Skip to main content
MNHS Library Custom Header

Family History Overview: Family History Research

Family History Research

Family history research involves finding names, locations, dates and stories, beginning with you and working back through time.  The best way to proceed is, as the popular saying in genealogy goes: Start with what you know

Start with yourself, your father, and your mother. Gather together the information you have, such as names, dates/places of birth and/or death, and dates/places of marriage.  Place the information that you have on an ancestry chart.

Search your own records—talk to other family members, review deeds, look at Bibles, scrapbooks and photo albums, etc. Who are the "keepers" in the family?  See what information you can find about your family before heading to the Library or going online. Remember that while many records that assist researchers with family history are online, many others are only available in a variety of formats at libraries, including MNHS's Gale Family Library.

Using an Ancestry Chart

A basic family history chart will look something this one. A "family group record" brings together the parents and siblings in a particular family on one sheet. 


After searching your files, it is time to start your Library research.  But before you do that....Make a list of what you want to find out.  Note when and where your ancestors lived in Minnesota.  

Before you arrive at the Library: 

  • Set priorities.
  • Zero in on a particular person and event. Then ask yourself, what information do you need?

For example, you  want to find out where Grandpa was born. You know he was 90 when he died in 1976.

You need to determine:

  • What type of record can provide that information? 
  • Where can you  find this record?

A logical place to start would be to check for a death certificate. These records often include other useful information as well such as the date and place of birth, mother's maiden name, name of informant (often a relative), and cause(s) of death.  Armed with the date and place of death you can then search for an obituary which can provide details about the individual's family and life (particularly in a small town newspaper).

  • Use the library's online resources to do preliminary research at home before your visit


You can learn about the MNHS library and how it operates before coming to the library though our Using the Library guide. 

Depending upon your family, a trip to the Minnesota Historical Society's Library might include checking state census recordsdeath certificatesbirth certificates, or newspaper obituaries. (The Library also provides research services for those who can't come to the Library.)

Determine the kind of record you need and the authority that created it.  

If you need:

Birth Information:
Search in birth or death records, christening records, cemetery transcriptions and records, parents' church records, family Bibles, letters, censuses, obituaries


The Minnesota Historical Society collections contain many types of documents and publications that can help in your search. These include various levels of government records (town, township, county, territory and state) within Minnesota, such as civil and criminal case files, tax  listsschool lists, etc.

Most of the state's newspapers are available on microfilm. Some newspapers are now also available online and more information on these resources can be found on our Newspaper Page

The censuses, both Federal and State, are available on and  Both of these databases have information on searching their vast resources. 

While the focus of our Library is on Minnesota and the Midwest, the early founders of the Minnesota Historical Society came from New England and other eastern states. They often left their papers and books to the Society, so the collection is also strong for eastern states and the original 13 colonies.

Other historical societies have different collection policies and practices. You will probably need to use several libraries and other sources to find the records you need.

If you don't find the type of record that you need, or it doesn't provide the details that you want, what do you do next?  You will need to search other records that might provide these details.  For example,

If you need look for
birth data birth or death records, christening records, cemetery transcriptions and records, parents' church records, family Bibles, letters, censuses, obituaries
death data death certificates, burial records, cemetery transcriptions and records, church records, family Bibles, letters, census mortality schedules, Social Security Death Index
marriage data county records, family Bibles, letters, church records, wedding photos
naturalization data naturalization records from courts (local, county, state, and federal) in the area where they lived (some censuses tell if the person is naturalized)
locations historical maps, gazetteers, post office lists, published indexes, genealogical periodicals, surname files, compendia, censuses, obituaries
other relatives historical maps, gazetteers, other relative's biographies, published indexes, genealogical periodicals, surname files, compendia, censuses, obituaries

In some instances you may need to consult several resources to locate the piece of information that you are seeking. Check various spellings of the name you are researching since that can change over time.

Evaluate what you found.  What clues for further research have you found? 

Loading ...
Gale Family Library • Minnesota Historical Society • 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55102-1906 • 651-259-3300
Tuesday: 9am to 8pm • Wed. to Sat.: 9am to 4pm • Sunday & Monday: Closed • Holiday Hours