Monday, October 18, 2010

Canvassing a Town for Historical Resources

The next time you take a trip to a town where your ancestors lived don't just stop at Town Hall or the library. There's a lot more that you can do to really get a sense of who you ancestor was and how they lived. You can do this by canvassing the town for historical resources.

Hopefully, before you go on your trip you will have created a research plan so that you know precisely what is available at the library or town hall. Haven't done this yet? Then head back to your computer and check out the local library catalog online or the Family History Library catalog online.

When you schedule your trip, add an extra day ahead of time to canvass the town. Canvassing the town will reveal the physical elements of history that are still present and re-directs you to look for more records.

During the process of canvassing the town you will visit all the town graveyards, make note of the historical homes that are still standing, root out physical elements of the past such as old bridges, mills, historic town animal pens, veterans monuments, etc.

What's the point of all this? Canvassing the town for physical features will give you a sense of what the town looked like when your ancestor lived there and help you familiarize yourself with the layout of the town.

Not only do cemeteries provide genealogical information they are also a physical connection to the past. If you have a number of family members in the local cemeteries, then your ancestor(s) may have been there a number of times to send off other family members and friends. They may have stood in front of the very stones that you are standing in front of today.

While at the cemetery make note of the sections and the general age of the gravestones. Take a look at the landscape of the cemetery. Try to imagine what it looked like when your ancestors were alive.

Historic Houses
I love to visit historic towns and often read the plaques on the historic houses to see when they were built and who built them.  Any homes built before your ancestor's death would have been a house that your ancestor actually viewed during their daily life.  Not all homes will still be standing from that time, but the ones that are provide a physical connection to your ancestor.  You will likely find most old homes in the center of town.  Perhaps even your ancestors home is still standing.  You can mentally erase the more modern homes to get a feel for what the town used to look like.  If you write a biography you can include photos of local historic houses to show how your ancestor viewed the town.

Do you know what religion your ancestor was?  See if the church they attended is still standing.  Take photos of the outside and inside if you can.  Sit the pews where your ancestor sat for so many Sundays.  The church I attend was built in 1838.  I often think about what it might have been like for folks attending church back then.

Stone walls, pounds and other physical features
New England, more than any other part of the country, is full of what we now consider quaint stone walls.  Many of them were built during the late 18th and 19th century.  Observe any stone walls you find and photograph some if they are around historic farms or houses.

Another stone feature to be on the look out in New England is the town pound.  This is where the wandering animals were placed until their owners paid a fee and retrieved them.  Animals on the loose were serious business to early New Englanders who needed to make sure their crops didn't get eaten by stray animals. Many towns still have town pounds preserved.  If your ancestor was a farmer perhaps his animals spent a few hours here and there in the pound.

Also be on the lookout for other old-time physical features such bridges, mills or perhaps mile markers along the old post roads set up by Benjamin Franklin.

Veterans Monuments
Most towns have monuments to their veterans.  Some of them may be historical and others more modern.  Either way, they will likely list the veterans from the town who participated in the war.  Stop and enjoy seeing your ancestor's name included on the monument.  And make note of those who served with him.  Perhaps they could provide further clues to researching your ancestor's life.

Archival Records
Now, I know you've already done your research plan.  Save that for tomorrow.  Stop by town hall, the historical society, the library and any local museums you find and assess their collections.  Resist the urge to open a book and start researching.  Make note of the collections of resources they have.  Jot down any you didn't know about that might provide information about your ancestors.  Later in the evening you can add them to your research plan if they look like good sources.

Meet the Locals
If you go to the local historical society, call them in advance and try to have someone meet you there.  No one knows the town history better than the folks at the historical society.  If they don't have the answers you are looking for about the town or your ancestors, they will know exactly who to send you to for the answers.  The only problem might be that there are too many people you'll need to talk to and not enough time reserved on your trip to do it.  That's what happened to me when I went to New York.  I could have spent a whole day talking to the old folks who knew about my family.

Wrapping it up
At the end of your day write out a summary of all the resources that you discovered.  In particular, make note of specifics regarding the photographs you took.  The next day when you head out to do archival records research you will have a much better sense about the town.  Then when you find relevant information in the record books it will mean much more to you.  You will find you also notice items that would have otherwise not caught your attention.

Canvassing a town is fun.  It's physical, visual and involves all your senses. It will give you a much more comprehensive impression about the place where your ancestors lived.  Remember, the next time you go on a research trip to the home of your ancestor, schedule an extra day to canvass the town.


  1. Great post Marian! Will be printing out for further reference.

  2. Nice post, with things I've never thought about. For instance, looking at Veterans Memorials, and old houses in the center of town. It's nice to have all the research ideas in one blog. Also, maybe look at old newspapers for the town, from home, prior to the trip.

  3. Barbara - good point about the newspapers. Some towns, like mine, had very rare, short-lived local newspapers. They were printed weekly. My local library has copies of these as does perhaps a larger library nearby. But there is likely no reference to these rare newspapers in indexes or major collections. So checking for newspapers is another great idea.

  4. Marian, I loved this article and recommended it to my blog readers.


  5. Thanks Bill! I'm glad you liked it.


  6. Great post, Marian! I, too, will print it out for future reference, and it brings to mind some things that I've written in the past that I should probably re-visit as well.

    I shared it on Facebook with Friends, too!

  7. Wonderful post! I'm daydreaming about a research tour and you've given me some marvelous ideas. Now to find the time...

  8. Great post. I wish I could have read it prior to my recent trip. I'm going to print this post out and add it to my research binder so I have it for future trips.

  9. This is a great post, Marian. Our society, Whittier Area Genealogical Society (WAGS) last two monthly speakers' topics were related to your post. In September we had Maureen Neeley at speak on "Discovering Your House's History" which included the history of the neighborhood. In October we had a pair of speakers, David Armstrong and Anne Miller, speak on "Mapping Your Ancestor's Home:Using Google Earth" at Both programs complimented each other and would have made a great addition to your fine post.

  10. Gosh, I missed this post when it first came out. I'm so glad I read it before any research trips. Thanks for sharing your ideas, some that wouldn't have occurred to me. Great ideas.