Locations play an important role in researching our ancestors. Knowing where our ancestors lived directs us to places to find the records that document their lives. While these locations are often easy to identify, it is important to research the area. Because you might find yourself in a situation where, to paraphrase The Princess Bride, “I don’t think that location means what you think it means.” These examples from Massachusetts are illustrative of problems that can found in any state in the U.S.
The town of Bradford was one of the earliest towns, founded in 1675. It was located in Essex County, on the south side of the Merrimack River directly across from the town of Haverhill. For more than 200 years it was a growing town with its own government and records. In 1850, part of the town was ceded and joined with an adjacent section ceded from the town of Boxford to become the town of Groveland. When Haverhill became a city in 1870, the calls started for the remainder of Bradford to be annexed. It would take another quarter century, but in 1896 voters in both municipalities approved the annexation. The records of the town of Bradford entered the custody of the city of Haverhill, where they remain today.
Sometimes there are even bigger jurisdictional issues. The town of Barrington was founded from the town of Swansea in Bristol County in 1714. In 1747, however, differences between the colonies of the Massachusetts Bay and Rhode Island and Providence Plantations caused the entire border to be adjusted. Much of the town of Barrington was ceded to Rhode Island. The remain part was divided between and annexed to the towns of Rehoboth and Swansea. Thus, although Barrington is in Rhode Island, records through 1747 can be found in Bristol County as well as the Massachusetts Archives.
Occasionally localities were wiped from the map completely. The towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott are known colloquially as the Drowned Towns. They were taken over by the state and disbanded. Their territory now sits under the Quabbin Reservoir, major supplier of water to the metropolitan Boston area. The small pieces of the towns that survived
were annexed to neighboring towns. Many of the roads and structures of the towns were simply abandoned, their remains still standing under the Quabbin’s waters.
Most confusing, however, is when a name is reused. Norfolk County was established in 1643 and was composed of the towns of Amesbury, Haverhill, Salisbury, Dover, Exeter, and Portsmouth. The town of Hampton was created in 1668. In 1679, the towns of Dover, Exeter, Hampton, and Portsmouth were set off from the Massachusetts Bay to form the royal colony of New Hampshire. Amesbury, Haverhill, and Salisbury returned to the jurisdiction of Essex County. Despite being disbanded, Norfolk County continued to register deeds through 1714. Then, in 1793, Suffolk County had become too populated and it was split into two. The new county received the name of Norfolk. Context is critically important. Many people get confused when researching their seventeenth-century ancestors who have references to Norfolk County, but discover that certain resources mention only the county formed in 1793, not the older one.