click to view original photo

Migration Patterns Reflected by Township Government

Even genealogists might be surprised to learn that townships can reflect migration patterns.


Content Details

Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by:
Word Count: 849 (approx.)
Labels: Immigration 
Short URL:

Sooner or later, anyone studying genealogy or history encounters townships. I have often found it interesting that even when most of the country was yet wilderness, there were citizens serving as county officials. In a state with as many counties as Illinois, and many of them operating under township government, it was easy to assume that every county and state had townships. Some don't. Some used to, but now don't. There is actually a long-running debate over township government with states still proposing its abolition, leaving everything up to the county, burrough or parish to handle, thereby eliminating a level of bureaucracy.

Township history is not a passive story, and a closer look at the formation of township government as the nation moved west can can shed light on immigration patterns.

What is a township?

It turns out there are two kinds of townships, geographic and political. The original township was geographical, a land survey designation. It's the one we see used on all those plat maps we use to find Great-Great-Grandpa's farm. They are divvied up in grids that read "Township 5 South Range 7 East."

This township system was created by the Land Ordinance of 1785. Based on the British system, it was used in the original 13 colonies along with Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee, Vermont, and West Virginia. In theory, a township is supposed to be 36 square miles and one side is to be six miles. Obviously, states are not perfectly square so the system kind of falls apart. The Bureau of Land Management has a "Manual of Surveying Instructions" online at If you want to learn more about how a township was created on paper, this is a great item to read.

The second type of township is the political or civil township, a form of local government that reports to the state legislature. A township has elected officials who insure that roads are maintained and land use laws are enforced. As such, a township creates another layer of elected officials and another layer of budgeting. At the same time, it places tax dollars in the hands of local people who are more familiar with local needs -- this fact alone creates some debate.

The two types of townships are not the same. The township grids we all know and use continue in existence. What does come and go with the township government referenda is who is in charge. If township government is abolished, you would be wasting your time researching township officials after that time.

My love of old newspapers has come in handy when trying to locate individuals. I always pay attention to who was running for office. In early counties, there was not a large pool of potential candidates. You might be surprised who ran for a position in township government or who became the road commissioner. In earlier times, it is said, township leaders were selected by drawing names from a hat.

How Do Townships Suggest Migration Patterns?

As people moved west. many took their form of government with them; a careful examination of the types of governments established along migration routes can suggest a cultural patten of migration. At a pricey $75.00, Michael D. Sublett's "Township: Diffusion and Persistence of Grassroots Government in Illinois, 1850-2000" might seem more like a textbook – and could easily be used as one. Sublett documents how migrants from New England introduced their method of government to most of Illinois, as well as to many other states. Virginia and the Southern Uplands brought an alternative to townships to 17 of the 102 current counties in Illinois. Knowing this might help trace ancestors, at least to a general geographic area.

Sublett makes a clear and startling argument for using townships as a map for migration. Using Illinois as an example, he shows how migrations from New England tended to be more in the northern part of the state in 1860. That part of the state was solidly township forms of government. His argument is that the New Englanders brought the township government style with them.

Immigrants from Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana settled more in the middle section of the state. Again, those counties voted for township-style government in 1850.

In contrast, immigrants from the Upland South – primarily Kentucky – tended to vote down townships. Some fifteen counties settled primarily by immigrants from the Upland South voted down townships in Illinois in 1850.

So how do we use this information as genealogists? If you are researching someone who was living in a non-township county in the northern part of the state, they more likely came from New England prior to 1850.

You can actually watch the state of Illinois changing as the politics changed. So often we just assume that "townships" happened – or didn't. But between 1850 and 1864, two counties in Illinois had as many as five separate referenda proposing townships be reconsidered. Who knew the early settlers of Illinois were so political!

These political views came as part of the immigrants' baggage, every bit as much as their clothes and pots and pans. They are a unique connection between immigrants and their homestate.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2008.

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.

<< GenWeekly

<< Helpful Articles