Yankee Ingenuity

Yankee Ingenuity

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.

New England may be small — a mere 66,000 square miles compared to Alaska’s 591,000 square miles — but whatever it lacks in size, it makes up for in variety. Mark Twain once said of New England, “In the spring I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of four-and-20 hours.” But along with rapidly changing weather, each state has a distinct mix of character and history. Forget the stereotypic small-town New England of Peyton Place or “Murder, She Wrote” and the horrific happenings of Stephen King’s Maine. Once you start researching your New England roots, you’ll discover the true diversity of the region.

To uncover your New England family history you need to shake off everything (well, almost everything) you’ve heard about the area and acquire a basic historical background on the six New England states: Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. As every schoolchild knows, the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 in what’s now Massachusetts, and the Boston Tea Party and Paul Revere’s ride helped launch the American Revolution there. But unless you live in New England you may not know much more than these fundamentals.

For instance, not only did much of American history start here, so did many American families. More than a quarter of the people living in the United States today have some New England connection. That means a lot of people need to know how to find genealogical treasure in the area — and you can find it if you know where to look.

Beyond Pilgrim pride

The classic example of New England genealogy is of course tracing your lineage back to the Mayflower. In fact, 25 percent of Americans believe they have Mayflower ancestry, a 1999 Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll found. According to the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, however, 35 million people worldwide may be able to count at least one of the 26 original Pilgrims as an ancestor — or roughly half the number of Americans who think they’re Mayflower descendants. And the society has only about 25,000 members who’ve actually been able to document their ancestry. (For more information, see the society’s Web site at <www.mayflower.org>. You can find links to other Pilgrim genealogy sites at <pilgrims.net/plymouth/ROOTS>.)

While not everyone really has Mayflower roots, most families have ancestors with a similarly restless spirit. When you look at the genealogy of an early New England family, you’ll find lots of young men who went “west.” Way back then, “west” simply meant west of where they were presently living — Vermont, for example. The promise of new land and economic opportunity lured ambitious men and women to spread throughout New England and eventually beyond.

So be sure to start by retracing your family’s migration patterns, working backwards from yourself. If you have an old New England surname and an oral tradition of Mayflower lineage, it’s still necessary to take your research step by step rather than leaping to what could be a wrong conclusion. I’ve seen researchers decide to skip a century trying to make a link to an early New England settler. Don’t do it! You just might end up in the wrong family tree entirely. Take time to examine home sources, interview relatives and look carefully at each document you find.

Religious refugees

You can increase your chances of discovering new family information by studying the time period and area in which your ancestors lived. Don’t confine your research to just military conflicts or political happenings. Religion formed the foundation of many 17th-century New England communities and religious records are some of the earliest resources available.

The Pilgrims weren’t the only religious refugees to populate the region. Since the founders of Massachusetts had a habit of banishing religious leaders who disagreed with them, they were in part responsible for the settlement of the region. Individuals branching out from the original English settlements of Massachusetts settled Maine, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

Take Rhode Island, for instance. Several banished ministers, including one woman, founded the original four towns of Rhode Island — Providence, Portsmouth, Warwick and Newport. Other religious dissenters who sought refuge in Rhode Island included members of the Society of Friends, known as Quakers. Friends records are among some of the best for genealogists because of the amount of detail they contain. You can learn all about the records on deposit at the Rhode Island Historical Society Library, for example, in Richard Startler’s Guide to the Records of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in New England (Rhode Island Historical Society). A majority of 18th-century Rhode Islanders were Quakers, so you may have Quaker roots you don’t even know about.

Other ministers from Massachusetts settled Connecticut. Thomas Hooker established Hartford in 1635, then banded together with the inhabitants of Wethersfield and Windsor to form the colony of Connecticut. Essentially, early Connecticut had two separate governmental units; the New Haven area remained distinct from Hooker’s Congregationalist stronghold. Throughout the Colonial period just about a dozen families controlled most political offices, strengthening their dominance through intermarriage.

Maine was actually a part of Massachusetts for almost two centuries, until 1820, with towns clustered along the seacoast and the northern border. So if you have early Maine ancestors, you can often find material in Massachusetts records. Or your Maine ancestors might have been closet Canadians: Great Britain disputed the ownership of the northern edge of Maine until the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 finally set the boundary between Maine and Canada.

Samuel de Champlain and a group of French tried to settle in Maine in 1604 but later moved into Vermont (giving his name to that state’s largest body of water, Lake Champlain). Later migrants to Vermont arrived in the colony from Connecticut, traveling northward along the Connecticut River and settling in the valleys surrounding the Green Mountains. Independent-minded Vermonters fought off land claims from New York state and actually formed an independent republic from 1777 to 1791. Vermont was also the first to provide voting rights to all males regardless of race or religion and to abolish the land-ownership requirement for voting.

As in Vermont, geography dictated the settlement patterns of New Hampshire. Initially, migrants from Essex County, Mass., grouped around the Piscatagua River or the seacoast. Later immigrants came from overseas, including many Ulster Scots. Much like the other New England states, New Hampshire became increasingly ethnically diverse, attracting French Canadians, Poles, Greeks and others.

A bountiful harvest of records

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.

Industry and immigrants

The influx of new immigrant groups and the advent of the Industrial Revolution changed the character of the region — and created new records for genealogists to tap. An English emigrant, Samuel Slater, started the first factory to manufacture cotton thread in Paw-tucket, RI, in 1790. Soon after, textile factories began appearing in towns across New England. Many immigrants came here to work in shipbuilding, whaling, the lumber industry that supplied masts for English ships, marble and granite quarries or even in the tobacco industry that flourished in the Connecticut River Valley. The occupational history of your ancestor can direct you to new resources to study your family.

You may also need to consult immigration records. Besides Ellis Island <www.ellisisland.org>, immigrants arrived through many of New England’s coastal seaports such as Providence, Portland and Boston, as well as along the border between New England and Canada. You can consult several National Archives and Records Administration <www.nara.gov> publications, including Copies of Lists of Passengers Arriving at Miscellaneous Ports on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts 1820-1873 (M575) and Canadian border entries known as the St. Albans Arrival Records (M1461-M1465). Researchers with early ancestors need to use The Great Migration series by Robert Charles Anderson (NEHGS, see box next page).

And don’t forget that New Englanders did more than their share to create today’s industrialized, technological world. Among New England inventors are Eli Whitney (cotton gin), Charles Thurber (typewriter), Charles Goodyear (rubber) and Russian immigrant Igor Sikorsky (helicopter). If you have New England roots you should investigate patent records to see if anyone in your family developed an invention. See the US Patent and Trademark Office’s Web site for information <www.uspto.gov/main/patents.htm>.

Diversity in New England

Of course, the first “immigrants” to New England were the native populations who already lived there when the Puritans arrived in 1620. Even before then, Europeans established trade with many of the tribes including the Algonquin, Abnaki, Mahican and Pennacook. Settlers lived alongside these tribes and fought beside these native people in Colonial conflicts. For more on researching your Native American roots, see the October 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

Nor was slavery unknown in New England. The “triangle trade” of sugar, rum and slaves made the fortunes of many prominent merchant families. New England abolitionists were, however, prominent in advocating the end of the slave trade and each state abolished slavery before the Civil War. Barbara W. Brown and James M. Rose’s Black Roots in Southeastern Connecticut, 1650-1900 (New London County Historical Society) is a valuable resource for researchers of African-American roots, as is Franklin A. Dorman’s Twenty Families of Color in Early Massachusetts, 1742-1998 (NEHGS).

Planning a research trip

Once you’ve done all you can from home, you may want to research your New England roots in person. Many genealogists plan their trips to the area in the spring and fall to take advantage of the beautiful scenery. Whenever you visit, make sure you come prepared.

First, create a list of publications and records that you want to consult by using online card catalogs, Web sites and general guides such as the Ancestry’s Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources (Ancestry). A quick check of the Family History Library Catalog <www.familysearch.org/Eng/Library/FHLC/frameset_fhlc.asp> provides sources you can use before leaving home. Many early New England records are on microfilm, available through Family History Centers in your area.

New England boasts some of the oldest and largest research facilities in the country, from the extensive collections of the Boston Public Library and the New England Historic Genealogical Society to the Connecticut State Library in Hartford. Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire have large groups of records in centralized locations. But keep in mind that many records are also located in the town halls and public libraries in small towns. Since some repositories operate with only limited hours, always call ahead both to verify when they’re open and to check on their policies for researchers. Connecticut researchers, for instance, need to have a membership card in a genealogical society before many clerks will let them use material.

Unfortunately, one of the most persistent myths about New England research is that everything is already in print. While many of the early town vital records and histories are in book form, on CD-ROM or the Web, there is still a tremendous amount of material at the town or county level. Look at everything you can before you leave home so that your time in New England can be spent mining these primary records.

Challenges and brick walls

Despite New England’s unusual wealth of resources, don’t expect to find all your ancestors instantly. The geographic and political divisions of the area can challenge even experienced genealogists. You’ll need a good gazetteer to locate tiny places and pronounce place names often derived from Native American languages. Rhode Island, for instance, has just 39 cities and towns but more than 100 villages.

The inaccuracy of early maps and land grants often created land disputes in New England’s Colonial era. At one time Connecticut and Massachusetts both claimed ownership of part of Rhode Island, which means records from the southern part of that state can be found in all three states. Most of the New England states had similar boundary disputes with their neighbors. Once you’ve identified the name of the town or village in which your ancestor lived, you can discover the proper place to look for records by consulting Marcia Melnyk’s Genealogist’s Handbook of New England Research (NEHGS).

New Englanders come to understand the quirkiness of their region and learn to live with the unpredictable weather. New England genealogists love the wealth of resources here and how easy it is to follow their ancestral wanderings with day trips. Nothing is very far apart and the scenery in between is beautiful. Whether your ancestors came here on the Mayflower or arrived to enlist in the Industrial Revolution, finding your New England roots can give you many causes for Thanksgiving.

From the December 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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