Although only 102 Pilgrims sailed on the Mayflower to land at Plymouth Rock in 1620, the General Society of Mayflower Descendants estimates tens of millions of people worldwide descend from those brave souls. But even if your predecessors weren’t Mayflower passengers, one of your family branches could spring from Colonial times.
Though the United States’ population wasn’t yet 4 million by the 1790 federal census, the descendants of that relatively small number of colonists have rippled through the growing nation over the years since. It’s easy to forget how long what’s now the United States existed—and prospered—as an offshoot of the British Empire: America’s Colonial history really began 13 years before the Pilgrims’ celebrated landing, with the founding of Jamestown, Va., on May 14, 1607. (A Jamestowne Society is open to descendants of those settlers.) Not until 1945 did America’s tenure as an independent nation match the 169-year span of its Colonial era.
So even if you’re a product of the late 19th-and early 20th-century European immigration rush, there’s been plenty of time for the American melting pot to intertwine those roots with earlier immigrants. On my father’s side, for example, my roots are strictly those of a typical 19th-century Swedish immigrant. My mother’s family, however, goes back many generations in America, to Colonial Virginia and North Carolina.
True, some types of records are missing or sparse from this era: You won’t find federal censuses, statewide vital records or city directories, for example. But never fear—as we’ll show you, Colonial research resources are as varied as for any US genealogical research.
Editor’s Note: Since this article was originally published in 2006, FamilySearch has digitized many of the Family History Library (FHL) microfilm reels mentioned below. Search the FamilySearch Catalog as well as the FamilySearch Research Wiki to determine if scans of the microfilm you’re searching for has been uploaded to FamilySearch. Some collections may be browse-only, but others may be indexed.
Colonial American Brick Walls
Before we go over the resources, I’ll share lessons I’ve learned—often the hard way—from researching my Colonial ancestors.
- Surplus of surnames: By the time you trace your roots back that far, the ancestors in your family tree will have multiplied dramatically. Those thousand ninth-great-grandparents could represent more than 500 surnames you have to juggle. Careful research organization is a must.
- Twisting branches: Given the small, geographically concentrated Colonial population, your ancestral families will interconnect confusingly. Cousins married cousins, so you may be related to one person in different ways. Drury Bradley is my fifth-great-grandfather, but his daughter Ruth married her first cousin, Garrett Oglesby—the son of Dairy’s sister, Martha. So Drury’s also my fifth-great-uncle.
- Census cessation: Your most useful US research tool, the federal census, disappears in Colonial times. You can use the 1790 census as a springboard into that era, but Colonial censuses’ spotty nature often means you must tap other records.
- Local thinking: Similarly, statewide vital records weren’t even on the horizon at this point—but some records of births, marriages and deaths exist on the local level. New Hampshire town clerks, for instance, chronicled marriages beginning in 1639.
- Shifting ancestors—and boundaries: Your ancestors may have migrated as the Colonies grew inland. County and state borders shifted rapidly with the population. From 1641 to 1679, New Hampshire was technically part of Massachusetts. The line between Virginia and North Carolina wasn’t defined until 1728. If your North Carolina kin settled in Orange County, keep in mind it didn’t exist until 1752, when it was spun off from Bladen, Granville and Johnston counties. The USGenWeb Project state pages can help you figure out the parentage of various counties.
- Call for creativity: The vagaries of Colonial-era censuses and vital records mean you’ll often turn to other resources, such as tax lists, court records, church records and probate files. Bible records can be, well, a godsend. And even this far back, newspapers are surprisingly helpful. Land records may let you track your ancestors as the Colonies expanded into the vast American interior.
Despite the challenges, it’s amazing how far back you can trace your roots. I haven’t found any Mayflower or Jamestown ancestors—yet—but I may have identified a ninth-great-grandfather who arrived in Virginia in 1630. Following are the resources you’ll find most helpful in exploring your own Colonial ancestry.
Researching Early US Censuses
The federal government didn’t yet exist to count heads, so each of the original 13 Colonies had its own mix of censuses and other lists that substitute for censuses. But you can’t count on schedules every 10 years, and you may have to dig a little to find them.
Several websites serve up Colonial census data, though in most cases, you’ll pay for the convenience. Ancestry.com offers some early censuses, including the 1776 Maryland and 1774 Rhode Island counts. Check the two “unofficial” USGenWeb census projects and RootsWeb for free listings. Look at the FamilySearch Research Wiki entry for each state for more on Colonial census availability.
As the colony-by-colony census rundown below shows, printed resources are plentiful—just not as readily accessible as digital resources. Unless otherwise noted, the following titles are out of print. But you can get many on FamilySearch, from Virginia in 1624 right up through the 1776 census of Maryland.
- Connecticut: Connecticut 1670 Census by Jay Mack Holbrook (Holbrook Research Institute) has a reconstructed census of more than 2,300 heads of families.
- Delaware: Census records exist for 1665 to 1697, along with a 1693 count of Swedes living in Delaware and parts of nearby Colonies.
- Georgia: There’s no census, but settlers from 1733 to 1747 are in A List of the Early Settlers of Georgia by E. Merton Coulter and Albert B. Saye (Genealogical Publishing Co.).
- Maryland:1776 Census of Maryland by Bettie Stirling Carothers (self-published) has an index covering most counties.
- Massachusetts: You won’t rind a Colonial census, but there’s a 1707 Boston census substitute and a 1771 tax valuation list.
- New Hampshire: Censuses from 1767 and 1775 are available, plus Jay Mack Holbrook’s New Hampshire Residents, 1633-1699 (Holbrook Research Institute).
- New Jersey: Census records from 1726, 1738, 1745 and 1772 were destroyed. Instead, check New Jersey Tax Lists, 1772–1822 edited by Ronald Vern Jackson (Accelerated Indexing Systems).
- New York: The colony took a census every 10 years from 1690 on, though some records have been lost. You’ll find an index and transcriptions in Carol M. Meyers’ Early New York State Census Records, 1663–1772 (RAM Publishers).
- North Carolina: Though there aren’t any Colonial censuses, Ronald Vern Jackson collected tax and other lists from the 1680s on in Early North Carolina (Accelerated Indexing Systems).
- Pennsylvania: No Colonial census records exist—use tax lists and land records as substitutes. Try the Secretary of the Land Office’s Rent Rolls, 1703–1744, and The Pennsylvania Archives, 3rd series, volumes 11 to 22, by the General Assembly (J. Severns).
- Rhode Island: Look for the 1730, 1747 to 1755, 1774 and 1776 censuses in Rhode Island Census, 1740–1890 by Ronald Vera Jackson (Accelerated Indexing Systems).
- South Carolina: Colonial censuses were destroyed. Use Citizens and Immigrants: South Carolina, 1768 by Mary Bondurant Warren (Heritage Papers) as a substitute.
- Virginia: Much of the 1624 census is in the two-volume Adventurers of Purse and Person, Virginia, 1607–1624/5, 4th edition, edited by John Frederick Dorman (Genealogical Publishing Co.). For later years, use Virginia in 1720: A Reconstructed Census (TLC Genealogy). Similar volumes cover 1740 and 1760.
Settlers in areas not among the original 13 Colonies were enumerated in Alabama (1706, 1721 and 1725), Maine (1771 tax list), Tennessee (1770 to 1790 tax lists) and Vermont (1771 substitute).
Early American Vital Records
Whether you can find birth, marriage and death records depends where your ancestor lived. In much of New England, town clerks kept vital records, which in many cases are published and microfilmed. For example, the FHL has microfilmed records or indexes for 215 Massachusetts towns, including Boston births and deaths from 1630 and marriages from 1646. FamilySearch’s International Genealogical Index is a handy shortcut—many early New England vital records are extracted and indexed therein.
Naturally, the New England Historic Genealogical Society’s collections at AmericanAncestors.org are good Yankee records resources. Among the site’s earliest records are Woodbury, Conn., marriages from 1684 to 1784; Bolton and Newtown, Conn., vital records from 1704 and Dorchester, Mass., deaths from 1732 to 1781. You’ll need to pay for a membership to view most records.
Beyond New England, however, even major cities such as Philadelphia lack Colonial-era vital records. You’ll need to turn to cemetery and church records in compilations such as Charles Adam Fisher’s Early Pennsylvania Births, 1675–1875 (Genealogical Publishing Co.). For Virginia, try Genealogy Library, which contains Virginia Vital Records #1, 1600s–1800s. The Colonial Virginia Source Records CD (Genealogical Publishing Co.) is even more extensive.
New Jersey required town clerks to keep track of marriages starting in 1673, but few bothered to comply. And happy couples had to get marriage licenses from 1719 on, but perhaps only a quarter went to the trouble. Nonetheless, the FHL has microfilm of some 10,000 New Jersey nuptial records from 1711 to 1795—maybe your ancestors were the law-abiding sort.
Researching Early American Church Records
Before you despair of ever finding birth, marriage and death information, don’t forget about church records. New England enjoys a wealth of them. For example, records of Connecticut’s Congregational Church—the state church until 1818—are at the Connecticut State Library and mostly microfilmed by the FHL.
The northern Colonies don’t monopolize the records riches: Pennsylvania’s known for its Quaker legacy, but adherents spread through many Colonies and took their meticulous record-keeping with them. The FHL devotes 73 microfilms to The William Wade Hinshaw Index to Quaker Meeting Records, the original of which is in the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College. Another exhaustive source is Hinshaw’s Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy (Genealogical Publishing Co., out of print), which you can search through Ancestry.com.
Colonial Land Records
For places such as Virginia, where officials issued “headrights”—land grants to people who transported immigrants to the colony—your land-records search can begin with the original “patent.” The FHL has microfilm of these grants dating from 1623, and many are published in Cavaliers and Pioneers: Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents and Grants, 8 volumes and supplement (various compilers and publishers). The Library of Virginia has the grants, as well as an online index (linked to digital images) of patents from 1623 to 1774 and grants in the Northern Neck area beginning in 1692. See the library’s Virginia Memory site for digital collections.
To the south, the Lord Proprietor doled out South Carolina’s land until 1719, when the colony came under royal protection. Land grants are recorded differently depending on the period. North Carolina became a British colony in 1729, but the Earl of Granville was proprietor of the northern Granville District until 1763. Most extant land records of all sorts from the Carolinas have been published, and the FHL has copies.
Calvert family proprietors—whose sire George secured a promise of land from King Charles I—owned all of Maryland. Much as in Virginia, they issued headrights from 1633 to 1683. Find indexes to these grants in Gust Skordas’ The Early Settlers of Maryland 1751–1765 and the five-volume Settlers of Maryland 1679–1783 by Peter Wilson Coldham. Both are from Genealogical Publishing Co.
New Jersey has its own land-records quirk: In 1676 the Quintipartite Deed divided it into East and West Jersey, and Colonial land records for each province remain separate to this day. You won’t find microfilm of East Jersey records, but they’re published in The Minutes of the Board of Proprietors of the Eastern Division of New Jersey, which covers 1685 to 1794 (records from 1706 to 1724 are missing). The FHL has microfilm copies of West Jersey records (the originals are at Rutgers University).
Once somebody got land, he often sold it, creating another set of records for you to enjoy. In New Jersey, for example, Colonial land transactions were recorded as deeds in either Perth Amboy, the East Jersey capital, or in the West Jersey capital of Burlington. Both sets are now united at the state archives and on FHL microfilm.
Most colonies handled land transactions between individuals similarly, although records may be deposited in various places. New Hampshire, for example, had a registry of deeds from 1623 to 1772 in Portsmouth, but county registrars began to keep them in 1769. Surviving pre-1772 deeds are in the state archives; the FHL has microfilm copies.
Without birth certificates, a father’s will might serve to prove a Colonial ancestor’s parentage. It may name the spouse, children, children’s spouses and even grandchildren, as well as witnesses.
The will of my sixth-great-grandfather James Muse, who died in North Carolina in 1758, is full of names. Besides listing his children, the will names James’ wife, who I already knew was Sophia Pope—a maiden name that survives in their daughter, Sophia Pope Runnels. Another daughter, Liddy Ceal, is my ancestor.
Don’t worry too much about spellings in these records: I’ve seen Ceal mostly as Seal or Seale, and in this will it’s also spelled Ceale.
The executor, Charles Ceal, is Liddy’s husband. Most exciting, Robert Dickinson’s name among the witnesses helps confirm a connection between the families: His son Robert Jr., my fourth-great-grandfather, later married Nancy Seale, daughter of the Charles and Liddy mentioned here. (I also noted the witness Isaac Dickinson as a clue to Robert Sr.’s mystery parentage—could Isaac be my Robert’s brother or father?)
Wherever probate and other court records from your ancestor’s colony are archived, first look for a published index or compilation of abstracts. North Carolina counties were supposed to (but didn’t always) send the original papers to the secretary of state’s office. Today, most are in the state archives, where the FHL microfilmed them. FamilySearch has many digitized probate records and wills in its state collections, as does Ancestry.com.
Check books of indexes and abstracts such as North Carolina Wills and Inventories Copied from the Original Recorded Wills and Inventories in the Office of the Secretary of State (out of print, but available at the FHL). You’ll also find indexes online at Ancestry.com.
Always confirm your finds using microfilm of the actual document, and don’t give up if your ancestor’s will isn’t in an index. USGenWeb and RootsWeb include many volunteer-transcribed wills and other court records.
Still stumped? Try searching pedigree sites such as Geni or WikiTree for files listing your Colonial ancestors, and click on the ones with notes or sources. You might find transcriptions of wills — particularly for colonists, when these are such an important source. I confess: That’s how I stumbled upon James Muse’s will.
While you should take family histories, like any other secondary source, with a grain of salt, they can contain clues to Colonial kin. Look for them at libraries; on AmericanAncestors.org; and in the family history collections on Ancestry.com, MyHeritage (for a fee) and HeritageQuest Online (free through subscribing libraries).
The best-known Colonial newspaper, Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, hit the presses in 1728; FHL abstracts and indexes cover editions to 1748. Searching for ancestors in print can be time-consuming, so try digitized newspaper sites such as Chronicling America (free), Newspapers.com and GenealogyBank (by subscription).
Also seek an index or abstract such as Genealogical Data From Colonial New York Newspapers compiled by Kenneth Scott (Genealogical Publishing Co.). Virginia researchers should see the Virginia Genealogical Society Quarterly, part of Ancestry.com’s Historical Newspapers Collection. NEHGS members can search the New England Historical and Genealogical Register at AmericanAncestors.org. For a shortcut to genealogical periodicals of all sorts, use the Periodical Source Index (PERSI)—it’s available on Findmypast.
Colonial wars left much less extensive military records than later conflicts. Typically, records are in state historical societies and archives. At the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR)’s Genealogical Research System website, you can search for ancestors named as Patriots in DAR membership applications, as well as ancestors of DAR members named as links to those Patriots.
For northern New Englanders, it’s worth checking the “warnings out,” permits authorities obtained to order someone out of town, in Josiah Henry Benton’s Warnings Out in New England, 1656–1817 (Ayer Co. Publishers).
Bible records can be challenging to track down, but you’ll find some at libraries and archives. View collected and indexed New York family Bibles in more than 200 volumes at the New York State Library and in part on FHL microfilm. Thousands of Bible records are in NEHGS databases. The Connecticut State Library has indexed more than 25,000 Bible records, some dating to Colonial times; the index is on FHL microfilm. Looking online? The Library of Virginia’s website has images of 6,000 family Bible records.
You even can trace colonists back to the old country. The best source for early passenger records is P. William Filby’s Passenger and Immigration Lists Index (Gale Research), available at the FHL and other libraries. Genealogy Library’s International and Passenger Records Collection and Ancestry.com’s US Immigration Collection also have early records, including Filby’s index. Search websites such as the Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild and AmericanAncestors.org, too. The latter’s series The Great Migration Begins, Immigrants to New England 1620–1633 and 1634–1635 by Robert Charles Anderson is also on Ancestry.com. See the Great Migration website for more on this series and an alphabetical list of 2,400 individuals it named.
If your family really did sail on the Mayflower, you’re in luck: Many libraries have genealogies of Plymouth Colony families. I’m pretty sure I can’t claim any Pilgrim ancestors, but I’m still working on a connection to Jamestown-13 years (ahem) before those Mayflower latecomers.
- 17th Century Colonial New England
- American Ancestors
- Ancestor Bibliography Register
- DAR Genealogical Research System
- Hargrett Rare Map Collection: Colonial America
- Order of the Founders and Patriots of America
- Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive
- Virtual Jamestown
Books & CDs
- Colonial Families of the United States of America CD, edited by George Norbury Mackenzie and Nelson Osgood Rhoades (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
- The Colonial Clergy of the Middle Colonies, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, 1628–1776 by Frederick Lewis Weis (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
- DAR Patriot Index, 3 volumes (National Society Daughters of the American Revolution)
- Early New England Settlers, 1600s–1800s CD (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
- Genealogical Guide to the First Settlers of America by William H. Whittemore (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
- The Germans of Colonial Georgia, 1733–1783 by George F. Jones (Clearfield Co., out of print)
- New England Marriages Prior to 1700 by Clarence A. Torrey (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
- SAR Patriot Index, 3rd edition, CD (Progeny Software)
- Surname Index to Sixty-Five Volumes of Colonial and Revolutionary Pedigrees by G. Rodney Crowther (National Genealogical Society, out of print)
Organizations & Archives
- General Society of Colonial Wars
- General Society of Mayflower Descendants
- Jamestowne Society
- Library of Virginia
- The National Society Colonial Dames XVII Century
- National Society Daughters of the American Revolution
- National Society, Daughters of Founders and Patriots of America
- National Society Sons of the American Revolution
- New England Historic Genealogical Society
- Plimoth Plantation
A version of this article appeared in the February 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.