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.

We Dig These Gems! New Genealogy Records Online

Here’s our weekly roundup of new genealogy records online. Should you search for your ancestors in any of these databases?

BRITAIN, MERCHANT SEAMAN. Findmypast.com has added nearly a quarter million records to its 1918-1941 database of British Merchant Seaman.

IDAHO VITAL RECORDS. New indexes of Idaho births (1861-1911) and deaths (1938-1961) are now searchable for free at FamilySearch.org.

ILLINOIS DEATHS. Over 3.7 million records have been added to a free index of Cook County, Illinois deaths at FamilySearch.org. Cook County is home to the city of Chicago.

INDIANA CHURCH RECORDS. A new database of Indiana United Methodist Church Records(1837-1970) is available at Ancestry.com. According to the collection description, “The registers may contain baptisms, marriages, burials, memberships, and lists of clergy.”

IRISH BIRTHS, BAPTISMS AND MARRIAGES. Complementing recent online Irish parish records collections are two databases of Non-conformist church records (meaning those not in alliance with the Church of Ireland) now at Findmypast: births/baptisms and marriages.

ONTARIO BIRTHS. FamilySearch has added over 125,000 indexed records to its collection of Ontario, Canada birth records.

UNITED STATES and NEW ZEALAND ARTICLES. Findmypast.com has updated its PERSI database with over 45,000 new indexed entries and images. Ten publications spanning 1883-1984 include articles covering several New Zealand and several U.S. states, including Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Utah.

VARIOUS MARRIAGE RECORDS. FamilySearch.org has published or updated several new free marriage records collections. Click here to see the full list, which includes British Columbia, Durham (England), Indiana, Kansas, Liberia, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma and Utah.

Try These Two Powerful Tools for Finding Genealogy Records OnlineDon’t see the records you hoped to among these new genealogy records online? Click here to read a blog post on two powerful tools to help you search for elusive records.

15 Freebies for Genealogy

A ton of genealogy and family history research can be done for free. In this episode I’ll share 15 fabulous free websites and what I love about them. These are essential for everyone serious about saving money while climbing their family tree.

(Get your ad-free Show Notes Cheat Sheet at the bottom of this page in the Resources section.)

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LISA’S SHOW NOTES: Get your ad-free downloadable handout in the Resources section at the bottom of this page.

Episode 77 Show Notes 

1. Genealogy records – Familysearch

Website: https://www.familysearch.org/en/

Features:

  • Free account
  • Download and print
  • Historical records
  • Digitized Books
  • Browse Images
  • Trees

2. Books, Magazines & Newspapers – Google Books

Website: https://books.google.com

Features:

  • 10 million free digitized book
  • Google’s newspaper collection
  • Magazines
  • Catalogs
  • Almanacs
  • City directories
  • County histories
  • Court records
  • Government reports…

Tip: Use the Tools button on the results page to reveal the filter menu. Filter your results down to just full digitized and searchable books by selecting Full View.

Learn more: Elevenses with Lisa episode 30.

3. Records – Find free records at Ancestry

Website: tinyurl.com/lisaancestryfree (affiliate link)

Features:

  • Use the link to zero in on only free records
  • All types of genealogical records!
  • Use fields to search just the free records and free indexes.
  • Free Trial available

Learn more: Elevenses with Lisa episode 17.

4. Burial Records – Find a Grave

Website: https://www.findagrave.com

Features:

  • over 170 million burial records.
  • birth, death, and burial information
  • many submissions include additional biographical details (possibly an obituary) and information about spouses, children and parents.  

Search Tips:

  • Name fields: 
    ? replaces one letter. 
  • * represents zero to many letters. g. Lars?n or Wil*
  • Search for an exact birth/death year or select a range, before or after.

Select “More search options” to:

  • Search for a memorial or contributor by ID.
  • Include the name of a spouse, parent, child or sibling in your search.
  • Use partial name search or similar name spellings to catch alternate spellings or broaden your search.
  • Narrow your results to famous, Non-Cemetery Burials, memorials with or without grave photos and more.

 5. Free downloadable worksheets – Family Tree Magazine

Website: https://www.familytreemagazine.com/FREEFORMS/

Features:

  • 5 Generation Ancestor Chart
  • Family Group Sheets
  • Ancestor Research Worksheet
  • Records Checklists
  • Family Relationship Chart
  • Online Search Tracker
  • Ancestor Surname Variant Chart
  • Oral History Interview Worksheet
  • S. Census Checklist
  • Genealogy Source Documentation Guide

6. Resources & Information – US Gen Web

Website: https://usgenweb.org/

Features:

  • Free, volunteer organization for 25 years
  • Organized by State then Organized by County
  • Free guidance from experienced researchers in that area
  • Links to free records

7. Resources & Information – FamilySearch Wiki

Website: https://www.familysearch.org/wiki

Features:

  • Organized by country, state, county…
  • Provides an overview
  • Directs you to where known records are located
  • Alerts you to pitfalls and tips from experts at the FHL

Learn more: Elevenses with Lisa episode 64.

8. Passenger Lists – Ellis island Website

Website: https://heritage.statueofliberty.org/passenger

Features:

  • Passenger lists images & transcriptions
  • Photos of Ships

Search by:

  • name
  • the Wizard
  • One page form

Snagit Clipping Tool: Here’s our link for purchasing your copy of Snagit (screen clipping tool) Thank you for using our link.  Use coupon code GENEALOGY15 to get 15% off.  (We will be compensated at no additional cost to you, which makes the free Elevenses with Lisa show and notes possible.)

Learn more: Elevenses with Lisa episode 34.

9. Books, Images, Videos – Internet Archive

Website: https://archive.org

Features:

  • Old webpages
  • Books
  • Images
  • Records
  • Audio Recordings
  • Storage
  • Videos

Learn more: Elevenses with Lisa episode 43.

10. Photo Identification – Dead Fred photos

Website: https://deadfred.com

Features:

  • A place to post photos for potential identification
  • Reunite orphaned photos with families
  • Find old family photos

11. Military Records – Soldiers and Sailors

Website: https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/soldiers-and-sailors-database.htm

“Cooperative effort between the National Park Service and several public and private partners whose goal is to increase Americans’ understanding of this decisive era in American history by making information about it widely accessible.

free website for military

11. Soldiers and Sailors Database

Features:

  • Men who served in the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War.
  • Histories of Union and Confederate regiments.
  • Links to descriptions of significant battles.
  • Selected lists of prisoner-of-war records and cemetery records.

Learn more: Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 149.

12. Postcards & Newspapers – Old Fulton Postcards

Website: https://fultonhistory.com/

Features:

  • Started as New York post cards
  • Expanded into newspapers
  • Now boasts “Search over 41,433,000 Historical
    Newspaper Pages from the USA & Canada” 

Tips:

  • Take the time to visit the Help & FAQ section
  • Visit the Old Fulton New York Post Cards page at the FamilySearch Wiki.

13. Newspapers – Chronicling America

Website: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov

Features:

  • Newspaper Directory (1690-present)
free newspaper website

13. Chronicling America: the Newspaper Directory

  • Digitized Newspapers (1777-1963)
  • Image search with Newspaper Navigator

Learn more: Elevenses with Lisa episode 26.

14. Land Records – BLM GLO

Website: https://glorecords.blm.gov

Features:

  • Land Patents
  • Land Surveys
  • Legal Land Descriptions

Learn more: Elevenses with Lisa episode 67

15. Video – YouTube

Website: https://www.youtube.com

Features:

  • Home Movies
    (search by surname,
    “old home movie”, locations)
  • Old Newsreels
  • Local TV station coverage
  • Documentaries

Learn more: Elevenses with Lisa episode 58.

Resources

Questions and Comments

Please leave your questions and comments below. 

Standing in Judgment of Our Ancestors

Standing in judgement of our ancestors may be unavoidable. Genealogists dig up the good, the bad, and the ugly. We cannot pick and choose what we find, but we might be able to pick what and how we share it with others.

download backblaze

Recently, I received a letter from a Gem’s reader which included a very delicate and sensitive matter. She writes:

Hi Lisa!

I love your blog and podcast. Thank you for all you do getting gems together for us!  I have a question for you and would love to know your opinion (or the opinion of anyone else as well!)

I was recently at a family wedding. I printed out all the family and ancestor’s paper trails and documents and was passing them around to my aunt, uncles, and cousins. My mom’s eldest brother brought up a memory he had of his grandfather, my great-grandfather, a German immigrant. My uncle whispered it to me because the saying my great-grandfather often said is very prejudice. I won’t tell you what the quote is but it’s prejudice against Jewish, Irish, and Dutch people. Here’s my question – should I write down that my great-grandfather was prejudice against certain people to preserve this part of his character or should I let this information fade into history? As genealogists we are always trying to get a full view of the person we are researching – past the census records, military service paperwork, and wills – and into the real person and personality. So, I now have a more broad view of my great-grandfather, but it’s negative. Should I preserve this character flaw in my ancestry notes? I’m conflicted about what to do. Maybe if this was a further distanced relative I would have an easier time brushing aside this prejudice but I’m having a hard time with the “right thing to do.” Any advice would be wonderful!

As a side note I will tell you that in the following generations this mans’ children and grandchildren have married Irish and Jewish spouses. Haha. I guess the “saying” was never echoed by his descendants!

Thanks,
Jennifer

Judgement of Our Ancestors

This is a great question and I applaud you for thoughtfully taking a moment to really think it through and ask for advice before moving forward on recording what you were told.

 
You asked – Should I write down that my great-grandfather was prejudice against certain people to preserve this part of his character or should I let this information fade into history? My opinion is, no. Mother Lisa says this is gossip and you didn’t hear it straight from your great-grandfather. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone else attributing a negative comment to me without having the chance to review or rebuke it. It’s a slippery slope.
 
judgement of our ancestors

Little Tea & Gossip by Robert Payton Reid, Source: http:⁄⁄www.liveinternet.ru⁄users⁄pmos_nmos⁄post357791815⁄

 

You also asked – Should I preserve this character flaw in my ancestry notes? And there’s the slippery slope. I believe that we, in modern times, should avoid sitting in judgement of ancestors who are not here to defend themselves. We don’t want to presume that we are in a position to decide how wrong “the crime” is. We certainly don’t want to be negatively prejudiced against others ourselves, but it is impossible to put oneself in another’s shoes in a differing time and circumstance. We know nothing about what the person really said. Perhaps they were joking (even though in extremely bad taste!) Maybe the person who heard this, and passed it on, had an ax to grind and part or none of it is true. Or, maybe there was an experience that our ancestor suffered that could have given him a reason to gripe based on his personal experience. You just don’t know.

In my book, I would chalk this up to gossip and either prove it with substantiated evidence or move on. What goes around comes around so let’s hope it will prevent an occurrence of someone gossiping about you and your future descendant spreading it into the ages.

 

Deciding to Write the Whole Story

In cases where you have secured substantial evidence that a negative story is true, you still have a choice to make. When I come across particularly sensitive or negative information about an ancestor, and before I make it public, I ask myself, “who will this help, and who will it hurt?” Does adding it to the family history enrich it? Is there anyone living today who might be hurt? If someone stands to be injured, but you’re set on capturing the story, I encourage you to do so privately for your own records and of course, cite all of your sources.

 
If you do decide to write and publish sensitive stories, I know that you will want to do so in as gentle and fair a way as possible. Here are some things to consider when writing about delicate stories of our ancestors:
  • Be sure to cite your source – who told you the story and when. The reader can decide whether to take the story with a grain of salt or believe it.
  • Let your readers know your reason for sharing the story in the first place. Genealogy Gems blogger Amie Tennant recently read a family history that included a horrible childhood memory. The writer stated it was important to put the family dynamics in full view so that other stories would be seen in the “right light.”
  • If naming everyone in the story will cause hurt or embarrassment, consider documenting the essence of the story without naming names.

Whatever you decide, writing a family history, though difficult at times, can be a rewarding experience.

 

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