wisconsin Historical Records Survey in 1942, many boundary changes are summarized rather than transcribed as enacted, and a number of maps contain serious errors. That secondary compilation, therefore, is useful chiefly as a guide to the primary laws, proclamations, and decisions. Except for the Historical Atlas of Wisconsin (1878), which has detailed county maps and provides a good overview of each county's organization and early history, secondary works were of limited value in the compilation of this work.

Foundations of County Boundaries

Wisconsin's land was once part of the national public domain and, as such, it was divided for sale according to the federal rectangular survey system. Although the earliest county creations and boundary changes in present Wisconsin were based principally on river systems and extended arbitrary lines, lawmakers quickly recognized the utility of basing boundaries on the survey system, and the Wisconsin territorial legislature began incorporating range, township, and section lines into county boundary descriptions when it first started creating counties in 1836; the practice has continued to the present time.

The state constitution of 1848 (still in effect, as amended) stipulates that no county containing 900 square miles or less may be reduced in size without the approval of a majority of the county's legal voters (Article XIII, section 7). In 1857 the state supreme court cited this constitutional requirement in striking down an 1856 law that transferred the five southernmost townships of Dodge County to Jefferson County. The court noted that the transfer reduced Dodge from 900 to 720 square miles, and therefore the county was required to hold an election to win approval of the transfer, which it had failed to do.

The practice of submitting proposed boundary changes to the voters for approval began in 1846 when Milwaukee County voters approved the creation of Waukesha County, and at the same time Dodge and Jefferson County voters rejected creation of a new, unnamed county from their two counties. Since then the legislature has submitted some twenty proposed boundary changes to the voters. Most of the referenda were binding; that is, the proposed boundary change took effect only if the voters approved. One exception was the purely advisory referendum, when Iowa County voters were asked in 1846 if they wanted Iowa divided into Lafayette and Montgomery Counties. The voters approved, but the next year the legislature created only Lafayette County and retained the name of Iowa for the remainder of the original Iowa County. In 1850, in a binding referendum, Washington County voters rejected creation of another new county, named Tuskola.

In a few cases the referendum was part of a two-step process, as when Adams County voters approved the creation of Juneau County in a November 1855 referendum, and the legislature then officially created Juneau County, effective 1 January 1857. The creation of Green Lake County from Marquette County in 1858, and subsequent boundary adjustments, required four referenda. In April 1858, Marquette voters approved the creation of Green Lake County, with specified boundaries, but the next month the legislature repealed the act providing for that referendum, drew new boundaries, and again referred the question to the voters. Following a boundary change in 1860, the legislature later submitted proposed boundary changes to the voters of Green Lake and Marquette Counties in 1862 and 1865—both of which were rejected. Angry Shawano County residents blocked one scheduled referendum in 1883, when the legislature proposed transferring six and one-third townships from Shawano to Langlade County. Despite this disapproval by Shawano County voters, legislators again enacted the change at the next legislative session in 1885—this time without the referendum requirement.

Many counties were created in Wisconsin before there was adequate population to support them. The legislature therefore devised a system of attachments, whereby newly created counties were attached to fully operational counties, generally for judicial purposes only. In some cases, however, newly created counties went through a three-step process. Sheboygan and Manitowoc Counties, for example, were (1) created in 1836 and attached to Brown “for judicial purposes,” (2) organized “for all the purposes of county government” in 1839 (while remaining attached to Brown for judicial purposes), and (3) freed from their judicial attachments to Brown and made fully functioning counties in 1846 and 1848, respectively. In several instances, counties that were once fully functioning were attached (or reattached) to other counties for all county purposes or just for judicial purposes. All of these organizations and attachments are noted in the consolidated chronology and individual county chronologies of this atlas.

In the words of the state session laws, unorganized counties could be attached to fully organized counties for a variety of reasons, including “judicial purposes,” “county and judicial purposes,” “temporary purposes,” etc. While it is beyond the scope of this project to explain the precise meaning of each phrase at various points in time, the differences in terminology may be important to researchers. Therefore, when the purpose of the attachment is stated in the law, it is quoted (e.g., “for judicial purposes”) in both the consolidated chronology and the individual county chronologies.


Occasionally, through some oversight or error in the legislative process, townships or parts of townships were assigned to two adjoining counties. When Dodge and Portage Counties were created in 1836, the western part of Dodge overlapped the eastern part of Portage (an area eventually awarded to Dodge in 1838). Similarly, Fond du Lac and Marquette Counties overlapped each other when created in 1836, as did St. Croix and LaPointe (now Bayfield) following a boundary change in 1849. These "overlap areas” are mapped in the digital atlas so users can clearly identify the territory in question.

Just as the legislature created some overlaps through oversight or error, it also left several gaps between existing counties—areas that were not assigned to any county. In this digital atlas, such gores or unassigned areas are treated as non-county areas (rather than as remnants of the original county) at the time of the relevant boundary changes. For example, when Rock County was created from Milwaukee County in 1836, the five westernmost townships of present Rock and the five easternmost townships of present Green were left between Iowa and Milwaukee Counties, outside the bounds of any county. The legislature clearly intended to sever them from Milwaukee, and the compilers of this atlas have treated the townships as non-county area, rather than as remnants of Milwaukee County. In 1837 the five western townships became part of Green County; in 1838 the eastern five were added to Rock County, eliminating the non-county area. Each non-county area is assigned a number by the compiler and digitizer (e.g., Non-County Area 5). Numbers are assigned in chronological order and are simply a convenience to aid users in keeping track of different non-county areas.

In the 1850s the county affiliation of the five eastern townships of Portage County was unclear. The townships remained part of Winnebago County when Outagamie and Waupaca Counties were created from Brown and Winnebago Counties on 17 February 1851. On 27 February 1851 the legislature transferred the five townships to Portage County. However, in March 1855 the legislature authorized Winnebago residents to vote in their annual town meeting whether they wanted Winnebago County to retain the five townships; a week later the same legislators authorized residents of the townships to choose between Portage and Waupaca. Even though voters chose Waupaca County in an August 1855 referendum, the townships remained part of Portage. (The compilers have found no evidence that Winnebago County voters considered the matter.) From the available evidence, it appears that once the five townships were transferred from Winnebago County to Portage on 27 February 1851, they remained there ever since.

The present boundary between Green Lake and Marquette Counties deviates in two small places from the legal description. The discrepancy occurred in 1860, when a boundary adjustment between the two counties was demarcated differently from the description in the law. The boundary as demarcated is well known and has been accepted by area residents; it is mapped that way in this atlas.