By Barry J. Ewell
From its earliest foundation, the population of the United States continued to grow and move west. The expansion was cause for constant geographic boundaries changing with counties dividing and sub-dividing, new states being created, towns growing into cities, communities changing their names. Changing boundaries will affect where you find ancestor records. Records created in a specific time and location usually stayed in the county where they were created.
For example, I was searching for Permitt Lee family in Stanton county, Virginia in the late 1700’s. I knew he lived in the county, but there was no record to be found. While I was at the county courthouse looking for records, the clerk made me aware that my records were most likely in West Virginia because the portion of the county where he lived was now part of that state. I began a systematic search of for records in southeastern counties of West Virginia and found court, marriage and church records.
Since that experience, there are a couple practices that include in my search for records. First, learn about the states county progress over time. When you are in county, reach out to the local historical society and ask them about the counties boundary changes and where records are located for the time period you are research. Second, secure a map online that is closes to the time period you are research. It will show you boundaries, names of communities and other geographical features. Third, always search the surrounding counties of the location where your ancestor lived to help account for boundary changes.
The following images will provide an example of how the boundaries for the state of Virginia changed from 1711 to 1790. The colors are associated with the year of the change. Notice how the counties divide and subdivide.