Migration Trails – Important Clues for Your Research

By Carolyn L. Barkley

Migration trails have not played a significant role in my family research. My mother’s family moved either from the counties of coastal Massachusetts inland to Hampshire and Hampden Counties (and stayed there for generations) or from the New Haven, Connecticut, area to Hampden County, Massachusetts (and stayed there for generations). When I researched a friend’s family, I was intrigued by its migration from Long Island to Vermont; Vermont to upper New York State; New York to Michigan; and eventually to Wyoming. What a different experience!

Migration patterns often help solve genealogical problems. A comprehensive census search is a good way to begin to outline a family’s movements. This strategy, however, can be challenging due to deaths and remarriages, imaginative spellings of surnames, use of initials rather than first names, poor indexing, etc. Some families just seem to disappear! An additional strategy is to read a comprehensive history of the county or town in which you have located your family. Such histories often discuss the geographic origins of the area’s population and indicate to what areas groups may have later moved. Often, however, your migration picture will be incomplete and you will wonder why and how they got from point A to point D. Learning more about migration routes may help you locate your illusive ancestors as they moved.

I’d like to recommend one online and one print source to assist you in learning more about the routes available to our ancestors.

Although Cyndi’s List offers a selection of 188 online sites about migration, I was particularly interested in migrationtrails.com. On the main page, click on the first choice “Migration Trails.” A map of the United States illustrates the route of 144 migration trails. I was interested to note the large number of trails east of the Mississippi in comparison to those in the western states. If you click on one of the numbered routes listed across the top and bottom of the map, you will be taken to a detailed description of that route. For example, the Augusta and Cherokee Trail description includes the approximate time frame that this route was used (1675-1800); what groups traveled the trail (Danish, Dutch, English, French, Irish, Norwegian, Scottish, Swedish, and Welsh), and the counties through which the trail passed. The county information includes the name of the county, the year it was created, and a link to an online site providing information on that county. If you click on the name of the county itself, a census chart appears for its state, listing each county and the availability of a federal census enumeration between 1790 and 1920 for that jurisdiction. If you then click on one of the nationalities listed for the trail, you will be taken to a page discussing migration history for that specific group. The Swedish migration page, for example, provides the dates of immigration (pre-1820 and 1820-1880); favorite port of entry (New York and Quebec); where they settled (Great Lakes states, upper Midwest, Pacific Northwest, New York, Pennsylvania, and Utah); where to look for ancestors (with a link to a Swedish migration trails map); and historical migration facts for Swedes (beginning in 1638 with Fort Christina on the Delaware), as well as the locations Swedish-American concentrations. You can also access the nationality information directly from the home page by clicking on the second choice, “Who Traveled the Trails.” You may then choose from a list of nationalities that includes Danish, Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Scotch-Irish, Scottish, Swedish, and Welsh, taking you directly to the migration description page for that nationality. References to related sources are provided throughout this site. You will learn a lot from migrationtrails.com no matter how much or how little you know about the movements of your ancestor.

William Dollarhide’s book, Map Guide to American Migration Routes, 1735-1815 (Precision Indexing, 1997) is also very helpful in understanding the routes taken by our ancestors. While frontiersmen had always traveled where they wished by foot or horse, the migration of entire families with their belongings required a system of roads that could accommodate wagon or stagecoach travel. While they may not have been roads in the modern sense given mud, pot holes, tree stumps, and other impediments to comfortable travel, early roadways allowed for the movement of families, or groups of families, to new locations. The routes included in the Map Guide begin with the King’s Highway (1735) stretching from Boston to Charleston, and conclude with the roads that resulted from the War of 1812. Dollarhide describes routes that were used prior to the industrial revolution when the introduction of steamboats, canal boats, and, by 1830, railroads changed the migration experience. Routes are discussed in chronological order, with corresponding maps as well as comparisons with contemporary, co-terminus interstate, state and national roads.

Migration trail information can be very helpful to you in charting the progress of your family from state to state regardless of how much or how little you may know about their migration. By starting with a family in a particular place, at a particular time, it is well worth your time to learn about the specific migration patterns in and out of that location, as well as the documented routes that passed through the location. These two sources, migrationtrails.com and Dollarhide’s Map Guide to American Migration Routes, are great places to begin.



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