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Dictionary of Wisconsin History

During 2004, staff working on the Turning Points in Wisconsin History digital collection examined thousands of pages of original historical documents and dozens of modern books and articles about Wisconsin history. Whenever they encountered a term which might be unfamiliar to non-specialists, they noted it in a database with a short explanation. They soon had notes on hundreds of words and phrases unlikely to appear in a standard dictionary or encyclopedia, and this online Dictionary of Wisconsin History began to take shape.

To expand its coverage, they browsed through reference tools and scholarly works on Wisconsin archaeology, Indians, and women's history. They combed specialized glossaries of Mississippi Valley French and military technical terms, systematically listed forts and missions, and visited Web sites devoted to places and events that proved especially hard to define. When the Dictionary first appeared here in early 2005, it numbered nearly 1,000 entries, including more than 120 names for Indian tribes who have lived in Wisconsin, dozens of words from fur-trade, mining, or logging jargon, and more than 300 short entries for important people.

In the autumn of 2005, the Dictionary grew exponentially with the systematic inclusion of more than 5,000 records about Wisconsin people and places. First, the printed Dictionary of Wisconsin Biography published by the Society in 1960 was scanned and converted to electronic text, and programming was written to put all its biographies into the online Dictionary. Because it only covered people who had died before 1960, staff attempted to gather biographies of Wisconsin people prominent in political life since then by scanning and including every biography from the official Wisconsin Blue Books, 1960-2005. Because the selection of people in both those works was biased toward influential white males, staff also drew up a list of other important figures and wrote dozens of biographies from scratch. They also attempted to systematically include two geographic data sets. First, the official names of all populated places on U.S.G.S. Topographic Maps (about 2,500 terms) were downloaded from the U.S. Geographic Name Information Server; even the smallest towns mentioned in historical sources are now identified by county and by latitude and longitude. Secondly, a card file detailing the origin of about 800 place names, built in the Society Library's reference department between 1880 and 1940, was entered manually. These records cite sources that claim to explain where each community got its name.

To keep the Dictionary of Wisconsin History growing, and especially to compensate for the inherent biases of the sources from which it was constructed, we have fashioned a web form where you can add entries of your own (subject to staff review). We encourage everyone who loves Wisconsin history, but especially students and teachers, to contribute new entries. We review, edit, acknowledge, and publish these submissions as fast as other responsibilities allow.

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