Genealogy census tip: Using 1860-1900 migration patterns to find records

Migration trailBy Barry J. Ewell
Between 1860 and 1900 the Civil War is still very fresh in the minds and lives of Americans. Families are on the move. Don’t be surprised if you are finding your family living in different locations with each census within the same county, state and region.  Each place they lived will be cause to search for records.  The following is the process I have used for using the family migration patterns between 1860-1900 to research and find records.

  • Chances are your ancestors moved. Even if your family stayed in one place before during and after the war, start with the premise that your family moved after the Civil War every several years.  I have frequently found families living between 1860-1900 to be on the move migrating from one place to the next.
  • Chart family location 1860-1900.  Find a regular map that you would use for travel. Mark on a map every place your family lived between in 1860, 1870, 1880 and 1900.
  • 1890 census lost.  Remember the 1890 census was mostly lost to fire and there will be a 20 year gap between 1880 and 1900 that you will not be able to account for the travels of your family.
  • Chart the migration path.  Once you have outlined the places your ancestors have lived on a modern-day map, draw a line that connects each point on the map so you can visually see their migration path.
  • Consult time-period maps. Once you have marked the location of your ancestors on a modern-day map, search on line to find time-period maps between 1860 and 1900.  Look on these maps to see the various routes that existed between the points where your family lived.  Mark these routes on your modern-day map.
  • Migration pattern. Your map now shows the migration pattern and potential routes your family took between each location they lived.
  • Migration search strategy.  At this point I would suggest that you identify all the key record repositories along the migration path you have charted.  Start by identifying each county along the migration route. Within each county, locate the courthouse, historical/genealogical societies, local and regional libraries, and college/university libraries and archives. This list of repositories is now your migration search strategy which you will systematically search for records of your family.
  • Search county by county along the migration route. Search the records of every county along the migration route. As I have tracked by ancestors through the census records, I have found them living several hundred miles distance from one census to the next. I am only able to account for them every ten years. It doesn’t tell me how long they lived in each location.  The first time I created the migration search strategy and looked in every county along the migration route, I found records in 50% of the counties.
  • 25 mile radius strategy. Another concept I have used in searching for records is to draw a 25-mile radius from each location my ancestors lived and find all the record repositories that in the circle. Once I have exhausted my research options, I then extend the circle by five miles to find the next group of repositories to research.

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