State Research Guide: Missouri

By Leslie Stroope Premium

State Research Guide Missouri Genealogy Ancestry Family Tree Magazine

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 livestock 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 research. Tops among them are the offerings at the Missouri State Archives’ database collection at Missouri Digital Heritage (look under the under Browse Collections tab). Read on—we’ll show you these and more Show Me State genealogy resources.

Early History

Before European settlement, Missouri was home to American Indians including the Osage, Shawnee, Fox, Sac and Delaware. French explorers became the first Europeans to set foot in the future state in 1763. The first permanent settlement, Ste. Genevieve, was established in 1735 along the Mississippi River as a trading post for French Canadian settlers.

France ceded Louisiana to Spain in 1762, and a French fur trader founded St. Louis two years later. France regained Louisiana in 1800 and, three years after that, sold it to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The Missouri region was home mostly to French settlers at the time, but a steady stream of others began migrating from Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. Southern planters traveled to the “boot heel” of southern Missouri. Missouri has five original counties: New Madrid, Cape Girardeau, St. Charles, St. Louis and Ste. Genevieve. The rest were established by the time the Civil War broke out, many carved from parent counties. For details on the creation of Missouri’s 114 modern counties, see here.

If your ancestors lived in St. Louis or Kansas City, look for them carefully. The city of St. Louis split from the surrounding St. Louis County in the “Great Divorce” of 1876; since then, each has maintained its own government offices. Kansas City today has spread into three counties and is home to two courthouses. You can consult Family Tree Magazine’s city research guides for both St. Louis (May 2011) and Kansas City (December 2012), also available as PDF downloads from the Family Tree Shop.

Land Records

Missouri was admitted as a slave state in 1821. As western migration ramped up, travelers flocked to Missouri to gear up for the frontier journey. In particular, St. Joseph, Westport, Independence and Kansas City were popular jumping-off points for the Oregon and Santa Fe trails. Others, including many German, Irish and English immigrants, stuck around the Show Me State, drawn by Missouri’s fertile soil, abundant waterways and cheap land.

The US Bureau of Land Management’s online database of land patents has record images from Missouri dating back to 1819. Also visit the Missouri Digital Heritage Land Patents Database, an index to the name, county, date of purchase, legal land description, and microfilm location of patents from 1831 to 1969. If you find an ancestor’s federal land patent, you can request his land entry case file from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); see for details.

Transactions between private individuals are among court records of the county that had jurisdiction over the property. You can see an inventory of microfilmed records the
Missouri State Archives’ holds for your ancestral counties at The Midwest Genealogy Center in Independence has digitized plat books for Jackson County and Kansas City.

Naturalization Records

By 1860, half the population of the state capital, Jefferson City, was German. Ten years later, those of German birth or parentage made up more than 20 percent of the “Missouri Rhineland”—the counties of Franklin, Warren, Osage, St. Charles and St. Louis. Naturalization records are a good starting point for tracing these immigrants. Start with the Missouri Digital Heritage Naturalization Records Database (1816-1955). Subscription website also has a “Missouri, Western District Naturalization Index” to citizenship papers filed in various courts. The location of your ancestor’s original records depends on the court where he sought citizenship; see to learn more.


You can track Missouri ancestors in federal censuses beginning with the 1830 count (the 1820 census included Missouri Territory, but records have been lost). You can search these records on genealogy websites including subscription sites, MyHeritage and Findmypast, as well as the free Family­

Before the federal head counts, Missouri Territory took several censuses between 1805 and 1820. The 1820 count was destroyed, but find an index to the 1805 census here, with scattered records on microfilm at FamilySearch’s Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City.

Of Missouri’s state censuses, taken regularly in the 1800s, an 1876 enumeration of heads-of-household is the most complete. Records are included in the FamilySearch online collection and searchable on Find them on microfilm at the state archives, state historical society and FHL. FamilySearch also has a growing online collection of territorial and state census records dating between 1732 and 1933. Fragments of 1844-to-1881 counts also are searchable on

Vital Records

Since 1910, the Missouri vital records bureau has tracked births and deaths, but locating records before mandatory reporting may prove tricky. Start with the Missouri Digital Heritage online 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. The Missouri Digital Heritage Death Certificate Database, 1910-1966 indexes those records and, for some, links to images of the death certificates. Find indexes of Missouri births (1805-2002) and deaths (1834-1976) at

To find microfilmed vital records, try contacting the health department or clerk of your ancestors’ city or county, and run a place search of the Family­Search online catalog. Ancestors whose deaths were subject to a coroner’s investigation may be listed in the Missouri Digital Heritage 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 circuit clerk (for divorces) in the county where the marriage license or divorce decree was granted. Find indexes to statewide marriages at (1804-1983) and FamilySearch (1750-1920). Look for local indexes, too: St. Louis marriages (1804-1876) appear on and over a half million Jackson County weddings (1840-2011) are documented at subscription site

Military Records

Civil War-era Missouri was bitterly divided. A slave state, it had two state governments, one pro-Union and one Confederate. Still, Missourians in the Union Army outnumbered those who fought for the Confederacy nearly four to one. Your ancestor may have joined up in another state, though, so expand your military records search beyond Missouri. Find out which side your ancestor fought for using the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database, which contains more than 6 million names of Confederate and Union soldiers, along with their service unit and years. Using the NARA microfilm number in your relative’s listing, order his military service file from or view service records (both Union and Confederate) at subscription site Fold3 (FamilySearch has free indexes to these records).

FamilySearch also has Missouri Confederate soldiers’ pension and soldiers’ home applications, digitized from records held by the state archives. The Civil War Provost Marshal Index database at Missouri Digital Heritage contains names from a variety of Union documents; the microfilmed records are at the state archives.

Find more clues to Missourians’ military service in the Missouri Digital Heritage Soldiers Database: War of 1812-World War I. This compilation names 576,000 people who fought in 12 wars from territorial times through World War I—including such obscure conflicts as the Mormon War of 1838 and the Iowa (Honey) War of 1839.


Though online information is plentiful for those with Missouri families, in-person research is worth the trip to the Show Me State. Drop by NARA’s Central Plains Region in Kansas City for records including censuses of Northern Plains American Indians. In nearby Independence, Mo., you’ll find the Midwest Genealogy Center, whose archival collection focuses on Jackson, Clay and Platte counties (but also stretches beyond Missouri borders).

On the eastern side of the state, visit the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri—St. Louis for lists of licenses granted to steamboat pilots, engineers and other workers from 1897 to 1915. The Missouri History Museum Library and Archives, also in St. Louis, has local tax lists, city directories, business records, scrapbooks and other resources. Search for names in indexed collections in the library’s online Genealogy and Local History Index. With all these genealogy resources, your Show Me State ancestors will show themselves in no time.


See our Missouri Fast Facts and Key Resources.

From the Oct/Nov 2017 issue of Family Tree Magazine.


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