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Genealogical Research in Minnesota

Genealogy Research Minnesota

There are many genealogical records and resources available for tracing your family history in Minnesota. Because there are so many records held at many different locations, tracking down the records for your ancestor can be an ominous task. Don’t worry though, we know just where they are, and we’ll show you which records you’ll need, while helping 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 Minnesota. So that you will have a more comprehensive understanding of these records, we have provided a brief history of the “North Star 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 Minnesota ancestors and their records.

A Brief History of Minnesota

Native American tribes the Dakota, Chippewa, and Ojibwa had long inhabited the lands now known as Minnesota before the arrival of the first Europeans around 1650. In 1679 the area was claimed for France by Daniel Greysolon, Sieur Duluth. The area was sparsely settled by French fur traders and missionaries who established settlements at Fort Antoine in 1686, and Fort St. Charles in 1731.

The French and Indian Wars saw the French defeated and the land west of the Mississippi ceded to Spain in 1762, the region east of the Mississippi ceded to Great Britain in 1763. There was little disruption to Minnesota life during the Revolutionary War, and as fur traders continued to settle the area, the North West Company built a major fur-trading post at Grand Portage. The fur trade flourished until after the War of 1812 when an act was passed by the United States Congress curbing British participation in the lucrative industry.

The part of Minnesota east of the Mississippi had become part of the Northwest Territory in 1787, while most of the western part was acquired by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. In 1805, while searching for the source of the Mississippi River, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike concluded a treaty with a band of Dakota Indians for two pieces of land bordering the River. It was on this land that the construction of Fort Snelling was completed in 1820, a settlement that was to serve as as a key frontier outpost in the northwest and the principal center of civilization in Minnesota for years to come.

A series of treaties between the American government and the local Native American tribes transferred large areas of land to the United States. These treaties opened up the land to farming, lumbering, and settlement, but ended the profitable relationship between the Indians and fur traders. Permanent settlements such as St. Paul and St. Anthony (modern day Minneapolis) were established and in 1849 Minnesota became a separate territory.

In 1851 St. Paul became the capital of Minnesota, and by 1857 the population had reached more than 150,000. Minnesota was granted statehood on May 11, 1858, and the fast growing Republican Party seized political control of the state. The Republican majority helped Abraham Lincoln into office as president in 1860, and when Civil War broke out Minnesota sent over 20,000 plus troops to fight for the union cause.

In 1862 war broke out with the Native American Dakota tribe who had become grieved by the loss of their land and dissatisfied with life on the reservations. The murder of five white settlers by four young Dakota Indians ignited a bloody uprising in which more than 300 whites and an unknown number of Indians were killed. In the aftermath, 38 Dakota captives were hanged and the Dakota remaining in Minnesota were removed to reservations in Nebraska. Meanwhile, the Ojibwa were relegated to reservations on remnants of their former lands.

The year 1862 also saw Minnesota's first railroad open with ten miles of track joining St. Anthony (Minneapolis) and St. Paul. By 1867, the Twin Cities were connected with Chicago by rail; in the early 1870s, tracks crossed the prairie all the way to the Red River Valley. The railroads brought settlers, many from Scandinavia and Germany, and they, in turn, grew produce for the trains to carry back to the cities of the east. The railroads soon ushered in an era of large-scale commercial farming.

  • Important Dates in Minnesota History
    • 1680– Sparsely settled by French fur traders and missionaries.
    • 1763 – Ceded from France to Great Britain
    • 1774 – Part of Quebec
    • 1783 – Area east of the Mississippi ceded from Great Britain to United States
    • 1787 – Part of Northwest Territory
    • 1803 – Area west of the Mississippi acquired by US in the Louisiana Purchase
    • 1820 – Fort Snelling established
    • 1830 – Part of Michigan territory
    • 1836 – Part of Wisconsin Territory
    • 1849 – Minnesota made a separate territory
    • 1858 – Statehood
    • 1862 – Dakota Rebellion

Famous Battles Fought in Minnesota

Ni Civil War battles were fought in Minnesota, but over 20,000 men from the state fought for the Union cause. You can find links to their records in the Military Records part of this page, as you can the records of those regiments who fought in the Dakota Uprising.

These battle accounts that exist 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 Minnesota Genealogical Issues and Resources to Overcome Them

Boundary Changes: Boundary changes are a common obstacle when researching Minnesota 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 Minnesota.

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.

Minnesota 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.

Minnesota Archives

  • Following are links to their websites, and a summary of the records.

Minnesota 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. 

Minnesota 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

Minnesota Family History Centers

Additional Minnesota Genealogical Resources

Minnesota 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 Minnesota genealogy research topics. Rootsweb have an extensive listing of Minnesota Mailing Lists on a variety of topics.

Minnesota 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 Minnesota Genealogy Forum are completely free to use.

Minnesota 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 Minnesota 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.

Minnesota 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 Minnesota is the Minnesota Online Historical Directories which contains a listing of every available city and historical directory related to Minnesota.

Minnesota 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 Minnesota 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 Minnesota Family History Centers. Existing originals are found in the county clerk’s office or in the Minnesota Regional Archives Depository (IRAD) for that county.

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

Minnesota 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 Minnesota Archives has an Minnesotawide 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 Minnesota 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.

Minnesota 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 Minnesota Archives collected some early Minnesota church records that are now held by the Minnesota 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, Minnesota

Central Repositories for Denominational Records

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

Minnesota 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.

Minnesota 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 Minnesota Cemetery records
    • Minnesota Tombstone Transcription Project - death and burial records
    • African American Cemeteries Online – African American, slave, and Native American cemetery records
    • Access Genealogy – huge database of Minnesota 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.

Minnesota Obituaries

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

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

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

Minnesota 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 Minnesota, Northern District (Eastern Division), Naturalization Index, 1926-1979, and the Minnesota, Northern District Naturalization Index, 1840-1950

Minnesota Native American Records

Missing Matriarchs – Resources for Researching Female Minnesota 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 Minnesota where traditional records may not reveal them.


  • Women’s History in Minnesota: A Survey of Published Sources and Dissertations, Jo Blatti (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1993)
  • The Gold Rush Widows of Little Falls, Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1990)
  • Women of Minnesota: Selected Biographical Essays, Barbara Stuhler and Gretchen Kreuter (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1977)
  • Dakota Women’s Work, Colette A. Hyman (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012)
  • In the Company of Women,  Bonnie Watkins and Nina Rothchild (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1996)

Selected Resources for Minnesota Women’s History

Upper Midwest Women’s History Center
1110 Lincoln Avenue West
Fergus Falls, MN 56537

Minnesota Historical Society
345 Kellogg Boulevard
Saint Paul, MN 55012

Common Minnesota Surnames

The following surnames are among the most common in Minnesota 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.

Aitkin, Anoka, Becker, Beltrami, Benton, Big Stone, Blue Earth, Brown, Carlton, Carve, Cass, Chippewa, Chisago, Clay, Clearwater, Cook, Cottonwood, Crow Wing, Dakota, Dodge, Douglas, Faribault, Fillmore, Freeborn, Goodhue, Grant, Hennepin, Houston, Hubbard, Isanti, Itasca, Jackson, Kanabec, Kandiyohi, Kittson, Koochiching, Lac Qui Parle, Lake, Lake of Woods, Le Sueur, Lincoln, Lyon, Mahnomen, Marshall, Martin, McLeod, Meeker, MilleLacs, Morrison, Mower, Murray, Nicollet, Nobles, Norman, Olmsted, OtterTail, Pennington, Pine, Pipestone, Polk, Pope, Ramsey, RedLake, Redwood, Renville, Rice, Rock, Roseau, Scott, Sherburne, Sibley, Stearns, Steele, Stevens, StLouis, Swift, Todd, Traverse, Wabasha, Wadena, Waseca, Washington, Watonwan, Wilkin, Winona, Wright, Yellow Medicine

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