State Research Guide: Iowa

By Dana Schmidt Premium

Hear “Iowa,” and if you’re like most people, corn comes to mind. After all, it’s no secret the state, with its rolling, fertile hills, is tops in corn and runner-up in soybean production. But the Hawkeye State is more than farms: Historically, it’s led the nation in education and women’s rights. An October 1884 Annals of Iowa article boasts about the state’s high number of schoolhouses and excellent attendance record, as well its progressive attitude toward women. Its author, citing the 1880 US census, claims more than 80,000 Iowa women worked outside the home. And Iowan Carrie Chapman Cart began crusading for suffrage in 1900.


She’s in the company of well-known musicians, writers, actors and political figures, including painter Grant Wood, comedian Johnny Carson, western movie star John Wayne, first lady Mamie Eisenhower and frontiersman Buffalo Bill Cody. As the highway signs say, Iowa offers “fields of opportunities” — not only for farmers and other natives, but also for genealogists.

Fields of dreams

The Fox (now called the Meskwaki), Ioway, Sauk and other American Indians were first to make their homes on the prairie. In 1788, when France controlled the land, Europeans started planting roots where Dubuque is today. France and Spain alternately owned the “lush, green and fertile” land (as explorers Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette described it) until the United States acquired it in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.

Most settlers didn’t start arriving until after the Black Hawk War ended in 1833. The Sauk and Fox had to move west of the Mississippi River, opening up the area for westward expansion. The Great Lakes Region of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA; <>) holds Bureau of Indian Affairs records covering these tribes; censuses of Northern Plains Indians are at NARA’s Central Plains Region in Kansas City, Mo. See the April 2004 Family Tree Magazine for in-depth help researching American Indian ancestors.

In 1834, the area became part of Michigan Territory; two years later, it transferred to Wisconsin Territory. Finally, in 1838, Iowa became its own territory. Meanwhile, people from Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and other states migrated there. The population blossomed during the decade following statehood in 1846. Among the newcomers were German, British, Irish, Scandinavian and Dutch immigrants, as well as some Eastern Europeans and Italians. Many had arrived in America through ports in New Orleans, New York and Canada. The Family History Library (FHL) <> and NARA have microfilmed passenger lists and some naturalization records. For naturalizations before 1906, contact the state or county court where your ancestor became a citizen. The subscription Web site < > ($155.40 per year) indexes passenger lists from many US ports.


Iowa’s agricultural economy meant land was an important commodity. Land claims made while the area was under French and Spanish rule are recorded in the American State Papers collection of congressional documents from 1789 to 1838. These are online at <> and on FHL microfilm.

Uncle Sam opened the Iowa land office in 1838. Records for this public-land state are at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM); the BLM’s General Land Office site <> offers a searchable index to many Iowa land patents. NARA has microfilm copies. Go to the State Historical Society of Iowa (SHSI) <> in Des Moines for microfilm of General Land Office Tract Books listing patents issued; they’re arranged by legal land description.

If you’re having trouble finding early records — especially those from the 1800s, when Iowa’s territorial affiliation changed — try consulting resources for the territory it was part of at the time.

A swift population movement to western Iowa prompted officials to move the state capital from Iowa City to Des Moines in 1857. Today, the SHSI has offices in both locations. Although most of their records overlap, check with each location before traveling there to make sure it holds the records you seek.

Bumper crop of Iowans

Begin cultivating your Hawkeye State family tree in census records. Iowa’s federal enumerations took place every 10 years starting in 1850. Look for them (except for the 1890 count, which was destroyed by fire) on microfilm at the FHL and other large libraries, NARA and both SHSI locations. You also can search the censuses online at and HeritageQuest Online <> (available through many libraries).

Additionally, the FHL has Iowa’s territorial censuses, which exist for 1836 and 1838 (as part of Wisconsin Territory), and 1840, 1844 and 1846 (as part of Iowa Territory). These are head-of-household counts, though the 1840 census also lists the number of males and females by age group.

Iowa tallied its growing population in state censuses, including ones in 1856, 1885, 1895, 1905, 1915 and 1925. Look for them at the SHSI (the Iowa City office doesn’t have the 1905 count) and the Iowa Genealogical Society (IGS) <>. Some counties are on FHL microfilm. The 1925 census is a boon for researchers because it recorded everyone’s parents’ names and places of birth and marriage. IGS volunteer Theresa Liewer notes this census is arranged in an unusual way: “It’s organized by county and township, but is presented by ‘books.’” The SHSI has indexed the heads of household for the 12 largest towns — look up the name, address and book number, then use the microfilm of that book. Order indexes for each of 22 counties on IGS’ Web site (click Publications).

Towns and counties took censuses throughout the 1800s, too. You’ll find a list of these enumerations and coverage areas in the FHL’s Iowa Research Outline. (From the FamilySearch home page, click Guides, then Research Outline, then Iowa Research Outline.)

Soy many vital records

Iowa began requiring counties to keep vital records in 1880, but many births and deaths went unrecorded until the state passed stronger laws in 1921. Vital records are restricted for 75 years after creation; request older records from the state vital records bureau (see resources). More-recent birth certificates may be available from your ancestor’s county. The IGS, SHSI and FHL have microfilmed vital records from every county, and the SHSI offers a statewide index to deaths covering 1904 to 1916.

Counties started keeping marriage and divorce records as early as 1835, but no statewide index exists. To get the records, you’ll need to consult the county recorder in the county that issued the license, or search the FHL online catalog for microfilmed copies. For divorces prior to 1906, contact the county’s district court. After 1906, you also can check for transcriptions at the state vital-records office. The FHL and the SHSI in Des Moines have copies of divorce records after 1906.

In lieu of official vital records, consult church records, as most churches recorded baptisms, marriages and burial information. FamilySearch’s Iowa Research Outline provides a list of church archives; see the February 2004 Family Tree Magazine for more on researching religious records.

Fields of battle

Iowans turned out in droves to support the Union’s Civil War effort — at least 75,000 enlisted. You can find Civil War service records on microfilm at the FHL and NARA. Start your search with the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System <>, which indexes 6.3 million Union and Confederate soldier names.

After the war, soldiers formed Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) posts in most Iowa towns. A fraternal and veterans aid organization, GAR was succeeded by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, which offers GAR history and post lists at <>. Post minutes, rosters and microfilmed membership cards may provide a member’s name, birth information, military service details, and wife’s name. The SHSI in Des Moines has records for Iowa posts, and the IGS and the SHSI in Iowa City have microfilmed membership cards. You’ll find a microfilmed index to Iowa GAR records at all these places, as well as the FHL. Information on all US military veterans buried in Iowa is in the SHSI’s Armed Forces Grave Registrations.

If your male ancestor was between ages 18 and 45 in 1917 or 1918, look for a WWI draft registration at NARA and on FHL microfilm, as well as on The Des Moines SHSI also has State Bonus Board case files recording bonuses paid to WWI and WWII vets and their survivors. With resources like these and a little care and nurturing, your family tree will start sprouting branches in Iowa’s fields of genealogical opportunity.

From the December 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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