How-To Essay #1 - The County

Let's start with a brief description of Rock County, Wisconsin, and it's geography.
Rock County is on the southern border of Wisconsin. Illinois lies to the south and three of Illinois' counties are Rock's neighbors--Winnebago on the west and center and Boone on the east. Coming back into Wisconsin, to the west of Rock County is Green County, to the north is Dane (western half) and Jefferson (eastern half), and to the east in Walworth County. The Rock River runs through the center of the county, north to south. There are numerous other rivers, streams, creeks (sometimes pronounced "crick" by us locals), lakes and ponds in the county as well.
There are twenty townships in the county. Avon, Beloit, Bradford, Center, Clinton, Fulton, Harmony, Janesville, Johnstown, La Prairie, Lima, Magnolia, Milton, Newark, Plymouth, Porter, Rock, Spring Valley, Turtle and Union.
A funny thing about Wisconsin is that all townships are called "towns." Wisconsin, as most states, divides its counties into civil townships, which outside of New England are typically 6 miles square. These form the basis for official land descriptions as each 1 mile square part of a civil township is a Section. (Sections are further divided into quarters, and quarters into quarters, etc. . .) Legally, however, in Wisconsin the unit of government is called a "Town" (e.g., the Town of Harmony, the Town
of Porter). Thus, the Town levees taxes, provides services, and has an elected board. Members of the board and other officers are referred to as Town Board Members, Town Treasurer, Town Constable, etc. Civil townships, as described above do not have to correspond exactly to Towns, but just coincidentally they all do.
In describing land, it is perfectly appropriate to refer to the township, but this usage has often been colloquially applied to the unit of government, the Town, confusing the issue for many. Most of the local Wisconsinites tend to call them townships, as I do on the various Rock County history and genealogy websites I'm in charge of. It is usually easy to figure out if the writer means town as in township or town as in a little city. When referring to a township, one usually writes "the town of Union" (notice "town" is not capitalized). When referring to a city, the word town will normally follow the city's name, such as "Union is a town pleasantly situated in the northwest corner of Rock County." If you ever have any doubts, feel free to contact me at <>.
All the census records I've seen for the county use "town of" and mean "township." Weird and annoying, I know. On the websites, message boards and in the mailing list, I will use Township or Twp. It's just easier that way.
Rock County has two major cities that don't lie within a township-Janesville and Beloit.
The city of Janesville is just about dead center in the middle of the county, straddles the Rock River, and is also the county seat. The city covers the southeast corner of Janesville Township, the southwest corner of Harmony Township, the northeast corner of Rock Township and the northwest corner of La Prairie Township. Many of the locales that were originally in one of these townships now lie within the city limits of Janesville.
The city of Beloit also straddles the Rock River and is south of Janesville on the Illinois border. It covers the southeast part of Beloit Township and the southwest part of Turtle Township. Again, many of the locales that were originally in Beloit Township or Turtle Township now lie within the city limits of Beloit. If you headed south across the state line from Beloit, you would be in South Beloit, Winnebago County, Illinois. Anyone who is research a city of Beloit family should keep in mind that many families migrated into South Beloit.
As in any area, some of the cities and villages in the county have experienced name changes or have become extinct. Others have nicknames. I will discuss some of these in the next essay.
Online references:
Map of the layout of Rock County's townships --
*Please be aware that I'm not a genealogy, history or geology expert. I welcome any corrections or additions.
Much thanks to Kathy Lenerz for information regarding townships in the second and third paragraphs!
©2002 ALHN-Rock County, Wisconsin
Last updated: June 13, 2002