by Betty Malesky | Jul 14, 2011
Old New England, my favorite place for research, refers to the three colonies, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, settled first in the 1600s. Before beginning research in any area, it's always wise to learn something about its history to better understand the available records and the people who created them. This is especially true of New England, as each of these colonies has some distinct differences.
The Pilgrims founded Plymouth Colony in 1620, and in the ensuing years they were joined by additional settlers. By 1630 Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded by the Puritans at Boston. These first groups brought the British legal system with them and the British habit of recording marriages, births and deaths as well as land and probate records.
By the 1700s as the original settlements became more crowded colonists began fanning out in all directions, first to Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Others left for New York, New Jersey, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. If you succeed in tracing your ancestry beyond 1800 in the U.S., sooner or later you will likely wind up in Old New England.
For example, my maiden name, Gant, is rooted in Virginia. When I began my Gant family research I was amazed to be able to trace it back to John Howland of the Mayflower. The path from the Mayflower led from Massachusetts to Long Island, then New York City, then Ossining, New York and finally to Virginia. In the 1840s a Hudson River boat captain had moved his family to Virginia and started farming. Why, I'll never know. The farmer's daughter married an Irish immigrant and their daughter married my great grandfather Gant in 1881.
The dates for which records begin vary from town to town in Massachusetts. Filing of vital records is at the town level and was not mandatory. Whether records are found may depend on the family head's diligence in submitting the information. Often a list of names and birth dates is found within the town records with births for several children all submitted and recorded at once rather than as they occurred. In Massachusetts there may be a marriage record and a record of the bans (notification that a couple intended to marry) posted by the church, not necessarily in the same town. Sometimes church bans exist without a marriage record, an indication that the couple may have decided not to marry.
Vital records for most Massachusetts towns through 1850 have been abstracted and published. As with any abstract, a researcher should seek out the original records to be sure the abstractor has not made an error. Often the record will contain additional information not included in the abstract but important to family research.
Probates and deeds are found at the county level and most consistently filed because they determined disposition of tangible assets: Land, farm animals and equipment, household furnishings, etc., and even slaves. The earliest records, of course, are for Plymouth, some dating to 1620.
Court records in Massachusetts are rich sources of family information. Persons went to court for various reasons: Property disputes, defamation of character, theft of animals, fornication, assault, etc. Court records have sometimes been abstracted also. For instance, Essex County quarterly court records from 1636 to 1692 were abstracted by George Dow and published by the Essex Institute in nine volumes. These abstracts make interesting reading and provide insights into colonial life.
Every town in Massachusetts seems to have a public library, and many of these libraries are gold mines of ancestral information. Many have accumulated surname files for early settlers of the town including all types of data, such as correspondence, migrations into and out of town, vital statistics, etc. Be sure to check with the library in any town in which ancestors lived. A one room library in the little town of Colrain provided several pages of background information about my Farley and Hastings families who lived there in the 1700s.
Massachusetts probably has more historical societies than any other state, all worth a call or visit if an ancestor was in the area. I visited Taunton's Old Colony Historical Society a few years ago. My ancestor's never lived in Taunton but I had some extra time and was in the area. I had been researching my Leonard line for years and had a major problem with descent around 1690.
Another branch of the Leonards did live in Taunton and one of their descendants had compiled an extensive record of the family and deposited a typed copy at the Old Colony Society. This is likely a document that would not be found in any other repository. It did not solve my problem, but his research paralleled mine and reassured me that I had not overlooked anything, just come up against an unsolvable problem due to lack of records.
While doing research in Old New England try to visit one of the historical reconstructions for a picture of life in ancestors' days. Some notable sites in Massachusetts are Plymouth Plantation, Deerfield Village, and Old Sturbridge Village at Worcester. Each is worth a day's visit.
Rhode Island was established by Roger Williams as a colony free of the religious persecution practiced by the Puritans. Williams was soon joined by Anne Marbury Hutchinson and Samuel Gorton and their followers, all expelled from Massachusetts. First settled was Providence in 1636, followed by Portsmouth in 1638, North Kingstown in 1638, and Warwick in 1643. Rhode Island welcomed all religions and religious dissenters, including the Quakers and Anabaptists banned from Massachusetts.
Rhode Island differs from Massachusetts in that all vital, probate, and land records are kept at the town level. Vital records 1636-1850 were abstracted and published by James N. Arnold between 1891 and 1912 in 21 volumes. A "new series" was published by A. G. Beaman in 17 volumes between 1975 and 1987. These abstracts are not necessarily all encompassing and should be consulted with the same care as other abstracts.
There are just five counties in Rhode Island but only court records were kept at the county level. All Rhode Island civil and criminal court records from 1645 to 1900 have now been deposited at the Rhode Island Supreme Court Judicial Records Center in Pawtucket. The Center is open to the public but they prefer appointments be made at least a day in advance.
Researchers will find two major historical societies in Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Historical Society in Providence with state-wide collections and the Newport Historical Society with collections related to the southeastern area of the state. Family information may be found at public libraries in several of the larger towns.
Several towns in Connecticut were settled prior to 1650, the earliest being Windsor in 1633. For a long time the borders of Massachusetts and Connecticut were not clearly defined. Records of Connecticut families are sometimes found across the border, particularly in the areas around Suffield where some records are in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Connecticut vital records are kept by the town. Most but not all were abstracted and published through 1850 by town as the Barbour Collection. The information was also transcribed to a card file, the Barbour Index, compiled alphabetically for the entire state. Names are sometimes incorrect depending on how the abstractor read the original handwriting. The bound books and/or the index are sometimes found in genealogical libraries outside the state.
Land records have always been recorded at the town level and are found in the town hall at the clerk's office. Probate records are kept by probate districts, distinct from the towns or counties. While there are eight counties and 169 towns in the state, there are currently 131 probate districts. Boundaries have changed several times from the original four districts but the records remain in the district where they were first filed.
Most probate and land records have been microfilmed and are available at the Connecticut State Library in Hartford. Most civil and criminal court records prior to 1850 have been relocated to the State Library also. In addition, the library has the Barbour vital records, local histories and genealogies of Connecticut families, and other records of genealogical importance. Before beginning research in the state, it's wise to visit the State Library first as the librarians are very helpful and it may save a lot of time.
For more information about the repositories mentioned above, see the state/county links at USGenWeb. Usually details such as addresses, telephone numbers, office hours, and records available are accessible here.
Old New England is my favorite place to do research. While most of the records mentioned have been filmed by the Latter Day Saints Church and are available through Family History Centers, nothing beats the thrill of walking the same streets walked by my ancestors two hundred or more years ago.
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