The United States began as a relationship between the colonies that later became states. In the beginning, this relationship was one of a loose confederation primarily to fight the war of Independence. Once the Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation, the entity we now know as the United States came into existence. Even with this change the states retained much of their authority and responsibility.
The end result of this relationship is that the United States had few federal records until fairly recently. One of the reasons that census records form the heart of United States research is that they are one of the few large record sets that cover all of the United States.
In England, and most of Europe, a central recording of vital records (birth or christening, marriage, and death or burial records) existed from a much earlier date. Christening records in England date back into the 1600s. In the United States these records were not kept for many years, and when they were kept it was normally at the county level. This remains largely true today. If you want a copy of your birth certificate you will normally have to contact the county office where you were born.
This has traditionally made US research more difficult. The record destruction that happened in the Civil War has added to the problem. There are, however, some records that have many of the residents of the United States contained in them.
One of the broadest records are land records. Many people do not use these records because there are only limited indexes. They are also somewhat more difficult to use, but they are a rich source of genealogical data.
When immigrants came to the US in the early years of the republic, it was often to own land. We take for granted land ownership. We talk about the American Dream of owning our own home and for the immigrants that first came to America it was indeed a dream. Most of Europe had been in the hands of various royalty for centuries. Nobles who controlled all of the wealth owned the land. These nobles would lease land to those who worked it, but would almost never sell it. Virtually no one outside of nobility in Europe owned any property.
We think of change as a part of our life. We grow up with the knowledge that with hard work and intelligence we can become whatever we want. Our ancestors had no such possibility. They knew that their life would be the same as their parents. They would have been mystified by the life we lead. The technology they used to farm or blacksmith, or make barrels or clothes, or other tasks had been the same technology for centuries. They learned a trade from their fathers, or were apprenticed to others to learn a trade. They had no possibility to own land or to become more than what they were.
Our history courses often teach that individuals came to America for religious freedom. This is sometimes true, but is less than half of the story. The allure of the ability to own land was one of the most powerful draws to the new world. Our ancestors saw the possibility of coming to the new world to own land. The ability to control their own destiny was tied up in owning their own land. No longer would they live at the whims of those who owned the land and controlled their destiny. Land ownership was as much a symbol of freedom as the constitution and the freedoms it promised.
The result of these motivations is that land records have become one of the best sources of records. The United States Government, in the beginnings of the republic was trying to entice immigrants to the US with land grants. The early homestead acts were designed to bring immigrants to the US and give them a way to help the nation succeed. Many of our ancestors took advantage of the homestead acts and other programs like these to gain access to land.
Those who fought in the Revolutionary and other early wars in the republic also were often given land as a part of their service. These land records were often recorded at a federal level. Lastly, even if your ancestor did not receive land in a grant or purchase it from the government, they likely purchased it from someone who did. Either way the transaction would have been recorded, and most often preserved.
Over the coming weeks I will focus on some of the key land records of the United States and ways that you might use them to find ancestors and to find out more information about your ancestors. These records should likely form the heart of any of your searches for ancestors in the United States and will often give clues to the place from which your ancestors immigrated and well as a glimpse of their lives and families.