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Ethnicity, Occupation, and Death in Nineteenth-Century Wisconsin

This teacher-submitted, secondary-level lesson plan appeared in Badger History Bulletin. Please adapt it to fit your students' needs.

Author: Sue Maloney, North Lake School, North Lake


In a three- to five-day lesson that is part of a larger unit on primary source documents, eighth grade history students are introduced to census data from their community. Students use the 1850s federal census and mortality tables, available from the State Historical Society's library to provide a "hands-on" experience as they practice methods used by social historians.


The federal census for Wisconsin, 1820-1920, is available from inter-library loan from the SHSW library. The format is 35mm microfilm. Teachers need to specify the year and Wisconsin county that they wish to obtain. Contact your local public library to make arrangements.


  • Students will integrate writing, mathematics, and technology skills.
  • Students will organize quantitative data about the following:
    • occupations,
    • ethnicity,
    • citizenship status,
    • age,
    • causes of death.
  • Students will analyze and draw conclusions about the composition of students' community in the mid-1800s


  1. Distribute photocopies of population and mortality schedules and instruct students to examine the documents. (See a sample from the 1900 federal census of Vilas County, WI)
  2. Ask students to study the column headings (name, nativity, occupation, gender, and any others) and discuss the definition of each.
  3. Direct students, while working in pairs, to tabulate the following information and apply it in the following ways:
    • Create a bar graph illustrating the birthplace of listed individuals.
    • Calculate the average age of death, the average number of months the person was ill, and the average lifespan of listed individuals.
    • Categorize causes of death and discuss familiar and unfamiliar illnesses and conditions.
    • List common occupations and write a paragraph hypothesizing about the local economy.
    • Study a few of the individuals listed to generalize about common occurrences. For example, a woman may have died in childbirth, or an epidemic may have spread throughout a family.
    • Calculate the percentage of American-born and foreign-born individuals.

Enhancement Activities

  1. With outline maps of the eastern United States and Europe, direct students to illustrate immigration patterns to Wisconsin.
  2. Using library resources, assign students to research nineteenth-century health, medicine, and treatment of illnesses listed on the mortality tables. Students should present their findings in oral or written form.
  3. Based on data gained in the procedures, students should design interpretive graphics to illustrate data. They may be drawn by hand or on a personal computer.
  4. Have students prepare a census based on their own present-day family, then compile the results of the entire class. Compare the information in the historic federal census to the family census. Consider average household size, lifespan, occupations, and other information available in both records.


Giese, James R. "The Uses of the Census in History Classrooms," Social Education (November/December, 1989), pp. 454-456.

Mueller, Jean West, and Schamel, Wynell Burroughs. "Little House in the Census: Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder," Social Education (November/December, 1989), pp. 451-453.

Roe, Kathleen. Teaching with Historical Records. Albany: NY, New York State Archives, 1981.

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