Struggling to find your ancestors in colonial America? Discover resources and records to move your genealogy research forward and add to your family tree.
Researching colonial ancestors can be tough, but doesn’t have to be. Dare I say finding your ancestors in colonial genealogy records can be quite rewarding (and fun).
You have heard me say it before, but ….. having a solid research in place is key. Before you create your genealogy research plan, you will need to know a few things first.
Before You Even Create Your Research Plan – Study the History of Colonial America!
Regardless of the time period you are researching, having a knowledge of America’s historic events and your ancestor’s local area’s history is imperative. Understanding the society your ancestor lived in and how events impacted their lives and decisions, you will begin to understand the types of records your ancestors may have created.
Historic Events In Colonial America’s History
As mentioned above, historical events and the social history surrounding events in colonial America impacted our ancestors’ lives. Here are examples of three such important historical events.
May 1607 – The Settlement of Jamestown – The first permanent English settlement in North America occurred with the arrival of 104 male settlers. The historic Jamestown site offers information on the history of Jamestown including genealogical information. [As this writing in April 2020, their genealogy databases are undergoing maintenance and are currently offline.]
9 November 1620 – The Mayflower Landed – One hundred and two passengers landed in the New World and established the Plymouth Colony. Today, over 35 million people can trace ancestry back to the Mayflower passengers. Find information and searchable databases at American Ancestors.
1776 – 1783 – The American Revolution – The American Revolution was obviously a significant event in our colonial ancestors’ lives, and military records are a good source of information on our ancestors who fought or supported the war effort. Military pension records and service records are good places to start.
As you proceed with your colonial ancestor research, make the effort to learn about the local history where your ancestor lived and how events of that time period could have impacted your ancestor’s life. Learn more about the importance of social history to your research and how to find it in this previous post.
Did Your Ancestor Come To Colonial America As An Indentured Servant?
Many individuals made their way to colonial America between the 1630’s up to the American Revolution in indentured servitude or as indentured servants. Some were indentured by choice to their employers and others by force. Those arriving by choice as indentured servants typically were indentured for 4-7 years. The terms were established prior to coming to America often by an agent acting as a go between for the employer. At the end of indentured service, the individual was free to live their own life in America. Money and/or land granted at the end of indenture could have been part of the agreement.
Indentured individuals arriving not by choice could be the result of punishment by the court and evidence can be found in court records.
Start your search for your indentured ancestors here:
Don’t Forget the “Usual” Genealogy Records
As you search for your ancestor in those colonial genealogy records, many of the “usual” record types can (and should) be searched.
Wills and Estate Records
As with later time periods, search wills and estate records for your colonial ancestors. As you analyze colonial wills and estates, make sure you have a clear understanding of the terminology and the inheritance laws for that time period. Understanding who inherits what leads to relationship clues. Tip: Don’t hesitate to reach out to archive staff with questions or for reference recommendations.
Tax records can be a little tricky. Often the record sets are incomplete and well, just plain hard to read! Don’t skip reading those tax lists anyway! If you find your ancestor listed, proceed with the “genealogy happy dance”. You will be able to place your ancestor in time and place and potentially establish his community in part.
Land records such as deeds and land grants are an important part of your genealogy research for any time period. If your ancestor lived in a burned county where land records did not survive, read more about researching ancestors in burned counties here.
New England town records are some of the oldest and most extensive colonial genealogy records databases. Among these records vital records – birth, marriage, death – can be found. [Sigh….my southern ancestors just didn’t do this.]
Church and Parish Records
When found, church records can be a gold mine of genealogical information and can extend far back. If your ancestor was Catholic, there is good news. FindMyPast is has (and continues) to digitize American Catholic diocese records. Learn more using Catholic records in your research here.
Search for historical and genealogical publications using PERSI
PERSI (Periodical Source Index) has over 2.7 million entries for genealogical and historical publications. Use PERSI to find articles such as biographies, cemeteries, family lines (and so much more!!) that are not online or are no longer in print. Learn more about PERSI and how to use it in your research in this previous post. [PERSI is one of my favorites!]
Special collections of family papers donated to repositories can contain family letters, business papers, property records, and more. Check archives and local university collections for their finding aides to discover what they might have. Be sure and search ArchiveGrid for special collections as well. ArchiveGrid is a free finding aid to search special collections in repositories across the U.S. and the world. [Learn more about how to use ArchiveGrid here.] Below is an example of a record collection found on ArchiveGrid pertaining to Gardner, Gaylord, and Cooper Families of New York dating back to 1619.
Where To Locate Colonial Genealogy Records
Locating the colonial records you need can take a bit of research on its own.
County Courthouse & State Archives
County courthouses and state archives are natural places to seek out colonial records for specific areas. Information on their websites as well as contact with the staff can tell you what records exist and for what time periods. Tip: Don’t forget to check online databases for state archives.
Ancestry.com has many colonial era records. Looking for a specific type of record in a specific location such as town records for Massachusetts? Use Ancestry’s card catalog to see what they have. Learn more about searching on Ancestry.com in this post.
Many researchers think of English and Irish genealogy research when thinking of FindMyPast (FMP), but FMP has many American record collections. United States, Early American Vital Records and United States, Early American Families a two great examples. Additionally, the Catholic Heritage Archive (mentioned above) has American records, too! You will also want to check the Register of Licenses to Pass Beyond the Seas records. PERSI (mentioned above) is housed at FindMyPast and requires a FMP subscription. However, when facing genealogy brick walls, PERSI alone makes FMP worth my (frugal) dollars. Tip: You can try a FMP free trial first.
Read Other Posts of Interest