The Genealogist and the Courthouse

Using Wisconsin and Michigan UP Courthouses For Genealogy

by Jim Harrington

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These Web pages will tell you know how to get at the information in vital records at courthouses in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and what you can expect when you visit a courthouse. Through this page, you can also get at some interesting statistics on vital records you will find hard to come by elsewhere. Follow this link to the site map for a listing of everything you can find here.

On this page:

Why Use Vital Records?

Vital records are the official records of births, marriages, and deaths which are created shortly after the event occurs. Other reports of information are more likely to be influenced by vagaries of personal recollection or even filtered through "rose-colored glasses," so to speak - an event someone doesn't want to remember as it actually occurred or have remembered by others that way may be reported in a fictional manner elsewhere or not even reported - but the vital records give "unadulterated truth," and state laws govern the gathering of the information. Ironically, vital records have their own flaws because, after all, they are ultimately recorded by human beings and can only report information that was provided by human beings, and so it is best to corroborate them from additional sources when possible. However, the people recording vital record information have no personal interest whatsoever in the specific facts of an event, and so although they may make a human error while recording the facts, they will not intentionally distort what happened. It's "Give me the facts, and only the facts, ma'am" when vital record information is collected and recorded.

In addition, the essential facts are usually recorded very shortly after an event before memories start to play their tricks, and every attempt is made to gather the information from people who should be the most reliable sources of information possible. Birth certificate information usually comes from the mother or father, with the facts of the birth itself coming from the physician or other person who attended the birth. Marriage certificate information comes from the bride and groom, with a minister or justice providing the date and place and veracity that the marriage was performed in accordance with the laws of the state. Death certificate information comes from several sources. Information pertinant to the life of the deceased usually comes from the next-of-kin - the spouse or, if there is none, usually a son or daughter or parent. If there is no next-of-kin, the information is supposed to come from the best existing source, a close friend or hospital records for which the deceased themself provided the information. Information on cause of death is provided by a physician. Information on the burial is provided by the funeral service licensee.

The people collecting the information - not usually the same people who make the final record - also are duty bound to provide truthful data rather than fabricated data, and it would be a rare case indeed were one of those individuals to knowingly and intentionally record something that was not true. They might skimp on delving deeply into the facts on occasion, but they would not knowingly distort as that would be, in fact, a criminal act.

These aspects of vital record creation make the basic facts especially believable. If a vital record says a person is dead, he or she is really dead except in the most unusual case of misidentification of a body, the misidentification never being discovered; and if it says the person died on such-and-such a date, that's an awfully strong indication that that's when the person did die. If a marriage is recorded to have occurred at a certain place, then it's pretty safe to assume that it actually took place there rather than somewhere else; and if the marriage certificate says it is the groom's first marriage but the bride was married once previously, those can normally safely be regarded as facts, and only contradicting proof provided by another vital record or ecclesiastical record or a story from the family telling of a reason for keeping a prior marriage secret from public records would be enough reason to cause serious doubt. Birth records, of course, are not recorded unless there actually was a birth, and the parents can be expected to have the names provided in the birth record.

Another reason to hunt up vital records is the quantity of information they contain. Depending on the time and place of their creation, all sorts of information of great interest to a genealogist will be found. For most of the twentieth century, birth records contained far more relevant information than just the names and birthplaces of the parents and time and date of birth. Marriage certificates contained much more than names of bride and groom and date and place of marriage. Death certificates provide all sorts of information beyond details of the death. If you obtain a death date from an obituary and do not follow that up by obtaining a copy of the death certificate, you may be passing up an opportunity to find out all sorts of information not provided in the obituary. If you get the birth dates for children of a family from some on-line source or from family relatives and do not obtain copies of the birth certificates, you will most likely be missing out on interesting factual information about the residence and occupations of the parents at the time of the birth, as well as documentation of their birthplaces and often even the only official documentation of their exact names. Similarly for marriage information.

Church Records - The Best Alternative

The only other sort of records of nearly equal quality pertaining to births, marriages, and deaths are the records, often known as sacramental records, kept by most churches, and the certifications of the events given by some churches to the individuals involved. Two aspects of their creation make them equally as reliable as the county records. First, like the recorder at the county courthouse, the person recording the event at the church normally has no familial involvement with the event and does not stand to lose or gain depending on what specifics are recorded, so intentional distortion is highly unlikely to occur; and in this case the person - a clergyman - is even spiritually bound to state the facts as they are known. Secondly, as at the courthouse, the events are usually recorded shortly following their occurrence.

In fact, in some times and places, immigrants in particular have trusted the church more than they have trusted the state, and consequently there can be more truth in a church record than in a county record; or an immigrant may even have arranged in days past for the information not to be reported to the county at all, but it would be reported to their church. Additionally, churches have historically been more willing to keep this information private. Thus, in some cases, the birth or baptism records from a church may be more truthful as to parentage than the vital records from the courthouse.

In any case, a church baptismal record for an infant or a certificate of baptism that a parent may have kept gives a strong indication of birthdate, though not the exact birthdate, and the parentage is quite trustworthy except in unusual cases. A marriage record from a church should be of equivalent value to a county vital record, since the county depends for the source of their information on the person pronouncing marriage, the same person who records the information in the church records. Church death records are usually records of a burial, and it would be rare that a burial was recorded that didn't actually happen! And hopefully the burial follows death by at most a few days.

Though church records are of at least equal value to a genealogist as county vital records from the standpoint of where the truth lies, they are often far harder or impossible to track down, and there lies one good reason to look for county vital records first. If you know where the person lived, or can at least guess, that county is an obvious place to check for a vital record, but that information isn't usually enough to get you to the correct place to look for the church record. Nevertheless, in some cases no record of an event will exist at the county because it occurred at a time when events weren't always reported to the county, or there was a fire at the courthouse which destroyed the records prior to some date, or you are looking for a birth record in a state such as Michigan or Minnesota where birth records are closed by law to the general public, etc. In those cases, one of your options is to find out what churches existed in that area at the approximate time of the event and try to locate their records. With luck the church will provide you a copy of the record, though some churches, especially Catholic churches, tend to keep the records private to all except direct descendents.

However, this is not about church records, with which I have had little experience. This is about county vital records! And so the rest of the information will pertain only to them.

Problems with Vital Records

Vital Records give a reliable source for information and may even prove to be the only source for some of the information on your family. Often the information is easily found as well. However, there are many potential frustrations you may encounter when you are hunting and reading your relatives' vital records. Look here for a discussion of problems using vital records for genealogy. Don't let any of those possible frustrations deter you from looking for the records, though!

Why Travel to the Courthouse?

One reason to go to the courthouse to get vital records is that you may find other information there that isn't in vital records and so can't be obtained any other way. Besides vital records and probate records, there are other records that have been kept at the county level. For example, the Register of Deeds office for Saint Croix Co., Wisconsin mentions these items that are also available there, and similar items should be available at all Wisconsin Register of Deeds offices:

Michigan counties will have similar records, but possibly in a different courthouse office from where the vital records are.

Nevertheless, it doesn't always make sense to travel to a courthouse to get vital records. By paying a fee, you can request a record in writing (not on the phone), send it either to the county or to the state records office, and the office personnel will perform the search, make a copy of the record, and send it to you in the mail. If you can use this option it's a good alternative, because it takes time and money to go to the courthouse and find a record yourself. However, that's not always a practical approach either. You need to be aware that you will be charged for the record whether it is actually found or not, because the fee actually pays for the time needed to search, not for the paper and toner needed to make a photocopy. You also need to know about when the event occurred, within two or three years. Any of the following situations will probably suggest a courthouse visit is better:

If you live too far from the county or can't take a day off from work to go to the courthouse and no other relative can go in your place, you can often find someone else to make the trip for you. (Yes, there are really nice people like that!) The best place to look might be genealogy-oriented, county-specific Web sites. If it could be several hours' worth of work, you should find a professional genealogist to do it and pay them rather than expecting a volunteer to do it. If there are no professionals in the area, maybe you could still find a volunteer, but definitely offer to pay them. In the end, you just do the best you can! Sometimes there is no one to help; then you just have to find a way to go yourself.

Another alternative to a courthouse visit is to take advantage of microfilms of county records. The LDS church microfilmed many early county records, which can be viewed very cheaply at their Family History Centers. Some public libraries may have microfilms of some county records. For example, the Ontonagon Public Library has microfilms of all the Ontonagon County, Michigan records up until sometime in the mid-twentieth century. The central Milwaukee Public Library has microfilms of Milwaukee County vital records. If you don't live in the area of the library that has the films, possibly Interlibrary Loan would make them available where you live. Ask the local library and local area genealogical society if there are any local microfilm sources of county vital records. Also, your state historical society or library may have microfilms of some vital records for the county you are interested in. The Wisconsin Historical Society definitely has microfilms of many counties' early vital records. The following are Internet contact points:

If you opt to search microfilmed indexes and/or records, you should be aware that it takes much longer to perform name searches from microfilms and to find specific records on microfilms. Depending on how the microfilm is organized, it can be confusing. I once spent 30 minutes just trying to find one specific record on a microfilm even after the index entry was known, though it would have taken about three minutes in the county office. Aside from the time multiplier, the legibility is somewhat less from microfilms than it is for the actual indexes and record books. Nevertheless, using a microfilm may still be your best option, depending on your situation.

If you want to think about finding a record on microfilm, you'll probably find that records more recent than the 1930s have never made it to microfilms available outside courthouses. Given there is confidential information on late twentieth-century records in many counties, it's highly unlikely those would be on microfilm available anywhere outside the courthouses. But if you are looking for an earlier record, there's a good chance you can find it.

If you go to the courthouse and find a record you want to purchase a photocopy of to take home with you, you will have to pay the full price of the copy, which would be the same as if you had requested it from a distance. In Wisconsin you always have to fill out a vital record copy request form. Some counties will only mail the copies to you later, but at least you will have identified the records you want and you'll get them soon enough. Just to clarify, you can copy information from a record to a piece of paper with pencil for free. Getting a photocopy provides the most reliable transfer of information and is the only option available by mail.

If you order a copy of a record from the state, it often takes a long time to arrive, maybe six weeks. If you order it from the county, they can usually get the copy in the mail for you by the next day. On the other hand, if you don't know what county a person resided in, if you order from the state they may be able to find the record no matter what county the person lived in for the fixed charge, a bargain if that's your situation - but you still have to know approximately the date of the event or it gets very expensive to have them search. In theory all the vital records from the time they had to be reported to the state on forward are at the state office, as well as many records from before that time. You can order records from the state offices through these links:

Here are sites to help you contact the appropriate offices at each county:

Another Reason to Visit the Courthouse

An incidental reason to visit courthouses has nothing to do with genealogy. The county courthouses are absolutely the most beautiful and imposing collection of buildings in the state, both inside and out. Only a handful out of dozens are pedestrian structures. One has to wonder how the counties managed to pay for those beautiful buildings a hundred and more years ago, but in many rural counties where there are no other structures of architectural significance, people could always point to the courthouse and say "We have beautiful buildings here, too!" If you visit many, you will be impressed as well by the variety of architectural design you will find among them. If you are planning to visit many over coming years, take a camera and make your own collection of courthouse photos. (But don't try to take the camera into the location where the county records are, that's a serious breach of rules.) When people ask you what's so great about these courthouses that they have you gallavanting here and there in every free moment, just show them the pictures! They may still think you're impractical, but at least they'll agree you're not just a crazy genealogist.

Information in Birth, Marriage, and Death Records

Above we talked about all the great information that's in the vital records. On the pages you can link to from this section, you'll find out just what you can expect to find. There are two ways to present the information, and each way is more helpful than the other depending on what you want to find out.

If you are looking for a certain piece of information, for example some relative's maiden name, or just want a list of the information you'll find in vital records and which vital records to check for it, follow this link for a list of data fields and where you'll find the information you're looking for. That page also has comments on how to use certain fields. If you're more interested in vital records from a historical perspective and want to see how the vital records changed with time, follow this link for vital record changes in chronological order. Both those pages have extensive statistics on the percentage of records that contain completed fields in different periods of time, which should give you a good idea of how likely you are to come up with the information you are looking for in a given record.

Finding the Courthouse

The county courthouse is always found in the county seat. In most cases, the courthouse is very easy to find. I have written directions to some courthouses along with other county-specific information on a companion page. If you are a typical man like me, you'll want to wing it and take off for the courthouse without paying any attention to directions. But if you don't like wandering around big cities you might want to see if there are any directions on that page. (Yes, I'm making a joke about us.) If you want to wing it, there are some principles that make it a simple matter to find the courthouse 80% of the time.

Surprisingly, the simple rules above take you directly to the courthouse with almost no meandering about 80% of the time, often even in the bigger cities. For example, Waukesha, Wisconsin is a pretty good-sized city, relative to most county seats. There is a sign on the Interstate that says "Waukesha, next five exits. Downtown, exit 194". It says "Downtown", so you follow the rules and take that exit. You wind up passing the Waukesha County Administration Building right on that main road on your way into town. Remembering the rule that says a county administration building is a likely location for the Register of Deeds Office, you turn into the parking lot and, sure enough, you're there - and Glory Be you didn't have to ask anybody for directions or drive around for 45 minutes looking for the place. About 20% of the time, though, you'll probably get tired of driving around and wind up asking for directions if you don't get them ahead of time. Only a few county seat cities are big enough, or have the courthouse hidden well enough, that you're likely to wind up needing directions in a situation where it's sort of a hassle to stop to find somebody to ask. You'll appreciate having some kind of directions to the courthouses in these cities before you go (believe me):

Outside of those cities, I was able to find the courthouses in other cities easily by driving into town and keeping my eyes open or, at worst, asking for directions at a gas station or of a passerby.

Of course you can get directions to any courthouse ahead of time. This link will give you the addresses of courthouses in Wisconsin. I don't know if the addresses on this page are always the addresses of the building where the Register of Deeds office is located. The page also gives you phone numbers. Some of the phone numbers are for the Clerk of Courts, though. That's not where the vital records are. The Clerk of Courts office and the Register of Deeds office are not guaranteed to be at the same location, and if you use that phone number to get directions to one of these Wisconsin courthouses, make sure you ask specifically for directions to the location of the Register of Deeds office, not to the Clerk of Courts office or even to the courthouse as the office may be in a separate annex or administration building.

Courthouse Procedures

When you arrive at the courthouse, you'll be looking for the Register of Deeds office (Wisconsin) or the Clerk of Courts office (Michigan). There are two counties with special security procedures just to get into the building, though - Dane County and Milwaukee County, both of Wisconsin. In both you have to follow procedures similar to the security screening at an airport - take your change out of your pockets, put anything metal in a tray, send your coat and briefcase, if any, through an X-Ray machine on a conveyor. It's a relatively innocuous procedure in Madison (Dane Co.), but in Milwaukee it seems like a big deal and it really does remind one of airport security. They definitely don't want any weapons going into those courthouses!

Most courthouses have some kind of floor map or information desk where you can quickly find out where the office you're looking for is located. If the office isn't quite open yet, you just wait until the opening time and go through the door and up to the counter. A clerk will ask what they can do for you. Tell them you want to do some genealogical research.

In most counties of Wisconsin, the procedure to get started with your work is pretty similar. The clerk will ask you to read their rules for using the vital records - both sides of one sheet of paper. Then they have you sign in and ask to see your I.D. If you don't have an I.D. they won't let you in, so don't forget your driver's license! Signing in usually consists of giving them some information in writing:

The information they request is in response to guidelines given by the state. Most counties keep your information on file for some time. It has to do with safeguarding against identity theft. After you've been there once, many counties won't ask you to provide all the information again the second time you come in in the same year; they just want you to sign in.

Once you're signed in, the clerk will take you back to the records area and give you an orientation. The orientation should consist of telling or showing you:

More often than not, the clerks do not point out any alphabetical indexes that may have been created by genealogist volunteers and are available for you to use. Sometimes they do, but I've wasted hours unnecessarily scanning non-alphabetized indexes only to find an alphabetical index afterwards, which the staff person did not mention during the orientation. When you arrive, you should make a point of asking if there are any additional indexes created by volunteers or any computerized indexes.

Once your orientation is done, you're on your own to do your work.

What You Should Take With You

Counties have concerns about several things related to genealogists coming in. Those include theft of records, photographing of records, and defacing of records. The primary reason for the first two concerns is identity theft. Almost all counties include in their rule sheet certain things you are not allowed to take into the records area because of those concerns. They allow no cameras, briefcases, purses, or laptop computers. They allow no pens for writing, only pencils. Some counties allow you to take nothing into the record room besides pencil(s) and paper. If you forget a pencil most counties can provide one, but it probably won't be sharp! (It might be possible to bring a laptop computer in by special arrangement, but it's normally against the rules.)

For recording the information, many people just carry a pad of paper with them. That works fine if you are only recording information on one or two people. However, it is very helpful to have some sort of form with you, one sheet for each record you will copy information from. There are several reasons it's helpful.

Some of those goals could be accomplished with a pad of paper just by sticking to one sheet of paper per record.

For forms, I just created one-page Microsoft Word documents, one for each type of record, and then printed off a number of copies. If you don't have a printer at home, you can always photocopy them, but that's more expensive. You can prepare forms as cheaply as possible just by writing by hand on a piece of lined paper. You can look here for a list of the fields you should have on your forms for copying birth, marriage, and death record data onto. There are places you can buy pre-printed forms that work fine as long as all the fields are included on them, but you might still benefit from making your own because the exact order of the fields on the forms you use affects how smoothly your work goes. It helps to have the order of the fields on your forms be similar to the order of the fields on the actual records. Each state has its own formats for the records, and pre-printed forms probably aren't tailored to your state. On the other hand, most states' record forms changed formats over the years so no form is perfect for all years' records. If pre-printed forms seem easiest or cheapest, go for it.

I bought a small semi-transparent file case with a handle on it, put some hanging file folders inside it, and carry my pencils and papers in it. In most counties I had no trouble bringing that into the records area. This allowed me to keep the forms I was using to write on quite organized and to easily keep collected the information I was writing down. About a half-dozen counties didn't allow me to bring it into the records area, but that wasn't a problem.

Courthouse Rules

The states provide guidelines for the counties, but each county is free to set its own rules regarding records in many ways. There are really quite a few rules, but they're mostly common sense. The concerns of the county offices are:

Nearly all the rules stem from one of those concerns. Counties usually will give you a sheet of their rules and ask you to read them over, but mostly they all say the same thing. If there's anything particularly remarkable about a county's rules, they'll usually make a point of telling you. However, to be safe you'd better read over the rules they give you - they'll ask you to sign on the dotted line stating you've read the rules and agree to abide by them.

There are three areas where counties often vary from the norm because the state doesn't really include anything pertaining to them in their guidelines. The first is the hours during which the records may be accessed by genealogists. Most counties set the hours from 8:00 AM or 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM, but many counties vary from this. (See the county notes for hours for counties that are significantly different.) The second area is regarding when records with confidential information may be viewed and the number of such records you can look at in a day. Most counties don't set a limit on the number of records they'll show you or restrict the times during which you can view them, but some counties do. (See the discussion about the Saint Croix and Milwaukee County rules a few paragraphs below and the county notes mentioned above.) The third area is the years of records that contain the confidential information. Some counties have removed the confidential information for various years or all years for one or all types of records. The staff should mention or show you which books have confidential information in them during your orientation.

The rules for Michigan and Wisconsin aren't significantly different except for the closed birth records in Michigan. All the counties will have the same concerns no matter what state they are in and the rules naturally follow from their concerns. To give you an idea of what county rules are, I've reproduced the text of the rules for two counties as they are given at the beginning of 2005. The rules for Saint Croix County, WI are a typical example of what you'll find in most counties. The only things that appear in their rules that are a little unusual are:

The rules for Milwaukee County, WI, are an example of those from a county that adds significant restrictions due to the amount of work that must be performed in an office for a county with large population. Milwaukee County is probably the most difficult one to do work in if you are trying to get information on a number of individuals, because you can view at most only ten records per month for records dating from 1931 on, regardless of presence or absence of confidential information. Records prior to 1931 may be viewed without limit. Actually, if you are planning on doing work at the Milwaukee County Courthouse, the rules are a MUST READ item for you before you go down there. Luckily only four counties in the geographical area we're talking about have stringent restrictions like that on what you can get done, the other three being Fond du Lac County, WI, where you can only view five records with confidential information in a day, Sheboygan County, WI, where you only have fifteen minutes per visit to copy data from records with confidential information, and Brown County, WI, where you can only look at three records with confidential information per hour. At least in the latter three counties there is no specified limit to the number of times you can get access in a month, though as in any county where staff must show you records with confidential information the staff may potentially not have time to show you records when you want to see them.

Planning Your Visit

Most counties in Wisconsin will give you a table where you can sit while you work. A few counties don't have any room for chairs and tables, though, and there you have to stand at a counter the entire time you are there. Call the Register of Deeds office to find the particulars if you have concerns about standing for a long time or have a disability and need to use a wheelchair. In contrast, for some reason counties in Michigan's Upper Peninsula virtually never are able to provide a place to sit. Contact the Clerk of Court office at the county you will visit for particulars.

Most counties have a rule that children under the age of twelve are not to be brought into the record area while you do your genealogy work. You'll have to make other arrangements for kids.

Many offices have extremely limited space and/or personnel, and some consequently set limitations on the maximum number of people they'll allow in the office doing genealogy at one time. A typical limit is 4 people, but some counties max out at 2 people. Three Wisconsin counties require appointments ahead of time for genealogy research: Milwaukee County, Outagamie County, and Racine County. (Racine County only requires an appointment the first time you visit the Register of Deeds office.) Even if there is no absolute requirement for making appointments, you're better off to call the Register of Deeds (Wisconsin) or Clerk of Courts (Michigan) for the county in advance and ask if you can make an appointment to do genealogical research for the day you plan on going. The offices are pretty strict about their limits, and you'd surely be disappointed to spend five hours driving to a county courthouse and then find people who arrived before you have taken all the slots so you can't get in. Some counties will reserve the space for you and some won't. The way many counties handle the genealogist overflow problem is to allow people a limited period of time, and then if no one else is there at the end of the time a person can stay longer. This is the case, for example, in Brown County, Wisconsin. In Green Bay, Brown County, there is only room for two or possibly three people to work at genealogy. Visitors are limited to two hours, but if there is nobody else waiting to get in, they're glad to let you stay longer.

If you are going to a county where you cannot make an appointment and which tells you they have a limit on the number of people who can come in, it may be worthwhile planning your visit in the "off season." People tend to visit the courthouses during the summer when it's a nice day, and working people will tend to schedule their vacation time then. If you can go between November and May, you'll be very unlikely to get squeezed out because of too many people wanting to use the records. All the visits I made to counties were during those off-season months. During those many, many visits, in a couple of counties the number of people actually did hit exactly the limit and one more person would have been a problem, but 90% of the time I was the only person there doing genealogy that day, and I never had any disappointments even though I never made an appointment except where it was required. I suspect that I would have been out of luck once in a while if I had tried that during the summer months. Of course, weather can be an issue in the winter, so check the weather report in the winter before you get into your car. I only had a problem with driving conditions once during about 40 days of Dec - March travel so it needn't be a big concern in scheduling a day, but check the weather because better safe than sorry. Be aware that in the far north near Lake Superior it does snow at least a little bit basically every day, but usually it's light and driving is not greatly affected.

Courthouses have at least as many holidays as regular businesses, so don't plan on making a courthouse visit on Memorial Day, for example. Once in a while they wind up being closed on unusual dates or have special restricted hours on a certain day. For example, I was at one courthouse that had been scheduled for some sort of construction work that day and the office was closed in the morning though it was normally open. The courthouse in Wood County, WI is closed for genealogy on the first and last business days of every month. The courthouse in Portage County, WI is closed for genealogy every Friday. Other counties may have similar restrictions which I am not aware of. If you are really planning your trip around the courthouse visit, be sure to contact them ahead of time to make sure they will be open on the day you plan on going, and ask them what their hours are.

Based on what I've seen, the time when you are most likely to run into other people doing genealogical work at a courthouse is from about 10 AM to 1 or 3 PM. The best time to arrive is right when the office opens. You'll probably have the records completely to yourself for at least a couple of hours and have no chance of hearing "Sorry, the slots are full with other people, you can't come in right now. Come back later." Of course, that means getting up pretty early to get to the county, or even going up the night before. Make it an adventure and have fun.

The amount of time it will take you to do your work depends on, among other things, just what it is you have to do. Once you've written down record volume and page numbers from an index it usually doesn't take long to copy the information from the records. But sometimes you want to get some records and try to follow the information further to find more records. That can take quite a long time. The amount of time you spend is pretty much proportional to the number of times you need to go back to an index to find a name. Most often, half to two-thirds of the time you'll spend will be looking at indexes. The type of the indexes you have to work with is also a major factor in how long your work will take. If the index is fully alphabetized, either on paper on a computer, the work goes a lot faster - looking at the indexes takes virtually no time at all except just for copying down the names and volume and page references. If you need to find a bride and there is no bride's index, it can take quite a while, but if you can narrow the date of the marriage down to a twenty-year period it shouldn't take more than a half-hour. If you are looking for all brides with a given surname, figure on from 1.5 to 3 or even 4 hours just to look through the indexes for the name if you can scan quickly. You can look for two surnames at a time when scanning a full index for brides, but that makes it take even longer. To help you estimate how long you might need to spend at a courthouse, look here to find the status of indexes at the various counties.

When you are done at the courthouse, you may be able to visit the local public library. Many libraries have a lot of information for genealogists, things like cemetery records or transcriptions and old city directories. One of the most useful things to look for is the local newspapers on microfilm. The state historical societies often arrange for communities to have copies of the local newspapers in that format, and they'll frequently go way back into the nineteenth century. If you have a death record you found at the courthouse, you can often find the corresponding obituary from the old newspaper at the public library, and the information there alone might make the whole trip worth it. There is occasionally an index to obituaries or even a folder of obituary newspaper clippings at the local library - be sure to ask. Most libraries are closed Friday nights and often certain other evenings as well, so if you want to hit the library after a day at the courthouse, call the library to find out what their hours are that week.

The Wind-Up

The information I've presented on these pages represents what I've learned in six months of visits to every county courthouse in Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula, spending one or usually two days per trip. That's a lot of time spent, but there's certainly more to know. I hope this will be helpful to some people. I won't be continuing to make courthouse visits regularly, so some of the information here will eventually become outdated. If you find any information on these pages to be incorrect, please notify the author with the correct information so the pages can be updated.