Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Elusive Ancestors in New England

Many persons doing genealogy think that pre-1850 New England research is "easy." There are a number of myths, including

* that the town, land, church and probate records provide all of the evidence needed to construct families back to the European immigrants in the early 1600's.

* that the surname books and locality books written in the late 19th and early 20th century have completely defined these New England families.

* that the "tan books" of pre-1850 town Vital Records are complete.

* that books for all New England towns have been published.

* that the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) publications have defined many New England families completely.

* that all of these records were extracted by the LDS and included in the International Genealogical Index (IGI) and the Ancestral File (AF), and that the information can be trusted.

* that many families have been completely researched and documented by other researchers in online family tree databases or web sites, and all you have to do is find the information.

There are elements of truth in each of these statements. Many records have been published in book and periodical format, and some of them are online in databases or web sites digital format

But the real truth is that New England records are anything but complete. While many towns in Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire and coastal Maine have published books compiling vital records up to about 1850, there are many towns in the other states that have few published vital records. Record keeping seemed to break down before the Revolutionary War and are fairly spotty in many cases until vital record registration began for each state.

State compilations of pre-1850 records exist for Massachusetts (e.g., the "tan books" and databases on http://www.newenglandancestors.org/ ), Rhode Island (the Arnold books, available on http://www.newenglandancestors.org/ and http://www.ancestry.com/), and Connecticut (the Barbour Collection available on http://www.ancestry.com/). Unfortunately, NEHGS and Ancestry have only selected town records and other records for Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine for this time period in digital format. Many more town record and history books are available in published book form that are in repositories (like NEHGS), and in digital format (on http://www.ancestry.com/, HeritageQuestOnline and other resources). Nearly all of them are available on loan on microfilm from the LDS Family History Library.

Even with all of that good information, there are some family lines that resist yielding the elusive ancestor that is mine, or yours, or his, or hers.

In my case, my Thomas J. Newton (ca 1800 born in ME - ca 1850 in MA?) continues to puzzle and elude me. I have a candidate, but no real evidence for even his existence except for two marriage records of his children. I've searched records from Oxford County ME, in Lamoille County VT, in Windsor County VT, in Worcester County, MA and Middlesex County MA. TJN is still elusive for me, no matter what I seem to do.

I have many more "elusive ancestors" in New England - most of them are females for whom I can't determine the parents. An example is my Elizabeth Horton Dill (ca 1794-1869). In this case, the available records conflict - two death records give the same mother's name (and I can find no records for her existence) and two father's names (one exists, the other name may have been a brother).

Bill West recently posted "The Search Goes On" about his elusive John Cutter West (1802 in Plymouth County MA - 1867 in Oxford County ME). I've made several suggestions to Bill for further research and done a little search and analysis, but this is a difficult research problem.

The good news is that many of these problems can be solved because there are so many records available for New England.

Solving these research problems takes patience, hard work and some good luck. They cannot be solved using only online resources because the online resources are incomplete. These types of problems are usually solved by finding probate records (wills, administrations, guardianships, etc.), land records (deeds), church records (baptisms, marriages, memberships), and handwritten town records (tax lists, town officers, warnings out, etc.) to go along with the published and online resources. Many of these records are available but only on microfilm available from the LDS Family History Library at the present time.

They are also solved by extensively searching people with the same or similar surname in each locality that the elusive ancestor lived, and researching their associates (family, friends, neighbors, witnesses, etc.). People moved from place to place with a group of people known to them - a cluster, if you will. The challenge is to find the cluster people, search their records and determine the relationships to your "elusive ancestor."

Those of us with colonial New England ancestors are really spoiled because we know so much about many of our ancestors in this region. The expectation when you look for a "newly found ancestor" is that you will find him or her in the records, document your research, enter them in your database, and move on to the next one.

However, the "elusive ancestors" are the ones that you have to really work hard on, by finding all available records and evaluating evidence with a critical and discerning eye. By doing so you hone your research skills and broaden your experience and knowledge.

The bottom line for me is that until the LDS Church digitizes and indexes all of their microfilms and microfiches, which contain the unique and ancestor-catching records, I will still have to go to the local FHC and find them on microfilms obtained from Salt Lake City.

UPDATED: 7:30 PM, added a bit more text and corrected some errors.

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