State Research Guide: Missouri

State Research Guide: Missouri

Let us show you the way to Show Me State ancestors.

From the Ozarks on its southern border to St. Louis’ gleaming Gateway Arch, Missouri has been the Promised Land for some and a pit stop on the way west for others. Whether your ancestors raised live stock and crops, fought in the Civil War or piloted steamboats on the Big Muddy, the Show Me State has some impressive resources for your genealogical search. Tops among them are the offerings at the Missouri State Archives <> (including a number of online databases mentioned herein). Read on – we’ll show you those and more Show Me State genealogy resources.

Exploring the past

Before European settlement, Missouri was home to American Indians including the Osage, Shawnee, Fox, Sac and Delaware. The state is named for the Missouri, who lived along the banks of the eponymous river. During their 1673 expedition on that waterway, French Canadian cartographer Louis Jolliet and French Jesuit missionary Father Jacques Marquette were the first Europeans to set foot in the future state of Missouri.

Nine years after the expedition, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle claimed the entire Mississippi Basin for Louis XIV of France, dubbing the area “Louisiana.” Ste. Genevieve, Missouri’s first permanent settlement, was established on the Mississippi River around 1735 as a trading post for French Canadian settlers.

France ceded Louisiana to Spain in 1762; two years later, French fur trader Pierre Laclede Liguest founded St. Louis as a trading center. France regained Louisiana in 1800 and, three years later, sold it to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. The Missouri region was home mostly to French settlers, but a steady stream of others began migrating from Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. Southern planters traveled to the “boot heel” of southern Missouri. For a list of Ozark pioneers, go to <> and click Ozark Families; see the companion book for more information.

Missouri has five original counties: New Madrid, Cape Girardeau, St. Charles, St. Louis and Ste. Genevieve. The rest were established prior to the Civil War, many from parent counties. If your ancestors lived in St. Louis or Kansas City, you’ll need to be careful where you search: The city of St. Louis split from the surrounding St. Louis County in 1876; since then, each has maintained its own government offices. Kansas City was chartered as the town of Kansas in 1850 and as a city three years later. It lengthened its name in 1889 to distinguish itself from the state of Kansas. For details on Missouri’s 114 counties (plus the city of St. Louis), see <>.

Come one, come all

Missouri territorial delegate John Scott’s petition for statehood in 1818 set off a furious national debate over allowing slavery in new states and territories. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 put a band-aid on the problem: In 1821, Missouri was admitted as a slave state and Maine as a free state; all western territories north of Missouri’s southern border would be free. After statehood, westward travelers flocked to Missouri to gear up for the frontier journey. In particular, St. Joseph, Westport, Independence and Kansas City were popular jump-off points for the Oregon and Santa Fe trails. Find resources for tracing pioneers at <>.

Others, including many German, Irish and English immigrants, stuck around, drawn by Missouri’s fertile soil, waterways and cheap land. The US Bureau of Land Management’s online land patent database <> has record images dating back to 1819; also visit the state archives’ Land Patents Database, an index to the name, county, date of purchase, legal land description, and microfilm location of patents from 1831 to 1969. See other microfilmed records the Missouri State Archives holds for your ancestral counties at <>.

By 1860, half the population of the capital, Jefferson City, was German; 10 years later, those of German birth or parentage made up more than 20 percent of the “Missouri Rhineland” – Franklin, Warren, Osage, St. Charles and St. Louis counties. Naturalization records are a good starting point for researching immigrants. Their location depends on the court where your ancestor sought citizenship; see <> to learn more. Also visit the Missouri State Archives online Naturalization Records Database, an index to records in St. Louis and various county and state courts from 1816 to 1955.

Hunting heartland relatives

Track Missouri ancestors in US censuses beginning with the 1830 count. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library (FHL) <> has microfilmed censuses; rent them through a local branch Family History Center (use Family Search to find one). You also can search federal censuses with’s < > US Deluxe records collection ($155.40 per year), in HeritageQuest Online (free through many libraries) or on National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) microfilm.

Before the federal head counts, Missouri Territory took censuses in 1814, 1817, 1819 and 1820 (the last was destroyed); the FHL has 1817 and 1819 records for St. Charles County. Of Missouri’s state censuses, taken regularly in the 1800s, only an 1876 head-of-household enumeration survives. It’s on microfilm at the state archives, state historical society and FHL.

Since 1910, the Missouri vital-records bureau <> has tracked births and deaths, but locating records before mandatory reporting may prove tricky. Start with the state archives’ Birth and Death Records Database, Pre-1910, which indexes 185,000 records from 87 counties. Death records older than 50 years are at the state archives. Its Death Certificate Database, 1910-1955 indexes those records and, for some, links to images of the death certificates.

Also try contacting the health department or clerk of your ancestors’ city or county, and run a place search of the FHL online catalog to find microfilmed vital records. Ancestors whose deaths were subject to a coroner’s investigation may be listed in the state archives’ Coroner’s Inquest Database. The Bureau of Vital Records has been the central registry for marriage and divorce records since July 1, 1948. For earlier records, contact the recorder of deeds (for marriages) or the circuit clerk (for divorces) in the county where the license or decree was granted. And search’s subscription databases for Missouri vital and other records.

Battle for records

Civil War-era Missouri was bitterly divided – it had two state governments, one pro-Union and one Confederate. Still, Missourians enlisting in the Union Army outnumbered those who fought for the Confederacy nearly four to one. Your ancestors may have been among the many who joined up in other states, though, so expand your military records search beyond Missouri.

Find out which side your ancestor fought for using the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System <>, which contains 6.3 million names of Confederate and Union soldiers. Then, using the NARA microfilm number in his listing, order his military service file from <>. The Missouri State Archives’ Civil War Provost Marshal Index Database contains names appearing in loyalty oaths, complaints against soldiers, transportation permits and other papers of the Union army’s provost marshal. Originals are on microfilm at the state archives.

Find more clues to Missourians’ military service in the state archives’ Soldiers Database: War of 1812-World War I. This is a compilation of 576,000 people who fought in 12 wars – including such obscure conficts as the Mormon War of 1838 and the Iowa (Honey) War of 1839 – from territorial times through World War I. You can get more military-research advice in the October 2005 Family Tree Magazine.

Meet me in Missouri

Though online information is plentiful, in-person research is worth the trip. Drop by NARA’s Central Plains Region <> in Kansas City for records including censuses of Northern Plains American Indians. Visit the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri – St. Louis <> for lists of licenses granted pilots, engineers and other steamboat workers from 1897 to 1915. The Missouri Historical Society Library and Archives <> has St. Louis tax lists, city directories, scrapbooks and other resources.

Sample several repositories from home in Virtually Missouri’s <> digitized photo and document collection. With all these resources, your Show Me State ancestors will show themselves in no time.

From the May 2007 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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