Course: 2024-07 – Midwest Family History Research: Migrations and Sources

Coordinator: Jay Fonkert, CG


The Midwest was both a waystation and a destination. This course focuses on researching individuals or families that passed through or settled in the Midwest. A broad definition of the Midwest includes American territory west of the Appalachians, north of the Ohio River, and east of the 100th meridian. Two major migrations settled the Midwest from east to west: trans-Appalachian migrations from New England, the Midlands, and Upper South, followed by European migrations directly to the Midwest. This course has a strong Geo-Geography focus. You will learn about Midwest physical geography, migrations and settlement, and essential sources for Midwest genealogical research, including land records, church records, probate records, newspapers and more. This course is about more than records; it is about successful strategies for understanding where ancestors came from and why they settled where they did. Emphasis will be placed on the importance of establishing certain identity—separating easily confounded identities and merging identity fragments to tell life stories.

Other Instructors:

Deborah A. Abbott, PhD
Gary Ball-Kilbourne, CG
Michael Lacopo, DVM
Sunny J. Morton
Bryna O’Sullivan, MA
Kimberly T. Powell
Paula Stuart-Warren, CG
Katherine R. Willson

Student Prerequisites:

Familiarity with basic genealogical sources, including vital records and censuses.

Recommendations: None

Recommended, not required:

  • Alice Eichholz, ed., Redbook: American State, County, and Town Sources, 3rd Edition (Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2004). Chapters on Midwestern states are accessible at,_County,_and_Town_Sources.
  • Donald W. Meinig. The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Vol. 2, Continental America, 1800-1867 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), and Vol. 3, Transcontinental America, 1850-1915 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).
  • William Cronon. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991).
  • Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Penguin, 2011).
Day Session Title Description Instructor
Monday 1 Defining the Midwest — Cultural Seedbeds, Migration Streams, and Ethnic Settlements Geography is the stage on which our ancestors lived. We will learn about how physical geography shaped Midwest migrations, as well as about cultural seedbeds (Yankee, Midland, Upper South) and the trans-Appalachian migration streams they fed. We will also survey direct 19th and early 20th-century European migration through Atlantic and Gulf ports that produced the Midwest’s ethnic mosaic. We will consider why individuals, families, and even whole communities moved west and why they settled where they did. We will survey records that provide clues to where individuals and families came from and where they went next. Fonkert
2 Pioneer Trails: Navigating Midwest Land Records For anyone tracing Midwest roots, land records offer a gateway to understanding ancestral lives and movements. This session provides an in-depth look at property transactions during the westward expansion, examining the impact of surveying methods and settlement trends on your ancestors’ experiences. Walk away with practical experience in locating, analyzing, and interpreting local and federal land records to add information and context to your family’s story. Powell
3 Researching Germans in the Midwest: Immigration, Settlement, and Research Strategies Some five million German-speaking immigrants came to America in the century before World War I, with many settling directly in both rural and urban Midwest communities. We will concentrate on immigration and settlement from a records and repository viewpoint and emphasize research techniques focused on bringing this large Midwestern ethnic group to life through your genealogical research. Lacopo
4 Methodology I: Evaluating Sources and the Information They Carry Midwest research draws on a rich smorgasbord of records–vital records censuses, directories, immigration records, land records, probate records, military records, pension files, and more. We will discuss why sources were created and how they were passed forward, the reliability of the informants who provided information, and the importance of searching for independently created sources that corroborate information. In-class exercises will give students practice in evaluating sources, vetting the information they carry, and resolving conflicting evidence. Fonkert
Tuesday 5 Methodology II: Merging and Separating Identities A record naming an ancestor gives direct evidence that the ancestor was in a particular place and time. Each such record is an identity fragment—a snapshot from an ancestor’s life. Some individuals and families settled and put down roots, but many followed the frontier or reversed course. Migration research requires merging identity fragments across time and space and separating easily confounded identities. Fonkert
6 Eastern Midwest Repositories: Navigating Their Historical and Genealogical Resources We will discuss repositories containing online and offline genealogical resources for Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois, extending to northeastern Wisconsin and eastern Ontario. We will discuss strategies for finding and accessing those resources, whether from home or at the repository. Willson
7 The Great Migration: Escaping Jim Crow The Great Migration was one of the largest migrations of approximately six million African Americans from the rural South to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West in United States history, roughly from the 1910s until the 1970s. This movement was caused primarily by the poor economic conditions for African Americans, as well as the prevalent racial segregation and discrimination of Jim Crow. Learn the history of this movement and how to trace a family through genealogy records. The importance of using census records, city directories, occupation & employment records, and other records will be emphasized. A case study will be used to demonstrate a family’s migration from the South to the Midwest. Abbott
8 Tracking an Immigrant Family’s Migration: A Case Study In this case study, a twentieth-century Minnesota family will be traced back through stops in Iowa and Wisconsin to their village of origin in Norway. As you follow along the way, learn about several essential sources and methodologies that will assist you in tracking your own ancestors through their migrations and immigration. Ball-Kilbourne
Wednesday 9 Fame, Fortune, and Infamy: Midwest Ancestors in Historical Newspapers The Midwest has an especially rich newspaper heritage. Historical newspapers are one of the best sources for discovering what ancestors were up to where. Newspapers reported about school, church and society events, business and commerce, and game—either good or ill. News of current events, as well as advertisements and radio or TV schedules, add context to family history. Learn how to find microfilm and digital newspaper collections to help you animate ancestors’ lives. Fonkert
10 Yankee Migrations to the Midwest Millions of New England families migrated west during the 19th century, settling in communities from northern Ohio to the Upper Midwest, bringing with them a unique Yankee culture. Learn about major Yankee migration routes and how a better understanding of their travel routes can help you track Midwest Yankee families back to their New England origins. O’Sullivan
11 Western Midwest Repositories: Their Historical and Genealogical Sources The repositories and websites for research in Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska are unique. Methodology, tips, examples, and some personal on-site research experience will draw you into the state connections, migrations, and some special records, too. We’ll cover an array of county, state, religious, and ethnic repositories that may provide more information about your migrating ancestors, the paths they took, and the places they lived. These storehouses of records, history, and publications tell us more. Their catalogs, inventories, file cabinets, guides, and other finding aids lead us to what we need. Personal papers, business papers, and membership records of organizations hold material that helps to tell the story of our families, their migration, and the places they settled. Stuart-Warren
12 Church Records: Comings and Goings Our Midwestern ancestors moved around a lot. Where did they come from? Where did they go? Church records may have answers. They sometimes included prior or subsequent residences, birthplaces, or even parents’ birthplaces, including exact overseas locations. Simply identifying an ancestral church can point to their possible origins. Learn about Midwestern church record gems that can help you solve your relatives’ migration mysteries. Morton
Thursday 13 Probate Records: Where There’s a Will or Not Death is a record-rich event. Wills and estate proceedings reveal relationships, migrations, economic status, business relationships, and more. Many Midwest probate files are accessible online, but it is still worth searching for original probate packet originals at the courthouse or in archives. Learn about the probate process for both testate and intestate estates. (53) Fonkert
14 Beyond the Midwest: The Great Plains Some of our midwestern ancestors did not remain in the Midwest but forged beyond into those lands labeled on many maps and guides as “The Great American Desert.” In the search for a livelihood, some courageous souls settled in the Great Plains or passed through them on their way to the mountains or the ocean. Learn where and how to search for records your ancestors might have created in the Great Plains states and provinces to the west of the Missouri River and the Red River of the North. Ball-Kilbourne
15 Railroads on the Move: Their Records and History Migration by horse, trail, carriages, canal, river, and on poor roads was slow, and that meant the coming of railroads created a boom in migration, land sales, employment, shipping, and general travel in our target states and in ways that had mixed reactions. Native American lands were taken for the new settlers. Promises of quality land and towns exceeded the truth. Yet, the settlers came, towns grew, and the railroads expanded, and some then faltered. Connections to records of railroads, including correspondence, employee files, payrolls, accident reports, land sales, pensions, routes of travel, government encouragement, unions, related businesses, and where to find existing records will be covered. Stuart-Warren
16 Harvesting History: Uncovering the Stories of Midwest Farm Ancestors Uncover the agricultural legacies of your Midwest ancestors. Learn how to determine the size and location of their farms, the types of crops and livestock they raised, and the challenges they faced. In this session, we’ll explore a range of records that will help provide insights into the agricultural heritage that shaped the stories of many Midwest families and offer a glimpse into their daily, rural lives. Powell
Friday 17 Midwest Urban Research Midwestern families reflect diverse populations and mirror the geographical movement of Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Because of this, genealogists often find researching ancestors in big cities more challenging than research in rural areas. In order to overcome the many roadblocks that may arise when tracing family histories in the urban Midwest, one must become familiar with records that document relationships, religious affiliations, businesses, work, educational attainments, and more. Learn how to find and use collections found in local and state repositories and libraries. These facilities hold resources such as manuscript collections, county histories, historical newspapers, photographic collections, and online databases. You may be surprised at what you find. Abbott
18 Closing Migration Vignettes: Conrad, Dena, and Mumford Family history is fun! Migration stories are captivating. This session features three short case studies that illustrate how various Midwest records reveal migrations and relationships. This closing session is also a time for reviewing what we’ve learned and an opportunity for students to share their personal success stories. Fonkert