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State and County Lines May Lead You to Your Ancestors

Having a general knowledge of history and geography gets you started with genealogy, but in order to fully utilize all the resources available, you will probably need to become more knowledgeable about the areas where your ancestor lived.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Karan Pittman
Word Count: 754 (approx.)
Labels: Census 
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Having a general knowledge of history and geography gets you started with genealogy, but in order to fully utilize all the resources available, you will probably need to become more knowledgeable about the areas where your ancestor lived. In order to do this, you will need to become familiar with the changing geography and specific history of the place where you can trace your ancestor.

STATE LINES: It is important to know the date of the creation of a state. Your ancestor may have traveled to the state when it was still a territory. Colonial times may prove to have good records, but some places do not. You need to know the status of the state.

Some census records may be available for territories before they become states, but often tax lists have to be used. This is true for Texas where no national census was made of the Republic of Texas (1836-1845), and tax lists provide a substitute, except for some counties. On the other side of the spectrum, Maine became a state in 1820, yet census schedules are available for 1810, 1800, and 1790.

Dates matter when looking for census records and documents. Rootsweb.com and usgenweb.com are excellent resources for finding the history of a state. Always check to find out when the state was formed. Then see how many census records are available for that state. Once you know, you can begin to use other sources for your search.

The creation date of a state may also have relevance for your ancestors' moving. Many people left their homes to seek better conditions, as states and territories opened. Often land was awarded to people for services in an effort to populate an area. All of these possibilities may provide a clue for you to search for your family history.

COUNTY LINES: County lines changed more often than state lines. Once you know where your ancestor lived, you need to find out more about the history of the county. If your ancestor lived in the county seat, the chances are that not much changed over the years, but if the family lived out in the county, many things could happen.

Rootsweb.com and usgenweb.com prove to be great resources for finding county lines. In roootsweb.com and usgenweb.com, you can usually look under state resources then click on the county interest. Most county sites have maps. Take a look at the surrounding counties. These counties may have been the original county, or they may be spin-off from another county.

One example of how tricky it may be to trace your ancestors is found in Georgia. In 1850, your ancestor may have lived in either Talbot or Marion Counties, for many years. By 1860, Taylor County was formed which took land out of both of Talbot and Marion Counties. If you did not know the history of the area, you could easily miss the fact that your ancestor lived in the same place, with only a county name change. This kind of change also occured in Michigan. In 1860, Marquette and Houghton Counties covered a large area of the Upper Peninsula. By 1870, Houghton reached down into the original Marquette County, a new county, Keweenaw County took up part of Houghton.

It will be invaluable to you to have a map so you can find the counties. The Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 by Thorndale and Dollarhide is a great reference. This book lists all the states and shows all the county changes within the states. It will help you save hours of work looking up nonexistent records.

Further research is the main reason to know these state and county lines. After the census records are found, you may want to look up deeds, probate, and other public records. You may have to go to more than one courthouse in order to find the information. This is important for you to know when you travel, and with so many online resources, it is important to know that you may need to check several counties or states.

Newspapers are also part of this puzzle. All areas had to have a legal organ for classified and public information. By knowing the state and the county, you may be able to find information through a newspaper that you did not expect to yield any information.

Genealogical research provides many opportunities to delve into the life of your ancestors. You can uncover historical information that may surprise you. In order to get the most accurate information about your family, it is necessary for you to learn about their surroundings.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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