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

Researching Military Records in Minnesota

It's inevitable - sooner or later every family historian needs to research military records. Perhaps you found a photograph of an ancestor in uniform; or maybe the initials 'G.A.R.' on a gravestone, a note on the census of veteran's status, or a ribbon or other decoration. Whatever it may be, the trigger of a new clue sends the researcher off looking for records.

The National Archives in Washington, D.C. has substantial amounts of archival materials relating to Minnesotans who were involved in military action. But don't overlook those records that can be found on the local level. Among the questions to be answered as these:

  1. Did your ancestor participate in some kind of military service? During the frontier days, militia units could be established in a few days to help with specific episodes. For example, Minnesota militia units from Mankato, New Ulm, St. Peter, and Traverse des Sioux all set out to help the settlers near Spirit Lake, Iowa in March of 1857 when Inkpaduta attacked them. And other militia units formed in 1862 during the Sioux Conflict. Home guards served as well, including the Pioneer Guard from St. Paul. It's important to distinguish enlistment for these purposes from enlistment for broader (and longer) service.
  2. In what kind military unit did the ancestor serve? The answer to this question helps determine what kind of repository is the most likely to have the records. For example, units such as the "First Minnesota" (known for its service at Gettysburg), the 13th Minnesota Volunteers, militia units and the Home Guard were formed under the auspices of the State of Minnesota. Enrollment records and regimental histories can be found in the Minnesota State Archives. Those who served in the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, U.S. Army, the Army/Air Force or Coast Guard were in federal organizations, and enrollment records are more likely to be found in the National Archives.

  3. In what war did the ancestor serve? Knowing that Minnesota became a state in 1858 may lead a researcher to believe that there are no records for Minnesotans before the Civil War. But Fort Snelling was built for the U.S. Army in 1820, almost three decades before Minnesota became a territory. Some of those who served at the Fort made Minnesota their home, though they had not been born in Minnesota. In addition, with the westward settlement, soldiers who had served in militia or in units sponsored by other state governments settled in Minnesota.

    While their official enrollment records will not be in Minnesota repositories, they could have been members of organizations related to specific wars. For example, the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) served as Union forces in the Civil War; many Minnesota communities had G.A.R. posts which included anyone who served in that war, whether they were with a Minnesota regiment or not. Arthur Louis Finnell's book Known War of 1812 Veterans Buried in Minnesota provides at least 2-3 generations for 182 veterans who settled in Minnesota with their families, plus one for a Revolutionary War veteran.

  4. Did the ancestor receive support or military bounty land or services from military branches of the government? Perhaps a pension was paid to the soldier or his family, or perhaps he took up residence in one of the Soldiers' Homes in the state, or was buried in a military cemetery. Historical and genealogical societies around the state have published information about the veterans who were living in their areas.

The thorough researcher will want to follow every clue. The Minnesota State Archives, including some enlistment records for the Civil War and the Spanish-American War are housed at the Minnesota History Center. Their on-line catalog offers a peek into the relics, records and resources available in their reading room. Be creative in your search: if you know the official name of the unit, use that as a term search. If you don't know the unit, try using the name of the military action.

While you will have to visit the Minnesota History Center to use archival materials, much of their vast newspaper collection can be borrowed on inter-library loan through your local public library. Read the local paper for news from the front, and how the community responded to the action. Did your ancestor write home about his experiences?

Don't avoid military records because of their seeming complexity. Common sense and patience will reward your efforts! And be sure to look at our on-line catalog for the military information we carry.

© 2007 Park Genealogical Books, Roseville MN

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