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Genealogical Research in Montana

Genealogy Research Montana

There are many genealogical records and resources available for tracing your family history in Montana. 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 Montana. So that you will have a more comprehensive understanding of these records, we have provided a brief history of the “Treasure 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 Montana ancestors and their records.

A Brief History of Montana

The area now known as Montana was first inhabited by Native American tribes such as the Crows, Cheyenne, and Blackfeet. The first Europeans to enter the region were those of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806. Trappers and traders arrived soon after bringing alcohol, disease, and a new economic system to the natives. By the 1840’s the population of beaver had disintegrated to such a level that it brought an end to the trapping industry. Most of Montana was included in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

The trappers who had come to Montana were soon followed by Catholic missionaries who established what is believed to be the first permanent settlement in Montana - Saint Mary's Mission in the Bitterroot Valley. The missionaries introduced agriculture to the region and constructed a sawmill, but Montana’s economy really took off with the discovery of gold in the 1860’s. Many prospectors flocked to the area, the rapid influx of people leading to boomtowns that shot up and declined just as quickly when gold deposits were exhausted.

Montana became a territory in 1864, and as the population of white settlers increased, so did the resentment of the native populace. Angry at the loss of their lands and traditional ways, the Native tribes went to war against the invaders. Some of the most famous battles between Native Americans and the U.S. Army took place in Montana, notably the Battle of Little Big Horn where General Custer and his troops were slain in 1876 and the Battle of Big Hole Basin in 1877 when Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce were victorious over U.S. troops.

The strength of the United States Army prevailed in the end however, and as the Indian resistance was ended, cattle ranches began to flourish and new mining communities emerged. Open range cattle ranching flourished across Montana’s open plains, and the town of Butte became famous when copper and silver were discovered near there. Railroads crossed Montana by the 1880,s and the territory was made a state in 1889.

  • Important Dates in Montana History
    • 1803– Part of Louisiana Purchase
    • 1812 – Part of Missouri Territory
    • 1846 – Northwestern Montana part of Oregon Territory
    • 1853 – Northwestern Montana part of Washington Territory
    • 1854 – Montana made part of Nebraska Territory
    • 1861 – Becomes part of Dakota Territory
    • 1863 – Northwestern Montana part of Idaho Territory
    • 1864 – Montana made a separate territory
    • 1876– Battle of Little Bighorn
    • 1877 – Battle of Big Hole Basin
    • 1889 – Statehood

Famous Battles Fought in Montana

Montana has had a relatively quiet military history, but two famous battles between Native American tribes and U.S. troops were fought in the state - the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, and the Battle of Big Hole Basin in 1877.

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 Montana Genealogical Issues and Resources to Overcome Them

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

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.

Montana 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.

Montana Archives

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

Montana 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. 

Montana 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

Montana Family History Centers

Additional Montana Genealogical Resources

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

Montana 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 Montana Genealogy Forum are completely free to use.

Montana 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 Montana 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.

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

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

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

Montana 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 Montana Archives has an Montanawide 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 Montana 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.

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

Central Repositories for Denominational Records

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

Montana 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.

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

Montana Obituaries

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

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

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

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

Montana Native American Records

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


  • Montana: A History of Two centuries, Michael P. Malone (University of Washington Press, 1991)
  • No Step Backward: Women and Family on the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontiers, Helena, Montana, Paula Petrick (Montana Historical Society Press, 1987)
  • Girl From the Gulches, Ellen Baumier (Montana Historical Society Press, 2012)
  • More Than Petticoats: Montana’s Remarkable Women, Gayle C. Shirley (Twodot, 1995)

Selected Resources for Montana Women’s History

Montana Women’s History Project
Mansfield Library
University of Montana
2626 Garland
Missoula, MT 59812

Montana Historical Society
P.O. Box 210201
225 North Roberts Street
Helena, MT 59620-1201
Telephone: 406-444-2694
Fax: 406-444-2696

Common Montana Surnames

The following surnames are among the most common in Montana 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.

Beaverhead, Big Horn, Blaine, Broadwater, Carbon, Carter, Cascade, Chouteau, Custer, Daniels, Dawson, DeerLodge, Fallon, Fergus, Flathead, Gallatin, Garfield, Glacie, GoldenValley, Granite, Hill, Jefferson, Lake, Lewis, Liberty, Lincoln, Madison, McCone, Meagher, Mineral, Missoula, Musselshell, Park, Petroleum, Phillips, Pondera, Powder River, Powell, Prairie, Ravalli, Richland, Roosevelt, Rosebud, Sanders, Sheridan, Silver Bow, Stillwater, Sweet Grass, Teton, Toole, Treasure, Valley, Wheatland, Wibaux, Yellowstone

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