State Research Guide: Wyoming

State Research Guide: Wyoming

Level the research playing field with our guide to discovering your Equality State ancestors.

Wyoming isn’t among America’s most metropolitan states (its largest urban area has just over 85,000 residents), but it is one of the most progressive — at least as far as women’s rights go. Its citizens enforced female suffrage in local elections 50 years before Uncle Sam caught on (though their main motive was garnering votes for statehood, which finally came in 1890). The Equality State also claims America’s first female juror, court bailiff, judge and state governor.

Of course, Wyoming is known for more than egalitarianism. It’s also home to our first national park, Yellowstone, a strong mining industry, and thoroughfares for westward-bound pioneers. The Oregon, Overland, Mormon, Bozeman and Bridger trails passed through the state; more than 400,000 travelers used them from about 1841 to 1868.

The Shoshone, Arapaho, Crow and Cheyenne Indians lived in the area many years before the first white American reached it in 1807. Most of what’s now Wyoming became part of Nebraska Territory in 1854; other portions belonged to Washington and Utah. Northern Wyoming went to Dakota Territory in 1861; Idaho got the southern part in 1863.

Despite its location in the path of migrants, Wyoming’s population didn’t begin booming until around 1868, when it became a territory and the Union Pacific Railroad reached its capital, Cheyenne. Chinese, Irish and Mexican laborers built the railroad, which drew Midwestern settlers, Texas cattlemen, Idaho Mormons and Finnish immigrants. Most of today’s Wyomingites have German, English, Irish, American Indian, Norwegian and Swedish ancestry.

Repository righteousness

Your most important Equality State genealogy resources are census, vital, land and court records; and compiled sources such as local histories. The Wyoming State Archives <wyoarchives.state.wy.us> in Cheyenne and the Laramie County Library <www.Iclsonline.org/genealogy> have them.

On the state archives’ home page, click Reference, Research and Historical Photographs for holdings information. Its collection includes censuses, voting records, Spanish-American War regiment rosters, cattle brand books (great if your forebears were ranchers) and some counties’ court and land records (see the county records inventory at <wyoarchives.state.wy.us/databases/county/county.htm>).

County civil and probate court cases can reveal information from naturalizations, divorce proceedings and wills. Before you trek to the archives for county records, learn which county the event occurred in and contact the district court for a case file number. County boundaries weren’t set until 1923, so pinpoint the right county using William Thorndale and William Dollarhide’s Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Census, 1790-1920 (Genealogical Publishing Co.).

The archives doesn’t participate in interlibrary loan, so look for microfilm duplicates at the Church of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library (FHL) <www.familysearch.org>. Then rent film through a branch Family History Center (FHC) — see Family Search to find one near you. Out-of-staters can borrow materials from the Laramie County Library through inter-library loan, though you’ll pay $18 per printed volume.

You’ll find the state archives’ newspaper inventory at <wyoarchives.state.wy.us/databases/newspapers.htm>, and search a microfilm index at <micrographics.state.wy.us>. To borrow microfilmed newspapers through interlibrary loan, look to the University of Wyoming Libraries <www-lib.uwyo.edu> and Wyoming State Library <www-wsl.state.wy.us>.

Everybody counts

Most of Wyoming’s residents have been counted in US censuses since 1870, during the territory days. Before then, you’ll find some Uintah County residents in the 1850 census for Utah Territory. Settlers in eastern Wyoming may be in the “unorganized land” category of the 1860 Nebraska census. Census records through 1930 (except those for 1890, which were destroyed by fire) are available from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) <archives.gov> and its regional facilities, the FHL and FHCs, and the Wyoming State Archives. You also can search the census in the online databases at Ancestry.com <Ancestry.com > ($155.40 per year) and HeritageQuest Online (free through subscribing libraries). Look for Wyoming’s 1890 special veterans census, which escaped the fate of the population census, in the same places as other federal enumerations.

You’ll find an 1869 territorial census at the FHL and the state archives. The archives also has 1875 and 1878 head counts for Cheyenne. Wyoming took three state censuses: 1905, 1915 and 1925. Only the 1905 records survived; they’re available at the state archives. A 1938 and 1939 census of the Wind River Indian reservation is at NARA and the FHL; it includes some vital information.

Vital truths

It may not seem fair, but finding vital records for your Equality State ancestors can be a daunting task. The state began recording birth and death data in 1909; marriages and divorces, in 1941. Death, marriage and divorce records less than 50 years old are restricted to immediate family. Birth records are closed for 100 years — effectively making them unavailable, given their 1909 start. Order records from the state archives (see <wyoarchives.state.wy.us/vital.pdf>); the health department <wdh.state.wy.us/phsd/vital_records> also has them, but for a higher fee.

A few counties kept vital records before 1909; they’ll be with county clerks or at the state archives. The archives also has some delayed birth certificates for those born between 1868 and 1895. Search the FHL’s online catalog for marriage records from half Wyoming’s counties (run a place search on the county and look for a marriage records heading). If you’re lucky, your ancestors’ nuptials are among the 240,000 in the Western States Marriage Records Index <abish.byui.edu/specialcollections/westernstates/search.cfm>, which covers the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s.

In lieu of vital records, look for newspaper announcements. See the previous page and investigate subscription newspaper databases such as Genealogy-Bank <www.genealogybank.com> ($19.95 per month) and NewsBank (free at many libraries). You also can use the Laramie library Web site to submit a $2 request for Wyoming Tribune-Eagle obituary lookups during select years in the 1950s and later.

Equal footing

Wyoming’s wide-open land was a magnet for pioneers. Land records begin as early as 1841 and include cash entries (for land bought outright), homestead certificates (land acquired by fulfilling conditions such as farming) and cancelled homestead entries (for which conditions weren’t fulfilled).

Begin your search with the General Land Office’s patent and survey plat database <www.glorecords.blm.gov>. Search results provide the patent issue date, legal land description and often an image of the original document. Then you can order the land entry case file from NARA (see <archives.gov/genealogy/land> for instructions). Local land offices recorded transactions in tract books and mapped townships’ land entries in townships plats. NARA has these books and plats at its Washington, DC, headquarters; the Bureau of Land Management’s Wyoming office has some copies, too <www.blm.gov/wy>.

Private land transfers are recorded at county clerks’ offices. Some counties’ land records are at the state archives; the FHL has microfilmed them for about half Wyoming’s counties.

Fighting fair

Many of the state’s military posts (listed at <rootsweb.com/~wygenweb/military.htm>) began as trail stops and trading posts. They established a vital military presence on the frontier, particularly during the Indian Wars between 1817 and 1898. The state archives has records of 16 posts, as well as a microfilmed census index called Wyoming Territorial Military Post Returns.

You also might find these soldiers among Army enlistment registers covering 1798 to 1914, found at NARA and the FHL (starting with microfilm 350307). Both repositories also have a pension index spanning 1892 to 1926, which may cover Indian War veterans. You can order copies of those pension records, as well as Civil War service and pension records (Union soldiers from Wyoming are grouped with those from Nebraska), from NARA.

After you dig into these records, check out the Rocky Mountain Online Archive <rmoa.unm.edu> for research leads in the finding aids for records of businesses, institutions, mines, governments and organizations such as women’s clubs. Search on wyoming to see what’s available; each record entry shows the repository that has the item.

In all fairness, finding Wyoming ancestors may be a bit more challenging than in more-populous states. But with persistence and this advice, you’ll level the playing field and discover your family in the Equality State.

From the November 2007 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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