Connecticut is a small state with a history as long as its name. Its sobriquet, the Constitution State, has nothing to do with the US Constitution. In 1639, a full 150 years before our forefathers wrote that document, Connecticut’s people proclaimed a democratic principle of government in its Fundamental Orders. They received a royal charter to back up those orders in 1662, then hid the charter in an oak tree a quarter-century later when a rogue governor tried to curb the privileges it granted.
Both the state and the river that bisects it take their name from the American Indian word Quinnehtukqut — Mohegan for “Long River Place” or “Beside the Long Tidal River.” The first Europeans to explore the area were Dutch; English Puritans from Massachusetts set up the first permanent white settlements in the 1630s. These 17th-century colonists turned to manufacturing after land scarcity curbed their agriculture- and trade-based economy. But historians believe one of the state’s bygone trades left its legacy in Connecticut residents’ nickname — early merchants’ interest in West Indies spices earned them the moniker Nutmeggers.
Go to town
Today’s Connecticut is filled with contrasts, from scenic Mystic Seaport to prestigious Yale University; from bustling casinos to the northeastern “quiet corner.” Its genealogy scene differs from other locales, too: In most US states, family historians rely on county courthouses and vital-records offices as sources for ancestral documents, but Connecticut’s eight counties are more geographical than governmental divisions. Record-keeping powers still reside with the state’s 169 towns and cities.
By 1650, town clerks were charged with registering births, marriages and deaths, making Connecticut one of the earliest colonies to begin keeping vital records. Although Revolution-era and mid-19th-century records could be more thorough, registrations in all towns had improved by the State Board of Health’s establishment in 1878. Beginning in July 1897, town clerks sent copies of vital registrations to the state health department.
Look in the library
Make the Connecticut State Library <www.cslib.org> one of your primary research targets. Not only does it oversee the Connecticut State Archives and the Museum of Connecticut History, but its Web site also offers excellent guides to its genealogical holdings. Click on History & Genealogy to see research aids including guidelines for beginners, basic Connecticut resources and a list of professionals familiar with the library’s holdings. Those collections cover every major record type you could want, such as:
• Vital records: The library’s Barbour Collection of Connecticut Vital Records has a statewide index of 1 million-plus names, arranged by surname and then chronologically, which covers most of the surviving town vital records up to 1850. In addition, you’ll find bound vital-records indexes for individual towns, as well as several towns’ vital records for 1850 to 1900. If a group of your ancestors came from the same town, use the bound index to find them — and perhaps additional relatives. If you don’t know the town name, the statewide index is the way to go.
• Newspapers: Access the country’s largest collection of Connecticut newspapers — the library’s holdings comprise approximately 2,050 titles (including every daily, as well as most weekly and special-interest papers) spanning two-and-a-half centuries. The Hale Collection of Newspaper Marriage and Death Notices, covering 1750 to 1865, is compiled from 90 Connecticut newspapers.
• Probates: You’ll find most surviving pre-1850 probate estate papers at the Connecticut State Library, too. They’re indexed in the two-part Probate Estate Papers Index. A general index covers most of the state between 1641 and 1948, and a Hartford Probate District index has listings for Hartford — the state capital — and some surrounding towns from 1820 to 1920.
• Church records: The library holds originals or copies of records — many of them dating back to the 17th century — from more than 600 Connecticut churches. The Church Records Index covers about a quarter of the churches represented in the collection; it lists christenings, membership admissions, marriages, deaths, dismissals, communions and other data.
• Tombstone inscriptions: The Hale Collection of Connecticut Cemetery Inscriptions is the fruit of a Works Projects Administration effort during the Great Depression. This collection includes vital stats collected from tombstones in more than 2,000 cemeteries.
With the exception of some later documents, most of the state library’s records are on microfilm at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library (FHL) <www.familysearch.org> in Salt Lake City. That means you can borrow them through your local FHL branch Family History Center (FHC) — see the FHL Web site to find one near you. For a list of the FHL’s Connecticut holdings, go to FamilySearch and click the Library tab, then Family History Library Catalog. Do a place search on Connecticut and select a topic from the results list.
Arrive at the archives
To learn what’s in Connecticut’s archives, visit the state library Web site and click on State Archives. You can read the entire text of the Guide to the Archives in the Connecticut State Library, 4th edition, at <www.cslib.org /archivesguide.pdf>. You’ll need the free Adobe Reader to view and print this document; you can download it at <www.adobe.com/products/ acrobat/readstep2.html>. The guide groups the collections based on the government department that originally had custody of the records. Genealogists make frequent use of record group 000, the Classified Archives, which includes a variety of personal and family papers, church records (especially those of the Congregational Church) and correspondence.
At <www.cslib.org/databases.htm>, the archives offers surname-searchable online databases of people mentioned in records of Fitch’s Home for Soldiers; military pension agents Gen. William Noble and his daughter Henrietta; Wethersfield Prison (1800 to 1903); and World War I veterans.
Settle the estates
The trick to finding estate records in Connecticut is navigating the maze of 130 probate district courts, whose jurisdiction boundaries have changed over the state’s 350-year history. Unlike many other states, in which one probate court per county is the norm, Connecticut’s diminutive probate districts can be daunting, especially for years not covered in state library indexes.
Once again, the Connecticut State Library comes to your rescue with an online research guide <www.cslib.org / probate>. It tells you which probate court (or district) covered a Connecticut city or town at a given time, the available probate materials (estate papers or record books) of a specific court, and their format (original or microfilm). The original records submitted to probate courts are called estate paper packets; the court’s official records appear in probate court record books.
Count on it
Connecticut has participated in every federal census since the first one in 1790; they list only heads of household until 1850, when enumerators began recording all household members. You can find US census records at large public libraries and your local FHC, as well as on the Internet through the subscription sites Ancestry.com <Ancestry.com > and Genealogy.com <www.genealogy.com>.
Relatively few records remain from Connecticut’s census-taking attempts in 1756, 1762, 1774, 1776, 1779 and 1782, and the surviving documents are primarily statistical — not genealogically useful. The best workaround for researching 17th-century ancestors is Jay Mack Holbrook’s Connecticut 1670 Census (Holbrook Research Institute, out of print) which names about 2,300 people appearing in tax, land, church, freeman and probate records from 1667 to 1673. Records of Connecticut’s 1798 US Direct Tax are a gold mine for 18th-century relatives, since they describe each taxpayer’s house and name owners of adjoining properties. These records aren’t on microfilm; the Connecticut Historical Society has the originals.
Explore your options
The state library and FHL have most of Connecticut’s pre-1900 land records on microfilm. Deeds generally are indexed by town, so you’ll need to know your ancestors’ town name before searching through the land records. The original volumes still reside in the town clerks’ offices.
For a random collection of record transcriptions — such as Center Cemetery (Hartford County) burials and Wyndham County early marriages — visit the Connecticut GenWeb site <www.rootsweb.com/~ctgenweb> and click CT Archives. You’ll find a map, details on researching in each county, and more records by clicking the county links on the left. Fairfield County’s page <www.rootsweb.com/~ctfairfi>, for example, has an index to probate abstracts for various towns and years. Also check out the Connecticut pages at Cyndi’s List .
Although their state no longer leads the overseas spice trade, Nutmeggers still can take pride in numerous nautical and nutritional achievements — from the first nuclear-powered sub to the debut of the submarine sandwich. Whether you’re a seasoned genealogist or a novice researcher, Connecticut’s long, rich history promises to feed your hunger for discovering the past.
From the June 2005 Family Tree Magazine