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Step-by-Step South Dakota Research, 1905-Present

South Dakota Gotoarrow.png Step-by-Step South Dakota Research, 1850-1905

  • A suggested approach to genealogy research in South Dakota family history records.Gotoarrow.png Step-by-Step South Dakota Research, 1905-Present
What sets this era in South Dakota genealogy apart from earlier time periods are the advent of civil registration (state birth, marriage, and death certificates) and the possibility that you have older living relatives who can provide memories and family records. In addition, U. S. census records (occurred every 10 years--1900-1940), state censuses, Social Security collections, obituary and cemetery records make it possible to find a lot of genealogical information in just a few rich record types."

Step 1. Find out everything you can from living relatives and their family records.

Every good genealogy project starts with finding all the clues you can gather from living relatives — both from their memories and from documents or memorabilia in their homes.

What should you ask?

In order to extend your research on your ancestors, you are looking for names, dates, and places. Everything you learn that tells you about when and where a relative lived is a clue to a new record search. Be sure to ask questions that lead to that information, including about their occupations, military service, or associations with others, such as fraternal organizations. See also:

What documents should you look for and ask to copy?

  • Announcements of births, weddings, and anniversaries
  • Baby and wedding books
  • Certificates
  • Deeds, and property records
  • Family Bibles
  • Family reunion notices and records
  • Fraternal or society records
  • Insurance policies
  • Journals and diaries
  • Letters and cards
  • Licenses (business, marriage, fishing, driving)
  • Naturalization documents
  • Newspaper clippings and obituaries
  • Medical records
  • Military service and pension documents
  • Occupational awards
  • Passports
  • Personal histories and biographies
  • Photograph albums
  • Printed Notices and Announcements
  • Programs (graduation, award ceremonies, funerals)
  • School records
  • Scrapbooks
  • Wills and trusts

Using the clues to lead to census record searches.

Here are two documents you might find in a home search: a newspaper clipping and a family Bible record:

  • In the obituary on the left, notice that Thelma Morrison had six children and lived in Canistota, South Dakota, most of her married life. She married in 1922. We would expect to find Ben W. Morrison with a wife, Thelma, and their children - depending on when they were born - in the census records for 1925 to 1945--1925, 1930, 1935, 1940, 1945.
  • Although Thelma was born in Kentucky, Ben might have been born in South Dakota. Since they were married in 1922, he might appear living with his parents in the 1920, 1910, or earlier census of South Dakota.
  • In the family Bible example on the right, Alber Mattson and Ida Thornburg were married in March of 1911, in Lead, South Dakota. Albert and Ida (1915) might show up in several successive censuses beginning with 1915 (Albert).
  • Click on the links in each example to see how these searches turned out. Notice the new information found. Later, these clues will help us find them in more records.

SD Family Bible marriage SD obituary

Step 2. Find your ancestors in every possible census record, 1905-1945, online

A census is a count and description of the population of a country, state, county, or city for a given date. A census took a "snapshot" of a family on a certain day. For each person living in a household you might find (depending on the year) their name, age, birthplace, relationship to head of household, place of birth for father and mother, citizenship status, year of immigration, mother of how many children and number of children living, native language, and whether they were a veteran of the military.

To learn more about census records, including search strategies, see United States Census Records for Beginners.

Look at the samples of census records below. You should find your family members in every possible census, using these convenient links:

United States Census Records

  • Here is a sample of a 1910 United States census record. You can see all the different information you can glean from this record once you find your family in the census.
    1910 United States Census.jpg
  • You will want to find and keep notes on census records from every census during each ancestor's lifetime. For example, if your ancestor was born in 1897 and died in 1945, you will want to find them in the 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940 censuses. Note that there are census records available from 1790 until 1940.
  • With the census records you will be able to estimate approximate birth dates and marriage dates. These records will lead you to new searches because you will find the names of other members of the family. You will find clues to other states and countries your family lived in before coming to South Dakota.

South Dakota State Census Records

  • Searching the South Dakota sate censuses will be a slightly different experience because they have an individual card for each person, instead of a list of each person in the household as in the U.S. Federal censuses. Search the indexes name by name for each family member. Once you find one family member in a county, try searching the index by entering only the last name and the county in the search fields. That should return images of cards for every member in the family.
  • Here are some samples of typical state census records:
South Dakota 1905 State Census DGS 4207573 10.jpg
South Dakota 1945 Census DGS 4520330 782 1088.jpg

United States Indian Census Rolls

  • This database contains an index to the Indian census rolls from 1885-1940. *Information contained in this database includes: name (Indian and/or English), gender, age, birth date, relationship to head of family, marital status, tribe name, agency and reservation name
  • Other information about an individual, such as degree of Indian blood, as recorded in the later census years, may be available on the original record.
  • The Indian Census schedules are census rolls usually submitted each year by agents or superintendents in charge of Indian reservations. There is not a census for every reservation or group of Indians for every year. Only persons who maintained a formal affiliation with a tribe under federal supervision are listed on these census rolls.

Using the census clues to lead to a birth certificate.

  • You can use what you learned from the census records to help you search for birth, marriage, and death records. Possibly the clues you find in the certificates will lead you back to the census records again for new names of family members.
  • For example, remember Ben W. Morrison, from his wife's obituary and the 1910 and 1920 censuses? Here is his birth record.
  • Here is the birth record of one of the sons of Albert Mattson and Ida Thornburg, who we found listed in their Bible and in several census records.
  • In the first sample above, C.E. Aves is 62 in the 1905 state census and born in Providence, Rhode Island. Subtracting his age from the date of the census, he was born in 1843. With this information, you can look for him in Rhode Island records. If you locate him as a seven year old in the 1850 census, either in Rhode Island, South Dakota, or another state, you may find him listed with his father and mother and other family members.
  • In the middle sample, Clarence A. Baker, is 39 years old in 1945 and was probably born in about 1906. With this information, we might find his birth record in South Dakota.
  • In the last sample, Geanell Baldwin was born in Iowa and 51 years old in 1945. Therefore, she was born in about 1894. You can search for her in Iowa records such as the 1900 census as a six year old most likely living with her parents.

Using the census clues to lead to a marriage certificate.

  • In the middle sample above, Clarence A. Baker's record states that he married Alice Simmons in 1938. Using this date and where they lived in the 1940 census, you can search for a marriage record that may have more information about the couple.

Step 3: Find birth, marriage, and death certificates for your ancestors and their children

States, counties, or even towns in some states recorded births, marriages, and deaths. You have probably seen these types of certificates and have your own. In addition to the child's name, birth date, and place of birth, a birth certificate may give the birthplaces of the parents, their ages, and occupations. A death certificate may give the person's birth date and place, parents' names and birthplaces, and spouse's name.

Studying what you have found:

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  • Review what you have found to see if there is missing information that could be found in a birth, marriage, or death certificate for your ancestors and their children.
  • If you are missing the names of parents, find a person's death certificate. It may contain the names of the deceased's parents, which would extend your pedigree back one more generation.
  • If you find a child listed in a census record, try to find their actual birth certificate to learn their full birth date.
  • If a married couple is shown in the census records and you need the wife's maiden name, search for their marriage record or her death record. The mother's maiden name should also be given in her children's birth certificates.

Obtaining the certificates

  • There are basically three ways to find these certificates, or the information from them: by finding them in an online database, by reading a microfilm of them, or by purchasing them through the mail .

Online databases

  • This chart gives links to some South Dakota online databases for these records:
FamilySearch Historical Indexes

Samples of index entries

Birth index sample South Dakota
Marriage index South Dakota

Finding Microfilm Copies of Certificates

Some South Dakota state, county, and Indian agency birth, death, and marriage certificates are available on microfilm through the Family History Library. These may be searched at a family history center near you.
Some digitized copies of these microfilms are also available online, as the film description will indicate.

Ordering certificates through the mail

  • Click here for information on how to order birth records. This will require an application, a fee, and proof of your identification. Ask for an informational copy, not a certified copy (which is only available to next of kin). Provide as many details as possible on the application, but you may leave some fields blank.
  • Click here for information on how to order marriage records. This will require an application, a fee, and proof of your identification. Ask for an informational copy, not a certified copy (which is only available to next of kin). Provide as many details as possible on the application, but you may leave some fields blank.
  • Click here for information on how to order death records. This will require an application, a fee, and proof of your identification. Ask for an informational copy, not a certified copy (which is only available to next of kin). Provide as many details as possible on the application, but you may leave some fields blank.

Samples of records

Here are some samples of South Dakota certificates. Notice the types of information available in each. Information recorded may change in different time periods:

South Dakota birth certificate
South Dakota death certificate
South Dakota marriage certificate

For Native American ancestors

Step 4: Using all the death date information, try to find additional details about your ancestors in Social Security records, obituaries, and cemetery records online

U.S. Social Security Death Index and Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007

The U.S. Social Security program began in 1935 but most deaths recorded in the index happened after 1962. The Social Security Death index includes those who had a Social Security number and/or applied for benefits. The index entries give the person's full birth date, last known residence, and residence at the time they first enrolled. Women are listed under their married name at the time of their death. You can search these records online at United States Social Security Death Index. Also at, ($), index.

The Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 picks up where the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) leaves off, by providing information filed in the application or claims process, including valuable details such as birth date, birth place, and parents’ names. Unless the deceased would be at least 75 years old today, the parents' names are not published. You will not find everybody who is listed in the SSDI, as criteria for inclusion differs.

If you find your ancestor in the SSDI index, you can order a copy of their original Social Security application (SS-5). If you can prove the individual has died (by sending an obituary or copy of their cemetery headstone), the application will also give the deceased's parents' names, if listed.

South Dakota Social Security record

Obituaries and cemeteries


  • Frequently, a death is announced in the newspaper with an obituary.
  • These obituaries may supply missing birth or death dates and name the parents of the deceased.
  • Obituaries may also name family members, their spouses, their current residences, and whether they died before the person or are still surviving, especially in obituaries written in the last half of the 20th Century.
  • Try these South Dakota links:
  • Ancestor Hunt South Dakota Obituaries
  • South Dakota Obituaries Help. Click here to see an example. In this site, you will select a newspaper, then select the "Obituaries" link at that newspaper. Sometimes there is a required subscription fee.
  • ObituaryLinks South Dakota, index. This site gives lots of death record "how-to" advice before you come to obituary links. Scroll down quite a way to find the obituary links. Click [Step-by-Step South Dakota Research, 1905-Present here] to see at example.


  • Cemetery records may only give the names and dates stated on the tombstone, but as in the case of FindAGrave, sometimes pictures of the deceased and their tombstone, children's or parents' names and links to their graves, and marriage information have been added. Always verify information added by others.
  • Frequently family members are buried in the same cemetery often in neighboring plots.
  • Try these South Dakota links:

NOTE: Each database covers different cemeteries, although some may overlap. Don't be discouraged if you do not locate your individual in the first database. Check each collection.

This example of an online cemetery record is from FindAGrave
FindAGrave sample

Step 5: Search military records: World War I and World War II draft cards

  • There are many different types of military records, some covered in online collections, some microfilmed, and some requiring you to order them from government repositories with a fee. For more information, read the U.S. Military Records Class Handout. Information in military records can vary from a simple lists of name, age, and residence, to more detailed records including name, residence, age, occupation, marital status, birthplace, physical description, number of dependents, pensions received, disabled veterans, needy veterans, widows or orphans of veterans, and other information.

World War I Draft Registration

  • One of the most helpful military records is the draft registration of 1917-1918. During three separate registrations, men born between 1873-1897 were required to register in the draft for World War I. Cards may give birth date, birth place, residence, occupation, employer, physical description, next of kin (usually the wife or mother), and number of dependents. Search for your male relatives born in this time period at U.S. WW I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918.
  • Here is an example of a typical draft card.

WWI draft card

World War II Draft Registration

Likewise, the World War II draft in 1942 may give birth date, birth place, residence, occupation, employer, and other family members as contacts. Not every state is included now. Although the draft cards for South Dakota are not included, draft cards for men born in South Dakota but living in an included state during the draft" can still be found. Search for your male relatives born in this time period at

South Dakota WW II.png

Step 7: If your ancestor was an immigrant, search immigration and naturalization records online

The census records may show that your ancestor was born in another country. It will be necessary to try to find the town or city they were born in to continue research in the country of origin. Searches of immigration records (usually passenger lists) and naturalization (citizenship) records are the next goal. Immigration refers to people coming into a country, such as the United States, and emigration refers to people leaving a country to go to another. Usually these records are passenger lists of the ships they sailed on. A typical record will show name, age, and country of origin, but in ship lists after 1906 you can find the actual town of birth, the next of kin still living in the old country and their residence, and the names of relatives in the place they are traveling to.

Census Clues to Immigration Records

Census records can provide important clues about nationality and immigration. This chart lists data that can be found in each of the census records. Gather the information in the census records specifically about immigration, as it will help narrow down your search.

Census records can provide important clues about nationality and immigration. This chart lists data that can be found in each of the census records. Gather the information in the census records specifically about immigration, as it will help narrow down your search.
Immigration and Naturalization Found in the U.S.Census by Year
(other information also given but is not listed here)
Year of census Immigration and Naturalization Information
  • Whether father and mother are of foreign birth
  • Place of birth for father and mother
  • Destroyed by fire in 1921
  • Place of birth for father and mother
  • Naturalization status: alien, papers submitted, or naturalized
  • Year of immigration to U.S.
  • How many years lived in U.S.
  • Place of birth for father and mother
  • Naturalization status: alien, papers submitted, or naturalized
  • Year of immigration to U.S.
  • Place of birth for father and mother
  • Naturalization status: alien, papers submitted, or naturalized
  • Year of immigration to U.S.
  • Year of naturalization
  • Native language
  • Native language of father and mother
  • Place of birth for father and mother
  • Naturalization status: alien, papers submitted, or naturalized
  • Year of immigration to U.S.
  • Native language
1940 *Naturalization status: alien, papers submitted, or naturalized

Immigration Records

There are many immigration records available. Click here to see a complete list of available immigration records online. Notice that they are listed by state, but under the letter "U" there is a long list of records that cover all of the United States. Unless family information tells you the port where family arrived, you will need to search all of the United States Immigration Online Genealogy Records for the time period when your ancestors arrived.

The United States kept copies of passenger lists starting in 1820 (except for Philadelphia which start in 1800). Passenger lists before this date are taken from shipping companies or extracted from newspapers or other records and are not complete for the time period.

In this example of a passenger list, you see at #22, the family of Eduard Hepper of Gross Liebenthal travelling to Java, South Daokta.

Naturalization (Citizenship) Records

Naturalization is the process of becoming a citizen. Records can include the immigrant's declaration of intent to become a citizen, petitions for citizenship, and final certificate of naturalization. Naturalization records after 1906 can show birth date and place, spouse's name, marriage date and place, and lists of children with their birth dates. Click here to view examples of declaration of intent records and the information they give.

South Dakota naturalization records could be recorded at the county court or the Federal District or Circuit Court. You must look for them in both locations. Try searching first in any county where the person lived, unless the census tells you the year they were naturalized, and you have evidence of where they lived that year. If you cannot locate them in the county records, try searching for them in the Federal courts.

Step 8: Study each record for other possible searches

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You can now go through a process of working back and forth between all the different record types. Most researchers find clues in the census records that alert them to new certificates to obtain. The certificates then give them ideas of new facts to look for in the census. For example, when a marriage certificate gives you a wife's maiden name, you will then want to look for her in earlier censuses listed with her family as a child. When the census shows you her parents' names, you may then search for their death records. The death records might show their patents' names and take you back to the census to search for them. A naturalization record listing children's names might lead you back to birth certificate searches, and so on.

Step 9: Move ahead to the instructions for 1880-1905 and use searches described there, applying them to this time period.

The steps listed here should help you find a lot of information about your family, but they are not foolproof. Next, you will try some additional records described in the instructions for Step-by-step online South Dakota Research 1850--1905, many of which can also be applied to this time period if necessary, including, land, probate, and military records. Records about the next earlier generation of the family might give more clues to other searches also.

Step 10: If your ancestors were German, search Germans from Russia collections online

If Your Family Was German

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was a mass migration from German colonies in the Black Sea region of Russia to the state of South Dakota. Most individuals of German descent in South Dakota were Black Sea Germans from Russia. You can search a fairly complete collection of the parish registers of German churches in South Dakota at the Odessa3 website of the Germans from Russia Society for births, marriages, and deaths. Click here to see a sample of the records.