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Kansas Genealogy Research Guide

by Beth Foulk

At the heart of America’s heartland, Kansas has played a pivotal role in shaping America’s migration routes, the battle over slavery, and the cultivating of the nation’s breadbasket. For those fortunate enough to have Kansas ancestors, a treasure trove of records and stories awaits your discovery.

Kansas Genealogy Research Guide Contents

Kansas Genealogy Fast Facts

US TERRITORY OR
COLONY SETTLED

1854

STATEHOOD

1861

AVAILABLE STATE CENSUSES
(OR SIMILAR)

Various 1855–1859;
every 10 years 1865–1925

FIRST FEDERAL CENSUS

1860 (as territory);
1870 (as state)

PUBLIC-LAND OR
STATE-LAND STATE

Public

BIRTH AND DEATH RECORDS
BEGIN

1911 (state)

MARRIAGE RECORDS
BEGIN

1913 (state)

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State History

Kansas became part of the United States along with the rest of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Prior to that, the area had been inhabited by various Native American tribes (including the Wichita, the Osage, the Pawnee, and the eponymous Kansa, or Kaw) but claimed for France, then Spain, then France again.

In 1830, the Indian Removal Act called for the forced relocation of Native American tribes from the east and southeast of the United States to designated federal lands across the Mississippi (notably in Kansas’ neighbor, Oklahoma). But even before then, individual tribes such as the Delaware and Ottawa agreed to move from their ancestral lands into modern Kansas—often at the expense of tribes indigenous to the region.

Settlers were moving in even before treaties with the Native American tribes were signed, with the first permanent white settlement in Fort Leavenworth in 1827. As a result, the formal surveying process was delayed, and the Preemption Act of 1841 played an outsized role in the settlement of the state. Through it, settlers claimed preemptory rights to property long before the government could properly codify their land ownership.

It wasn’t until the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed in 1854 (creating the Kansas and Nebraska Territories) that emigration from the East Coast and Europe began in earnest. As the new territory opened for white settlement, Native American tribes were again forced off their lands, this time south to Oklahoma. Notably, the Kansas-Nebraska Act also allowed for popular sovereignty to determine whether slavery would be legal in the territory. Waves of activists from both sides of the issue migrated to Kansas, eager to vote either for or against.

This set the stage for “Bleeding Kansas,” a series of violent conflicts over the issue of slavery that some historians believe led directly to the Civil War. More than 50 people died in the well-publicized skirmishes between pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” and antislavery “Free-Staters.” Kansas was ultimately admitted as a free state in early 1861, shortly before the Civil War began.

EMIGRATION SURGES

Emigration surged after the Civil War for two primary reasons. First, the Homestead Act in 1862 gave 160 acres to any settler who would remain on the land for five years and make improvements. Union Civil War veterans enjoyed an added bonus under the Homestead Act—they could deduct their years of service from the five-year occupation rule. Second, the railroads were moving west—and fast. The Sante Fe Railway (officially the Atchison, Topeka and Sante Fe Railway) was chartered in 1859, and the Kansas Pacific Railway (originally the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division) broke ground in 1863. The railroads actively promoted settlement in Kansas to would-be pioneers in the East and immigrant-hopefuls in Germany and across Europe. The railroad companies themselves also spurred migration. The Pacific Railway Act of 1862 offered government incentives to railroads in the form of miles-wide land grants on either side of the tracks. The companies, in turn, sold this prime real estate to settlers to recoup the costs of laying the rails.

German-speaking emigrants (both those from Germany proper and German-speaking minorities from other countries) were among the frequent buyers. Whole towns of German-speaking immigrants from across Europe sprung up, with other notable communities including Russian Mennonites, Scandinavians, French, Italians, Bohemians, Hungarians and former denizens of the British Isles. William H. Carruth’s linguistic study of the state shows the diversity in European settlements, and the Kansas Heritage Project tells their stories.

Other notable migrant groups include the “Exodusters,” formerly enslaved African Americans who left the South during and after Reconstruction. One prominent destination was Nicodemus, a town founded in 1877 that became one of the largest majority-Black settlements west of the Mississippi. Between 1854 and 1929, more than 250,000 children from Eastern cities were sent west on “orphan trains” to find new lives with pioneer families. Kansas became home to 5,000 to 6,000 of them. While records of individual placements are almost non-existent, their stories are recorded at the National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia.

Kansas History Timeline

1541–1762

1541
Spaniard Francisco Vázquez de Coronado visits Kansas during his search for the Seven Cities of Gold
1762
Spain acquires France’s land west of the Mississippi River; it cedes the land to France again in 1800

1803–1821

1803
Modern Kansas becomes part of the United States in the Louisiana Purchase
1820s
Native tribes in Kansas are removed from their lands to make room for tribes forcibly relocated from other areas
1821
Missouri becomes a state; modern Kansas (formerly part of Missouri Territory) becomes “unorganized territory”

1854–1868

1854
The Kansas-Nebraska Act creates the separate territories of Kansas and Nebraska; conflict over slavery leads to “Bleeding Kansas”
1861
Kansas becomes the 34th state to join the Union; western portions of the Kansas Territory become part of the new Colorado Territory
1868
Construction begins on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway

1893–1935

1893
Finney County annexes Garfield County, the last major shift in Kansas’ county boundaries
1935
“Black Sunday”: A massive dust storm crosses the southern Great Plains, typical of the Dust Bowl

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Historic Map

Map of Kansas. By Matthews-Northrup Co. Published by Appleton, D. & Co. Buffalo, New York. 1892. (David Rumsey Map Collection)

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Kansas Genealogy Records Online

Vital Records

BIRTH AND DEATH RECORDS

Kansas first kept statewide births and deaths in 1911, but cities or counties may have kept them earlier. Pre-1911 birth and death registers were most often recorded in city or county clerk offices. Not all records have survived, but the Kansas Historical Society has microfilm records of some; search vital records in the archive catalog.

Post-1911 records (i.e., those filed with the state) are not open to the public. However, the Department of Health and Environment does permit genealogy requests. Records prior to 1940 can be requested by a close relative, such as a cousin; post-1940 the records must be requested by an immediate family member.

FamilySearch and Ancestry. com each have birth indexes for pre-1940 records; FamilySearch has digitized microfilmed images of some of them. Ancestry.com has an index of deaths and burials from 1885 to 1930.

MARRIAGE RECORDS

Likewise, the state didn’t record marriages until 1913, but earlier records were kept by the district court. The Kansas Historical Society has many of these records on microfilm. The society also sponsors an index of marriages from the territorial period (1854–1861), and Ancestry.com has one for marriages 1854 to 1873. Note that Kansas marriage licenses do not include the parents’ names unless the bride or groom were underage.

DIVORCE RECORDS

The state began keeping copies of divorce records in 1951, but the same privacy rules apply. Earlier records were kept by the territorial legislature’s Sessions Laws (1855–1861) or the individual county district court (1861–1951).

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Census Records

Kansas first appeared in the 1860 federal census as Kansas Territory, then as a state in its own right in 1870. But genealogists interested in searching this early Kansas roots are fortunate to have other rich enumerations draw upon. Start looking in Ancestry.com’s collections of voting registers and elections lists from the mid-1850s.

Kansas also took state censuses every 10 years from 1865 to 1925, making them nice complements to the decennial federal census. While the state censuses are not as comprehensive as their federal counterparts, genealogists will still find excellent information in them: name, age, gender, race, relationship to head of household, marital status, birth-place, and (of course) place of enumeration. You can search these (as well as the territorial voting lists, which are some-times called “territory censuses”) in one Ancestry.com collection.

Don’t be surprised if you find a Missourian in these early voting lists and censuses! Many crossed the Missouri-Kansas border specifically to vote in Kansas elections in the hopes of swaying Kansas’ vote on slavery.

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Land Records

Since Kansas is a public-land state, early land sales there were made by the government. You can obtain patents (first title records)—including for homesteaders—on the Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records website. Federal land entry files (the purchase application files) may be obtained from the National Archives using Form 84 for a fee. Records of transactions between railroad companies and settlers are in county land track books or railroad company records, some of which are at the Kansas Historical Society.

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Cemeteries

In addition to massive sites Find a Grave and BillionGraves, you can find Kansan tombstones at the Kansas Gravestones project. D’Addezio.com has a list of cemeteries in the state.

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State Publications and Resources

NEWSPAPERS

The Kansas Historical Society boasts a nearly complete collection of every paper published in the state—fitting, since it was founded by early Kansas newspaper men. More than 300,000 pages are available free through the Library of Congress site, Chronicling America. And subscription site Newspapers.com has more than 19 million pages of Kansas papers.

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Kansas Genealogy Resources

WEBSITES

Cyndi’s List: Kansas

FamilySearch Research Wiki: Kansas

Kansapedia

The Kansas Collection

Kansas Memory

KSGenWeb Project

Linkpendium: Kansas

Territorial Kansas

BOOKS AND PUBLICATIONS*

A Guide to Genealogical and Historical Research in Kansas by Mary Clement Douglass (Historical Matters)

Historical Atlas of Kansas by Homer E. Socolofsky and Huber Self (University of Oklahoma Press)

History of the State of Kansas by William G. Cutler (A. T. Andreas)

Peopling the Plains: Who Settled Where in Frontier Kansas by James R. Shortridge (University Press of Kansas)

ARCHIVES AND ORGANIZATIONS

Kansas Collection, Kenneth Spencer Research Library

Kansas Historical Society

Kansas State Library

Mid-Continent Public Library: Midwest Genealogy Center

Midwest Historical and Genealogical Society

National Archives at Kansas City

Wichita State University Library

HISTORIC SITES

Summaries written by Maureen Taylor

Fort Hays State Historic Site: Visit this US Army post — active from 1865 to 1889 — and you’ll see the original 1867 blockhouse and 1872 guardhouse, furnished officers’ quarters and American Indian artifacts.

Fort Scott National Historic Site: The US National Park Service maintains Fort Scott’s 20 historic structures, a military parade ground and 5 acres of restored tallgrass prairie. Established in 1842, Fort Scott now serves as a tribute to western settlement and civilization.

Frontier Army Museum: This museum showcases weapons, uniforms and other equipment used by soldiers serving west of the Mississippi River between 1804 and 1917.

Kansas Museum of History: View a panorama of Kansas history in special and permanent exhibits, featuring artifacts such as a Cheyenne tepee, a covered wagon and a locomotive made for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.

Mennonite Heritage Museum: Comprising eight buildings, this museum offers a glimpse into the lives of Russian Mennonites who settled here in 1874.

Shawnee Indian Mission State Historic Site: Between 1839 and 1862, this 12-acre site was a school for Shawnee, Delaware and other Indian nations. See teachers’ living quarters, classrooms, dormitories and tools the children used.

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Kansas See All

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