RBOH: Wisconsin Citizen Petitions

Another in our occasional series of Random Bits of History.

A wonderful new digital archive of early Wisconsin documents

Earlier in 2021, the Wisconsin Historical Society published this intriguing announcement:

From Wisconsin Historical Society Columns newsletter, January-April, 2021. Click to open larger image in new window.

What’s it all about?

This collection comprises citizen petitions written to the legislatures of the Wisconsin Territory and later the State of Wisconsin, from 1836 to 1891. At the time, petitions were the only direct means for citizens to communicate with the government. This project is currently in development. Petitions will be added throughout 2020.

From requesting dams, roads, and money to build schoolhouses, to recording views on slavery, suffrage, and statehood, these petitions reveal what settlers wished to achieve for their communities, and the ways in which they hoped to connect Wisconsin to the expanding commerce and intellectual life of the United States.

These petitions are mostly handwritten in blue and iron gall ink; most petitions comprise a title page, the petition itself, and signature pages.

The work of flattening, scanning, and describing these petitions was funded by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commissions (NHPRC) of the National Archives.


I finally had an opportunity to spend some time on the website and, wow, there are some really neat documents there. A number of these have to do with Mequon and its early settlers, and I’ll be posting some of these petitions in the near future.

Using the site

If you want to have a look, the homepage for the Wisconsin Citizen Petition Exhibit is here. Start there for a brief overview of the scope and subjects of the petitions that have been digitized. Then, for browsing or detailed searching of all the digitized petitions, click here.

If you’re looking for petitions that have a Mequon or Ozaukee county focus, don’t forget that Ozaukee county did not exist until March 7, 1853. Prior to that, the current Ozaukee county towns were part of old Washington county. And before Washington county became legally and judicially independent, it was considered part of Milwaukee county. So you’ll want to search all three counties—Milwaukee, Washington, and Ozaukee—to find early Mequon-related petitions. Confused? click here for more info about the changing legal status and boundaries of Mequon’s county in the early decades of Wisconsin settlement.

Free stuff!

By the way, the site and its contents are open to everyone, free of charge. Wisconsin Historical Society membership is not required (though supporting the WHS and your local history society—like OCHS, MTHS and, of course, the Jonathan Clark House—is always a good idea!).

The petitions are considered public records and have no copyright restrictions. History teachers and students: here are some accessible, interesting, relevant, and cost-free primary sources for Wisconsin territorial and state history. Perfect for school and National History Day projects.

Take a look, y’all. Let me know what you find.

Stay safe. Be well.