You Gotta Know the Territory

As the salesman says in the song “Rock Island” from Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man, “you gotta know the territory.” This applies as much to genealogists and historians as to traveling salesmen, just in different ways. The following illustrates how not knowing the territory in a historical sense can lead to a faulty conclusion.

The Heise Family

On the 1870 U. S. Census my 3rd Great-Grandparents, Robert and Augusta Heise were enumerated in the Town of Stettin, Marathon County, Wisconsin.1 On the 1880 U. S. Census they were enumerated in the Town of Rib Falls, Marathon County, Wisconsin.2

This information could lead one to include a statement such as follows in a family history. “Between 1870 and 1880 the Heise family moved from Stettin to the Town of Rib Falls.” However this information is at odds with family tradition, as well as a statement in Robert’s obituary, which suggest the Heise family lived on the original 1861 homestead in Rib Falls.

Robert came to America in 1861 with his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Franz Heise and lived with them on the old Heise homestead in the Town of Rib Falls about six and one half miles northwest of Marathon. In 1870, he was married to Augusta Huehnerfuss.3

The key to resolving this conflict is found when you “know the territory.” The Town of Rib Falls was not established until 12 December 1876. This information is found by searching for “Rib Falls” in the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Dictionary of Wisconsin History. In Louis Marchetti’s History of Marathon County, Wisconsin we find that Rib Falls was “organized as a separate town in the spring of 1877 with the election of town officers.” Marchetti also indicates the boundaries of the town and that it was set off from the Town of Stettin.4

It now appears that the Heise family may not have moved at all between 1870 and 1880, but that the political geography of their neighborhood changed. Further investigation utilizing plat maps and land records would provide proof positive of the actual reason the Heise family is found in a different town on each of these censuses.

Heise Family Home

The Heise family at home, circa 1910s. Left to right: Anton, Robert, Augusta, Franz, Otto.

It is important for genealogists and historians to realize that political boundaries of all types can and have changed over time. We need to be able to know when, and how, these boundaries (and names) have changed in order to understand contemporary references to places and to know where to locate records pertaining to people living in those places.

Sources for Wisconsin Town Boundary Changes

The aforementioned Dictionary of Wisconsin History is a good source of official formation dates for the counties and towns in Wisconsin. Entries also give any name changes and when they occurred.

Wisconsin county histories will often provide detailed information on the formation of towns, boundary and name changes. The Wisconsin Historical Society has more than 80 of these histories available online at

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation has detailed current maps of each Wisconsin county available at:

These maps show current town boundaries and the Public Land Survey System Township and Range grid. This is helpful when utilizing a county history to determine historical boundary changes as the Township and Range numbers are used in the definition of boundaries.

Internet Map Collections

Two internet collections of maps are especially useful for the historian:

The David Rumsey Map Collection at

Use the search box to search for “Wisconsin” or a particular county name. Especially useful for town boundaries are the plates from an atlas of Wisconsin published in 1878.

The Library of Congress Map Collections at

The maps on this site from the Midwest are generally more useful in showing county boundaries, especially those found in the category “Transportation and Communication Maps.”

For those of us who are into maps there are many delights to be found on these two sites which will help you “know the territory” in a historical sense.


  1. 1870 U. S. census, Marathon County, Wisconsin, population schedule, Stettin, p. 16, dwelling 120, family 120, Frank Haase; digital image, ( : accessed 8 Dec 2011); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M593, roll 1724. On this census Robert is enumerated as “Frank Haase.”
  2.  1880 U. S. census, Marathon County, Wisconsin, population schedule, Rib Falls, enumeration district 90, page 14, dwelling 168, family 171, Robert Heise; digital image, ( : accessed 8 Dec 2011); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm T9, roll 1433.
  3.  “PIONNER [sic] AT REST,” undated clipping, ca. Sep 1920, from unidentified newspaper; privately held by Alan R. Wambold, Plymouth, Wisconsin, 2011.
  4.  Marchetti, Louis, History of Marathon County, Wisconsin and Representative Citizens (Chicago, IL: Richmond-Arnold Publishing Co., 1913), p. 558; digital book, Wisconsin Historical Society (,60843 : accessed 8 Dec 2011).