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Bridging the Gap Between 1850 and the Colonial Period

The transitional time between the Colonial Period and the first every-name U. S. Census can be a difficult time to research. These hints may open up new possibilities.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Trish Tolley
Word Count: 731 (approx.)
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Genealogical research in records prior to 1850—the year of the first U.S. Census to name every household member—can be difficult for several reasons.
  1. Significant genealogical research already undertaken has been heavily dependent upon these censuses that list each household member by name.
  2. A massive westward migration was taking place in these transitional years when road travel was becoming more popular.
  3. Many pioneer farm families shifted their homes several times throughout their lives.

On top of these reasons, less information is available in print for this time period than for the Colonial Period.

I have been researching the family of David and Nancy Robinson. During their lifetimes (roughly from 1795-1870 and 1800-1881 respectively), David and Nancy and their children lived in the states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas. While I have been able to locate their counties of residence in the latter four states, I am still searching for their county of residence in Tennessee, where both David and Nancy were born. Although I haven't yet been able to find that specific origin place, I have devised a research plan that will broaden my perspective, utilize various record types, and hopefully produce the answer I am searching for.

Detailed here are a few suggestions I have come up with for finding your ancestor in this transitional time period:

Be flexible when choosing your research techniques. One or two time-worn techniques may not solve the problem, so be willing to try new methods and look at your research problems in a new light. In my research, I probably won't find records for both David and Nancy stating their Tennessee counties of birth. So I have to be willing to use other sources to find the information. And sometimes, trial and error is only way to produce the answer.

Learn all you can about each problem ancestor. A name alone is not sufficient to understand family relationships, occupations, community involvement, migration patterns, or religious involvement. Use the names of children's spouses, neighbors, and people with economic influence in the ancestor's community to lead to new sources, clues, and connections, even if they do not share the same surname or home address as the ancestor you are searching for. Also, focus on families and not just surnames—brothers-in-law and cousins often traveled in the same group as the family you are interested in.

Expect the average—almost all of our ancestors lived "normal" lives. Expect him to move around the frontier with his neighbors; expect him to marry someone whose family he knew; expect him to only have one wife at a time; expect him to work hard to improve his family's lifestyle. While these instances are not always true, they can keep you from adopting more than one David Robinson of Tennessee as your ancestor and merging the two, which could result in too many marriages, too many children, and a 120 year lifespan. Be careful! And, if the "normal" lifestyle didn't pan out for your ancestors, then move to the records such as criminal records, penitentiary archives, and asylum records.

Study the family in the community in which you are sure they lived. Reconstruct them; build a timeline outlining the events of their lives. Find them in school records, cemeteries, land records, county histories, and newspapers. Not often do people completely disregard their past and start over in a new community. Therefore, the records of the location where you are sure they lived may hold the best clues for where they lived before.

Search the surrounding area for frontiersman. It was common for people to establish short-lived homes as they moved west. Some may have also moved within the state as well as to new states and regions being settled. Find out about general migration patterns that may be linked to large rivers or early roads.

Think, compare, hunt, correlate, analyze your findings to see the connection between the old community and the new. Find names of neighbors, cousins, and business partners in the new area as well as the old. Do specific occupations have the ability to work in both locations such as miners or steel workers? Subtle clues in records of both locations can be the most vital to solving migration issues.

Understanding reasons for migration and opening our minds to new sources and research methods can help us bridge the gap during a time of transition in America's history and blaze the path backward to a colonial origin.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

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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