I had a request recently from a reader looking for help finding his ancestor in eighteenth century Rhode Island. The name of this elusive ancestor? Comfort Record. My correspondent knows quite a bit about Comfort Record, except for his origins, which may have been in Rhode Island.
The following is just general advice, and some of these steps have already been used for Comfort Record. Of course, there is no right answer until you account for all available information and weigh each piece of evidence, even contradictory evidence, to draw a reasoned conclusion. Sometimes only a broader search will yield results (Searching Smarter). If you are seeking advice about the time period 1650-1750, try this post also: A Research List for 1650-1750 in Rhode Island.
Hang on, because these are not simple suggestions, and many are not available online.
I think it’s good to start out with a full timeline of everything that’s known (more exactly, every piece of evidence you’ve found, which of course may or may not be reliable). Ideally this would be done in your genealogy records with full source citations to help you make judgments about the sources and compare your findings. A method I use now is detailed here (The Research Notebook).
- First and foremost, try James Arnold‘s Vital Records. This will take you to about 1850. These records can also be found on Ancestry.com. Remember that Arnold abstracted record books and newspapers from around the state. Use it as an index to help you find the actual record, through requests at a town hall, microfilm at some repositories, or through renting familysearch.org microfilm. Many Rhode Island births, deaths and marriages went unrecorded, or perhaps the records did not survive. A spotty collection of later records are also on FamilySearch.org and the NEHGS website (for members).
- Try using Beaman‘s Rhode Island Vital Records New Series. These volumes are under copyright and not online but can be found in many large genealogy collections, or in local Rhode Island libraries. Some of Mr. Beaman’s work involved making assumptions about, say, a birth from another record, like a death. So, I would want to then find that death record and evaluate it myself.
- There are many tiny, obscure cemeteries scattered around the back roads of Rhode Island (and some large old cemeteries in cities like Newport). Older graveyards can easily become overgrown and encroached upon by neighbors. Without the amazing work of many dedicated volunteers, the situation would be far worse. Check for graves at the Rhode Island Historic Cemetery Commission Database and FindAGrave.com. Also check for published books of cemetery records.
- For a burial more recent than 1800, where you know the cemetery, seek out manuscripts or files of original plot sales and maps. Try to find everything that’s known about that cemetery’s records.
- Learn more about Rhode Island’s early census records in these notes by expert Cherry Fletcher Bamberg on the Rhode Island Genealogical Society website.
- Some early census records, usually incomplete, have been compiled in book form. Mrs. Bamberg (linked above) has an excellent analysis of these resources and points to some better alternatives in her article.
- Rhode Island Freemen, 1747-1755: A Census of Registered Voters compiled by Bruce MacGunnigle. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1982.
- Census of the Inhabitants of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, taken by order of the General Assembly, in the year 1774, arranged by John R. Bartlett. Providence: Knowles, Anthony & Co, 1858.
- The Rhode Island 1777 Military Census transcribed by Mildred M. Chamberlain. Baltimore: Clearfield (Published under the direction of the Rhode Island Genealogical Society), 1985.
- Rhode Island 1782 Census by Jay Mack Holbrook. Oxford, Mass.: Holbrook Research Institute, 1979 (and this preferred version, a transcription of the 1782 census).
- The federal census, starting in 1790, can be accessed online at many sites.
- Rhode Island has state census records for 1865, 1875 (both available to paid accounts on Ancestry.com or, locally, at the Rhode Island State Archives) as well as 1885, 1905, 1915, 1925, and 1935. My favorite is the 1865 state census. It includes street names, origins, occupations, and many other great details. And in most cases the handwriting is fabulous.
- Apparently Comfort Record was a Baptist minister. The thing about Rhode Island churches is that they may have been small, and a certain church may have operated quite independently, and disappeared quickly. Read what little I know about church records here. Finding early church records is often impossible. “Baptist” doesn’t narrow things down much around here – Six Principle Baptists are a possibility, as well as Seventh Day Baptists.
- I tried Colonial Clergy of New England since I happen to own the book – no Record there.
Letters, diaries, notes
- Try ArchiveGrid and NUCMC for any mention of Comfort Record, his wife, any known church, or other family members in a manuscript. Also see what is related to the possible town your ancestor is from. These sources will only tell you about a manuscript; you would still have to pursue how to access the manuscript.
- Check the Rhode Island Historical Society Research Center catalog and also check for manuscripts there.
Know your names
- My correspondent has some experience with Record being occasionally spelled Ricord, Ricard, or even Richard(s). I think it’s so natural for us to really believe in the surviving form of the name and discount and not seek out other possible forms or spellings, even though, if we think about it, more often than not it wasn’t even our ancestor that was filling in the document we see. I think spelling means very little before 1850, but I often have to remind myself to try the wide variety of possibilities.
- If much is known about the wife, that is definitely a good line of research to follow. What happened to each of her siblings? There may have been other intermarriages between the two families. The wife’s place of residence at the time of the marriage is the best clue you are likely to find. Always pull up maps for as close to the time period as you can get. If possible, check her father’s deeds for transactions with others having that last name.
- Examine all the names given to the children of the person you are researching. If the wife’s family is known, match those with her parents, grandparents and siblings. What is left? Those are clues.
- I think New England researchers are used to looking for older out-of-copyright family genealogy books online. But there could be better-documented, more recent books too. Try the book tips in the next section for locating possible recent books, and it’s always good to look at the FamilySearch.org books – even recent books on that site can be opened from a computer at your local LDS Family History Center.
Know your town
- One thing that really frustrates me in my own research is having to reach into a new geographic area and do something intelligent. Because it’s hard. Look for books, and don’t overlook this step, even though you may be thinking, well, I don’t want to know the history of EVERYONE in town, just my ancestor. That really doesn’t work, especially when such an approach has already been unsuccessful. I usually read the history of the town, noting especially land settlement patterns, industries, villages, disasters, religions, and natural resources. Also find studies that have been done on the particular Rhode Island village your ancestor was from.
- Check the genealogical publishers (Heritage Press, Genealogical.com, Picton Press, NEHGS and the R.I. Genealogical Society, as well as Amazon and Alibris) for books related to the town you are researching. For instance, Elder John Gorton and The Diary of Capt. Samuel Tillinghast 1757-1766, both edited by Cherry Fletcher Bamberg and published by RIGS, are extremely valuable for East Greenwich and Warwick research.
- Learn what resources exist for town meetings and town government. Learn what county court records may exist. Sometimes, materials have been abstracted or summarized in a book still under copyright – that could be quite useful. Pre-1923 books are often found online at Google Books or Internet Archive, but don’t limit yourself to those. Try the card catalog of the Rhode Island Historical Society Research Center. I would also recommend the card catalog of the Allen County Public Library (try limiting your search to materials located in the Genealogy Department). Even if you can’t get to those libraries, it will help to know what books exist. Maybe your library could try interlibrary loan for you. I often find used books on Amazon.com. I have occasionally gone page-to-page in the town hall through old town meeting books. This might be useful if you have a specific year in mind. Also, don’t miss back copies of R.I. Genealogical Society’s Gleanings, containing abstracted town records.
- Almost anyone might be mentioned in state government records, for instance, petitions by groups of neighbors hoping for bridge construction, etc. Try the Records of the Colony of Rhode Island or if you can get to the R.I. State Archives, try their index cards to state legislative business.
The places change
- I think most people know that early New England settlements expanded and towns were often subdivided off from original, larger towns. But it is no easy task to always incorporate this into research. To suspect, for instance, that a 1725 East Greenwich deed may refer to property which became part of West Greenwich in 1741. Bookmark this useful list and map from the Rhode Island Genealogical Society.
- Some areas of Rhode Island have a long and complicated relationship with Massachusetts. Property and sometimes whole towns transferred between the two states. This is especially a possible factor if your research area is north or east of Providence. Also, some towns in Massachusetts border on Rhode Island towns. See the link in the previous paragraph.
- Eastern Connecticut became industrialized very early, around 1800 (particularly Norwich, Connecticut) and attracted southwestern Rhode Islanders, who left farm life and joined the booming industries. Areas like western Coventry border eastern Connecticut towns.
- For those who have access to the Rhode Island State Archives, the paper-only Revolutionary War index is very helpful for locating many records which are in Rhode Island repositories, not online. Also try Fold3.com.
- The most thorough guide to existing Rhode Island records of the Revolutionary War era is the bibliography Rhode Island in the American Revolution by Eric G. Grundset. It’s about anything from the era, not just military information. One thing that’s so valuable about the book is that it refers to numerous articles and booklets that would be hard to know about otherwise. Your ancestor’s name is not in this book. It’s about where your ancestor’s name might be found.
Journals and genealogical work
- The most important journal for Rhode Island genealogy is Rhode Island Roots. Try accessing a variety of other journals on the NEHGS website, or use index volumes at a library. Try the AGBI at a genealogy library or online at Ancestry.com to get a citation – the Godfrey Memorial Library will copy a page for you for a small fee if you have a citation.
- An older journal filled with quirky and useful information is the Narragansett Historical Register v. 1-9
- A good way to find evidence of a relationship to a possible father would be to examine that father’s probate record. Some Rhode Island Probate records are newly online at Ancestry.com. Try browsing the collection by county, although since probates are managed by town, it’s not very helpful that you then have to browse through generic titles for each county and click through to the first few pages to spot the name of the town. Probate records are available in town halls if that’s an option, and some are on microfilm at the R.I. Historical Society Research Center or through FamilySearch.org. Also try the final deeds for the possible father you’ve found; sometimes heirs, and their current residence, are mentioned.
- There won’t be a lot of Rhode Island newspapers for the pre-1800 era, but you can try GenealogyBank.com. The Rhode Island Historical Society Research Center has a wide collection of Rhode Island newspapers on microfilm, unindexed. For very early papers, don’t hesitate to consult Newport papers even if your family lived far from Newport – it served as a state capital early on and was the center of a lot of Rhode Island interests.
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