State Research Guide: Kansas

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

For most people, mentioning Kansas conjures up images of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz: “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”Whereas Dorothy has to click her heels together three times to return home, family historians can easily revisit their Kansas roots with the click of a mouse. No wizardry is required to access the genealogical gems on the Kansas State Historical Society’s (KSHS) user-friendly Web site <>, or to find ancestors in the old books, letters, diaries and photographs in the online Kansas Collection <>. You won’t need magical ruby slippers to find your way to offline sources, either. Just rely on these research tricks to guide you on your journey.

The lion’s share of records

First, you’ll have to pinpoint where and when your ancestors lived in the region — details you can learn from censuses and vital records. Various territorial censuses were taken between 1855 and 1860. Kansas became the 34th state in 1861, and state census records — taken every 10 years — exist for 1865 through 1925. The federal government enumerated Kansas Territory in 1860, then began recording the state’s citizens every 10 years starting in 1870.

State and territorial census records and accompanying indexes are available on microfilm through the KSHS’ free interlibrary loan program. (See <> for details.) You also can get microfilmed state censuses and some territorial censuses from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library (FHL) <> in Salt Lake City and its branch Family History Centers (FHCs). You’ll find federal census records at many local libraries, the FHL, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) <> facilities, and on the subscription sites <>, < > and HeritageQuest Online <> (free through subscribing libraries).

Finding vital records poses more of a challenge. Kansas began recording births and deaths on the state level in 1911. Earlier records are incomplete and housed in a variety of locations — most commonly the town, city or county city clerk’s office in the place the event occurred. Marriage licenses from Kansas’ territorial period still exist, but weren’t required by law until 1867; statewide registration of marriages began much later, in 1913. Don’t worry if your ancestors moved to the Sunflower State before 1867. KSHS has an index to all marriage licenses recorded before that year. Marriages and deaths recorded in territorial newspapers (1854 to 1861) appear in the 1950 issues of the Kansas Historical Quarterly, a publication of KSHS.

If you strike out at the town and county clerks’ offices, check with genealogical societies near your ancestors’ stomping grounds. They might hold some early vital records, too. You can find a list of groups belonging to the Kansas Council of Genealogical Societies at <>. Contact the Office of Vital Statistics for birth and death records after 1911 and marriages after 1913.

Whirlwind of settlement

In 1803, the United States made the historic Louisiana Purchase, which encompassed present-day Kansas. A diverse population of American Indians, including the Omaha, Pawnee, Apache and Wichita, inhabited the region. Over time, several religious groups — Baptist, Congregational, Society of Friends (Quaker), Methodist and Roman Catholic — sent missionaries to convert the native populations. Records of those missions predate formal vital statistics and can help you find your pioneering ancestors. The documents reside in specialized archives for the various denominations within the state, but you’ll also find miscellaneous religious records at KSHS. Although thousands of potential settlers passed through the area as they traveled west

along the Sante Fe and Oregon trails, they established no permanent settlements, except for military outposts and trading posts, until the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 conferred territorial status upon the region.

Kansas had a reputation for violent weather and bloody clashes, which initially discouraged settlement. During the territorial period, the region acquired the nickname “Bleeding Kansas” because of the conflicts between pro- and antislavery factions moving into the region. Members of the New England Emigrant Aid Society are thought to have settled the area in order to influence voting on the slavery issue. A list of those individuals and the territorial citizens deemed eligible to vote in 1856 appears on the Kansas GenWeb site <>.

Kansas’ population soon skyrocketed, thanks to the Homestead Act of 1862. Fewer than 9,000 people lived on the prairie in 1860, but by 1865, another 100,000 had joined them. The Homestead Act provided male US citizens and those intending to become citizens a chance to claim 160 acres of farmland for themselves and their families if they agreed to cultivate the land for at least five years. The free land lured immigrants from Germany, Russia, Sweden, England and Mexico, as well as people from other regions of the United States. African Americans calling themselves “Exo-dusters” moved to Kansas because of its anti-slavery status.

Land offices in 25 towns handled the transactions of this public-land state. The initial land transfers from the federal government to private owners appear in the Kansas Tract Books, available on microfilm at the KSHS. (NARA keeps Kansas’ original federal land records.) You also can search for your ancestors’ deeds in the General Land Office online database at <>. Each county’s register of deeds holds records of other land transactions.

Orient yourself to the state’s geography using maps at the KSHS, or consult maps created by the Kansas State Board of Agriculture in 1878, online at <>. If you can’t find the place your ancestor lived on a current map, it might go by a different name — consult 1001 Kansas Place Names for help.

There’s no place like home

In addition to the resources on the Kansas GenWeb site, check out the digital archive of books, manuscripts and photographs at The Kansas Collection. Want to read about the 1863 Lawrence, Kan., massacre, which left your great-great-grandmother a widow? Click on the Books link, and you’ll find an 1865 account of the event. The materials on this site will keep you busy for weeks.

If you really want to delve into your Kansas roots, we suggest a research trip to the Sunflower State. Make sure you put Topeka, home of KSHS’ research library, on your itinerary. In 1875, a group of Kansas newspaper editors established KSHS to preserve their publications. Today, the organization maintains a comprehensive collection of historical newspapers, which you can view on microfilm at the KSHS research facility or borrow through interlibrary loan.

In addition to historical newspapers, KSHS has gathered a wide range of documents — everything from county records microfilmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah to books on the state’s history. The KSHS Web site offers an extensive research guide with descriptions of document collections and their availability. Currently, KSHS is collecting war letters written since the Civil War.

To search the holdings of seven Topeka libraries, including KSHS, use the online Associated Topeka Libraries Automated System (ATLAS) at <>. ATLAS will help you find maps, directories, published and unpublished family histories, organizational papers, county histories and manuscripts. If you can’t swing a trip to your ancestral state just yet, some of these libraries also offer research services. See their Web sites for more details.

You don’t need a loving tin man, a brave lion or a smart scarecrow to help you navigate the Sunflower State’s genealogical resources. Thanks to the forward-thinking businessmen of 19th-century Kansas and their descendants, the state’s past is alive and well, and being preserved for genealogists and historians like you. So click your mouse — and your heels, too, if you think that’ll help — to start following the proverbial yellow brick road to your roots.

During the 19th century, various religious groups established missions in Kansas to convert the native Omaha, Pawnee, Apache and Wichita Indians. Check mission records for clues about early Kansas ancestors.

From the August 2005 Family Tree Magazine