Ancestors on the move don't have to leave your family tree in the dust. We'll show you how to pick up their scent and follow their trail to new lives across America.
To find your own ancestors' motivations for moving on and to begin tracing their migration, Whitaker of RoadTrails advises that you start by working backwards in time—look for clues to a family's origins at the last destination where you can positively locate them. Then follow these steps to try to puzzle out how they got there:
- Learn the local history and geography. Local histories can document patterns that may explain your family's move. My hometown of Kearny, NJ, for example, drew large numbers of Irish and Scottish immigrants to work in its textile and linoleum industries. Similarly, silk mills in Paterson, NJ, attracted skilled workers from Poland. Incorporate any local history details into your timeline that may explain the movement of groups of people that might have included your ancestors. Also ask your local public library about 19th-century books and pamphlets used to entice immigration and financial development, Hadden advises. My hometown published a booklet in 1895 to lure New York City businessmen to the bucolic setting of suburban New Jersey.
- Identify boundary line changes in counties and states. Map aids such as the US Geological Survey's Geographic Names Information System at mapping.usgs.gov/www/gnis/ can help you find place names used on USGS topographical maps, especially where location names and boundaries may have changed. Named places, including some schools and family cemeteries, can be identified from this system. Also check out one genealogy buff's method of finding US locations using online aerial photos and topographical maps at www.cswnet.com/~sbooks/genealogy/html/topo.htm.
- Use historical maps. The US Geological Survey, state history maps and other resources let you follow the path of your ancestors. William Dollarhide, in his book Map Guide to American Migration Routes, 1735-1815 (Heritage Quest, $9.95), advises, "Get a good map and trace the old migration routes with the modern highways of today. Find the counties that the routes pass through, and make a list of the places where an ancestor may have stopped en route to a final destination."
- Create your own map. Show the junctions of families through marriage along with their places of origin and their subsequent moves. Your own "map" may be a simple chart on paper, a tracing-paper overlay on a printed map, or a slick creation using one of the many mapping-software programs.
- Create a timeline. Who was where when? To keep track, document your family's movement, indicating significant events by date and location. Incorporate any local history details into your timeline that may explain migrations. Your regular genealogy software program may be able to create timelines for you; see page 58 for instructions on how to do this with Family Tree Maker and Generations. You may also want to use timeline software such as Genelines (Progeny, $29.95) or The Genealogy Timeline (Computer Management Corp., $49.95) to put your family's history into a broader context. (See the April 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine or It's About Time for a complete review of Genelines.)
Be sure to make use of migration records by following these steps:
- Locate and research records. Find your families in state and
federal censuses, in church records, military records and courthouse
records. Census records give you insightful information in two ways:
they can identify place of birth and, if you don't find your ancestors
in the same place in the next census, that can tell you there's a good
chance they moved. (See the December 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine
for more on census and other federal records.) Check church records
where your family settled or may have stopped for any related birth,
marriages or deaths. Military records can include service records (such
as musters, rolls, rosters, enlistments, discharges, prisoners of war
and burials) and pension records. Two sources to help you locate
military records are James C. Neagles' US Military Records: A Guide to Federal and State Sources, Colonial America to the Present (Ancestry, $39.95) and the Family History Library's research outline (see www.familysearch.org,
click Research Helps under the Search tab, hit U and scroll down to US
Military Records). You'll also find clues in local courthouse records,
such as deeds, probate and legal proceeding records and documents.
- Pay attention to names. Many families traveled with
their neighbors and relatives. They may have started out together or
come together by marriage en route. Document the names of witnesses on
records and recipient names of personal correspondence.
- Find written accounts. As George Morgan points out in the Genealogy Forum News at www.genealogyforum.rootsweb.com/gfnews/,
"As they migrated from one place to another, our ancestors sometimes
left written accounts behind. Sometimes they kept journals. More often
they wrote letters back to family and friends." These letters may have
described the migration experience, means of travel, the places they saw
and the people they met or traveled with. Maybe your family has such
sources. If not, look for written accounts by others whose migrations
parallel those of your ancestors. Books such as Lillian Schlissel's Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey (Schocken Books, $14.95) or Kenneth Holmes' Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1849 (University of Nebraska Press, $11.70) provide excellent examples.
- Study the trail itself. Choose a trail or road with
special significance to your heritage and seek information from many
sources—books, periodicals, videos, television documentaries, museums
and the Internet. Check with local historical societies, museums and
libraries along the trail to learn more. You may even want to travel the
route yourself to get a feel for your ancestors' experience. Your
family's history, after all, isn't just a record of names and dates. If
you're like most Americans, it's also a saga of places. The more you can
connect with those places from your past, the better you'll understand
how you got here today.