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Genealogical Research in Iowa

Genealogy Research Iowa

Tracing your family history in Iowa can be a fascinating trip through time. Locating the relevant genealogical records you’ll need to find your ancestors however can be a frustrating experience. To help you avoid those frustrations when tracing your Iowa ancestry, we’ll show you which records you’ll need, and help you to understand:

  • What they are
  • Where to find them
  • How to use them

These records can be found both online and off, so we’ll introduce you to online websites, indexes and databases, as well as brick-and-mortar repositories and other institutions that will help with your research in Iowa. So that you will have a more comprehensive understanding of these records, we have provided a brief history of the “Hawkeye State” to illustrate what type of records may have been generated during specific time periods. That information will assist you in pinpointing times and locations on which to focus the search for your Iowa ancestors and their records.

A Brief History of Iowa

It is believed that the first Europeans to set foot in Iowa were the French explorers Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette who stepped ashore where the Iowa and Missouri Rivers meet in 1673. The area was loosely governed by the French and Spanish, but was ceded to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Before that time as many as seventeen Native American tribes called the land their home, though most would sell it to the Federal Government of the United States by the mid-nineteenth century.

In 1829 the federal government informed two very powerful tribes living in the Illinois area, the Sauk and Mesquaki, that that would have to abandon their land and move into Iowa. The Indians made the move, albeit begrudgingly, and in 1832 the Sauk chief, Black Hawk returned to claim his former village. This sparked the Black Hawk War which lasted about three months and saw the Indians being defeated and having to relinquish some of the land they had been given in Iowa.

American settlements began to appear in the 1830,s as settlers flocked from New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Iowa, and Virginia and established farmsteads. It wasn’t until the advent of the railroad in the 1860’s that Iowa began to prosper economically. The railroads also brought changes to the industrial sector in Iowa. Many of the new industries that developed were agriculture related, and processing and meat packing plants began to spring up, the most famous being the Quaker Oats processing plant in Cedar Rapid.

Iowa achieved statehood in 1846 and continued to attract settlers. After nearly 30 years of peaceful development however, Iowans lives were greatly altered with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. There were no battles fought on Iowa soil, but the state paid a high price through the contributions of its fighting men. More than 75,000 Iowa men joined the union forces and went on to serve with distinction in the war. Of the 75,000 men who fought un the war 13,001 died, many of disease rather than killed in battle.

  • Important Dates in Iowa History
    • 1673 - French explorers enter Iowa
    • 1762 - Ceded to Spain
    • 1788 - First white settlement established but abandoned in 1810
    • 1800- Land was returned to France
    • 1803 - United States acquires area as part of the Louisiana Purchase
    • 1808 - Fort Madison built by the United States Army. Iowa included in the Illinois Territory
    • 1812 - Becomes Part of the Missouri Territory
    • 1831 - Indian tribes moved to Iowa from Illinois
    • 1832 - Black Hawk War
    • 1833 -First permanent white settlements made in eastern Iowa
    • 1834 - Congress attaches area to the Michigan Territory
    • 1836 - Iowa transferred to Wisconsin Territory
    • 1838 - Iowa Territory established
    • 1846 - Becomes a state
    • 1867 - First railroad built from the Mississippi River to Council Bluffs

Famous Battles Fought in Iowa

There were no battles fought in Iowa during the Civil War, and only a few skirmishes during the Black Hawk War. The most notable Black Hawk skirmishes were the Battle of Wisconsin Heights, and the Battle of Bad Axe. The battle accounts can be very effective in uncovering the military records of your ancestor. They can tell you what regiments fought in which battles, and often include the names and ranks of many officers and enlisted men.

The battle accounts can be very effective in uncovering the military records of your ancestor. They can tell you what regiments fought in which battles, and often include the names and ranks of many officers and enlisted men.

Common Iowa Genealogical Issues and Resources to Overcome Them

Boundary Changes: Boundary changes are a common obstacle when researching Iowa ancestors. You could be searching for an ancestor’s record in one county when in fact it is stored in a different one due to historical county boundary changes. The Atlas of Historical County Boundaries can help you to overcome that problem. It provides a chronological listing of every boundary change that has occurred in the history of Iowa.

Name Changes: Surname changes, variations, and misspellings can complicate genealogical research. It is important to check all spelling variations. Soundex, a program that indexes names by sound, is a useful first step, but you can't rely on it completely as some name variations result in different Soundex codes. The surnames could be different, but the first name may be different too. You can also find records filed under initials, middle names, and nicknames as well, so you will need to get creative with surname variations and spellings in order to cover all the possibilities. For help with surname variations read our instructional article on How to Use Soundex.

Iowa Genealogical Organizations and Archives

Genealogical resources include not only records, but the organizations that house them, or can direct you to them. These institutions include: Archives, Libraries, Genealogical Societies, Family History Centers, Universities, Churches, and Museums.

Iowa Archives

  • Following are links to their websites, and a summary of the records.
    • State Historical Society of Iowa (State Archives) - land records, military records, family histories

      600 East Locust
      Des Moines, Iowa 50319

    • National Archives at Kansas City - naturalization records, Native American records, census records, and immigration records

      400 West Pershing Road
      Kansas City, MO 64108.
      Phone: 816-268-8000

    • University of Iowa Digital Library – manuscripts, historic newspapers, historical maps, ethnic and women’s histories

Iowa Genealogical and Historical Societies

Genealogical and historical societies have access to extensive catalogues of genealogical data. They are also able to offer expert guidance for genealogical researchers. Many members are professional genealogists who are most willing to share their expertise in finding ancestors. 

Iowa Genealogical Society – census, vital records, religious records, city directories, military records, family histories
6000 Douglas Ave.
P.O. Box 7735
Des Moines, IA 50322
Telephone: 515-276-0287

Old Fort Genealogical Society – cemetery records, township maps, old settlers list
Ft Madison Public Library
1920 Ave E
Ft Madison, IA  52627

Iowa Family History Centers

Additional Iowa Genealogical Resources

Iowa Mailing Lists

Mailing lists are internet based facilities that use email to distribute a single message to all who subscribe to it. When information on a particular surname, new records, or any other important genealogy information related to the mailing list topic becomes available, the subscribers are alerted to it. Joining a mailing list is an excellent way to stay up to date on Iowa genealogy research topics. Rootsweb have an extensive listing of Iowa Mailing Lists on a variety of topics.

Iowa Message Boards

A message board is another internet based facility where people can post questions about a specific genealogy topic and have it answered by other genealogists. If you have questions about a surname, record type, or research topic, you can post your question and other researchers and genealogists will help you with the answer. Be sure to check back regularly, as the answers are not emailed to you. The message boards at the Iowa Genealogy Forum are completely free to use.

Iowa Newspapers and Periodicals

Many genealogy periodicals and historical newspapers contain reprinted copies of family genealogies, transcripts of family Bible records, information about local records and archives, census indexes, church records, queries, land records, obituaries, court records, cemetery records, and wills.

Historical Iowa Maps and Gazetteers

Maps are an integral part of genealogical research. They help us to locate landmarks, towns, cities, parishes, states, provinces, waterways and roads and streets. They also help us to determine when and where boundary changes might have taken place, and give us a visualization of the area we’re researching in.

For locating place names, a gazetteer is the best possible resource for any genealogist. Gazetteers are also sometimes called “place name dictionaries”, and can help you to locate the area in which you need to conduct research.

Iowa City Directories

City directories are similar to telephone directories in that they list the residents of a particular area. The difference though is what is important to genealogists, and that is they pre-date telephone directories. You can find an ancestor’s information such as their street address, place of employment, occupation, or the name of their spouse. A one-stop-shop for finding city directories in Iowa is the Iowa Online Historical Directories which contains a listing of every available city and historical directory related to Iowa.

Iowa Genealogical Records

Birth, Death, Marriage and Divorce Records – Also known as vital records, birth, death, and marriage certificates are the most basic, yet most important records attached to your ancestor. The reason for their importance is that they not only place your ancestor in a specific place at a definite time, but potentially connect the individual to other relatives. Below is a list of repositories and websites where you can find Iowa vital records

Some county clerks kept vital records as early as 1838. The Family History Library has microfilm copies of these documents for many counties which can be accessed at Iowa Family History Centers. Existing originals are found in the county clerk’s office or in the Iowa Regional Archives Depository (IRAD) for that county.

Original copies of Iowa Vital Records for death, birth, marriage, and divorce may be ordered from:

Iowa Department of Public Health
Division of Vital Records
605 West Jefferson Street
Springfield, IL 62702-5097
Telephone: (217) 782-6553
Fax: 217-785-3209

The Iowa State Archives has an Iowa Statewide Marriage Index, 1763–1900 which contains one million marriages, or two million names.

Census Reports

Census records are among the most important genealogical documents for placing your ancestor in a particular place at a specific time. Like BDM records, they can also lead you to other ancestors, particularly those who were living under the authority of the head of household.

Federal census records for Iowa exist from 1800 to 1990. Unfortunately the 1800 census was lost, and the 1810 census contains only a few names from Randolph County. The 1890 census was destroyed, though a few names from Mound Township in McDonough County remain.

Iowa Church Records

Church and synagogue records are a valuable resource, especially for baptisms, marriages, and burials that took place before 1900. You will need to at least have an idea of your ancestor’s religious denomination, and in most cases you will have to visit a brick and mortar establishment to view them.

Most church records are kept by the individual church, although in some denominations, records are placed in a regional archive or maintained at the diocesan level. Local Historical Societies are sometimes the repository for the state’s older church records. Below are links archives that maintain church records, as well as a few databases that can be viewed online.

The Family History Library contains many church records from a variety of denominations on microfilm.

The Iowa State Archives collected some early Iowa church records that are now held by the Iowa State Library.

St. Clair County Genealogical Society (SCCGS) has compiled the Index to Bethel Baptist Church Minutes and Membership Lists, 1809 - 1909 for St. Clair County, Iowa

Central Repositories for Denominational Records

Most of the records of individual denominations are kept in central repositories.

Iowa Military Records

More than 40 million Americans have participated in some time of war service since America was colonized. The chance of finding your ancestor amongst those records is exceptionally high. Military records can even reveal individuals who never actually served, such as those who registered for the two World Wars but were never called to duty.

Iowa Cemetery Records

As convenient as it is to search cemetery records online, keep in mind that there are a few disadvantages over visiting a cemetery in person. They are:

  • Tombstone information is not always accurately transcribed
  • The arrangement of the graves in a cemetery can be crucial as family members are often buried next to each other or in the same grave. This arrangement is not always preserved in the alphabetical indexes that are found online.
  • Databases that can be searched online for Iowa Cemetery records
    • Iowa Tombstone Transcription Project - death and burial records
    • African American Cemeteries Online – African American, slave, and Native American cemetery records
    • Access Genealogy – huge database of Iowa cemetery record transcriptions
    • Find a Grave – over 100 million grave records can be searched on this site. Search can be conducted by name, location, or cemetery name.
    • - A free online database containing approximately 4 million cemetery records from around the world.
    • Billion Graves – as the name implies, you can search a billion records including headstone photos, transcriptions, cemetery records, and grave locations.

Iowa Obituaries

Obituaries can reveal a wealth about our ancestor and other relatives. You can search our Iowa Newspaper Obituaries Listings from hundreds of Iowa newspapers online for free.

Iowa Wills and Probate Records

The documents found in a probate packet may include a complete inventory of a person’s estate, newspaper entries, witness testimony, a copy of a will, list of debtors and creditors, names of executors or trustees, names of heirs. They can not only tell you about the ancestor you’re currently researching, but lead to other ancestors. Most of these records must be accessed at a county court or clerk’s office, but some can be found online as well. You can obtain copies of the original probate records by writing to the county clerk.

Since 1964, the circuit court in each county has custody of the earlier court records including those of the former Cook County Superior Court and a few other Chicago area courts. They can be found at:

Clerk of Circuit CourtArchives Room 1113
Richard J. Daley Center
50 W. Washington St.
Chicago, IL 60602
Telephone: 312- 603-6601
Fax: 312-603-4974

The Iowa Regional Archives has a huge database of court and county records for the entire state of Iowa

Family Search – has an online collection of probate records, which includes will, indexes, dating from 1819-1970

Iowa Immigration and Naturalization Records

The naturalization process generated many types of records, including petitions, declarations of intention, and oaths of allegiance. These records can provide family historians with information such as a person's birth date and place of birth, immigration year, marital status, spouse information, occupation, witnesses' names and addresses, and more.

US National Archives – Immigration and Naturalization records for the entire United States

Family Search has two searchable online indexes, the Iowa, Northern District (Eastern Division), Naturalization Index, 1926-1979, and the Iowa, Northern District Naturalization Index, 1840-1950

Iowa Native American Records

Missing Matriarchs – Resources for Researching Female Iowa Ancestors

Looking for female ancestors requires an adjustment of how we view traditional records sources. A woman’s identity was often under that of her husband, and often individual records for them can be difficult to locate. The following resources are effective in locating female ancestors in Iowa where traditional records may not reveal them.

Marriage and Divorce Records

County clerks began recording marriages in 1834, and state-wide registration commenced in 1880. The Iowa State Department of Health in Des Moines has indexed these records from 1919. Divorce registration began in 1906 and has been under the jurisdiction of the county district and chancery courts.

The State Historical Society of Iowa has county marriage records dating from 1835-1934, and state records from 1880-1920.

You can find divorce records dating from 1835-1950 at the Des Moines County Courthouse (film 1547826 ff.)


  • Open Country, Iowa: Rural Women, Tradition, and Change, Deborah Fink (State University of New York Press, 1986)
  • Remarkable Iowa Women, Ethel W. Hanft (River Bend Publishing, 1983)
  • The Blue Book of Iowa Women: A History of Contemporary Women, Winona Evans Reeves (W. C. Cox and Co. 1974)

Selected Resources for Iowa Women’s History

Amana Heritage Society
PO Box 81
Amana, IA 52203

Iowa Women’s Archives
University of Iowa Library
100 Main Library
Iowa City, IA 52242

University of Iowa Digital Library – miscellaneous women’s history records and other resources

Common Iowa Surnames

The following surnames are among the most common in Iowa and are also being currently researched by other genealogists. If you find your surname here, there is a chance that some research has already been performed on your ancestor.

Adair, Adams, Allamakee, Appanoose, Audubon, Benton, BlackHawk, Boone, Bremer, Buchanan, BuenaVista, Butler, Calhoun, Carroll, Cass, Cedar, CerroGordo, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Clarke, Clay, Clayton, Clinton, Crawford, Dallas, Davis, Decatur, Delaware, DesMoines, Dickinson, Dubuque, Emmet, Fayette, Floyd, Franklin, Fremont, Greene, Grundy, Guthrie, Hamilton, Hancock, Hardin, Harrison, Henry, Howard, Humboldt, Ida, Iowa, Jackson, Jasper, Jefferson, Johnson, Jones, Keokuk, Kossuth, Lee, Linn, Louisa, Lucas, Lyon, Madison, Mahaska, Marion, Marshall, Mills, Mitchell, Monona, Monroe, Montgomery, Muscatine, Obrien, Osceola, Page, PaloAlto, Plymouth, Pocahontas, Polk, Pottawattamie, Poweshiek, Ringgold, Sac, Scott, Shelby, Sioux, Story, Tama, Taylor, Union, VanBuren, Wapello, Warren, Washington, Wayne, Webster, Winnebago, Winneshiek, Woodbury, Worth, Wright

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