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A Primer for New England Research

by Kory L. Meyerink, MLS, AG
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The Most Useful Genealogical Resources
An expert explains what a genealogical dictionary is and what you can learn in everything from local histories to genealogical indexes.

"Whenever possible, arrange to have your ancestors born in New England. This is the happy hunting ground for genealogists." So said noted genealogist, Archibald F. Bennett, on the first known TV show devoted to genealogy, way back in 1954. As secretary for the Genealogical Society of Utah (forerunner of the Family History Library) and the moving force behind the massive microfilming of original records, Bennett knew what he was talking about. Yet that statement is just as true today, almost half a century later, despite increasingly easier access to records for all parts of America.

While we certainly can't "arrange" to have New England ancestors, those of us who do quickly learn that, as the birthplace of American genealogy, it is a great place to seek ancestors. More books have been published and original records preserved (on microfilm and in print) for the six New England states (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut) than for any other area in North America. This is good, since estimates are that a quarter or more of all North Americans have some New England ancestry.

It is also significant since the large number of published sources means that New England research can be done almost anywhere in North America, as research libraries from east to west have most of the major sources, and many minor ones. Indeed, today many are also available electronically, on CD-ROM and the Internet.

Compiled Records

The genealogical interest in New England has generated thousands of compiled records, including family histories, genealogical dictionaries, and local (town and county) histories. According to the Family History Library Catalog, at least 85,000 book-length family histories have been published since the 1840s. Many thousands of these deal with the descent (usually in the male line) of an immigrant who came to New England. It is often difficult to find a surname in New England for which there is not such a book. While these volumes do not include every person to share that surname, or even who descend from the same immigrant, and they do have errors, they are an excellent place to begin your research. Then, each time you get a generation further back, review these sources. Eventually your line will connect with one or more family histories. You will find them on the shelves of all research libraries, with the larger libraries naturally having the larger collections. A useful source to identify many of the major family histories for early New England immigrants is Meredith B. Colkett's Founders of Early American Families: Emigrants from Europe 1607-1657 (Rev. ed. Cleveland, Oh.: Order of Founders and Patriots of America, 1985). More than 20,000 family histories published since about 1969 are listed in Genealogical Publications, part of the Ancestry Genealogy Library on CD-ROM.

Genealogical Dictionaries

Genealogical dictionaries provide briefer treatment of a select group of families, usually the earliest settlers. The information is very abbreviated and usually only extends about three generations. Such sources exist for virtually every New England state. Since later generations are usually not listed, these serve the beginning researcher by suggesting where the family originated in America, and therefore point to the local records where later generations may be found. The earliest such publication, and one of the most popular, is James Savage, A Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England.... (4 vols. 1860-62. Reprint. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1965). Although superseded by more recent family histories, it is worth checking for an overview of early persons sharing a surname. A more select, but much more scholarly and accurate source is Robert Charles Anderson, The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England 1620-1633 (3 vols. Boston: New England Historic and Genealogical Society, 1995). This dictionary profiles every person whose existence in these early years can be documented in any original record. It sites sources for every statement, and some of those sources are excellent referrals for further research into later generations.

Local Histories

Local histories, especially town histories, are full of collected genealogical information. Often they profile every family who lived in the town, providing as complete a family structure as the early records (often including family Bibles) permit. Of course, you can learn in which towns your family resided by searching the census indexes available online and on CD-ROM and on microfilm in many libraries.


Much of the compiled literature for New England genealogy has been published in periodicals. The three most significant periodicals are:

The American Genealogist. 1923- . Published by David L. Green, P.O. 398 Demorest, GA 30535.

The Mayflower Descendant. 1899-1937, 1985-. Published by the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Boston, MA 02116. Available on CD-ROM from Search and Research.

The New England Historical and Genealogical Register. 1847-. Published by the New England Historic and Genealogical Society, 101 Newbury St., Boston, MA 02116. Available on CD-ROM from the New England Historic and Genealogical Society.

Articles from some of these, and other periodicals, have been reprinted in handy, indexed, book form and are identified in the list of other sources below. A comprehensive subject index to all English language periodicals has just been released on CD-ROM and should revolutionize how research is done. The Periodical Source Index (PERSI), published by Ancestry, references more than one million articles, and more than 28,000 pertain to the six New England states.


Of course, to find the right family in all of these compiled sources, genealogists love to use indexes. No area in America has better indexes with better coverage. Some of the most popular, and widely available, are:

Index to American Genealogies...(5th ed. Albany: Joel Munsell's Sons, 1908. Reprint, Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1967). This is a surname index to virtually any source published prior to 1900. It references family histories, some periodicals, and hundreds of local histories. Any surname, treated with about a page or more of information, is indexed. The citation includes the author's name and a brief title of the book, with a page number if the source is not alphabetical.

Clarence Almon Torrey's New England Marriages Prior to 1700 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1985) is not just a list of virtually all early marriages, it also serves as an index to the published literature where Torrey found the marriage reference. However, the book edition does not reference the source. For that, turn to six rolls of microfilm available from the New England Historic Genealogical Society which reproduce Torrey's manuscript, with source abbreviations.

The Greenlaw Index of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, edited by William Prescott Greenlaw, (2 vols. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979) picks up where Munsell's Index to American Genealogies leaves off by citing references to genealogies of three or more generations published in sources prior to 1940. The books reproduce library catalog cards with complete source information.

Fremont Rider began one of the greatest indexes in the American Genealogical-Biographical Index (Middletown, Conn.: The Godfrey Memorial Library, 1952-). This is a continuing series with almost 200 volumes (to the letter W) that indexes every name in almost 800 family histories and 50 other genealogical books, including most Revolutionary War sources. It also indexes the "Boston Evening Transcript" genealogy column, with answers to thousands of New England genealogy questions.

Don't forget the International Genealogy Index (IGI) which has more than 10 million entries for New England births and marriages. These names were taken from vital records as well as compiled sources, and virtually every entry can be traced to the original source. It is available at every Family History Center.

Original Records

Vital records, land deeds, probates, censuses, court records, town minutes and more are all available for virtually all parts of New England. Many have been published in paper or microfilm format, especially the vital records. In addition, a growing collection of them are being posted on the Internet.


As noted above, New England research can be done at most genealogy libraries, but researchers should know about the tremendous collection of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (101 Newbury Street, Boston, MA 02116; Tel. 617-536-5740). In addition to virtually every book published for New England, their manuscript collection of genealogical material is without equal. Of course the Family History Library (35 N. West Temple Street, Salt Lake City, UT 84150; Tel. 801-240-2331), with its network of Family History Centers, can also provide access to many New England records, including microfilmed original records available no place else (except in the county and town courthouses).

For Further Reading

It is of course impossible to cover the breadth and scope of New England in a brief article such as this. Excellent, helpful guide books are available to provide additional information as you learn about sources, techniques, and repositories for your research. Three books cover different aspects of New England research.

Ralph J. Crandall, edited Genealogical Research in New England (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1984), a collection of essays about research in each New England state.

Marcia Wiswall Lindberg, Genealogist's Handbook for New England Research (3rd ed. Boston, Mass.: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1993) provides addresses, founding dates of towns and descriptions of records and their locations.

Kip Sperry's New England Genealogical Research: A Guide to Sources (Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 1988) is a most comprehensive bibliography of published and manuscript sources. He includes brief annotations for most of the sources.

Lastly, don't overlook a series of eight bibliographies for each of the New England states that lists virtually every book or article published about the state, and the region. Most were edited by Roger Parks or John D. Haskell and published by University Press of New England or G. K. Hall, 1977. Look for them in major libraries.

Other New England Sources

In addition to the sources mentioned above, check out the following books at your favorite research library.

Compendia and Dictionaries

Hinman, Royal Ralph. A Catalogue of the Names of the First Puritan Settlers of the Colony of Connecticut.... 1846. Reprint. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1968.

Noyes, Sybil, Charles Thornton Libby, and Walter Goodwin Davis, Genealogical Dictionary of Maine and New Hampshire. 1928-39. Reprint. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1983.

Pope, Charles H. Pioneers of Maine and New Hampshire, 1623 to 1660. 1908. Reprint. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1965.

Maine Genealogical Society. Maine in 1790. Multiple volume series in process.

Eugene Aubrey Stratton, Plymouth Colony: It's History and People, 1620-1691 Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, 1986.

Pope, Charles Henry. The Pioneers of Massachusetts. Reprint. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1965.

Austin, John Osborne. The Genealogical Dictionary of Rhode Island: Comprising Three Generations of Settlers Who Came Before 1690... 1887. Reprint with additions and corrections. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1978.

Vermont Genealogical Society. Vermont in 1790. Multiple volume series in process.

Periodical Article Reprints

New England Historic Genealogical Society. English Origins of New England Families: from the New England Historical and Genealogical Register. First Series, 3 vols., 1984. Second Series, 3 vols., 1985. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co.

New England Historic Genealogical Society. Genealogies of Connecticut Families from the New England Historical and Genealogical Register. 3 vols. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1983.

Genealogies of Rhode Island Families: From Rhode Island Periodicals. 2 vols. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1983. This indexes six periodicals.


Wright, Norman E. Genealogy in America. Vol. 1, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maine. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1968.

Kemp, Thomas J. Connecticut Researcher's Handbook. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1981.

Sperry, Kip. Connecticut Sources for Family Historians and Genealogists, Logan, Utah: Everton Publishers, 1980.

Frost, John Eldridge. Maine Genealogy: A Bibliographical Guide. 1977. Rev. Ed. Portland: Maine Historical Society, 1985.

Schweitzer, George K. Massachusetts Genealogical Research. Knoxville, Tn.: by the author, 1990.

Towle, Laird C. New Hampshire Genealogical Research Guide. Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 1983.

Sperry, Kip. Rhode Island Sources for Family Historians and Genealogists. Logan, Utah: Everton Publishers, 1986.

Eichholz, Alice. Collecting Vermont Ancestors: A Guide to Genealogical Research in Vermont. Montpelier: New Trails, 1986

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