State Research Guide: Delaware

State Research Guide: Delaware

Find your family tree in the First State: These how-to tips will give you a head start.

If Delaware had a cartoon alter ego, it would be Speedy Gonzales. This miniature state — undersized by only Rhode Island — has made its mark on American history by leaving bigger banditos in its dust.

For starters, Delaware raced past the 12 other Colonies to ratify the Constitution, becoming the first US state. More firsts followed, including the first automated flour-milling system, the first regularly scheduled steam railroad and the first divided highway (the DuPont Highway, widened in 1933).

Delaware also has zoomed ahead of other states in digitizing genealogical records. The Delaware Public Archives (DPA) Web site <www.state.de.us/sos/dpa> boasts indexes and original-record images that will speed your research.

Want to follow in your First State ancestors’ footsteps? Here’s how to get your research off to a running start.

Little state, big past

Dutch colonists staked out Delaware’s first European settlement in 1631 (at modern-day Lewes), but their outpost didn’t last long: The next year, the entire group perished in a scuffle with Indians.

Their Swedish counterparts fared better. In 1638, settlers established Fort Christina (now Wilmington) and dubbed their colony New Sweden. The Dutch hadn’t given up on Delaware, though. Settlers from New Netherland (what’s now New York) challenged the Swedes, capturing Fort Christina in 1655. Then the Dutch found themselves fending off England — which overtook Delaware for good in 1674.

Eight years later, the Duke of York transferred Delaware to William Penn, proprietor of the new Quaker colony next-door. Though it got its own assembly in 1704, Delaware remained under Pennsylvania’s control for nine decades (with Maryland claiming southern and western Delaware from 1684 to 1736). Delaware declared independence from Pennsylvania in 1776, then pledged its allegiance to the United States.

Places to begin

Today, Delaware has three counties: New Castle, created in 1673, is the only original county. Kent County, established in 1682, began as the Horrekill District (1664 to 1680), followed by a two-year stint as St. Jones County. Sussex County also formed in 1682, from Durham County, Md., and Deale County, Del.

Other Delaware locales adopted new monikers over the years, as well. For lists of place-name changes, see <www.ls.net/~newriver/de/deplace.htm> and <delgensoc.org/deltowns.html> (name changes also appear in the Delaware Genealogical Society’s Delaware Genealogical Research Guide — see resources).

If you don’t live in Delaware, you’ll need a crash course in “hundreds” — a Colonial tax-districting system that’s now unique to Delaware. Roughly equivalent to a township, a hundred likely represented an area occupied by 100 families (some sources say it referred to 100 people or soldiers).

Delaware’s 33 present-day hundreds haven’t changed since 1897, and many bear the same names as cities, so be sure you know which division you’re dealing with when you search for your family in records.

The Delaware Geological Survey has posted historical hundreds maps at <www.udel.edu/dgs/dgsdata/hundredspdf.html>. Scanned from the 1869 Pomeroy and Beers Atlas, they show property ownership, churches and businesses.

And don’t forget migrations. Delaware sits on the Delmarva Peninsula, which also encompasses parts of Maryland and Virginia. Some families moved multiple times within the peninsula, irrespective of state or colonial borders.

Secondary shortcuts

To get a jump on your genealogy, take advantage of previously compiled research on Delaware families. For example:

? The Historical Society of Delaware (HSD) maintains a Genealogical Surname File that indexes 120,000-plus names from the society’s holdings, including its unpublished notes and charts on Delaware clans. You can access these resources at the HSD library in Wilmington.

? The Rev. Joseph Brown Turner Collection, compiled between 1900 and 1935, consists of notes about 3,000 Delmarva Peninsula families. The DPA owns the collection and has posted portions online; you can view the digital images at <www.state.de.us/sos/dpa/exhibits/document/turner>.

? For its Delaware Families Project, the Delaware Genealogical Society is compiling genealogical details and biographies on people who lived in the state between 1787 and 1800. More than 2,700 names have been submitted so far; you can download a list of those ancestors, along with submitters’ contact information, at <delgensoc.org/delfam.html>.

? Check the index to J. Thomas Scharf’s History of Delaware, 1609-1888 — which is generally considered the best chronicle of the state’s history — in print and online (see resources).

For more tools, consult the Family History Library’s Delaware Statewide Indexes and Collections guide at <www.familysearch.org>.

Documentary details

Ready to research in original records? Here’s a quick primer:

? Census: Despite its “first state” status, Delaware’s federal census records don’t date back to the initial US head count — fire destroyed the 1790 enumeration of Delaware. But Leon de Valinger’s Reconstructed 1790 Census of Delaware (National Genealogical Society), compiled from tax lists, serves as a substitute. You can access Delaware enumerations from 1800 to 1930 (except 1890, which also burned) at the DPA, large libraries and National Archives and Records Administration <www.archives.gov> facilities; through the Family History Library; and by subscription at Ancestry.com <Ancestry.com >.

? Vital records: Statewide vital-record-keeping began in 1913. Delaware law protects birth records for 72 years, and marriage and death records for 40 years.

The DPA holds all publicly available vital records, including a sizable collection covering 1880 to 1913. For earlier births, deaths and marriages, check the DPA or HSD: Both institutions hold vital stats compiled from church records, family Bibles, newspapers and other sources. Contact the Office of Vital Statistics for more-recent records.

? Military records: With Delaware’s long legacy of power struggles, there’s a good chance your ancestors participated in — or witnessed — military action. The HSD holds military records from the Colonial era through World War I.

Just as Delaware was divided before the Revolution — a 2-1 vote by delegates tipped the colony toward independence — the state found itself in a precarious position before the Civil War. Though its politicians favored states’ rights to decide slavery issues, most Delawareans opposed secession, so it sided with the Union. Consult the DPA’s online Guide to Civil War Records (access it from <www.state.de.us/sos/dpa/collections/public.shtml>) for research help. You can view a selection of the DPA’s Civil War collection in the Web site’s Document Exhibits.

The DPA Web site also hosts indexes to naturalizations <www.state.de.us/sos/dpa/collections/natrlzndb/nat-index.shtml> as well as probate records (1680 to 1925) <www.state.de.us/sos/dpa/collections/probate.shtml>. Look for details about city directories, cemeteries, land records and other sources in the Delaware Genealogical Research Guide.

If your Delaware roots reach back before statehood, you’ll discover that the colony’s varied social and political landscape produced a bounty of records. Of course, this complex history also presents genealogical challenges: Your family’s records might be in Pennsylvania, Maryland or New York — or even Sweden, the Netherlands or England. Luckily, the HSD’s printed sources cover some of those early records. So don’t get too discouraged if your research doesn’t progress at a pace befitting Delaware’s cartoon counterpart. You still can come out ahead — just like your clan’s tiny home state.
 
From the February 2005 Family Tree Magazine

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