The one area of Pennsylvania genealogy research most people need help in is rural PA in the 1700’s and early 1800’s. The lack of modern birth, marriage, and death records along with a census that only names heads of households, grinds research to a halt.
Below is the summary of the method I use to do research in rural Pennsylvania counties in the time period between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. For the Your Pennsylvania Ancestors podcast Season 5, I’ll be working through one of these research projects and sharing my method as I go in detail. You can try this yourself and let me know of your success!
1. History Review
In the 1850’s transportation was still primarily by foot, horse, or wagon in most of the state, and people mostly stayed within 25 miles of their home. It’s very helpful to ground yourself in the major events in the area, the industries, and the significant people of that time and place. Who were the immigrants who came into the area? What were their religious faiths? Where did they work? What changes occurred in the economy. Sources I use include
history books, journals, newspapers, plus the biographies and annals by county.
2. Map Locations
Locate the significant families and the industries on a map of the area. Also locate the churches, mills, and major landmarks like rivers and mountains. If your ancestors owned land, can you find it on the map? Who are their neighbors?
3. Surname Review
Likely there are several families with the same surname in a 25 mile radius of your ancestor. How are they related to your person? Research those families through genealogies collected at the local genealogical and historical societies. Some are online, but not as many as are on paper.
4. Connect with Other Researchers
Join the local genealogical and historical society that covers your county. Review their resources for research, ask questions of the volunteers, and share where you are stuck. They know of resources to help you. The most common mistake people make when they contact others is to argue over details. Listen to what the others have and obtain copies to review. Compare to see the differences and weigh the evidence used compared to what you have collected to see why they are different.
5. Obtain Records
The most useful records for pre-1850’s research are not all digitized. Wills and estate administrations will detail out family members of the deceased, so contact the local courthouses to obtain those. Also check FamilySearch to see what has been microfilmed and not indexed yet. Military pensions also name family members and close associates, so check if any family members applied for the Civil War or War of 1812 pensions. Once you obtain these records, take the time to transcribe them. Many people skip over probate records and pensions because they can be difficult to obtain and read.
6. Write. Write. Write.
Write everything down as you find it. Write up the facts you are finding and write your thoughts about them. Does it spark new hypotheses for research? Make sure you note each source you use and keep a copy for further research. Periodically review everything you wrote to see what new ideas and connections you can make. No one’s brain can remember all the facts of research. Writing allows our brain to dance in these details and see patterns within them.
All these steps you can do while at home, no matter your distance from PA. It’s slow work doing this level of research and learning, and nothing like typing in search boxes to get answers. The reward is deep knowledge about your ancestors and our shared history you can now pass on and share with the world.
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