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Genealogical Research in North Dakota

Genealogy Research North Dakota

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

A Brief History of North Dakota

The Sioux and the Ojibwa were the main Native American tribes inhabiting the area we now know as North Dakota when the first Europeans arrived in 1738. The French fur trader Pierre Gaultier de Varennes was the first to enter the region, and fur trading spread rapidly through the Missouri and red River valleys. After the Lewis and Clark expedition explored the Missouri from 1804–1806, the American Fur Company was established and specialized in providing Buffalo hides to consumers.

Scottish settlers flocked to the area around Pembina, while the trading of buffalo hides continued. The Scottish settlers introduced farming to the region, and much of the labor came from métis, who were of missed Native American and European origin. The area remained relatively trouble free until the influx of white settlers during and after the Civil war. The Sioux put up resistance, but the superior power and resources of the white settlers resulted in them signing treaties which confined them to reservations.

The arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad at Fargo in 1872 and its extension to the Missouri the year after led to the rise of homesteading on giant "bonanza farms,” and settlers flocked to the area, especially from Canada. The “boom” was short lived however, and drought combined with depressed farm prices led to many of the initial Canadian and American settlers abandoning the region. Germans, Norwegians, and other Europeans replaced the Americans and Canadians who had left, and when North Dakota entered the Union in 1889, North Dakota had one of the highest populations of foreign-born residents.

  • Important Dates in North Dakota History
    • 1803 – United States receives North Dakota as part of the Louisiana Purchase
    • 1818 – Northeastern part of the region ceded from Great Britain to the United States
    • 1834 – Part of Michigan Territory
    • 1836 – Part of Wisconsin Territory
    • 1838 – Part of Iowa Territory
    • 1849 – Part of Minnesota Territory
    • 1854 – Part of Nebraska Territory
    • 1861 – Reorganized as Dakota Territory
    • 1889 – Territory of Dakota divided into North and South Dakota

Famous Battles Fought in North Dakota

There were no Revolutionary War or Civil War battles fought in North Dakota, but the area was directly affected by a Sioux uprising in 1862, of which the most influential battle was the Battle of Big Mound.

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 North Dakota Genealogical Issues and Resources to Overcome Them

Boundary Changes: Boundary changes are a common obstacle when researching North Dakota 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 North Dakota.

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.

North Dakota 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.

North Dakota Archives

  • Following are links to their websites, and a summary of the records.
    • Kansas Historical Society (State Archives) – county records, census, manuscripts, historical newspapers, maps, photographs, Native American index, surname list, military name index

      6425 SW 6th Avenue
      Topeka, KS 66615-1099
      Tel: 785-272-8681

    • Kansas State University – manuscript collections, literary papers, diaries and journals, photographs, broadsides, maps, audio visual items, oral histories, and printed material.

      University Archives
      Farrell Library
      Manhattan, KS 66506
      Tel: (913) 532-7456

Additional North Dakota Genealogical Resources

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

North Dakota 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 North Dakota Genealogy Forum are completely free to use.

North Dakota 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.

  • North Dakota newspapers and periodicals that you can search online or on-site.
    • Kansas Historical Society (State Archives) – African American publications, Civilian Conservation Corps, Labour Populist publications, Socialist publications, Territorial period newspapers, History of Kansas newspapers from1916

      6425 SW 6th Avenue
      Topeka, KS 66615-1099
      Tel: 785-272-8681

    • Kansas Heritage Center – most of the newspapers published in Dodge City from 1876 to the present and newspapers from several other Kansas towns.

      PO Box 1207
      Dodge City KS 67801-1207
      Tel: 620-227-1616
      Fax: 620-227-1701

    • – free searchable database of Kansas newspaper archives, 1841-1981
    • Library of Congress Digital Newspaper Directory – free searchable database of historical U.S. newspapers dating from 1690-present
    • The Online Books Page – links to historical books and periodicals available for viewing online, dating from mid-16th century
    • – largest online database of historical newspapers in the world.

Historical North Dakota 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.

North Dakota 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 North Dakota is the North Dakota Online Historical Directories which contains a listing of every available historical directory related to North Dakota.

North Dakota 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 North Dakota vital records

North Dakota began recording official records of births and deaths in 1911. Marriage licenses were required starting in 1867, but not filed at state level until 1913.

  • Copies of vital records after those dates must be requested from the:
    • Kansas Office of Vital Statistics

      Charles B. Curtis State Office Building
      1000 SW Jackson Street
      Suite 120
      Topeka, KS 66612-1221
      Tel: 785-296-1400.

    • Kansas Genealogical Society – various historical vital records

      KGS, PO Box 103
      Dodge City, KS 67801-0103
      Tel: (620) 225 - 1951

    • Kansas Historical Society (State Archives) – extensive collection of vital records dating from pre-territorial times

      6425 SW 6th Avenue
      Topeka, KS 66615-1099
      Tel: 785-272-8681

Marriage and Divorce Records

Marriages prior to May 1913 were recorded in the district county courts where the marriage took place. North Dakota marriage licenses did not include the names of the parents unless the bride or groom was underage. Records can be found at:

Divorce records from 1861 until July 1951 were recorded in the North Dakota District Courts.

Copies of official divorce records after July 1951 can be ordered from the North Dakota Office of Vital Statistics.

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.

North Dakota 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.

Central Repositories for Denominational Records

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

North Dakota 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.

North Dakota 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 North Dakota Cemetery records
    • African American Cemeteries Online – African American, slave, and Native American cemetery records
    • 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.

North Dakota 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.

North Dakota probate records have been recorded by the probate division clerks of the North Dakota District Courts and include dockets, wills, oaths, inventories, letters, bonds, appraisements, accounts, court orders, claims, and final settlements.

North Dakota 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.

Most overseas immigrants came to North Dakota through east coast ports such as New, and then traveled by railway to North Dakota. Earlier immigrants landed at New Orleans and then traveled by steamboats upriver to North Dakota. The U.S. National Archives has passenger lists or indexes of American ports for 1820 to 1940, as well as immigration and naturalization records for the entire United States. These records can also be accessed at the National Archives Regional Branch in North Dakota City

North Dakota Native American Records

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


  • The Quiet Conquest: A History of the Life and Times of the First Settlers of Central North Dakota, Barbara Levorsen (The Hawley Herald, 1974)
  • Prairie Mosaic: An Ethnic Atlas of Rural North Dakota, William C. Sherman (North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, 1983)
  • Daughters of Dacotah, Stella Marie Stutenroth (Eduction Supply Co., n.d)

Selected Resources for North Dakota Women’s History

Barns County Historical Museum
PO Box 188
Valley City, ND 58072

Chester Fritz Library
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, ND 58202

North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies
North Dakota State University Library
PO Boxx 5599
Fargo, ND 58105-5599

Common North Dakota Surnames

The following surnames are among the most common in North Dakota 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.

Baldwin, Barkema, Bissell, Bolles, Bruster, Buckingham, Buell, Cambridge, Cawley, Chaffee, Chapman, Chas, Child, Clifton, Colburn, Cole, Colpitts, Cooper, Corbin, Davis, DeCamp, Delano, Dendy, Dent, Dicker, Dobson, Douglas, Duckworth, Duerrbaum, Eastman, Elizabeth, Ellsworth, Engel, Erickson, Fakler, Filly, Gamer, Garrard, Geringer, Geschwind, Grant, Gumbert, Hanson, Harris, Harrison, Herwig, Honore, Hull, Huntington, Hyland, Jenkins, John, Johnson, Jones, Kangas, Kelly, Kilponen, Knights, Komulainen, Kyllonen, Leachland, Levett, Ligon, Liimatta, Lindquist, Lyders, Lyman, Lyon, Lyons, Markert, Mary, Medary, Middlebrook, Minor, Morris, Okland, Paananen, Pagan, Palmer, Paso, Peck, Piirainen, Pinney, Porter, Prairie, Priscilla, Proudfit, Pulkkinen, Puryear, Rademacher, Rathbone, Rebecca, Richardson, Rodgerson, Rogers, Ruth, Sandberg, Sande, Schonfeld, Schroeder, Seely, Simpson, Sorbeo, Stoughton, Tervonen, Terway, Terwei, Todd, Tormanen, Turner, Veeder, Viets, Wagoner, Waits, Ward, Whipple, Wilkins, Will, Witter, Wolcott

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