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.
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. Historians believe one of the state’s bygone trades—in West Indies spices—left its legacy in Connecticut residents’ nickname: the Nutmeggers.
Today’s Connecticut is filled with contrasts, from scenic Mystic Seaport to prestigious Yale University. The genealogy scene differs from most other locales, too: In most US states, family historians rely on county courthouse resources, 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 residents’ births, marriages and deaths, making Connecticut one of the earliest American colonies to begin keeping vital records. Although Revolutionary War-era and mid-19th-century records could be more thorough, registrations in all towns had improved by the time the State Board of Health was established in 1878. Beginning in July 1897, town clerks sent copies of vital registrations to the state health department, so you can look for records with either agency.
State Library Holdings
You’ll see why the Connecticut State Library (CSL) should be one of your primary research targets when you browse its website. Click on Historians & Genealogists to read excellent guides to the CSL’s considerable genealogical holdings. To read, visit the Guide to the Archives in the Connecticut State Library. The guide groups collections based on the government department that originally had custody of the records. Many tax, election and other town records are in record group (RG) 062. Genealogists also make frequent use of RG 000, the Classified Archives, which includes additional town records, personal and family papers, church records (especially those of the Congregational Church) and correspondence.
You can findfind several surname and vital records indexes online. Most are military: indexes to state Civil War, Spanish American War and WWI veterans. You can also search some court records relating to ethnic minorities and a century’s worth of Wethersfield Prison records. Browse the growing Digital Collections to view fascinating court documents, historical photos, diaries and more.
Connecticut has participated in US censuses since the first one in 1790. These list only heads of households until 1850, when enumerators began recording everyone’s name. Major genealogy websites have searchable censuses, including subscription sites Ancestry.com, Findmypast and MyHeritage, and the free FamilySearch.
Jay Mack Holbrook’s 1977 book Connecticut 1670 Census (Holbrook Research Institute) names about 2,300 people from tax, land, church, freeman and probate records from 1667 to 1673. Look for this book at the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City and at other large genealogical libraries across the country.
Seventeenth-century state censuses left little genealogically useful material. But Connecticut’s 1798 US Direct Tax records describe each taxpayer’s house and name owners of adjoining properties. These records are at the Connecticut Historical Society. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has discovered additional 1798 tax records for the towns of Kent and Warren; find them at the National Archives at Boston. You’ll also find a 1917 Connecticut military census on Ancestry.com.
The CSL 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 land records. The original volumes still reside in town clerks’ offices. Here’s a bit of trivia: Connecticut once claimed part of northern Ohio. It sold most of its claim to investors in 1795, but granted an area known as the Firelands to Nutmeg State residents whose property was destroyed during the American Revolution.
After you find your ancestors’ property, you’ll probably want to map out its location. The University of Connecticut’s Map and Geographic Information Center has digitized county and town maps on its website. The Connecticut Society of Genealogists also has digitized maps from 1766, 1824 and 1923. CSL’s collection includes all kinds of maps and other place-finding aids, including digitized Sanborn Maps (1867-1970, available only for in-house use). Depending where your family lived, you may find their property on one of the handful of Connecticut maps in Ancestry.com’s collection of indexed land ownership maps.
Like other records, early vital records exist on the town level. Members of Connecticut genealogical societies have access to almost all vital records at local town clerk and registrar offices. Anyone can request certified copies through the state vital records office.
Request pre-1897 from the CSL. Its Barbour Collection of 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. These are indexed at Ancestry.com. CSL also has bound vital-records indexes and records for many individual towns for 1850 to 1900. But start your search at FamilySearch and Ancestry.com, which index millions of births, marriages, divorces, deaths and burials from 1638 to 2001. Some of the records referenced in these indexes are available on FamilySearch.
Your Connecticut ancestors participated in military conflicts starting in the Colonial era. You may find rosters, service records, pension applications, unit histories and more. Up until the American Revolution, colonial militia records are with the state archives. Thereafter, military personnel records are archived at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) through World War I and the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis for later wars.
Many military records are published online or in books, starting with the Pequot War in 1636. Look especially on Ancestry.com, FamilySearch, Fold3, the Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Connecticut, the New England Historic Genealogical Society and the Daughters of the American Revolution.
There’s more to Connecticut records than vitals, land transactions and censuses. Explore these resources, too:
- Newspapers: At the CSL, access the country’s largest collection of Connecticut papers. The library’s holdings comprise about 2,050 titles spanning 250 years. The Hale Collection of Newspaper Marriage and Death Notices, covering 1750 to 1865, is compiled from 90 Connecticut papers. Search the half million-plus names from Bridgeport, Naugatuck and Manchester newspapers at Ancestry.com.
- Probates: Learn to navigate Connecticut’s 130 probate district courts, with their changing jurisdiction boundaries and variably available materials (including estate paper packets and probate record books), with the CSL research guide. Most surviving pre-1850 probate estate papers are at CSL, and most are indexed. There is a general probate index and several record sets available on microfilm through the FHL.
- 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. The FHL also has microfilmed church records.
- 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. Extracts of the Hale collection appear here. Once you’ve perused all these resources, you’ll agree that this little state with the long name has a flavorful past worthy of its nickname, and hopefully you’ll have found plenty of spicy details on your own Nutmegger ancestors.
To learn more about Connecticut, check out our Connecticut Fast Facts and Key Resources.
From the December 2017 Family Tree Magazine.