Using Town Records in Colonial New England Research
If your ancestors came to America prior to the Revolution, unique research methods are often necessary to locate information to trace Colonial American ancestry. Legacy Tree Genealogists’ researcher Kristin Britanik shares information about using town records to overcome some of the challenges when tracing ancestors from Colonial New England.
One common assumption about genealogy research is that the further we go back in time, the more difficult it can be to find records documenting our ancestors. While this may be true for some world regions, this is not always the case in Colonial New England research. A benefit of researching in this region is the number of detailed records that have survived, which can provide additional information about our lineage and a glimpse into what daily living was like back then.
Town records kept in many New England colonies are a wealth of information that give exact dates and places of births, marriages, and deaths, and specific details about our ancestors’ professions, their associates, and contributions to the community in which they lived.
The purpose of town records was to keep track of the operations, budgets, and essential local government functions typically discussed at town meetings. These duties could include electing officials, collecting taxes, distributing funds, and planning common properties like buildings and roads.
In the early 1630s, the administrative function of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was mostly controlled by the General Court with little representation of other inhabitants. However, as the colonies of Massachusetts and nearby Connecticut grew, town meetings were held more regularly and allowed the participation of any freemen (people who were not slaves). Many collections of town records date back to the earliest days of the formation of each town and continue to the present day.
Finding Detailed Genealogical Information
In some regions of the United States, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that local and state governments required the registration of births and deaths. Many New England towns, on the other hand, kept detailed records of births, marriages, and deaths dating back to the town’s founding as a part of their official records maintained by the town clerk.
Because of the level of detail, the records often capture the lives of those who died young or unmarried women whose identities might otherwise have been completely lost in time.
The organization of these records varies by time and location. Births, marriages, and deaths were often written in the books either chronologically by event type or in entries grouped by family.
When you see entries for an entire family at once, it is important to consider that these records were likely registered into the books years after the births, especially if an entry spans many years and is written in the same handwriting. Because of this, keep in mind that it is possible some children in an entry for an entire family may have been born elsewhere, especially if there is evidence the family moved over the years.
Many of the birth, marriage and death records in these town records collections are indexed and available for searching on genealogy sites such as FamilySearch and Ancestry.
Learning More About Your Ancestors
In addition to finding information about vital events, town records can provide more specific information about your ancestors’ lives in their Colonial New England community.
Below are just a few examples of the information you can find:
- List of town officials, such as selectmen, highway surveyors, constables, tax collectors
- List of freemen
- Men who served in the military
- Payments made by the town for services or purchases of goods and property
- Registration of earmarks that were used for people to keep track of their livestock
- Any other matter that was voted on by the town and entered into official records
Even if your ancestors’ names are not cited, the records can provide context and give you a sense of their daily life. For instance, town records are a great source of information for learning about the experience living during the time leading up to the Revolutionary War. They can include oaths of fidelity, receipts for expenses paid to outfit and supply the local militia, or the appointment of committees to administrate the war efforts locally.
An example of this is found in the town records of Little Compton, Rhode Island. A single entry highlights the tense mood and fear in the residents just before the outbreak of the war. In June of 1775, at a town meeting, members voted to appoint men to keep watch over the shores and voted that any boat trying to come onshore after dark would be attacked and considered an enemy ship.
References to ancestors who aided the Revolutionary War effort can be key for proving patriotic service when applying to a lineage society, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Sons of the American Revolution.
Finding Your FAN Club
Researching friends, associates, and neighbors (FAN) can be a great way to overcome challenging genealogical problems, and town records are an excellent source for identifying FANs of your ancestors.
Town records occasionally contain entries of disputes and court orders, so you can find business partners of your ancestors. They also provide names of people your ancestor may have interacted with, that can help you figure out who was a witness on a will or to a land record. In conjunction with other record types, town records can help place your ancestor within a larger community during a certain period and identify allied families.
As you look for FANs, keep in mind that indexing of general town records is not always complete, so you may need to browse each page to find a record of your family and to make sure you are not missing any important clues.
Locating Town Records
Many of the earliest town records were microfilmed and digitized over the years and are accessible online. Below is a summary of some that are available:
Others may be held in the town clerk’s office or possibly transferred to another archive or repository for safekeeping. The FamilySearch Wiki page can help guide you to town records in the area you are researching.
New England town records are a valuable record type for researching your ancestors in America before the Revolutionary War. Not only do they contain specific birth, marriage, and death dates in some cases, but they also can help you understand what an ancestor’s experience was like and identify people with who they associated.
Our professionals believe in leaving no stone unturned and have been trained in analyzing records and migration patterns to help you learn more about your Colonial American ancestry. To get started, contact us today to request a free quote, and a member of our Client Solutions Team will reach out to you.