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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: A Look at New England
by Rhonda R. McClure

May 15, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

At first glance, research in New England appears to be the same as any other region in the United States. Once you begin your research, you'll find out that New England research offers pleasant surprises and unique frustrations.

Too often I hear how easy it is to research in New England because of the records that have been kept and what has been published. In some ways this bounty turns into a curse as you try to identify your ancestor from the many others who share the same surname. Add to that the various places where the records are found and you begin to see why more doesn't mean easier.

New England's bounty may prove frustrating.

What is New England?

New England is the northeast region of the United States. It is made up of six states: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Unlike the other states the records are not all found on the same level.

  • Vital records: Found on the town level for each state
  • Probate records: Found on the county level for the states of Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire; on the town level in Rhode Island and in probate districts (that do not always coincide with county boundaries) for the states of Connecticut and Vermont.
  • Land records: Found on the county level for the states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire;
  • Census records: Only three states have state census records, which are looked at below
  • Published and manuscript resources: Abound for all the states and often go back to the early 1600s, though they may not always be accurate.

As you can see, in order to be effective in your research of any of the New England states, you must be aware of which jurisdiction is responsible for the records you are interested in. Also you want to find out just what records are available since some of the records may be more extensive or require that you look for additional information. Within probate records, for example, you may find probate files which include the will along with other records generated including receipts, accountings, and so forth.

State Census Records

While genealogists rely heavily on the decennial federal census records, they often are unaware of the state census records that are available for some of the New England states.

  • Connecticut: Did only one state census, and it was a survey of those men over the age of sixteen in preparation for World War I. It is available on microfilm through the Family History Library.
  • Massachusetts: Two state censuses have survived, 1855 and 1865. These are available on microfilm through the Family History Library as well as other repositories.
  • Rhode Island: Has taken state enumerations in the years 1865, 1875, 1885, 1905, 1915, 1925, 1935. All but the 1935 census are available on microfilm at the Family History Library.

Of course finding these records may require a little detective work. Some of them are mentioned in Ann Lainhart's State Census book. If you live in New England, especially near Boston, Massachusetts, then you will have access to these and many other New England records through the New England Historic Genealogical Society. The Society has been collecting records, manuscripts, and published resources on New England since its creation in 1845.

State Archives and Libraries

As was discussed a few weeks ago, the state archives is always a great place to look for information. Combined with state libraries, they are major repositories of many of the records that have been discussed here and many others that you will eventually find yourself working with as your continue to research your New England ancestors.

In Conclusion

There are many published family histories and manuscripts available for New England but you may wish to search the plentiful original records that exist. Though you can always use published works as clues to your research, it is always better to search New England's original records rather than relying on the conclusions drawn by others.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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