Church records in early New England research

Baptismal record of Caleb Church, First Congregational Church, Hanover, Mass. From Congregational Library and Archives.
Baptismal record of Caleb Church, First Congregational Church, Hanover, Mass. From Congregational Library and Archives.

Church records can be a valuable resource when vital records fall short. NEHGS has a large collection of published church records for New England and throughout the United States. For learning more about the Church family of Plymouth County, Massachusetts, Congregational Church records, held by the Congregational Library and Archives on Beacon Street in Boston, have also proved especially helpful.

A Caleb Church of Hanover purchased land in Rochester, Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1770, went on to marry a woman named Hannah Pool in 1772, and died in 1827. However, the ancestry of Caleb Church was a mystery. Though he was listed in the 1770 land record as being originally “of Hanover,” there was no birth record for Caleb Church in the Hanover Vital Records.[1]

A study of the Church family in Plymouth County Land and Probate records indicated that a man named Nathaniel Church (1670/1–1753), a resident of Scituate, Massachusetts, had two sons, Nathaniel Church, Jr. (b. 7 March 1698/9), and Caleb Church (b. 4 April 1712).[2] Nathaniel’s son Caleb was listed in land records as a resident of Hanover and married to a woman named Sarah, but is unlikely the same Caleb Church who died in 1827.

Undeterred, I wondered whether a baptismal record might exist for Caleb Church. The Congregational Library and Archives has a large number of colonial Congregational Church records, as well as sermons and institutional records that stretch into the twentieth century. Several collections have been digitized and are available for viewing online.

I searched the Congregational Library’s online catalogue and found that the original records of the First Congregational Church of Hanover were digitized. As I prefer to examine the original document rather than a transcription, I browsed the portion of the First Congregational Church of Hanover, Massachusetts, dated from 1728 until 1756. In these church records, I located a baptism for a Caleb, son of Caleb Church, dated 18 May 1748.[3] This Caleb Church would have been of age in 1770 (and therefore able to purchase the land in Rochester) and would have been 24 at the time of his marriage to Hannah Pool (about the average age of a first marriage).

The Caleb Church baptized in Hanover on 18 May 1748 presented a very likely match for the Caleb Church who moved to Rochester in 1770 and married in 1772, and it seemed likely that Caleb Church, born in 1712, was his father. According to the Vital Records of Scituate, Massachusetts to the Year 1850, the elder Caleb Church married a woman named Sarah Williamson.[4]

This case was a reminder of how invaluable church records can be in tracing early colonial ancestry, even when town vital records do provide information. And when you can’t find ancestors in town records at all, church records are the next logical next stop on your research journey.

Notes

[1] Plymouth County, Mass., Deeds, 43:15; Middleborough, Massachusetts, Vital Records, 2 Vol. (Plymouth, Mass.: The Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, 1990), 2:80.

[2] Vital Records of Scituate, Massachusetts to the Year 1850, 2 Vol. (Boston, Mass.: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1909), 1: 70-71.

[3] Records of the First Congregational Church of Hanover, Massachusetts, 1728-1756, online database on the website of the Congregational Library and Archives, at www.congregationallibrary.org/nehh/series1/HanoverMAFirst4920.

[4] Vital Records of Scituate, Massachusetts to the Year 1850, 2 Vol. (Boston, MA: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1909), 2: 57.

About Katrina Fahy

Katrina, a native of Dedham, Massachusetts, earned a B.A. in History and Art History from St. Anselm College. Previously, she interned at the New Hampshire Historical Society, constructing biographies of New Hampshire quilt makers as well as transcribing a mid-nineteenth century New Hampshire diary and creating an educational program based on its contents. Katrina's research interests include New England and South East regions, as well as the American Revolution.

One thought on “Church records in early New England research

  1. As a former trustee of the Church I was involved in placing the FCC Hanover records on permanent loan to the Congregational Library where they are protected and digitized. I am pleased that they can now be accessed through the internet.

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