Back to the Basics: Migration Trails and Roads
Have you located the route your ancestors might have taken as they traveled to a new area? Could exploring migration open up new areas of research in your genealogy brick walls? Taking a look at the historical roads and trails that our ancestors possibly traveled can add to their story and help understand more about their lives. It might even lead to more discoveries that could expand our knowledge of the family and extend the ancestry.
Start with a Timeline
The first step in researching the migration of your ancestors is to create a timeline of the known records. This will point out the approximate dates that ancestors moved between locations. Note the birthplaces of the family members as well as extended family and associates. Our ancestors often traveled as a group. Land, probate, and church records may give clues about previous locations or new residences. Use every clue in the records to discover a possible migration.
For example, in creating a timeline for my Benjamin Cox research project, I discovered the following migration based on census, tax, land, and court records: Ohio, 1791-1819 > Indiana, 1820-1835 > Arkansas 1835-1844 > Texas, 1845-1870. Having the basic years and places nailed down, I could then move on to making new discoveries in the records.
Learn the History
An important part of our genealogical research is to understand the history of any area where our ancestors lived. Migration is often talked of in terms of “push” and “pull.” What events happened in a community that caused our ancestors to “push” them to a new area. What factors “pulled” them to another location? Common “push” factors: farmed-out land, too many settlers, too little land, economic depression, lack of inheritance for younger sons, religious reasons, devastation of war. Common “pull” factors: promises of new land, economic opportunities, adventures, joining family.
How do you discover the history of an area? County histories are one of my go-to sources. In the late 1800s, many United States counties compiled histories of the early settlers. This was often in conjunction with the centennial celebrations of the founding of the United States. Those county histories may or may not mention your ancestor, but they will explain why settlers came into the region.
For example, in researching my ancestor, Benjamin Cox, I learned that in 1820 he resided in the Flat Rock township of Indiana. The 1820 census shows this as Delaware County, but the county wasn’t organized until 1827, so the designation really was for the Delaware New Purchase, lands ceded in 1818 by the Delaware Nation. Flat Rock township became part of Bartholomew County with the formation of that county in 1821.
A county history for Bartholomew County reveals:
The Indian title to the lands within Bartholomew County was extinguished in the year 1818, and the first sale of lands within the limits of her then extensive domain was made on the 6th day of January, 1820.” (1)
The pull of fresh land available for settlement was likely the inducement for Benjamin Cox leaving his home in Ross County, Ohio. The history goes on to exclaim over the richness of the land.
There is probably no county in the State that furnishes a greater variety of soil than Bartholomew County. Few, if any, counties can boast of the inherent wealth she possesses. No township is barren or fruitless. Each have streams that water them and along their banks the grounds are unusually rich and fertile.
I also suspect Benjamin liked an adventure. Rather than settling in one location, he followed a pattern of migration up until 1860 when he finally settled down in Bell County, Texas, at the age of 69. During this time he was also a Texas Ranger, so he probably had enough excitement protecting his community from Comanche raids to warrant staying put.
Find a Local History
How do you locate a county or local history that can give you clues about the push and pull factors for your ancestor’s migration?
-Do a Google search for the county and state, this will lead to articles on Wikipedia, the Family Search Wiki, and other websites.
-Use the FamilySearch Catalog to locate digitized county histories. Start with a place search, typing in just the county name then selecting the correct entry from the pop-ups. Click on the the “history” category of available county records to view the county histories. Most of these have been digitized and are available to view from your home computer.
A simple Google search for “Bartholomew County Indiana county history” discovered many sources including the Bartholomew County, Indiana Genealogy page on the FamilySearch Wiki. The article listed three local histories for the county with links to online websites such as the FamilySearch Digital Library, Hathitrust, and Internet Archive. Often the same digitized county history is available on multiple websites.
The screenshot below shows the local history I referenced for Bartholomew County, Indiana, on the Library of Congress website. It is also available on the FamilySearch Digital Library.
Discover Migration Roads and Trails
Once you’ve discovered reasons why your ancestor might have moved to a location, you’ll want to discover possible roads, trails, or rivers that he traveled. Here are some excellent places to start your search.
–Principal Routes of Trade and Migration 1840-1850, Maps Etc (https://etc.usf.edu/maps/pages/3300/3328/3328.htm : accessed 14 November 2019).
–United States Migration Internal, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/United_States_Migration_Internal : accessed 14 November 2019).
–Migration Routes, Roads & Trails, Cyndi’s List (https://www.cyndislist.com/migration/ : accessed 14 November 2019).
–Historic Trails and Roads in the United States, Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historic_trails_and_roads_in_the_United_States: accessed 14 November 2019).
The FamilySearch Wiki has a migration page for each state with a list of migration routes that passed through the state. Viewing “Indiana Migration” I discovered this list of possible routes Benjamin Cox could have followed as he moved from Ross County, Ohio, to the Flat Rock township of Bartholomew County, Indiana.
Clicking on each route opened a new page with an explanation of the route and sometimes a map. I explored the various routes and was interested in the Cumberland Road as a possibility for the migration of Benjamin Cox from Ohio to Indiana. I also hypothesized that he could have followed a river route.
Using Migration Paths in Research
Depending on the era, your ancestor might have gone by boat, wagon, handcart, horseback, rail, or a combination of any of these. Research the possibilities for the time frame that your ancestor migrated to each new location. What was the route used for? Was it a commercial, postal, military, or exploratory route or was it used primarily for settling new locations? Often a route began with one purpose and became popular with settlers.
When a possible migration route is discovered, learn about each of the possible stopping points along the way and look at that area’s records for the ancestral surname. Notice the surnames of the associates of your ancestor. Are the same surnames found along the migration route? This can be an important clue that you’re on the right track with your research.
Migration may have taken place over a period of several years. Benjamin Cox didn’t move immediately from Ohio to Texas. He stopped off in Indiana, then Arkansas, and at least three locations in Texas. He left records in each place that add to his story. Your migrating ancestor likely did the same.
A brick wall ancestor is generally difficult to trace because he moved to a new area leaving few clues to his origins. Examining the history of the known settlement, then looking at the migration routes can open up your research and give you new possibilities.
Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!
- Col. John A. Keith, “History of Bartholomew County, Indiana,” Illustrated Historical Atlas of Bartholomew Co. Indiana 1879, (Chicago: J.H. Beers & Co., 1879), 3; digitized book, Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/resource/g4093bm.gla00174/?sp=5&r=-0.472,0.077,1.952,0.906,0 : accessed 14 November 2019).