State Research Guide: Minnesota

By Paula Stuart-Warren Premium

Where are Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, the home of Paul Bunyan (so claim the locals) and the headwaters of the Mississippi River? The world-famous Mayo Clinic? The most-visited shopping mall in the United States?

If you answered Minnesota, you’re correct. The state’s proud residents warmly welcome visitors to the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and the state capital, St. Paul), the Lake Superior port of Duluth, resorts, casinos, and of course, the Mall of America in Bloomington. This Land of 10,000 Lakes (some estimates put the actual number at 15,000 or 20,000) draws fishermen, boaters and swimmers to places such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Voyageurs National Park. Ice fishermen and skiers brave the fabled frigid winters.


Besides all those lakes, the North Star State boasts an astronomical amount of family history resources-including the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) <>, whose Web site offers research guides to 40-plus record groups (under Resources, click Family History) and searchable indexes to births (1900 to 1911), deaths (1905 to 1996) and veterans’ grave registrations (1857 to 1975). But you needn’t feel overwhelmed by Minnesota’s vast genealogical universe: We’ve charted the best and brightest tools to guide your search.

Meteoric rise

Among the dozen-plus American Indian tribes associated with Minnesota are the Dakota (Sioux) and Ojibway (also called Chippewa). The 1850 territorial census listing 6,077 residents overlooked most Indians, but the 1900 census of 1.7 million included them. Conflicts arose with settlers as Indians lost land through treaties. In 1862, failed crops, tensions over land and the government’s nonpayment of promised funds drove the Dakota to rebel. Later that year, 38 Indians were hung, and Congress authorized removal of most of the tribe to South Dakota.

You’ll find Minnesota-related Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) records, largely starting in the mid-19th century, at the MHS, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) <> in Washington, DC, NARA’s Great Lakes Region in Chicago and its Central Plains Region in Kansas City. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library (FHL) <> has microfilmed BIA records, too. Find them by running a keyword search of the online catalog on minnesota bureau indian affairs. The FHL is in Salt Lake City, but you can rent its microfilm through a branch Family History Center-use Family Search to find one near you. For more on Indian research, see the April 2004 Family Tree Magazine.

Fur traders, missionaries and soldiers arrived in the early 1800s, when Minnesota was part of the Louisiana Purchase. Those settlers included French Canadians, then New Englanders, Irish, Scandinavians and Germans. (Though most Americans think of Minnesotans as Scandinavian, the state’s largest ethnic group is German.)

The US government created Minnesota Territory in 1849. Since its borders fluctuated before Minnesota became a state in 1858, you may find early ancestors in records from neighboring Wisconsin, Iowa, the Dakotas, or even the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Ontario.

US and foreign newspapers enticed immigrants to the new state with reports about its beauty, lush land, green forests and abundant lakes. Long known as the home of the legendary Northern Pacific and Great Northern railroads, Minnesota received settlers by train, by steamboat up the Mississippi River and through the Great Lakes, and on horseback across the border with Canada. The discovery of iron and other minerals in northern Minnesota’s Iron Range drew Serbians, Italians, Finns, Croatians and Eastern European Jews; some settled in the Twin Cities. More-recent immigrant arrivals hail from Mexico, Southeast Asia, Somalia, Ethiopia and Russia.

Web wonders

Besides vital-records indexes and research advice (much of which is also in A Guide to Family History Resources at the Minnesota Historical Society — see resources), the MHS site hosts a place-name database, library catalog and an index to the 90-year-old Minnesota History quarterly. You can borrow MHS microfilm-including state censuses, newspapers back to 1849 and naturalization records — through interlibrary loan (ask at your library’s reference desk).

Visit MHS to study a Biography File of 100,000 cards indexing published information about pioneers, physicians, lawyers, educators, criminals and other famous and infamous folk. You’ll also find inventories of personal papers and records of state and county governments, businesses and organizations — and even the fascinating St. Paul Gangster History Research Collection. During Prohibition, Minnesota’s capital became a haven for the likes of John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and Ma Barker.

The Minnesota Genealogical Society <> Web site offers an online catalog and index to the society’s journal, The Minnesota Genealogist. Other good resources include Park Genealogical Books <> for local histories, indexes and transcribed records; and Minnesota’s USGenWeb page <> for county information, maps and a variety of records. Also see the subscription Web site < > or its sister, Ancestry Library Edition (free at subscribing libraries), for cemetery records, censuses, newspapers and vital-records indexes.

Star sources

Rarely do Minnesota ancestors go missing from census records. In addition to federal enumerations starting in 1850, state censuses happened every 10 years from 1865 to 1905. To genealogists’ delight, these head counts list everyone in the household. Minnesota territorial censuses took place in 1849, 1853, 1855 and 1857. Pre-statehood Minnesota relatives may appear in territorial censuses of Iowa (1840), Michigan (1820) and Wisconsin (1836, 1838 and 1840).

You’ll find state, territorial and US census records at MHS. Other resources for census data include’s US Census Collection ($99.95 per year), HeritageQuest Online <> (free via subscribing libraries), the FHL, other large libraries and NARA.

Minnesota is a public-land state-the federal government made initial land sales through General Land Offices, particularly after the Homestead Act of 1862 opened up vast expanses of cheap land. Look for land-entry case files and tract books at NARA. The books are available on microfilm at the MHS and the FHL. You can search a land-patent index at <> — when the site’s up and running (it’s periodically been pulled offline due to security issues). Railroads often purchased land and later sold it to individuals; records of these and other private land sales are usually in county registrars’ offices.

MHS has records of bonuses Minnesota paid to military service members and their survivors (Spanish-American through Vietnam wars), along with WWI veteran surveys, Civil War muster rolls, Grand Army of the Republic post records and 20th-century grave registrations. (See MHS’ online military records guide for information). You’ll find probate records, too-in some cases, from territorial days. Many county courthouses transferred older files to MHS; some are on FHL microfilm.

In 1918, Minnesota required aliens to register. The resulting records, which cover scads of ethnic groups, are at MHS and on microfilm at the Iron Range Research Center (see resources). Also look to these facilities for naturalizations made in district courts. You can search an index to county naturalizations and alien registrations at <>. NARA’s Great Lakes and Central Plains regional facilities have different portions of Minnesota naturalizations made in federal courts; the latter facility’s records are on FHL microfilm.


Minnesota counties began keeping birth and death records in 1870, and since the early 20th century, they’ve sent copies to the state vital-records office. The records indexed on MHS’ Web site are at the society’s research library. You’ll also find many state vital records and those from southern Minnesota counties on FHL microfilm.’s US Records Collection ($79.95 per year) has a birth index from 1935 to 2002, and a death index from 1908 to 2002. The state health department has kept track of marriages since 1958, but it doesn’t have the records. You’ll find them at the county level (and for 15 counties, at MHS), generally dating to the inception of the county.

Minnesota may be the land of Paul Bunyan, but don’t fear you’ll end up with similar tall tales in your ancestry. Instead, an abundance of records and excellent resources will light the way to your North Star State family.

From the April 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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