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Genealogical Research in South Dakota

Genealogy Research South Dakota

There are many historical and genealogical records and resources available for tracing your family history in South Dakota. Because of the abundance of information 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 South Dakota. So that you will have a more comprehensive understanding of these records, we have provided a brief history of the “Mount Rushmore 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 South Dakota ancestors and their records.

A Brief History of South Dakota

The area now known as South Dakota has been inhabited for over 25,000 years. The first people were nomadic groups of the Native Americans who European settlers would find there when they first arrived following the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806. The white settlers sought to dominate the Native tribes by negotiating peace treaties and converting them to the Christian faith. Most of the first whites to settle in the region were fur traders, who had by the mid 1850’s had completely depleted all major sources of furs and hides. After the depletion of fur-providing animals, the white settlers turned their attention to usurping Indian lands and preparing ceded territories for more white settlers.

The Dakota Territory was established in 1861, and included much of present-day Montana and Wyoming as well as North and South Dakota. Seven years later Wyoming and Montana were eliminated from the Dakota Territory, and a gold rush six years after that brought thousands of prospectors and settlers to the area. South Dakota became a separate state in 1889 with Pierre as the capitol. There were nine Indian reservations included within the state, established after three wars with the Sioux and extensive negotiations.

Four reservations were established east of the Missouri for the Yankton and several Isanti Sioux tribes, and five reservations to the west of the Missouri for the Teton and Yanktonai Sioux. Sovereignty was thus divided among state officials, Indian agents, and tribal leaders, a division that did not always encourage efficient government. Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, South Dakotans had limited economic opportunities, as agriculture was the primary industry. Close to 30,000 Sioux barely survived on livestock production and farming, inadequately supplemented by off-reservation employment and irregular government jobs. The 500,000 non-Indians lived mainly off mineral production (especially gold), small grain sales east of the Missouri, cattle-feeding enterprises, and a variety of service industries at urban centers throughout the state.

A tourism industry was established after World War I accompanied by efforts to subdue and harness the waters of the Missouri. Federal aid sustained the state through he Great Depression of the 1930’s, thought he period after World War II saw an economic revival fueled by dam construction along the Missouri, rural electrification, arid-land reclamation, and the mechanization of agriculture. Federal programs saw many Native Americans relocated to urban centers where jobs and improved education were available, increasing occupational opportunities on reservations.

  • Important Dates in South Dakota History
    • 1803 – Part of the Louisiana Purchase
    • 1805 – Part of Louisiana Territory
    • 1812 – Part of Missouri Territory
    • 1821 – Part of unorganized Indian Territory
    • 1934 – Part of Michigan Territory
    • 1836 – Part of Wisconsin Territory
    • 1838 – Part of Iowa Territory
    • 1849 – Part of Minnesota Territory
    • 1858 – White settlements established at Yankton and Vermillion
    • 1861 – Reorganized as the Dakota Territory; included Montana and Wyoming
    • 1864 – Montana and Wyoming separate from Dakota Territory
    • 1875 – Gold discovered in Black Hills
    • 1876 – Sioux War
    • 1889 – North and South Dakota become separate states
    • 1890 – Massacre of Lakota Indians at Wounded Knee

Famous Battles Fought in South Dakota

The Battle of Slim Buttes was fought in South Dakota during the Sioux War of 1876, while the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 is probably the most famous of any conflict between US Troops and Native Americans.

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 South Dakota Genealogical Issues and Resources to Overcome Them

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

South 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.

South 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 South Dakota Genealogical Resources

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

South 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 South Dakota Genealogy Forum are completely free to use.

South 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.

  • South 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 South 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.

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

South 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 South Dakota vital records

South 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. South 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 South Dakota District Courts.

Copies of official divorce records after July 1951 can be ordered from the South 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.

South 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.

South 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.

South 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 South 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.

South Dakota Obituaries

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

South 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.

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

South 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 South Dakota through east coast ports such as New, and then traveled by railway to South Dakota. Earlier immigrants landed at New Orleans and then traveled by steamboats upriver to South 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 South Dakota City

South Dakota Native American Records

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


  • The Divorce Mill: Realistic Sketches of the South Dakota Divorce Colony, Harry, Hazel, and S.L. Lewis (Sheed and Ward, 1987)
  • After the West Was Won: Homesteaders and Town-Builders in Western South Dakota, 1900-1917, Paula M. Nelson (University of Iowa Press, 1978)
  • Black Hill Ladies: The Frail and the Fair, Irma Klock (The Author, 1980)
  • What This Awl Means: Feminist Archaeology at the Wahpeton Dakota Village, Janet D. Spector (Minnesota Historical Society, 1993)
  • Daughters of Dakota, 6 Vols., Sally R. Wagner (Sky Carrier, 1990)

Selected Resources for South Dakota Women’s History

Center for Western Studies
Mikkelsen Library
Augustana College
29th and Summit Ave.
Sioux Falls, SD 57197

I.D. Weeks Library
Richardson Archives
University of South Dakota
Spearfish, SD 57069

Women’s Studies Program
South Dakota State University
Political Science Department
Brookings, SD 57007

Common South Dakota Surnames

The following surnames are among the most common in South 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.

Abbott, Adams, Addy, Ahrenlt, Alden, Algoe, Alice, Allen, Allie, Amelia, Anderson, Ann, Anna, Anne, Anstye, Appleton, Archer, Armentrout, Armstrong, Arnold, Arthur, Artingstall, Atwood, Aufricht, Bailey, Bailey-Wood, Baker, Baldwin, Baliow, Ball, Ballantyne, Ballew, Banwell, Barber, Barnes, Bayly, Beatrice, Bernard, Beverly, Bigge, Bird, Bishop, Black, Blackmore, Blanche, Bonneau, Bonsoll, Bowen, Briggs, Brokaw, Brown, Bullock, Bunch, Burman, Burnham, Busan, Bush, Cal, Cameron, Carol, Caroline, Carr, Celia, Chapman, Charity, Charlotte, Chase, Chris, Christenson, Christie, Church, Clara, Clark, Cody, Coleman, Collins, Comer, Conner, Cooke, Cooper, Cowen, Crawford, Crees, Crispe, Cross, Curswell, Custard, Dare, Davies, Day, Debbie, Derickson, Derrickson, Dibble, Dorward, Dowling, Dulin, Dunn, Dutton, Dyana, Easterick, Edmiston, Edwards, Elder, Elizabeth, Elliott, Ethel, Evans, Evensen, Evonne, Fackleman, Faircluff, Fairholm, Fairservice, Fishel, Fisk, Fiske, Flannery, Fletcher, Francis, French, Frey, Fry, Gardner, Garnet, Garrison, Gilbert, Gladback, Golden, Goodhue, Goodings, Gould, Granby, Graves, Grawell, Greenfield, Griffen, Griggs, Guthrie, Gwinnell, Habben, Hall, Ham, Haney, Hannah, Harbough, Harryman, Hegglund, Helen, Helgeson, Henderson, Hendricks, Hewitt, Hiams, Hicks, Hilary, Hill, Hoag, Holbrook, Hole, Holland, Hood, Hooper, Hopkins, Hoseth, Hoskins, Hubbard, Huber, Humphreys, Huron, Huston, Irion, Isnogle, Iverton, Jarvis, Jeffery, Jeffs, Jenkins, Jennie, Jennifer, Jergens, Jerome, Joan, Johnson, Jones, Jordan, Joyce, Judd, Julius, Kantor, Kate, Katherine, Kerr, Kiefer, Kielhorn, Kim, Kimball, Kimpson, King, Kirkpatric, Kjolseth, Knight, Kurtz, Laura, Leavitt, Leonard, Lina, Livingston, Long, Loobey, Lush, Lynne, Mabel, Magdaline, Manchester, Margaret, Margery, Marie, Martin, Mary, Masterson, Matthews, Mattie, Maxie, Maybury, McBane, McClain, McKee, McMerrick, McNeil, McNutt, Means, Mehitable, Messerly, Metcalf, Middlesworth, Miles, Millard, Miller, Mills, Morgan, Mork, Morley, Morrow, Mullimaxone, Myers, Nancy, Nedrow, Neeley, Nelson, Newberry, Nichols, Nighswonger, Noorda, Norman, Notestine, Nussbaum, Oswalt, Paine, Palmer, Panko, Parks, Parsons, Payter, Pearson, Peck, Peggy, Perlina, Peterson, Phylis, Pierce, Pierpont, Pike, Pinchard, Pool, Porter, Potter, Pottorff, Poulson, Powers, Pratt, Pugh, Pulman, Rambo, Rane, Reardon, Rebecca, Reed, Regan, Reinhold, Remember, Resner, Rheborg, Rice, Richards, Rinehart, Ripley, Robbins, Roberts, Rodgers, Rogers, Roher, Rohrer, Rominger, Rose, Roush, Ryburn, Saha, Sammons, Sampson, Sarah, Sawvel, Schaich, Schiefelben, Schmalle, Schumacher, Schuyler, Scott, Service, Shaaron, Sharp, Shaul, Sheldon, Shell, Sheryl, Siedschlaw, Siemsen, Simmons, Smith, Smyth, Snow, Son, Spiller, Stanberry, Stanley, Steenson, Stephenson, Still, Stoddart, Stoecer, Stone, Stowe, Strong, Susan, Swanlund, Swift, Symonds, Talley, Taylor, Thatcher, Thompson, Thurston, Thyer, Tolley, Trowbridge, Trumbell, Tumock, Tuttle, Upshaw, Van Dreser, Verna, Vik, Vogel, Wakefield, Wallace, Walters, Waltz, Ward, Warner, Webster, Weiersheuser, Welton, Wheeldon, Whipple, Whistler, Whitcomb, White, Whitman, Wilder, Wilkinson, Williams, Wilson, Zenishek, Ziegler, Zook

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