New England Research

New England Research

Give thanks that our Pilgrim forefathers and those who came after them left a cornucopia of records. Here's how to get started researching your New England roots.


Once you’ve got a grasp on New England’s history and geography, you’re ready to explore the region’s genealogical riches. These include colonial census records, court documents, vital records and religious papers, extending back to the 1600s. All you need to know is where to look and what’s available in order to discover your family’s unique place in New England’s past.

Some things are easier in New England. Starting with the earliest settlements, town and city clerks maintained records of births, marriages and deaths to create order in their communities in the wilderness.

Unfortunately, the Boston clerk neglected to record vital records for the late 18th century, leaving a large gap for genealogists. Unlike other areas of the country, all New England states enacted civil registration by 1866. According to Ralph Crandall in Genealogical Research in New England (NEHGS), “Englishmen were deeply rooted in the habit of record keeping at the parish, county and national level.” The early settlers brought with them their need for civil as well as religious records.

Federal census records, including an 1890 veterans census, exist from 1790 to 1920 for every state except Vermont, which got started a year late. Vermont didn’t join the United States until 1791 and then undertook a census of its citizens. Colonial censuses and state censuses also exist for most New England states. For example, Rhode Island enumerated residents on its own every 10 years from 1865 to 1935 and Massachusetts took state censuses in 1855 and 1865. Only fragments of Maine’s first state census in 1837 still exist.

Since military service was a requirement in 17th-century New England, there are extensive materials for anyone with an ancestor who served. Rhode Island took a special military census for 1777 and Connecticut has one for 1917. A fire destroyed Vermont’s original military records before 1920.

Newspaper coverage for New England is also extensive. More than 447 newspapers flourished and failed here from 1690 to 1820. Transcriptions exist of many of the personal notices of genealogical interest that appeared in these papers, collected by two publishers that specialize in New England materials, the New England Historic Genealogical Society and Picton Press.

Contributing editor Maureen A. Taylor is the author of Preserving Your Family Photographs (Betterway Books, $19.99) and Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photographs (Betterway Books, $18.99). She lives in Westwood, Mass.