Wisconsin Court Records
This entry was originally written by Dawn M. Knauft and Carol L. Maki in Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
The Northwest Ordinance provided a flexible framework of government that operated in the region until the Wisconsin Territory was formed in 1836. Government control over the area of Wisconsin was, however, minimal during the territorial periods. Civil law at the wilderness outposts of Prairie du Chien and Green Bay was difficult, if not impossible. Travel was dangerous, literate citizens were few and far between, and the upper Mississippi fur-trading frontier seemed somewhat capable of governing itself.
Beginning in the 1820s justices of the peace were appointed. Early records from Green Bay’s justices of the peace can be found in the Grignon, Lawe, and Porlier Papers (1712–1884) at the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Lewis Cass, who had been appointed governor of Michigan Territory in 1813, began making county divisions and announcing civil offices in 1818. The justice courts dealt with minor civil cases of $20 or less. County courts covered civil cases not to exceed $1,000 and noncapital criminal cases. The state supreme court, meeting annually in Detroit, had jurisdiction for larger civil cases, appeals from lower courts, and capital criminal cases. In the winter of 1822–23, a separate circuit court was established for the three western counties of Michigan Territory. The new court was, in effect, a supreme court. It was not given a title, however, and was generally called an “additional court.” Native Americans accused of crimes were not included in the jurisdiction of the court unless a white person was involved.
When Wisconsin Territory was created in 1836 the judicial system included a supreme court, district courts, probate courts, and justice of the peace courts, which were retained when statehood was attained in 1848. There were territorial courts in Green Bay, Prairie du Chien, and Mineral Point.
County Government in Wisconsin, vol. 2 (Madison, Wis.: Wisconsin Historical Records Survey, 1942), explains the creation, structure, and function of courts in Wisconsin. Probate and related files can be found in the county courts, while criminal and civil cases are in the circuit courts. Old court records are generally still located in the county’s courthouse or may be found at the appropriate Area Research Center of the Wisconsin Historical Society.