Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Ten Places to Peruse when you Visit Your Ancestral Home in New England

My daughter at Patton Park (yes, that's Gen. Patton's tank!)
in Hamilton, Massachusetts, where her grandmother
and great grandparents lived on Roosevelt Avenue. 

Every month on the 10th day I publish a "Top Ten" list pertaining to genealogy and family history.  In no particular order here are my top ten suggestions for places to visit when you return to your ancestral hometown in New England to search for your roots…

1.) The Old Burial Ground.  Not, the new cemetery on the edge of town where folks are planted nowadays.  Go find the old colonial churchyard in the center of town.  Usually behind the Congregational church (but not always!).  Visit Find-A-Grave at home so you have an idea of what you are looking for and who is buried there when you get to your New England hometown.  If not, ask the cemetery department or the local historical society for a few clues before you leave home (sometimes they have plot plans and maps).   Don’t forget your camera and bug spray.

2.)  The local coffee shop/ pub.  This is especially fun if it is an old establishment. Some towns in New England still have the old tavern from the 1700s, or the chrome diner where your grandpa took grandma on dates for milkshakes and burgers.  Hang out and ask questions.  Ask the bartender, barista or counter servers if anyone with your surname lives in town.  We did this once and the guy in the next booth shouted out “That’s me!”

3.)  The local public library.  Ask the reference librarian if there is a historical or local history section. Sometimes she will take out a big key and bring you over to a locked room full of local goodies – vertical files, town clerk records, grave yard inventories and genealogies.  Sometimes it is just a shelf or two of local history books.   Ask for the phone book to see if you still have living cousins in town.

4.)  Make an appointment to meet up with someone from the historical society.  Not every town has a building or museum for the local historical association, so sometimes whoever is in charge will meet you at the town common and you can just chat.  If there is a museum, you’ll get a personal tour. If you tell them the families of interest, they can pull materials or research ahead of your visit.  You never know what will happen next if you make an appointment!

5.)  Visit the church where your ancestors worshiped.  Usually it is still standing. It may not be the same building, or it might still be the same building standing from the 1700s.  Even if the building is newer, the congregation is probably the same and the records will be there. Make sure you make an appointment because not all churches are open on days other than Sunday.  Note: many Congregational churches have historians you can consult, and they can show you old records. 

6.)  Go see the school your ancestors attended.  This is New England so lots of school buildings are over 100 years old.  And we tend to recycle old schools into condominiums, senior centers, libraries or what-have-you.  One or two room school houses might now be private homes.  You may not be able to see inside, but it’s still fun to see where great grandpa went to high school, or the one-room school house your great grandmother attended. 

7.)  Find the old homestead.  The historical society or county registry of deeds can tell you where your ancestors lived, or if the house was moved to another part of town. Maybe all that is left is the old stone wall and pasture.  Or there might be a new house on the property.  It’s worth checking out!  If it’s an older house there might be a plaque with your ancestor’s name- something like “Francis Wyman, circa 1666”.  Chat up the homeowners, because they might let you take photos or peek inside.

8.)  Visit the places of employment.  Did your ancestors work in the millyard?  Farm a local pasture?  Own a business downtown?  Work in the railyard?  Teach school?  Use Google maps satellite view or an old city directory to find out where these places of employment were located and if they still exist.

9)  Visit town hall.  Remember that in New England most records are kept at the town level, not at the county courthouse.  If it is a very small town, the town hall might only be open a few days a week, so research the schedule ahead of time.  Or call the town clerk to find out if you can peek at the records.  This is especially exciting if your ancestor was a town clerk or selectman- because some of the records might be in their own handwriting.  Even if your ancestor was a regular Joe, ask to see the actual handwritten birth, marriage or death record in the books.  It’s much more exciting than seeing it online or on microfilm!  Most town clerks are friendly people, and you can judge that if you made a phone call ahead of time.  Bring cookies, flowers, or donuts for the friendly ones and you will have made a good friend you can call up in the future (someone who can look up something for you!).

10)  Did you bring your kids or grandchildren?  Make the trip more fun by including them in on the planning.  What do they want to see?  Even in colonial times the children had fun, so maybe you can research the local swimming hole (kids used to swim there in the 1600s, too).  Find the local playground or park and see who it is named after.  Give them cards with the surname in bold letters and let them loose in the cemetery (prizes for the one who finds the name- be prepared to bring lots of prizes).  Pose in funny postures in front of the civil war statue on the town common.   Find a living history museum (there are so many in New England you can always find one within an hour’s drive).   Buy bonnets and tricorn hats and wear them all weekend.  Eat the local specialties (if you are from away, try the fried clams. lobster bake or the bean hole supper at the fire department on Saturday night).  Don’t forget to have fun!

Enjoy your trip to New England!

UPDATE!  June 24, 2016 -  There is a new group on Facebook
"Heritage Travel for Genealogists".  It's worth joining to learn more!


Published under a Creative Commons License

Heather Wilkinson Rojo,  "Ten Places to Peruse when you Visit Your Ancestral Home in New England", Nutfield Genealogy, posted May 10, 2016,  (  http://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2016/05/ten-places-to-peruse-when-you-visit.html: accessed [access date]). 


  1. Heather, this is a nice list of places to go to. Now, my list just got longer for my New England trip!

  2. Great top ten list---makes me want to pack!

  3. We're planning our first New England trip for later this year. Thanks for all the fun ideas!

  4. So many ancestral towns, cemeteries, homes, libraries, town halls, ... I might have to stay for months!

  5. Visiting the local library, especially in a small town, is definitely worth it. I was in Elmwood, IL, stopped by the library and talked with the librarian about my genealogy search. She said she couldn't help me, but the assistant librarian, who was out to lunch, did genealogy and was a member of the family I was researching. After lunch, we net, and she had a trove of information she had gathered over the years, all sourced! And let me copy all of it.

  6. I'm lucky. I live here. And I've got trips planned for all kinds of places in New England. :)

  7. Nearly every Summer since I retired, I have gone to Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania to do research. You article reminded me of the places I need to visit when I go through the different towns. It certainly pays to plan in advance to visit these places.