Why town and county boundaries are important

By Helen A. Shaw | Mar 08, 2013

When you begin researching your family history you probably start by gathering information from older members of the family. You might look for documents around the house. Baby and wedding books, newspaper clippings of family members who have passed on and other family events, photo albums, and birth, death, and marriage certificates are usually easy to think about and to find. In this technology oriented time you very likely will go online to see what you can find, perhaps even doing a free trial on Ancestry.com. But as you dig deeper into your family’s history you may become frustrated at not being able to find solid information about family members. You might find several people with the same name in the same area.

How do you figure out who is who and what information is about your family?  How can you find missing vital records, deeds, wills, and other records for your ancestors? The place to start is to put your family in a time and place. You must know where your family members lived and when they lived there. Once you know that you will know where to look for documents about your family. The best way to put your ancestors in a time and place is to collect every federal population census for each generation. You start with what you know in the most recent census (1940) and work back. You can find nationwide indexes to population censuses online at Ancestry.com, HeritageQuest, and Familysearch.org. Ancestry.com is fee based, but often is available at libraries for free patron access. HeritageQuest is only available at libraries and some libraries (including the Maine State Library) offer at-home access with the use of their library card. Familysearch.org is free to all, but may not have as deep a collection of censuses as the other two sites.

One problem you may encounter in searching for censuses online is your search parameters do not result in a hit for the person or family you are looking for. A major reason this could occur is putting the wrong location parameters into the search. But, you might say, my family has always lived in this town, this county!

Let us say you are researching your family in Midcoast Maine and know for certain, or find, the following:  John Smith was born in Rockport, Knox County, Maine, in 1767 and died there in December 1830. What does this statement tell you about John Smith? Will it be helpful in finding more records about him?

While the statement tells us that John Smith was born in 1767 in Maine and died in Maine in 1830, a nitpicker might call the generalization “Maine” incorrect. In 1767 Maine was part of Massachusetts and would more accurately be referenced as the “District of Maine.” Maine did not become a state until 1820 as part of the Missouri Compromise.

It would not be nitpicking, however, to say the statement “Rockport, Knox County” is an gross error that could cost a researcher much time and frustration when trying to find records for John Smith. Why? The area now embraced by the towns of Camden and Rockport was originally one town known as Camden. That town consisted of five villages: Camden, Rockport, Rockville, West Camden, and Simonton Corner. Until 1852 what is now the village of Rockport was known as Goose River. In 1891 the village of Camden split off from the other four villages and became a new town called Camden. The other four villages became the town of Rockport. See "History of Camden and Rockport, Maine" by Reuel Robinson, Camden Publishing Company, 1907, for a discussion of the town’s organizational history.

The term Knox County presents its own issues. What we now know as Knox County was set off from Waldo County in April 1860. It was the last Maine County established. Waldo County was formed from parts of Lincoln and Hancock counties in July 1827. From June 1789 to March 1791 Camden was part of Hancock County; before and after those dates it was part of Lincoln County which had been formed from York(shire) County in June 1760. The brief tenure in Hancock County is important to note because it covers the occurrence of the 1790 census, taken the first Monday in August that year.

As you can see from the above, the statement John Smith was born in Rockport, Knox County, Maine, in 1767 and died there in December 1830 would be more accurately stated as John Smith was born in Camden, Lincoln County, District of Maine, in 1767 and died in the village of Goose River, town of Camden, Waldo County, Maine in December 1830.

Again, why is it important to be very exact in determining where your ancestors lived? Because that is how you know where to look for records about them. Outside New England vital records (birth, death and marriage) are kept at the county level. New York is an exception which, like all New England states, keeps vital records at the town level. Deeds are kept at the county level except for Vermont and Connecticut where they are at the town level. Probate records are kept at the county level in all states except Vermont which has probate districts which may cover more than one county. In many states county boundaries were not fixed until well into the 19th century and in the far west might not be in their current configuration until the early 20th century.

Town boundaries were, and continue to be, even more fluid, with parts and parcels being added and subtracted even today. Information about town boundary changes can be more difficult to locate than county changes. General mentions can be found in town and county histories, but specific descriptions may only be found in legislative documents. Researcher must also be on the look out for name changes which are more common for towns than counties. We are fortunate in Maine that the Maine State Archives published a book about town and county boundary changes in 1940 (see sources below). Other states may also have such publications.

You family members may not have moved, but if the county boundaries changed you will be looking in the wrong courthouse and may wonder why there are no deeds or think that great grandpa died without a will when in fact those documents are at another courthouse down the road. The family may not have moved, but if the town boundaries changed in a New England state you may waste your time going to the wrong town office or looking in the wrong book of transcribed records.

Let us go back to our hypothetical John Smith. Census records for John may be found by entering the location search parameters of Hancock County for the 1790 census, Lincoln County for the 1800, 1810, and 1820 censuses, and Waldo County for 1830. The location “Maine” will work for all years. Vital records for the time span of John’s life are not common, but if recorded we would look for them in Camden, and while we would find large bound volumes of vital records in the Camden town office, they are not the original town vital records; those are in Rockport. If John bought or sold property, which he could legally do starting at age 21 (1788), we would look for those first in Lincoln County, then Hancock County, and then Waldo County. Fortunately, there is a set of books in the Registrar of Deeds office at the Knox County Courthouse which covers deeds for Knox County towns issued originally in Lincoln, Hancock, and Waldo Counties. If probate records for John exist, they would be at the courthouse in Belfast, the county seat for Waldo County.

Determining where your ancestors lived, town and county, will help you find records and documents about them and save you much frustration. The following are some sources that will help you with this determination.

Sources for Maine towns and counties:

Counties, Cities, Towns and Plantations of Maine: A Handbook of Incorporations, Dissolutions and Boundary Changes, published by the Maine State Archives, Augusta, 1940.

The Length and Breadth of Maine by Stanley Bearce Attwood, The University of Maine Press, Orono, 2004 [past and current localities in Maine, maps]

Sources for historic county boundaries:

Everton, George B., The Handybook for Genealogists (10th edition), The Everton Publishers, Inc, Logan, UT, 2002.

Newberry Library: Atlas of Historical County Boundaries [publications.newberry.org/ahcbp/]

The site includes an article about the project which explains how the atlas is organized, the importance of counties, and the history of the atlas. The data is available online in two digital formats, as files for download and as interactive maps.

Randy Majors has taken the Newberry material and created an online interactive tool for use with Google Maps. His website is randymajors.com — click on Historical U.S. County Boundary Maps in the upper right part of the home page and follow the directions.

Upcoming genealogy events

The Maine Genealogical Society will hold an all day workshop on federal census records at the Augusta Civic Center on Saturday, April 13. Four talks will be presented by Helen Shaw, CGsm. Registration ($30 for MGS members and $40 for non-members) is due by April 4. Make your check payable to Maine Genealogical Society and mail to Celeste Hyer, 69 Loop Road, Otisfield, ME 04270-6456. More information and a MGS membership application can be found on the MGS website: rootsweb.ancestry.com/~megs/

The 12th New England Regional Genealogical Conference (NERGC) will be held April 17-21  in Manchester, N.H.. Programs for librarians and teachers are featured on Wednesday, April 17. New this year will be Tech Day, which will also be held on Wednesday. The primary program starts Thursday morning with a first timers session from 9 to 9:30 a.m. and the opening session from 10 to 11:15 a.m. Visit nergc.org for more information on the conference and registration material.

Comments (1)
Posted by: William Pease | Mar 08, 2013 23:44

A superb research essay on the vagaries of towns & counties of mid-coast Maine, Ms. Shaw. Thank you very much.



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