Tracing Pioneer Families
by Bob Brooke
When the Great Migration westward began in 1843, many families piled nearly
everything they owned into covered wagons and followed their dreams. But their vital
records usually stayed home, unless someone in the family kept a record in the family
Bible. For some, the only indication of their passing were crude graffiti left on the
stone walls of canyons and rocks by the wayside. For this reason, tracing America s
pioneer families as they moved from one area to another constitutes a true detective
The less migration a family did, the easier it is to trace them, whether they
originated in the North or South.
Genealogists will find census records helpful in tracing some of the early settlers
of the Midwest. Early deeds kept in county courthouses are also very important, as
they may reveal the former residences of early families-if they can be found. Those
Midwestern settlers who lived into the 1860s or 1870s, when towns first began
recording vital statistics, will also have had death certificates that list their
birthplaces and parentages. There are also some valuable marriage records in various
parts of the Midwest dating from as early as the 1870s.
Fortunately for genealogists, shortly after the great mass migration to the West
Coast began the U.S. Government published federal census schedules for the first
time, listing each person by name and identifying his or her place of birth, making
it possible to trace some pioneer families to their origins in the East. A variety of
individuals and organizations have indexed the 1850 to 1880 census records of such
western states as California, Nevada, Arizona, the Dakotas and Montana, indicating
which of the enumerated people were born in Pennsylvania, which in New York, and so
on. These works can be extremely helpful to ancestor hunters.
Also, the names of some of the early California settlers who traveled around the tip
of South America by ship can be found in the published reconstructed passenger lists
of ships docking at the port of San Francisco.
Family records are especially helpful in the search for the roots of migrant
families. Family Bibles were the Number One way most families kept a record of
births, marriages and deaths before towns began recording vital records. If a family
moved through several states at different times, as many did, scattering descendants
and marrying into various families all along the way, it can be nearly impossible to
trace every branch of their family tree. Sometimes, someone in the family will write
down what information is known in manuscript form. These old manuscripts often
provide the only link to the past for many pioneer. While these old manuscripts many
not be specific about dates and places, they usually include the names of counties
and the approximate periods during which the family had lived in them. With this
information as a guide, a genealogist can uncover the marriage registrations, death
records, deeds and wills that will enabled him or her to reconstruct a family's
Local printed sources such as town and county histories are of great value in
research at the regional level. It's also possible to find a great many excellent
sources-particularly local histories and transcripts, abstracts or indexes of
censuses, vital, church, cemetery and probate records-for smaller towns and counties.
Researchers can locate these references by checking library and book dealers
catalogues, through correspondence with historical and genealogical societies (many
of which publish this type of material), in periodical indexes and in specialized
bibliographies and guides found in genealogical libraries.
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