South Dakota State Research Guide

By David A. Fryxell Premium
Many Americans associate South Dakota with enormous rock sculptures: There’s Mount Rushmore, of course, along with the even-more-colossal statue of the Lakota leader Crazy Horse emerging from a nearby mountain. Luckily, tracking your South Dakota roots isn’t an equally monumental task. Chisel away at your brick walls using these resources and tips.
South Dakota Genealogy Ancestry State Guide
Earliest Residents
A succession of Indian tribes has occupied South Dakota for at least 1,500 years, with the Sioux becoming dominant after 1750. If you descend from any of the tribes that were eventually resettled on eight South Dakota reservations, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) records can help you trace your ancestry. FamilySearch’s Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City has microfilms of BIA records from South Dakota Indian agencies, most dating from 1870 to 1970. The original BIA records are at the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) Central Plains regional office in Kansas City, Mo.. You can learn more about South Dakota tribes at and find a guide to American Indian research in South Dakota here.
French explorers arrived in South Dakota in 1743. The territory passed from France to Spain back to France before the United States acquired it in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase. The first permanent European settlement was Fort Pierre, in 1817. By then, most of present-day South Dakota was part of the vast Missouri Territory. It became part of Michigan (1834), Wisconsin (1836), Iowa (1838) and Minnesota (1849) territories before the creation of Dakota Territory in 1861.

Naturalization Records

If your immigrant ancestor became a naturalized citizen in the Mount Rushmore State, make use of the South Dakota State Archives <>, which has naturalization records from all counties. Access its searchable index at (click on the graphic that says “South Dakota” to enter the search area). The free FamilySearch website also has a browsable database of South Dakota naturalization records from 1865 to 1972.

State and Federal Censuses

The first Dakota Territory census in 1860 actually predated official territorial status, since the area had been orphaned by Minnesota statehood in 1858. Later territorial censuses were taken in 1870, 1880 and 1885. Search these censuses at subscription site or HeritageQuest Online (access this service through subscribing libraries). There’s a free index to the 1885 census at Records of these censuses also are at the South Dakota State Historical Society, with microfilm copies at the FHL.
With a booming population came statehood in 1889, when Dakota Territory split into North and South. South Dakota’s first federal census as a newly minted state was taken in 1890, and records unfortunately were lost to fire except for a lone district in Union County. The state’s 1890 special schedule of Union Civil War veterans, however, survived. Federal census records can be found on large subscriptions sites including, MyHeritage and Findmypast, as well as the free FamilySearch.
South Dakota also took state censuses every 10 years from 1895 (records survive for six counties) to 1945, most of which include the wife’s maiden name, military service, education and even church affiliation. You can search these and view record images on FamilySearch All state censuses are available at the state archives, and the FHL has microfilmed the surviving parts of the 1895 census.

Births, Marriages and Deaths

Statewide registration of births and deaths didn’t begin in the Mount Rushmore State until 1905, and compliance wasn’t widespread until 1932. Your ancestor might’ve obtained a delayed birth registration, however, in order to get a Social Security card or for other reasons.
Statewide marriage records also began in 1905. Counties kept earlier records, typically starting within 10 years of the county’s formation.
Searchable indexes to statewide births (1856 to 1903), marriages (1905 to 1949) and deaths (1905 to 1955) are on You can search more than 228,000 records of South Dakota births from more than 100 years ago here. If your ancestors married in Minnehaha County, check the Sioux Valley Genealogical Society’s marriage index (1872-1896) at (look under Pioneers).
Eligible relatives (a parent, sibling, child or grandchild) can order copies of 1905 and later birth, marriage and death records from the Department of Health or from county offices where the event occurred. Your ancestor’s county may hold earlier records; see what’s available from the local register of deeds at here.
During the 1940s, the Works Progress Administration inventoried graves in most South Dakota cemeteries. You can search an index to these burials at here. Follow the instructions on that web page to order cemetery records. Search 253,000 gravestone photos at the South Dakota Gravestones project.
Newspapers can be another source of your relatives’ birth, marriage and death information. The free Chronicling America website has digitized editions of 25 South Dakota newspapers. You also can search newspapers from the state on subscription websites and GenealogyBank.
Don’t miss the state archives’ Newspaper Surname Search Form, which indexes birth, marriage and death notices mostly since 2000. Use the newspaper database to see which publications are available on microfilm from the archives.

Military records

Soldiers from Dakota Territory served as early as the Civil War; search their names in the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database. Find some Union South Dakota service records on the Fold3 subscription site, and all of them on FHL microfilm 881616 (the same as NARA M0536). The state’s first significant military contribution was the group of South Dakota volunteers in the First Infantry Regiment of the 1898 Spanish-American War. You’ll find a roster of these soldiers here. NARA holds soldiers’ service records; see for information. Also see the guide to military records at the South Dakota state archives.
Whether your South Dakota relatives arrived by wagon train or automobile, your research can help commemorate their lives. The result may not be quite as impressive as mountain-sized sculptures of Crazy Horse or presidential faces, but with these genealogy tips, your work shouldn’t take as long to complete, either.

From the October/November 2017 Family Tree Magazine.


Get Your Free Essential Genealogy Research Forms

Sign up for the Family Tree Newsletter and receive 10 research forms as a special thank you!

Get Your Free Genealogy Forms

  • Hidden
  • Hidden
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Find your American ancestors with State Research Guides for the Entire US!

Instantly download research guides for all 50 U.S. states, plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., for less than $1 each! Find new ideas and resources to research ancestors in each U.S. state.