AmericanAncestors.org – An Essential Resource

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

Despite the fact that I often write about my husband’s ancestors in Virginia and the Carolinas, my own maternal ancestors were all solidly rooted in New England. They were not the adventuresome “go-west-young-man” type of individuals. Migrations from Rhode Island to Connecticut, or from Connecticut to Massachusetts, were about as venturesome as any of them became over several generations. My own genealogical research, therefore, is quite focused and, at least in that regard, much easier than that of a friend of mine whose family migrated from Rhode Island to Vermont, to upstate New York, to Michigan, and then to Wyoming. Accordingly, I quickly identified the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), located in Boston, Massachusetts, as a major research resource, and became a member.

I live in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, however, and despite the fact that my mother still lives in western Massachusetts; I do not make regular trips to Boston (obviously a situation I must rectify). Instead, I have become a regular user of the NEHGS website, recently renamed AmericanAncestors.org. For those of you with New England and New York ancestors, this site is one which you will want to bookmark and consult on a regular basis. (While the site is accessible to nonmembers, to make full use of the site I recommend membership.) Additionally, the site has expanded its focus to reach beyond New England, so now you will also find resources for locations in other parts of the United States.

When visiting the site for the first time, you will want to take note of the several regular homepage features and, given their timely nature, you will want to check the homepage frequently.

  1. Database News:” This category features information on new and recently updated databases. As I write this article, these updates include information about the addition of the first forty-five volumes of The Virginia Genealogist (1957-2001); an update to Connecticut Vital Records to 1870 (adding Hartford, Middletown, Milford and New London vital records); the addition of volumes 16 through 20 of The Mayflower Descendant (1914-1918); an update to the Mason Membership Cards database for surnames M-P (58,640 new records); the availability of a new database, Abstracts of New York County Wills 1662 to 1801; the addition of volumes 1-5 of The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record; and the addition of volumes 23 and 26 of Providence, Rhode Island Index of Births, 1931-1940, which covers births from 1931 through 1940.

News about each new or updated database links to a blog posting about the source that also features a search link to the specific database.

  1. News, programs, seminars and tours: A variety of links provide information about current activities (Ellen DeGeneres’ recent visit to NEHGS; the winners of a cartoon contest announced on the NEHGS Facebook page; a listing of seminars and tours; programs being held at the society’s Newbury Street address in Boston; and linked information to the Boston University’s Certificate in Genealogical Research program.
  2. Other interesting sections on the homepage include GenTV, currently featuring an interview with Ken Burns, a recent society speaker; a “Question of the Day,” posted by NEHGS Online Genealogist, David Allen Lambert; the “Daily Genealogist,” featuring a brief article on a topic of interest; “From the Experts,” which as I am writing features an article by Eileen Hunt Botting, one of the editors of Reminiscences and Traditions of Boston (NEHGS, 2011), that shares Hannah Mather Crocker’s 180-year-old recollections of Boston; and a “Become a Mebemr” link.

At the top of the homepage, you will also find a navigation bar with four dropdown boxes: “What’s New,” “Search,” “Resources,” and “Store,” each offering several choices from which you may choose depending on your purpose. When you select the search dropdown box, you will see options such as “vital records, journals, catalog, external databases, free databases, town guides, database catalog and image viewer.” AmericanAncestors.org offers three external databases (Nineteenth Century United States Newspapers, Early American Newspapers Series I 1690-1876, and Marquis Biographies Online). You must be a member and signed in (email and membership number) to use these three resources. The town guides describe settlement and incorporation dates, name changes, parent counties, and other helpful information for towns in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Maine, and Rhode Island. For specific help with the image viewer options, please refer to the online tutorial mentioned above. Choosing the right viewer will assist you in effective research. In addition, be sure to search the extensive NEHGS library, with its 200,000 titles and twenty-eight million items, including books, journals, manuscripts, microfilm and much more, and browse for books and other materials in the online store.

While you can immediately begin your search by filling in the search boxes on the homepage, you       will not want to forego the opportunity to “Learn How to Use This Site.” This link leads you to a narrated PowerPoint-style tutorial that provides clear instructions about the features of AmericanAncestors.org and how to search the site effectively. This is a wonderful feature and one that I wish more genealogical websites provided. Viewing this tutorial is essential and I anticipate returning to view it frequently to reinforce my understanding of the site.

Having viewed the tutorial, it’s time to search! A keyword search will search across all databases. My frequent search for information on Oliver Lanfair (the name of my fourth and fifth great-grandfathers, as well as a fourth great-granduncle) is always fraught with spelling variation issues (Lanfare, Lanphiere, Landfear, Landphere, etc.). My first few keyword searches for several of these variations on AmericanAncestors.org provided no matches, but a subsequent search for “Oliver Lanphere” yielded nine hits, one of which was a birth record for Oliver Lanphere, born 18 August 1774 in Westerly, Washington County, Rhode Island (from the database, Rhode Island Vital Records 1636-1850). While this birth date does not match any of my previous research, I do know that the Lanfairs were in Rhode Island at this time, so the information will lead to further research.

Not wanting to continue searching each of the spelling variations individually, I selected the “advanced search” tab. I was now able to choose a Soundex search. Choosing “Oliver Lanfair,” as my search terms, I received a list of seventy-two hits. To help me review and narrow the results, boxes to the left of the screen listed the number of results in each of a list of categories (vital records, journal articles, etc.), as well as a listing of the number of results by specific database. As I was interested in geographical location (Rhode Island or Connecticut) rather than type of record, I used the latter list of results to look only at Connecticut Vital Records to 1870 (where I found no record corresponding to my search), and then at the Connecticut Nutmegger in which I was delighted to find several pages from a Reed family genealogy that provided me with information on Experience Reed (born in Norwich, Connecticut, 27 February 1675, the daughter of Josiah, who married Shadrack Lanphear, son of George, on 15 June 1696 in Stonington, Connecticut). Shadrack’s son, Oliver, born 3 September 1703 in Stonington, was my fifth great-grandfather. The journal article continued with information on all eight of Shadrack and Experience’s children. (Readers are lucky that I continued work on this article, and didn’t immediately print out the journal article and devote the rest of the day happily sorting out the Reeds, the Lanphear’s, and their relations!) I would recommend using both the keyword and the advanced search methods, progressively refining your search as you continue your research.

You may also choose to conduct a search solely in one database. Through a Soundex search for “Oliver Lanfair” in The New England Historic Genealogical Society Register database, I was able to locate nine references, seven of which were relevant to my research, including an article on early settlers in Westerly, Rhode Island in an 1860 issue; genealogical notes in a 1981 issue; and most importantly, an article “George Lanphear of Westerly, Rhode Island,” part one published in 2005, and part two in 2006. The latter will be very useful in documenting which Oliver Lanfair (pick a spelling!) is which and help document my previous research.

NEHGS members can also use a personalized feature of the site called “My Profile.” When you select this tab on the navigation bar at the very top of each page (not visible if you are not signed on as a member), you will find details such as your membership level, renewal date, member ID and email. On the right side of the screen you will can enter information about what you are working on, select and save your favorite databases (the advanced search option offers you the ability to search just your favorites), and save searches.

AmericanAncestors.org is a powerful resource for anyone with New England and New York ancestors. In addition, it is a site worth visiting for researchers with other geographical interests as the scope of the site goes beyond New England/New York . While searchable and useful without a NEHGS membership, it is worth every penny for the added value provided, and I recommend membership. As an alternative, you may also sign up for a free research account which will provide you with access to free databases, the Online Genealogist, the online version of American Ancestors magazine, access to the NEHGS library catalog, and information about educational resources.

I hope you’ll check the site out soon – if not today.

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