About the Wisconsin Historical Collections (1855-1915)
The Wisconsin Historical Collections are 20 volumes of pioneer memoirs, archival records, original journals, explorers' narratives, interviews, and other eyewitness accounts of Wisconsin's past gathered between 1855-1915. The volumes contain 1,000 articles printed on more than 11,000 pages, often accompanied by illustrations or maps. They are the single most comprehensive record of life in Wisconsin during the colonial era.
Within the collection are copies of more than 600 original handwritten documents not only from the Society's holdings, but also from archives in Washington D.C., New York, Montreal, and Paris. They take up almost 3,000 pages in volumes 16-20. They are arranged in chronological order and annotated with explanatory notes. Foreign documents have been translated into English.
How the Wisconsin Historical Collections Are Organized
The entire collection is available online, including images and maps. Search by subject, name, community, county, personal name, decade.
- Access all volumes of the Wisconsin Historical Collections (1855-1915) online.
Complete sets of the original volumes are available in the Society's library and widely available in libraries around the country.
History of the Collection
Wisconsin Historical Collections started as a serial publication issued every two or three years between 1855 and 1915 by the Wisconsin Historical Society. Society librarians would periodically gather a selection of important manuscripts on the state's early history and put them into a printed volume. The publication, called "Wisconsin Historical Collections," first appeared on January 2, 1855. It was modestly described as containing a few manuscript documents "particularly worthy of notice and publicity."
Each volume starts with a listing of Society annual reports and records.
Volume 21 is an index to Volumes 1-20. The index uses categories such as "Forts" or "Rivers". Volume 21 is valuable as a cross-reference of obsolete tribal designations and variant spellings of people's surnames.
Editors in the 19th and early 20th centuries sought out elderly Indians to interview, printed many documents by and about women, and published verbatim the crude texts of semi-literate fur traders, such as Peter Pond. The result is more than 100 pioneer reminiscences — not only those by Wisconsin's founding fathers but also some by fur-traders, farmwomen, and Indian elders. These memoirs total more than 2,000 pages, providing firsthand accounts of major incidents in early Wisconsin history.
There are also diaries and letters of travelers, soldiers, immigrants, missionaries, and traders written while historical events were still unfolding.
There are many statements in the volumes that later research proved inaccurate. They also reflect the values of their original authors and compilers. Attitudes toward Indians and African-Americans, in particular, usually appear outdated and are occasionally offensive.
Some terminology used by the original authors and editors often differs from the words we use today. The term "Ho-Chunk," for example, does not appear even once in the 20 volumes, but "Winnebago" is used more than 1,000 times.
Checking Out Materials
The original volumes of the Wisconsin Historical Collections are available to check out.
Photocopies of documents in the physical collections are available for a fee. High quality reproductions suitable for framing may be available for purchase from the Wisconsin Historical Society. For more information about purchasing a reproduction or licensing for commercial use, email the Library Archives staff.
How to Cite
Bibliographic data will appear below each online document. Copy and paste the bibliographic data into your preferred citation manager.
Rights and Permissions
Any online document may be printed or downloaded at no cost for nonprofit educational use by teachers and students, or for private use by individual researchers. Nothing may be reproduced in any format for commercial purposes without prior permission from the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Contact our Library and Archives staff by email.