When our ancestors arrived on the sandy shores of New England over three
hundred years ago, they brought with them some very advanced thinking about
governmental life, which was to become the foundation of democracy in the
United States. Unlike their "cousins" who settled the South in aristocratic
fashion, New Englanders devised the concept of town in uniquely historic
ways. The town meeting as the major form of government still remains in
Vermont. But the vestiges of town government still remain in various forms
in all of the New England states.
Genealogical researchers in the South, Midwest, and West, where city and
county divisions are the unit of government, often find it hard to adapt
their research skills to the town unit with its primary source material.
Here are some helpful guidelines for orienting research in New England.
The six New England states have undergone several changes regarding the
recording of primary source material--vital records, probate, and land
records. How those records were maintained originally may be quite
different today. For that reason, a brief description of each state's town
records follows. New England research particularly requires the use of a
map of each state's town structure. (Editor's note: "Ancestry's Red Book"
contains maps of each of the New England States showing administrative
divisions, and tables indicating town addresses, date formed and parent
town, the county in which the town is located, and the location and
starting dates of probate records in each town).
Massachusetts originally recorded vital records only at the town level.
Although it was optional to do so, it is suspected that the great majority
of vital events were recorded in Massachusetts even before statewide
recording began in 1841. When a town became incorporated as a city, the
city clerk's office was the place of recording. After 1841, when recording
of vital events became mandatory, town and city clerks were required to
send a copy of the record to the State Registrar of Vital Records.
A large percentage of Massachusetts' town vital records to 1850 have been
published and may be available at large research libraries. That makes it
possible to examine a birth, death, or marriage record in at least on of
three places--the town (or city) clerk's office; the printed volume of
vital records; or the State Registrar's statewide index.
Probate and land records for Massachusetts were recorded at the county, not
the town, level. Probates are indexed by estate name and land records by
both grantor and grantee. Because there were changes in county divisions
and some counties have more than one registry office, it is important to be
specific about the location and time period of the search.
Don't forget to check at the New England Genealogical and Historical Society on Newberry Street in Boston. They have excellent holdings on Canadian data.
Maine was, until 1820, a part of Massachusetts--something that the
inexperienced researcher often forgets when trying to trace New England
ancestry. After Maine became a state, vital records continued to be
recorded in town or city clerk's offices until 1892 when recording became
mandatory. The towns continued to maintain the original records, but after
that date sent copies of the records to the State Bureau of Vital
Statistics in Augusta where they were indexed statewide. Unfortunately,
many of Maine's vital records in towns have been lost to fire, and it is
not easy to get a town clerk to respond to inquiries in smaller,
Maine followed Massachusetts' pattern for probate and land records,
centralizing them in the county seats. All of Maine was Massachusetts' York
County until 1760. Published versions of the early (to 1737) deeds and
wills (to 1760) might be found in large research libraries. After those
dates, the county seat's index needs to be consulted.
In Maine, you might also want to check at the American Canadian Genealogical Society in Lewiston.
The first place I would start in New Hampshire for Canadian research, both French Canadian and Acadian, is at the American Canadian Genealogical Society in Manchester, New Hampshire. Their site can be accessed from my Favorite Links page. They have some of the largest holdings in the northeast!
The pattern of recording vital, land, and probate records in New Hampshire
is similar to that of Massachusetts and Maine. Each town records the vital
events, even to the point of publishing them annually in town reports after
All recorded births before 1901 and deaths, marriages, and divorces after
1838 are additionally recorded and indexed statewide at the Bureau of Vital
Records and Health Statistics. After those dates, a researcher has to
demonstrate a direct interest in the event to view the record.
Probate and land records can be located in the county seat where they are
indexed by estate or grantor/grantee. These indexes usually contain a
location for the land or place of probate, or an indication that the
interaction was part of the county court proceedings.
The "Sargent Index," located at the New Hampshire State Library, provides
an unusual statewide index of all early (to c. 1800) town records, not just
Rhode Island holds the distinction of being the state with the most
centralized primary source materials. All of Rhode Island's vital, land,
and probate records were recorded at the town or city hall. Counties have
little genealogical significance. The vital records to 1850 have been
published and distributed widely. After 1853, statewide recording of
births, deaths, and marriages was mandatory through the Department of
Health's division of Vital Statistics. That leaves only the years 1850 to
1853 not covered by either publication or statewide indexing. These records
would have to be located at the town or city hall.
Do check on the American French Genealogical Society in Woonsocket, R.I. They have very large holdings of Canadian data also.
In Connecticut, there is yet another pattern for recording vital, land, and
probate records. Vital records are still kept by the town office, but after
1897 they were also recorded at the State Department of Health. To make
research in Connecticut vital records easier, microfilm copies of the town
vital records to approximately 1850, arranged alphabetically by surname
across all town records in the state, are available in the Barbour
Collection. It can be found at the Connecticut State Library and in many
other genealogical libraries. The years contained within the Barbour
Collection differ from town to town.
Land records were recorded on the town level as well. Even today the
purchase of a house gets recorded at the town clerk's office, not the
county seat. Microfilm copies of town land records and their
grantor/grantee indexes up to the middle of the 1800s can be found at the
Connecticut State Library, but there is no statewide index. Probate
materials are recorded at one of 130 local probate district offices.
Connecticut also has an American French Genealogical Society in Tollan, Ct.
Vermont uses the town system of government extensively. Probate records are
found in probate districts (not entirely concurrent with county lines), but
a trip to town hall was the essential step in recording vital events and
land records, as well as numerous other aspects of local government--taxes,
dog licenses, etc. For many reasons, vital, land, and probate records in
the state are not entirely complete. After 1857 statewide recording of
vital records became mandatory with the town maintaining the "original"
records. The Bureau of Vital Records provides a statewide index of vital
events recorded in the town records. Since everything in Vermont operates
on a small basis, it is even possible to have personal access to all of the
indexed vital records rather than having to rely on a staff search.
Microfilm copies of land and probate records for the entire state, until at
least 1850, are centrally located at the Division of Public Records in
Montpelier, although there is no statewide index. In addition, yearly town
meeting records in Vermont contain a wealth of primary source material.
Vermont also has an American French Genealogical Society. All of the societies listed on this page have web sites that can be accessed from My Favorite Links page.
TOWN MEETING RECORDS
Since the town form of government is the essential unit in New England (as
it is today in Vermont and has been at various times in the rest of New
England), each town recorded their yearly proceedings in what is called
"Town Meeting Records." They usually contain many interesting aspects of
our ancestors' lives. Also contained are tax records, elections of town
officials, lists of children of school age, warnings out to poor families,
church disputes, ear marks for cows or pigs, etc. Aside from New
Hampshire's index to these town records, most have to be read thoroughly to
unearth their marvelous sense of the quality of life recorded within them.
Even if you can't take a trip to New England to see these wonderful
records, microfilm collections of a good number of them are in the holdings
of the LDS research library in Salt Lake City and through their network of
local branch libraries. Certainly while the principle of working in the
locale of your ancestor's former places of residence holds true for any
geographic area, details of the lives of New Englanders are probably more
open, available, and informative than that of most areas in the United
National Archives Records Administration
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the repository for
many of the historical treasures of the United States. Besides the Declaration
of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are many, many
documents of our national history. These include materials such as: military and
service records for the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the
Spanish American War, and World War I; many ships' passenger arrival records;
some immigration and naturalization records; records from the Freedman's Savings
and Trust Company and other records of interest to African American researchers;
microfilm of the decennial Federal census records from 1790 through 1920 (minus
almost all of 1890); Dawes Commission records and other records relating to
Native American research; and a variety of other perhaps less common documents
that may help you with your genealogical research.
Genealogists and family historians are the most numerous of the users of NARA's
resources. NARA has therefore compiled a Genealogy Page at their Web site, at
http://www.nara.gov/genealogy, which contains an excellent collection of
information of special interest to family history researchers. These include
lists of free pamphlets and publications for sale that will help you determine
what materials exist, where they are located, in what format they can be found
(original vs. microform), and how to purchase any microform materials you might
want to own.
In order to access NARA materials most efficiently, you need to know what NARA
has and how to obtain copies. Your best starting point is at the NARA Web site
at http://search.nara.gov. Here you will see tabs across the top of the Web page
and a click on a tab takes you to a whole category of information. The "Research
Room" tab is where you want to go first.