Another myth which I bought into was that, because my ancestry on my mother's side is purely New England, it was completely traceable. People with brick walls were generally those with pioneer ancestry. Anyone whose ancestry passed through New York State, Vermont, or Pennsylvania during the time period 1750-1850 when the records were abysmal, was truly stuck. If you could get back to New England you were rewarded with six or seven more generations of ancestors. That certainly wasn't my problem. My mother was born in Maine. My ancestors were always in New England (somewhere). There were certain branches that took land grants after the French & Indian War and moved to Nova Scotia, but eventually those lines came back to Maine during the nineteenth century. All in all, my ancestors never moved west of the Connecticut River until my mother moved to New York City in 1959. I'm not kidding.
It might have been nice if my ancestors were part of the lucrative China Trade or had attended Harvard for generation after generation. But they didn't. They were not Boston Brahmins. They were Swamp Yankees. For over 300 years, these families have lived in New England eking out their lives in manners from poverty to middle (and in some cases) upper-middle class ranks. In the early part of colonial New England, land was plentiful (if you had no ethical problem kicking out Native Americans). Starting after the end of the French & Indian War in 1763, the frontiers of New England opened up and northern New Hampshire and Maine became places to live. At that time, those who remained farmers settled in Nova Scotia, Newport, Moultonborough, New Durham, N.H., and Weld, Maine. However, I come from a different sort of New Englander even than that. If my ancestors were so in love with farming they would have, as thousands did, go west. That's where the land was. After a certain amount of time, a farm can only be subdivided so much to support an average family. One son got the farm and the others had to go elsewhere.
I come from an amazing amount of people who went into trades rather than farming. I have a few ministers, but mostly blacksmiths, inn and tavern keepers, weavers, carpenters, ship builders, mariners, and shoemakers. Ship builders are further subdivided into caulkers, block makers, and sail makers. Thus, my chance at land records is always low. I never realized how many people rented in the 18th century (and certainly in the 19th century). Without land, there was little need of probate. You take out probate and land records, and you are so screwed when doing genealogy. Some of my ancestors did own small farms either in conjuncture with the above trades or as just farmers. From the time my ancestor John Wilson III (Harvard Class of 1682) to (again) my mother, no one attended college. A few ancestral uncles did, but no one in my direct lines.
By 1850, the industrial revolution was starting in New England and certainly by the end of the Civil War, it was in full swing. My ancestors, rather than farming or moving west, came into cities to work in the various mills. From the farms and hinterlands of northern New England and Atlantic Canada, suddenly my ancestors were centralized in Hopkinton, Lowell, Haverhill, Mass., Dover, N.H., and Westbrook, Maine. And there they stayed. So, in my case, brick walls are not a product of migration, but of poverty (in general). They just didn't leave records. Or the records they left are no longer extant. I can list, even in New England, the largest gaps in records that are known to have been destroyed, much of which affects me including:
- Cumberland Co. Maine Probate to 1920 destroyed
- Barnstable Co. Mass. Deeds to 1825 destroyed
- Moultonborough births and baptisms to 1850 missing
- Dover, N.H. marriages 1719-1762 missing
I will say this for my ancestors and for Swamp Yankees in general: they certainly served their country. In all my lines, I have Civil War, War of 1812, American Revolution, and French & Indian War soldiers by the busload. They were also religious. Perhaps too religious--insofar as they were of denominations outside the Puritan church, most notably Quakers and Baptists. This makes finding church records more difficult. And because they had trades that were largely portable, they moved within New England much more than I first suspected. You can be a blacksmith or shoemaker anywhere.
So beware those with New England ancestry. It isn't all that.