Challenges Of The New England Border States

by Betty Malesky | Feb 14, 2012

Betty Malesky

The three northern-most New England states present more challenges to researchers than their sister states where settlement began and quickly escalated. Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont are bordered on the north by Canada, on the south by Massachusetts and on the west by New York. Population-wise these states never developed as their southern neighbors.

Borders are not neat, tidy lines as they appear on a map, but invisible, changeable sometimes tenuous areas often in transition. Early settlers weren't always sure who their allegiance belonged to and/or sometimes preferred a different government to the one they had. New York and Massachusetts each at one time had dominion over their border neighbors.

Since settlement was more spontaneous and less organized with people trickling in over a period of years and governance changed several times, vital record keeping didn't develop as early as in Old New England. Records are often sporadic, incomplete or totally lacking. Land offices had to be available for filing deeds, but vital records are not found until long after land records.

If a researcher does his homework before beginning the search and does a careful search of the records groups that do exist, many of the challenges can be overcome and family roots can be discovered.

Maine Research

Maine actually had European explorers, both English and French, visiting their coastline as early as 1603. English fishermen and fur traders were regular visitors and the first land grant was issued in 1623. Soon after Plymouth Colony was settled in Massachusetts, the Pilgrims had explored most of Massachusetts Bay and established trading posts on the Maine Coast. In 1629 they secured a land grant on both sides of the Kennebec River. The following year a grant was made on the Saco River and several others followed.

In 1639 the royal charter for the Province of Maine was granted to Sir Ferdinando Gorges by King Charles II, confirming an allotment he had received earlier. As England's political situation changed Maine's civil government suffered until 1651 when the General Court of the Province of Maine appealed to the British Parliament for protection.

Meanwhile the Massachusetts Bay Colony had seen opportunity in Maine's unsettled state and established their northern boundary 3 miles north of the Merrimac River renaming the area the County of York, Massachusetts. Settlers in Maine did not entirely object to this land grab as it stabilized their territory. Ultimately Sir Gorge's grandson sold his grandfather's land rights to the Bay Colony for �1250 strengthening Massachusetts' claim to the state.

Maine remained part of Massachusetts until 1820 when as part of the Missouri Compromise it became the 23rd state. The largest city in Maine today is Portland with 66,000 people. The total population of the state today is only 1.3 million despite its land area of 30,862 square miles.

Maine now is governed similarly to the rest of New England with counties and towns sharing responsibility for record keeping. Today the state is made up of 16 counties, varying in size from a few hundred to over 6400 square miles, the smaller counties being in the more populated southern part of the state.

Vital records are recorded and held by towns and municipalities with the earliest records at the Maine state archives. Few vital records were kept prior to 1892, but check the county of interest for actual dates of available records as some counties have records earlier than others. For the most part, there are no marriages, births or deaths prior to the 1800s.

Courthouse, jail and county records are all located in the county seat. Partial indexes to court records of three counties, Kennebec, Washington, and York are currently on the Internet on Maine's USGenWeb site at RootsWeb. For court and probate records contact the Registry of Deeds or Probate at the desired county courthouse.

New Hampshire Research

In 1623 a land grant in New Hampshire brought two divisions of settler from England to establish a fishing colony at the mouth of the Piscataqua River. As part of Massachusetts, these settlements became the towns of Rye and Dover, part of a community of towns made a royal province in 1679. In 1698 New Hampshire again became part of Massachusetts and was governed as such until 1741 when it returned to provincial status with its own governor.

New Hampshire men took part in the Battle of Bunker Hill, and the state claims to be the first to declare independence from Britain. New Hampshire adopted its own constitution as a republic, was the first state to sign the Declaration of Independence and the ninth to accept the U.S. Constitution. Her population in 1790 was 141,885 persons; current population is 1.3 million.

In 1771 New Hampshire had only five counties, today there are ten all formed prior to 1841. Settlement of New Hampshire began first on the coast, southern border and along the Connecticut River that divides the state from Vermont. Farming in the northern part of the state was difficult due to poor soil, cold climate and the short growing season.

The New Hampshire Division of Archives and Records Management in Concord is the repository for all archival records in the state. The Division of Vital Records holds vital records, probate records, land records, marriage intentions, and court records including naturalizations for many counties for varying periods of years in addition to other records of genealogical interest.

Currently New Hampshire statutes allow general public access to birth records prior to 1909. Death, marriage and divorce records prior to 1959 may be requested if for genealogical research. Copies of later records are available only to the parties who created the record.

Deeds and other land records are filed at the county level and maintained since 1771 by the Registrar of Deeds for the particular county where the land currently is located. Probate records are found in the Probate Division of the Circuit Court. There are ten Circuit Courts, one for each county, usually located in the county seat.

The New Hampshire State Library has compiled an index to records published at the town level at NH . These published records are available at the library.

Vermont Research

Vermont was first explored by Samuel Champlain and claimed for the French in 1609. She did not see English settlers until 1724 when they built Fort Dummer where the city of Brattleboro now lies. England gained control of the state after the French Indian Wars in 1763. New York claimed jurisdiction over the territory of Vermont and an ongoing battle for Vermont border lands continued until 1791.

Vermont's Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys were victorious over the British at Fort Ticonderoga in 1775 at the onset of the Revolution. Vermont exercised the right to govern itself and adopted its own constitution in 1777 becoming the first state to abolish slavery and to give men the right to vote regardless of whether they owned property. The first county formed was Bennington where settlement began in 1761. Many of Vermont's early settlers came from Connecticut.

Vermont didn't become a state until New York relinquished its right to her border in 1791. The first Vermont census was taken in April 1791 as part of the 1790 census. Population at time of the census was 85,245; today it is 625,471, ranked 49th of the 50 states. The largest city is Burlington with 38,351 residents. Vermont today has 14 counties, the last formed in 1835.

Vermont Vital Records from 1760 through 1954 consisting of a namen index and images (index cards) of town clerk transcriptions is available at FamilySearch. The collection is complete for years 1871-1908, with indexing continuing and records added as they are completed. Few vital records exist prior to the mid 1800s. Records from 1760 through 2005 are kept at the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration's (VSARA) Reference Room.

Land records are found in the Town Clerk's Office. Probate records are handled by Probate District and differ from county to county. The Vermont USGenWeb site has complete information by town and county at RootsWeb to help determine the proper location for the resource sought.

The Vermont Historical Gazetteer, a five volume history of Vermont, was compiled by Abby Maria Hemenway with Volume I published in 1867, and the final volume V published in 1891 after her death. A combined name and subject index to this excellent resource for history and genealogy is found at RootsWeb. In addition to the index, this site has transcriptions of county and town histories from Volumes I, III, IV and V.

The Nye Index, a name and subject index to 18th and 19th century Vermont state records (the Manuscript Vermont State Papers) is at Vermont-archives. The papers are found at the Vermont State Archives & Records Administration.

Remember when searching in Vermont and New Hampshire, borders were not as fixed as they look. Check towns on both sides of the border for a family of interest. If an ancestor is not found in the state census as expected, search the census of the other state. Residents seemed to go back and forth freely even though most of the border was defined by the Connecticut River.

Researchers in all three of these states will find it worthwhile to check FamilySearch for availability of relevant records both online or by borrowing microfilm for use at a local Family Search Center. Most records prior to 1900 have been filmed.

When beginning research for any new area, be sure to check the USGenWeb site first, the primary source for repositories, hours, and record availability. Be sure to check for local history or genealogical societies with libraries or publications to aid research. View the challenges as potential successes. Brick walls are not real; they're just problems waiting for solutions.

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