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I am doing research on my ancestors from Wisconsin, I would like to know what the difference is between a town, a township, a city, and a village. The place name is often different on different documents, and I would like to specify what is correct, I am mostly concerned with the 1800's, about 1840's to 1890's. I have done a search but there seems to be no consistent answer.

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This is a special case of the problem discussed in the question Should I use the modern (what it is called now) or historical (what it was called) place name? -- the answers there may give some insight into why you are having difficulty.

Modern software gives us an incentive to standardize place names in our database, perhaps to make use of mapping features. But whether we choose to enter the modern names into our software or to use the historical ones, it is crucial that we keep in our research notes the name of the place exactly as it is spelled in our source material.

To get more information about historical places, there are many references and tools we can use. Historical maps can help, and so can historical gazetteers (gazetteers are dictionaries of places). See the links at the end of the answer for pointers to online collections.

The place to take special care in any record about the US is when you see the word township. A township could be a local jurisdiction, but if you are looking at land records, it could refer to a survey township, a defined area in the US's Public Land Survey System. Wisconsin is one of the 30 Public Land States (or Federal Land States) which are a part of the PLSS (as opposed to the older states, called State Land States, because the distribution of land was carried out by the state).

The Wikipedia article on the PLSS (linked to above) gives a concise history of the system, and warns us about exceptions. For Wisconsin it says:

Wisconsin had French settlement prior to the PLSS in the areas of Green Bay and Prairie du Chien. Both have small amounts of the long, narrow French lots along some water frontage.

This information is likely to be taken from the page PLSS - Curiosities and Trivia at the website of the Wisconsin State Cartographer's Office, which is one of the sources in the Wikipedia article. If you are studying land ownership in an area, look for Platbooks and Land Ownership Maps which will give you a snapshot in time of the landowners in a county.

If you have questions about what place is meant, modern-day references like Wikipedia can help, but it also helps to consult historical maps and gazetteers which are dated close in time to the record you are looking at. This will make it easier to see what place was referred to. Topographic maps can sometimes reveal why people married across county boundaries (because the neighboring courthouse was easier to reach).

Historical Maps

Platbooks and Land Ownership Maps

Historical Gazetteers and other book resources

If you are doing extensive research in Wisconsin, consider joining the Wisconsin State Genealogical Society. If you can't put "boots on the ground" yourself, the insight from others also doing research in Wisconsin, especially members living in the area, is especially valuable.

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The Administrative divisions of Wisconsin page in Wikipedia says (with my bolding):

The administrative divisions of Wisconsin include counties, cities, villages and towns. In Wisconsin, all of these are units of general-purpose local government.

and

In Wisconsin, a city is an autonomous incorporated area within one or more counties. It provides almost all services to its residents and has the highest degree of home rule and taxing jurisdiction of all municipalities. Cities are generally more urbanized than towns.

and

In Wisconsin, a village is an autonomous incorporated area within one or more counties. It provides various services to its residents and has a degree of home rule and taxing jurisdiction over them.

and

In Wisconsin, a town is an unincorporated jurisdiction within a county; Wisconsin towns are similar to civil townships in other states. All areas in the state that have not been incorporated as cities or villages are parts of towns. Towns provide a limited number of services to their residents.

These will be modern day definitions and the words inscribed on The Point Of Beginning suggest to me that, in Wisconsin, townships can be thought of as early towns:

Late in 1831, when Wisconsin was still in Michigan Territory, Lucius Lyon, U. S. Commissioner on the survey of the northern boundary of the State of Illinois, set a post and erected a mound of earth 6 feet square at the base and 6 feet high, at a point 1/2 mile east of here to mark the intersection of that boundary and the 4th Principal Meridian. The Wisconsin public land surveys were begun here in 1832 and were completed "up north" in 1867. Lyon surveyed 16 townships in S. W. Wisconsin in 1832-33, which opened this Territory for settlement. In 1833 Michigan Territory honored this veteran surveyor by electing him their Delegate to Congress. The post and mound he erected at this point were obliterated by fence and power line construction long ago, but the point is now preserved by a new concrete surveyor's monument. Every section corner monument in the state; the boundaries of each county, city, village, township, farm and lot; the position of roads, lakes and streams, all were surveyed and mapped from this Point of Beginning.

There seems to be a lot of information on Wisconsin townships, towns, villages and cities and it may be useful to ask another question about the difficulties the placenames on a particular document or documents are giving you. Questions tagged here will give you some examples of how other users have been helped with similar questions.

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  • Coming from the UK, I have difficulty with some of the formal American definitions - particularly here - What is an unincorporated jurisdiction? I had presumed that a jurisdiction had to be formally defined - so isn't that incorporating it? – AdrianB38 Apr 22 '17 at 10:59
  • @AdrianB38 I come from South Australia which is 60% unincorporated (not part of a local government) but I think 100% under the jurisdiction of the South Australian Government. I'm no expert but this Wikipedia page may be worth looking at: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unincorporated_area – PolyGeo Apr 22 '17 at 11:35
  • Hmm. Wikipedia doesn't really help me - it says "in England, all land is within a county or local government district, both of which exercise power over their jurisdictions". Well, yes. Isn't it true that all land in the USA is within a State (OK, excepting Washington DC!), and the State exercises power over all its jurisdiction? Meaning that everywhere in the US is incorporated? Which doesn't match what I though the situation was. I suspect the devil is in the detail of the definition, which is why I was puzzled by "unincorporated jurisdiction." – AdrianB38 Apr 22 '17 at 12:48
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    @AdrianB38 -- the key is the word local in the opening of the Wikipeida article on unincorporated areas -- not governed by its own local municipal corporation. An unincorporated area would depend on the county for services (remember in the US counties are small, like UK registration districts). E.g. for police they would not have their own local police, but crimes committed there would be under the jurisdiction of the county sheriff. In some cases, services might be lacking (there might be a volunteer fire service rather than paid). – Jan Murphy Apr 22 '17 at 16:48
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    Thanks @JanMurphy - I was hoping I might get a comment from someone like yourself. I will try to interpret in the light of "local". Should work. Bearing in mind, of course, that I'm the sort of guy that can refer to the Local Group of Galaxies, but that's my English sense of humour. – AdrianB38 Apr 22 '17 at 16:56

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