July 18, 2002
As we research our ancestors, we often find that we head east in the United States the further back we go. With the exception of those who are first or second generation Americans, this progression makes sense. After all, at one point there were only thirteen colonies hugging the eastern coast.
Just Why Are They There?
So often we are in such a hurry to track the line back that we haven't even given a thought as to why or how a family came to be living where we have found them. Because it appears to be so easy, we haven't really spent as much time as we probably should have on any given generation.
If we spent a little more time asking questions on the easy ones, it would probably help us when it comes to researching the difficult lines. The difficult lines force us to begin to look at ever record ever invented and then some. However, we sometimes get so caught up in the standard records that we forget to branch out. Worse yet, we often are unaware of other records unique to a given locality because we have not taken any time to look at the history of the area or even to ask that question just how did my family come to be here?
In most cases there is a reason our family chose to strike out into the great unknown. If you find your family living in Ohio in the early 1800s, take a look at where in Ohio they were living. For instance if they were living in Ashtabula, Trumbull or Geauga counties it is possible that they came from Connecticut and that they were given that land from their involvement in the Revolutionary War. Were they living in Franklin, Fairfield, Licking or Perry counties or near the connecting borders of these counties? If so, it is possible that your family came from Canada and was entitled to land as a refugee. Having lived in Canada, which was also a dominion of Great Britain, during the American Revolution, it is possible that your ancestor had to flee his land if he aided the American during the Revolutionary War. Many Americans went from the New England colonies up into Nova Scotia before the American Revolution looking for new land. When the war broke out they may still have felt a connection to the colonies and rendered aid. Great Britain would have taken a dim view on this.
Of course as the country began to grow after the American Revolution there was also an influx of immigrants. Through the 1800s into the early 1900s, immigration would jump from a trickle to a deluge. As these immigrants came to the new world many of them would work their way west in search of fertile land on which they could make a living. Some of them would settle where family had settled before. Others arrived in a group and just remained with the group, settling where the others in the group settled.
Where to Turn
The more you know about the settlement history of the area in which you find your ancestor the better. This may explain why families appeared and then moved on. It could explain why your ancestor arrived in the year he did or where he may have come from. County histories often detail the earliest of settlers and may include information about trends in settlement.
There are also many books written about states and the ethnic diversity of the area. These books give detailed information about the different groups, often describing the counties they settled in and when. Some even give details about the routes that most took (offering you potential insight into where else to look for records) and may explain why some of the children were born where they were.
These books are often available through your local library. To get an idea of what might be available for your state, start by visiting the state historical society's site online. The historical societies, if they didn't actually publish the books, often have them for sale on their site.
While some of our ancestors immigrated or migrated for the opportunity to own land, others would come for religious freedom. Still others would move further west because of bounty land given them for service in the military. Finding out why your ancestor was living in a given area may help you in determine where he came from and may open up additional records and resources that not only identify your ancestor but aid you in connecting additional generations.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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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