Death Records Research Tips | Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

Death Records Research Tips

Death Records Research Tips | Wisconsin Historical Society

Death records help you determine the life span of your ancestor, where he or she resided, cause of death and other details.

Work From the Present Back into the Past

Gather all the information that you can from your family members. Probate records usually state the date of death or allow you to narrow down the possible time period of death.

To see if a probate record from the county of last residence is in the Society's collections, search the Library Catalog, the Society's online catalog describing both library and archives resources. Search using the keywords "name of county" and "probate". Some probate records are available on microfilm at various Area Research Centers. Check with the ARC that covers the county of your ancestor's last residence. If you still can't find the date of death, check with the Clerk of Courts in the county of your ancestor's last residence.

Search the Death Records Index on the Society's Website

The index is searchable from any computer with internet access. Search the index from the Research Your Family History page.

Ways to search the index
  • By last name. Enter the full last name in the Last Name field. If you are not sure of the exact spelling, enter at least three letters with the wildcard character (*) at the end. For example, if you enter Roger*, you will get Roger, Rogers, Rogerson, etc. This field is not case sensitive. Do not use apostrophes.
  • By first name. Enter the first name in the First Name field. You can use the wildcard character (*) in this field to find names that begin with the letters entered. For example, if you enter Ed*, you will get Edith, Edmund, Edward, etc.
  • By event year: Entering the exact year of the event can be helpful when searching for possible name variations or when you have a date but an unclear name.

Visit the Society to View the Full Record on Microfilm

Once you find your ancestor, write down the index information to find and view the full record on microfilm in person at the Wisconsin Historical Society's Library or at any other institution with microfilm for pre-1907 Wisconsin deaths.

Purchasing Copies

You can buy vital records through the Wisconsin Historical Society. On the individual record, click the orange "Buy" button and proceed through the Online Store purchasing process.

Due to Wisconsin state law, we can only issue uncertified copies of the records. 

Each record costs $15. Orders are usually mailed or emailed within two weeks of receipt. Wisconsin Historical Society Members receive a 10-percent discount. Learn how to become a member.

Information That May Be Included on a Death Record

  • Full name of deceased, maiden name (if wife or widow), date of death, place of death, age and residence at time of death, date of birth, birthplace, occupation, military service
  • Spouse's name
  • Father's name and birthplace
  • Mother's name and birthplace
  • Cause of death, duration of disease
  • Name of physician, coroner or justice, and his residence
  • Name of undertaker or other person conducting burial
  • Place of burial
  • Number and date of burial permit, date of certificate and registration

If There is No Death Record

Check Census Records

The U.S. Federal Census (1790-1930) can help pinpoint the year of death.

Look for Your Ancestor's Obituary

The Society's Library has an online collection of 30,000 indexed obituaries from throughout the state. Plus thousands more that are actual newspaper clippings of obituary notices. Search by your ancestor's name. Either view and print out the newspaper clipping, or write down the location information from the obituary index, then view it in the newspaper on microfilm in the Society's Library. If the name does not show up in an online search, visit the Library to look for the obituary by paging through newspapers on microfilm that fall within the time frame of your ancestor's death.

Look for the Spouse's Death Record or Obituary

If the spouse survived the person you are looking for, look for the spouse's death record and obituary. The obituary will often state when the other partner died.

Check for Probate Records on the Society's Website

To see if a probate record from the county of last residence is in the Society's collections, search the Library Catalogthe Society's online catalog describing both library and archives resources.

Some probate records are available on microfilm at various Area Research Centers. Check the Area Research Center in the county of your ancestor's last residence.

Check for Records at the County Level

Some records were never forwarded to state officials and therefore are not included in the Pre-1907 Vital Records index created from state copies. If you still can't find a death record, check the appropriate county's Register of Probate's office.

More Tips

  • One of the most important details about a death record is the informant. This person varies and, therefore, the accuracy of the information varies. A widow most likely gave the information for a death record. It is also possible for non-related persons to give information as well.
  • There have also been indexing errors that make it difficult to find ancestors in the index. Some errors occurred when the fiche was created in the 1970s and some when the index was digitized in 2002. Other errors exist because the person writing the name on the record misspelled the family name and it was then misspelled in the index.

About Our Death Records

The Society's Pre-1907 Vital Records Collection contains an online index of approximately 400,000 Wisconsin death records dated between 1852 and September 30, 1907. This index provides the information necessary to locate the specific microfilm reel containing an image of the original record in the Library. The full record will include details not found in the index.

After a death was recorded at the county level, local officials normally forwarded that information to the state. Wisconsin law required counties to register death events with state officials starting in 1852, but the law was not strictly enforced until roughly 1880.  Most records date from 1880 or later.

We do not have an index or microfilm of death records after September 30, 1907. No single statewide index exists for vital records created after September 30, 1907.

Learn More

See more articles about researching your family history.

Have Questions?

Contact our Library and Archives staff by email.