Grassroots genealogy

Errol map
Map showing the area around Errol. Courtesy of the University of Texas Library

When most people learn that I grew up in a town of three hundred people, they’re amazed. Some aren’t aware such small places still exist. Others want to know if we have electricity or modern appliances. (The answer to both questions is yes.) Inevitably, the same criticism arises: “I bet everyone knows everyone, and everything that they’re doing, too.”

I won’t deny that I knew everyone in the town when I lived there. In fact, I still know the majority of the population. Small towns have positive and negative aspects, as do cities. Everyone may know you by sight, and they may know more than you’d like them to about you and your family, whereas cities give you a sense of anonymity. I don’t recognize everyone I meet on the streets of Boston. The same can’t be said of Errol, New Hampshire.

This small town way of life is a nuisance to some.  However, it has value, especially to those interested in genealogy. I grew up with the knowledge of where and who I came from, a knowledge that has served me well in exploring my own ancestry. I knew five generations of my maternal line and four generations of my paternal line before I even knew what genealogy was. What’s more interesting is that most people where I grew up share the same knowledge, even though they aren’t related to me.

In many instances, we lose ancestors in small towns. There are several reasons for this. Vital records in these remote, rural locations are less likely to have been digitized or made widely available to the public. These same towns may not have been covered by historical newspapers. We can spend time combing through deeds and probate records, searching for a connection, or we can talk to the people who may already know the answer we’re searching for.

Most small towns have historical societies and public libraries. Even if they don’t, there is usually at least one resident at any given moment who is interested in family and local history. Contacting the town office can give you more information about these entities and people. In the best case scenario, whoever answers the phone may be willing to give your contact information to someone interested in local genealogy.

There may also be local histories or other books available, but locating them may be difficult. Even Errol, as small as it is, published a book to commemorate the 225th anniversary of the town in 1999. The book contains family sketches of most, if not every, historic family residing in Errol at the time, including my own. These books were sold locally after they were printed. An internet search did not locate this book, yet everyone in Errol knows of its existence.

We live in an age where technology reigns supreme, and where bigger is often seen as better. While large, digitized collections allow easy access to materials, they don’t contain every record known to man. If the only information you have is the name of your ancestor in a census or other record, go to the local level. You may be surprised at what you find.

Julie Wilmot

About Julie Wilmot

Julie, a native of Errol, New Hampshire, holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology with a concentration in Native American Studies from the University of Maine, Orono, and a Master of Arts degree in History and Culture from Union Institute and University. She has worked at the Northeast Archives of Folklore and Oral History in Orono, Maine, and was a presenter at the New England Historical Association Spring 2014 Conference in Springfield, Massachusetts. Her research interests include French-Canadian migration to Northern New England, and international cases.

7 thoughts on “Grassroots genealogy

  1. Julie, I share your small town background, but in a small town in Nebraska (4 generations of Cape Cod folk, then six generations of NH/Mainers before getting Western Fever and becoming homesteading pioneers!) in small town circles, you make a difference if you are present and when you are not.

    1. My wife’s people came out of Whitt, TX – population 38 on a hot day. Yet the historical crossroads of this family – Mormon Trek to CA to TX – then the travel to up North. It all makes tiny Whitt the linchpin in this family saga. Praise for tiny towns.

  2. You may not think this true, but the state of Rhode Island is very much like that. We have a joke here, if you don’t know someone, you know someone they know! Our size is the reason and excuse for a lot of things. But it gives a sense of community that bigger cities and states, lack. My family has lived here since the 1700’s, a feeling of stability and sense of place like none other. Our country needs more of the small town feeling. Seeing each other as neighbor not stranger.

  3. My father grew up in Royal, Illinois. A small town about the size you described and much about what you say applies to Royal. What I want to add is that they too published a town book mostly involving local genealogy. I found that the book was riddled with errors, The best part of the book was about what people remembered about their community, I’ve seen a couple of these books, but use with extreme caution.

  4. I am lucky that my hometown (Alexandria, IN) newspaper has been digitized. In small towns, the newspaper recorded amazing detail including travel (even weekend trips), illnesses and recoveries, social events (bridge parties, wedding showers, etc) , high school achievements and neighborhood altercations (even those not involving police). I learned a lot about my family, even some cousins that my family didn’t choose to discuss.

  5. I, too, grew up in a small rural town…It was several hundred when my mom was young, and a thousand when I was growing up. My mother was an oral historian by inclination, and I was always hearing stories of family and of interactions with neighbors, etc. In 2004 we celebrated 150 years, and I spent the next fifteen years finding many of the little details mom left out…birth, marriage, and death dates, as well as more family connections. Because of our location the population is now over 11,000 and new folks don’t get the whole flavor. But three of us have published an Arcadia book about its history, into which we jammed as many family names and stories as we possibly could get in there. Our local newspaper is on the library computers for all to read, and some issues have been published by newspaper sites. That’s nice for me as I’ve moved on and yet can still read about “local families” on line. If you have a small town in your past, I’d encourage you to read about it and get to know those GGGrand-parents you’ll find there. But beware that is addictive…there are over 50,000 people, all connected to our little town in some way or another, in my database now.

  6. My father’s family lived in the village of Burford, Ontario from the late 1700s until his death in 2001. Many times when I find a record of birth, I’m related to both parents, the doctor and the registrar!

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