Research Notes -
from Park Genealogical Books,
your specialists in genealogy and local history for Minnesota and the surrounding area

Resources for Minnesota Geography

Most family historians have a basic library of resources to supplement their research, such as a dictionary and a contemporary road atlas. That atlas can provide answers to questions such as "What county holds the land records?" or "What is the name of the river where Grandma fished?"

The resources listed below can also help. Some are no longer in print, though they might be available at libraries or used/rare bookstores. All are invaluable to those researching Minnesota roots.

  • Minnesota Place Names, originally by Warren Upham, but with major additions. Compendium of place names, collected from early settlers. Organized by county, it includes some short biographies about people connected with naming of Minnesota places, dates for when communities and counties were organized, information about railroad towns, lakes and streams, townships as well as villages, etc. This is also available in print.

    This book is considered the "Bible" for place names. Originally published as part of the Minnesota Historical Society's Collections, Vol. 17, it was updated and reprinted in 1969 as Minnesota Geographic Names, now out of print. This version has information on street names in St. Paul, Minneapolis and Duluth, too.

  • Minnesota GNIS (that's shorthand for Geographic Name Information System) is a collection of data collection by the U.S. Geological Survey. If you want to download your own set in GIS format, you can download it from Minnesota's planning agency. This was developed by the United States Geological Survey (USGS)in cooperation with the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, and includes names from the USGS maps. A 'populated place' is where people live - 'village' or 'city' are not valid search terms. This is helpful if you have a GPS device.
Out of print, but sometimes available in libraries:
  • The Post Offices of Minnesota by Alan H. Patera provides the names of the first postmaster at each site, as well as the date when it was founded. Some post offices were at stagecoach stops or general stores, and therefore were never added to maps.
In print, and in libraries (we offer most of these through our catalog)

  • Minnesota Land Owner Maps and Directories is an annotated bibliography of wall maps, atlases and books, organized by county. Both rural and urban areas are included. For example, there are 21 volumes listed for Hennepin County, ranging from maps drawn from the first book of abstracts for the western part of the county, to a plat book from 1975. Blue Earth County has 35 listings from the 1870s to the 1990s.

    In tracking a piece of land, family sleuths can find clues by seeing who lived near their families. With settlement, land was frequently divided among the children and heirs. Tracing a piece of property through time is made easier by knowing what has been published. The entries also list which volumes have been indexed and/or reprinted.

    While no landowner names appear in the volume itself, it does allow researchers to find titles and publishers of the materials, with repositories where they can be viewed. You can also search on-line catalogs from other libraries.

  • Minnesota Cemetery Locations lists burial places throughout the state, again organized by county. In compiling the book, Wiley Pope (a former librarian at the Minnesota Historical Society) included mentions on maps, WPA records, church histories, county and other local histories, and information from genealogists across the state. The common thread is the legal description for the location, so that it can be found, even if the name and owner have changed.

  • Gazetteer of Minnesota Railroad Towns, 1861-1997 provides an alphabetic list of towns and stations for the railroads, plus a map of the routes, predecessor and successor lines, and their dates of establishment. For those who know that an ancestor worked for a railroad, this provides what is needed to determine which line it was. By following the successors, you can figure out which current rail line may hold the old records.

  • The Hixson Atlas has maps from about 1930, and shows the township and range numbers used in the official land records, as well as railroads, populated places as of that time period, and more.

There are other specialized resources as well, such as census maps for enumeration districts, development of counties from the original nine to the current eighty-seven, or battles during the Dakota Conflict. The above can help with most of the general questions family historians have about Minnesota locations.

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