Colonial Genealogy: Find Your Early American Ancestors

Early American Ancestors Research
Elevenses with Lisa Episode 33

Lindsay Fulton, VP New England Historic Genealogical Society NEHGS

Lindsay Fulton, VP New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS)

In this episode we head back to 17th century New England with Lindsay Fulton of  the New England Historic Genealogical Society and AmericanAncestors.org

Lindsay Fulton is with American Ancestors and New England Historic Genealogical Society where leads the Research and Library Services team as Vice President. She is a frequent contributor to the NEHGS blog and was featured in the Emmy-Winning Program: Finding your Roots: The Seedlings, a web series inspired by the popular PBS series “Finding Your Roots.”

Watch the video and follow along with the show notes below as we cover how to get started researching our early American ancestors. Lindsay will also provide her top genealogical resources.

Getting Started with Colonial-Era Research

During this period of American history, New England includes:

  • Connecticut
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • New Hampshire
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont

To get started in Colonial-Era genealogical research, Lindsay says the first thing you need to do is put your ancestors into an historical context:

  • When did they arrive in New England?
  • Where did they migrate to?

Significant dates and events at this time include:

  • The Mayflower’s arrival in 1620
  • The Great Migration: 1620-1640, with the peak years between 1633 and 1638.
  • The Civil War in England, which slowed migration.

Turn to the book The Expansion of New England, The spread of New England Settlement and Institutions to the Mississippi Rover 1620-1865 by L. K. Mathews. Published in 1909 this important book includes 30 to 40 historical maps.

More Resources for 17th Century American Genealogy Research

Book: Genealogists Handbook for New England Research, 5th Edition. Edited by Michael J. Leclerc. This book includes important detailed information on towns, cities, and states. It will help you determine where to look for records during a given timeframe.

Resources at the American Ancestors website

  • AmericanAncestors.org > Town Guides  (Free)
  • AmericanAncestors.org/town-guides/ for New England

Early New England Finding Aids

Finding Aids provide a comprehensive list of all the available records for a person / family.

The first place to look for people settling in New England prior to 1700: New England Marriages Prior to 1700 by Clarence Almon Torrey. This book includes scholarship prior to 1962. Learn more about it here.

The next place to look: Founders of Early American Families by Meredith Colkert. Scholarship goes a little further than 1962 and ventures beyond New England. This book covers 1607-1657.

The next place to look: New Englanders in the 1600s, A Guide to Genealogical Research Published Between 1980 and 2010 by Martin E. Hollick. At the beginning of the book there is a key to all of the original sources. For example, TAG refers to The American Genealogist.

From Lindsay: “The thing about 17th century research, like a said at the beginning, the most studied people on the planet. So, don’t reinvent the wheel, don’t drive yourself crazy trying to find all of this information on your own. You have to stand on the shoulders of those who have come before you. There are all of these people who have done all this research before. Please look at first. Always look at with a little bit of hesitation because there’s always possibilities that mistakes were made. But at least take a peek at what’s already been done first!”

Colonial-Era Study Projects

The first example that Lindsay provided of a study project for early American ancestors is the Great Migration Study Project (searchable online database at AmericanAncestors.org)

  • Directed by Robert Charles Anderson, FASG
  • Started in 1988
  • Genealogical and biographical sketch for immigrants to New England from 1620 to 1640
  • Fourteen published volumes
  • Newsletter (bound versions available)
  • Tours and other educational programs
  • Searchable online databases

Published Volumes:

  • The Great Migration Directory, Immigrants to New England, 1620-1640
  • The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England 1620-1633 (3 vols.)
  • The Great Migration: Immigrants to New England 1634-1635 (7 vols.)
  • The Pilgrim Migration: Immigrants to Plymouth Colony 1620-1633
  • The Winthrop Fleet: Massachusetts Bay Company Immigrants to New England 1629-1630
  • The Great Migration Newsletter, vols. 1-20
  • The Mayflower Migration: Immigrants to Plymouth, 1620

Those who are included in the study project:

  • If person appeared in a record
  • Direct or indirect implication of arrival
  • Appearance of an immediate family of a person known to have arrived

The second study project example was the Early New England Families Study Project

  • Directed by Alicia Crane Williams
  • Genealogical and biographical sketch for those who married in New England from 1641 to 1700
  • Grouped by year of marriage
  • Two published volumes
  • Searchable online database
  • New sketches posted online

Who is included:

  • Using Clarence Almon Torrey’s New England Marriages Prior to 1700 as guide
  • Anyone who married in New England in this time period and included in Torrey

Compiled New England Genealogies

There are millions of compiled genealogies available for early American ancestors. Lindsay discussed three publications (available in book form) that are state specific:

  1. Pioneers of Massachusetts 1620-1650 one of many book by Charles Henry Pope
  2. Genealogical Notes, or Contributions to the Family History of Some of the First Settlers of Connecticut and Massachusetts, by Nathaniel Goodwin
  3. Genealogical Dictionary of Maine and New Hampshire by Noyes, Libby, and Davis
New England Compiled Genealogies - Free Webinar

Example from a New England compiled genealogy.

Periodicals

  • New England Historical and Genealogical Register (published since 1847)
  • New York Biographical & Genealogical Record
  • The Mayflower Descendant
  • The American Genealogist
  • and more!

These can be searched on AmericanAncestors.org: Database Search > Select the Category Journals and Periodicals, and then scroll through all of the available items. They are fully searchable. You will be able to see the actual record. You can download and print the items.

Mayflower Research Resources

The Silver books and the Pink books done by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants. It’s looking at those passengers with known descendants. These are only available currently in book form. If you are interested in applying to the Mayflower Society, they accept these as original records. You can cite the pages. (Learn more about Mayflower related resources at American Ancestors.)

Mayflower Families 5th Gen. Desc.

  • Available at AmericanAncestors.org
  • Index of all the 5th Generation descendants,
    their spouses and children
  • 31 volumes in total.
    • Over 385,000 searchable names

Visit: Database List A – Z at American Ancestors.  

If you click Mayflower Families Fifth Generation Descendants, 1700-1880, it will take you to a search page where you can search by names and years, or search by volumes. It will bring up all of the available records.

General Society of Mayflower Descendants (GSMD) Membership Applications, 1620-1920

  • New – available soon. Only on AmericanAncestors.org
  • Contains all Mayflower Society Applications for applicants born before 1920. Approximately ~30,000 applications
  • All data indexed for each generation
  • Available to: American Ancestors & NEHGS Members, FamilySearch Affiliate members, and GSMD Members.

New England Genealogy Records

When doing New England genealogy research look for the following records:

  • Vital Records
  • Church Records
  • Cemetery Records
  • Probate Records Court Records
  • Town Records
  • Military Records
  • Notarial Records

Usually you’ll be looking at the town level. This is why you must know where your ancestors were living, and what the place was called at that time, and what the borders were.

Be sure to check out 17th-Century New England Research page at the American Ancestors website for more New England tips, tricks and strategies.

Answers to Questions about Early America Genealogy Research

You can schedule a consultation with an expert genealogist on staff at NEHGS.
Length: 30 minutes to 2 hours
Conducted over Zoom or over the phone. A recording is provided.
Contact: research@nehgs.org
Fee: $85 (members) or $105 (non-member)

More on Using the American Ancestors Website

Premium Podcast episode 177 (Genealogy Gems Premium Membership is required.) In this episode we explore the New England Historic Genealogical Society’s American Ancestors website with Claire Vail, Director of Creative and Digital Strategy for the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Answers to Your Live Chat Questions About Colonial American Genealogy

One of the advantages of tuning into the live broadcast of each Elevenses with Lisa show is participating in the Live Chat and asking your questions.

From Susan W: Is there a source for Rhode Island? (I’m not sure if she was thinking about one particular resource you mentioned or generally. Perhaps she just needs a RI finding aid?)
From Lindsay: Yes! American Ancestors-NEHGS has a fantastic guide to Rhode Island research, which you can access with a free guest membership here.

From Cindy A: What percentage of the items you showed would require a paid membership?
From Lindsay: The majority of the databases shown are included as a benefit of membership with American Ancestors-NEHGS, but if you are interested in Colonial American genealogy, you should consider membership. We have hundreds of databases that will help you to discover more about your 17th and 18th Century ancestry. You can learn more about these databases (and books in the library) with a free guest membership.

From Sue M: What resource was Nathan Snow in. He’s related to my BATES family.
From Lindsay: Nathan Snow was included in the American Ancestors-NEHGS database, Mayflower Families Fifth Generation Descendants, 1700-1880. This database supports the following searchable fields: First and last name, Year, Record type, Location, Family member names: Spouse, Mother and Father (where available), Keyword – for names in the lineage text of direct descendants.

From Kathy M: Excellent. Can you comment on both land inheritance (i.e. did it follow English primogeniture) and on best sources for finding 1600 female ancestors’ family names.
From Lindsay: Alicia Crane Williams wrote a blog post about this entitled, Probate records: Part One, where she states, “for the most part, a testator could leave anything to anyone, unless they were dealing with colonies such as Virginia that followed the laws of primogeniture where all real estate was left to the oldest son. This did not apply in New England, although it was customary to follow the legal model of giving a double share to the oldest son. A legitimate heir who was left out of a will could potentially contest it in court, thus the bequests of one pound or one dollar to cover any claim that someone had been accidentally forgotten.” For more information about land inheritance in New England (and the U.S.), you should examine Wade Hone’s Land & Property Research in the United States. It is an excellent deep-dive into land records. As for female ancestors’ family names in the 1600s, I would recommend examining Torrey’s New England Marriages and Hollick’s New Englanders in the 1600s. Those are the two best places to start your search for the ladies in your family (I covered these in the episode too).

From Louann H: Suggestions for time period 1660-1776? 
From Lindsay: Many of the resources discussed during the presentation covered the 17th century, and would be your best bet for resources for 1660-1700. You can learn more about these databases (and books in the library) with a free guest membership. After 1700, there are few compiled resources similar to the Great Migration Study Project; however, you could start with a search of the American Ancestors-NEHGS Library catalog. We have thousands of published genealogies that may cover your family history in the first half of the 18th Century.

From Jane C: This has been wonderful, doing Mayflower research. What are Notarial Records?
From Lindsay: Notarial records are a private agreement written by a notary in the form of a contract. Some of the most common ones are marriage contracts, wills, estate inventories, leases, and sales contracts. While they were not common record keeping practices in New England and New York, notarial records were plentiful in Quebec. You can learn more about them by watching our free webinar called Navigating Notarial Records in Quebec.

News You Can Use: Google Photos Update

Google Photos is currently the home of more than 4 trillion photos and videos of users around the world. According to Google, 29 billion new photos and videos are uploaded every week. They just announced that starting June 1, 20201 “all new photos and videos backed up in High Quality will count toward the free 15 GB of storage that comes with your Google account or any additional storage you may have purchased, the same way other Google services like Google Drive and Gmail already do.”

Watch Elevenses with Lisa episode 23 to learn more about Google Photos.

Google Photos for beginners

In that episode we discuss that “High Quality” is the slightly compressed version of images and videos and “Original” quality are full size, uncompressed images and videos. In the past you could upload “High Quality” for free.

All “High Quality” content uploaded before June 1, 2021 is exempt from counting against your storage. On that date they plan to launch a new storage management tool that they say will help you easily identify items you’re currently storing that you may want to remove if they are low quality or otherwise unwanted. This will help you reduce the amount of storage you use.

If you don’t want to pay for additional storage, here are some tips:

  • Use Google Photos as a tool for specific projects rather than a complete storage system.
  • Turn off auto-sync of your photos from your phone and other devices.
  • Carefully select and manually add images and videos.

Resources

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Please leave a comment below:

  • Do you have a question?
  • Do you have a favorite 17th century resource?
  • Do you have New England success story?

Please share in the Comments below.

Lisa Louise Cooke and Genealogy Gems at RootsTech 2020

Genealogy Gems at RootsTech 2020   Click here to download this complete schedule. Every year, Genealogy Gems rolls out the red carpet for you with exclusive activities and prize giveaways at the Genealogy Gems booth at RootsTech. Mark your calendars now for this...

How to Save Fold3 Search Results to Your Ancestry.com Family Tree

Now when you discover an ancestor’s record on Fold3.com, you can save it to your online tree at Ancestry.com.

According to Fold3.com’s press release: “Whenever you see a green ‘Save to Ancestry’ button above a document or on a Fold3 memorial page, you can link that document or page directly to someone’s profile on Ancestry.”

“You’ll be asked to log into your Ancestry.com account, and then you’ll see a drop-down list of your trees. Locate the tree you wish to save the document to, begin typing the name of the person to whom the record should be attached, choose the correct name from the list that appears, and then press save.”

Watch a tutorial video to learn more and see how it’s done.

Got Criminal Ancestors? How to Investigate Their Crimes

Lydia thinks her great-grandfather was murdered–perhaps even by her grandfather! Here’s some advice for her and everyone researching “cold cases” for criminal ancestors on your family tree.

Cold Case investigate your ancestor criminals

I heard recently from Lydia with these intriguing questions:

My great great grandpa William John Gabriel Nelson disappeared one day, never coming home from work. It was family lore that he had been “shanghai’d.” But even as a child the story didn’t add up. [Through a] few other mentions of the account throughout the years, and recently reconnecting with cousins through Ancestry.com/DNA and your advice to just email DNA matches, I have a growing reason to believe my great-grandfather was murdered. An even bigger fear is that my grandfather may have been the one to do it.
 

All parties involved with this are now dead, so follow-up is impossible with them. But I’m wondering about contacting the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) or the library to determine if indeed there was a cold case, missing persons report or John Doe. Since this happened in the mid 1940’s, would I contact the LAPD or is this now a job for a historian?

As a citizen, Lydia can certainly contact the LAPD here. It might take a bit of persistence to get to the right person or resource. I would start by asking for how you can find out the status of a cold case from the year in question.

Here are 4 ways to follow up on your own criminal ancestors’ cold cases:

1. Look for cold case files online.

As I often say, all good searches start online because they will help you prepare to go offline. In other words, not everything is online, but searching online first will give you a lay of the land, revealing what is available, who to contact, and where to go in person. Start with a Google search such as LAPD cold cases.  The search results include several good leads:

cold case search

With a case like Lydia’s that is over 70 years old, I wouldn’t expect to pull it up in an online database (though you never know!) But I do see several sites here that provide phone numbers to gain access to those who can lead you in the right direction.

2. Search Google for clues.

Google Drive and other tipsUse Google’s powerful search technology to look for online mentions of the names, places, and dates of your particular case.

In Lydia’s case, she might begin with keywords relating to her great-grandfather’s disappearance, with his name, year, and the place he was last seen. Including descriptive keywords such as disappear, mystery, vanished or murder might also yield helpful results.

Learn more about effective search techniques in my book, The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Second Edition.

3. Check old newspapers.

Newspapers in your ancestor’s hometown (or further afield) may have mentioned the incident. With a common name like William (or Bill) Nelson, you may need to weed out the overabundance of unwanted results you get. Let me show you how I did this in GenealogyBank, a popular genealogical newspaper website:
genealogybank initial search
The initial results of searching GenealogyBank (above) for the terms William Nelson and Los Angeles brought up over 1,000 search results! (The red arrow points to the tally.) Since I don’t like wasting valuable research time on irrelevant results (who’s with me?!), I refined the search. I specified Nelson as a last name, William as a first name, Los Angeles as a keyword, and I added a date range: the decade during which he disappeared. Next, I limited my search to Los Angeles-area newspapers, shown below:
genealogybank refine search
This search narrows results down to under 200: a robust number, but at least manageable to look through for relevant material.
I want to be able to use these same search parameters in the future, so I click Save My Search. The search now appears in My Folder for future reference.
newspaper research at GenealogyBank

4. Look for criminal records.

If you knew (or suspected) that a relative was prosecuted for a crime, it’s time to start looking for records relating to the criminal case. There may be several kinds:

  • In cases of suspicious death (where there was a body, unlike Lydia’s case), look for any surviving coroner’s records.
  • If a trial may have occurred, research the jurisdiction to find out what court would have handled it, and then look for files relating to the case.
  • If an ancestor may have served time, look for prison records. Genealogy Gems Premium podcast episode 29 is devoted to the topic of prison records.

 

Get inspired!

Read this article about a woman who was researching not one but two mysterious deaths on her family tree.

 

Want to help investigators lay to rest their own cold cases?

Click here to read about the Unclaimed Persons Project and how you can help.

Unclaimed Persons Project

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