The most tedious records of them all . . .

1770 Exeter tax
1770 Exeter tax roll showing Elizabeth Gorden, from FamilySearch.

Reading town records can be daunting. They are often the very last set of records that we consult in our research. Town records are often out of order, difficult to read, and contain pages upon pages of mundane town votes. They can leave the most enthusiastic genealogist a little bleary-eyed. But sometimes patience and perseverance pay off, and you can discover that little, long-sought piece of information about your ancestor.

In truth, town records are far more than simply the administrative records of a town. They can offer a wealth of information not found elsewhere, and if you take a closer look, you can find tax rolls, land grants, constable records, and sometimes abstracts of court records. You may find that your ancestor served in an official capacity or quarreled with another member of town. And reading through town records just might help you break through your brick wall.

They also come in handy when you cannot locate a vital record for an ancestor. For example, Elizabeth Dudley was born circa 1697 in Exeter, Rockingham County, New Hampshire. Before 1726, she married Simon Gilman, who died before 1749. After his death, she married Jonathan Gordon, who drowned in the Exeter River in 1767. In 1768, when Elizabeth was about seventy years old and possibly in poor health, she granted power of attorney to her son Samuel Gilman. And after that she disappeared. Vital records, church records, probate records, and land records—none revealed a trace of Elizabeth. At least nothing did until I looked at Exeter town records. Elizabeth appeared on the tax rolls in Exeter as the widow Elizabeth “Gorden” in 1769 and in 1770. But she did not appear in 1771. Though this disappearance from records does not provide concrete evidence that Elizabeth (Dudley) (Gilman) Gordon died between 1770 and 1771, it does show us she was still alive at least until 1770.

Many town records can be found digitized on FamilySearch or on microfilm (and indexed) at the NEHGS Research Library, where you can also find many published collections of town records. Have some patience and stick with it; you never know what you might find!

About Sheilagh Doerfler

Sheilagh, a native of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, received her B.A. in History and Communication from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Her research interests include New England, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, Westward Migration, and adoptions.

9 thoughts on “The most tedious records of them all . . .

  1. Town records may help solve a family mystery. My ggg grandfather, Moses Jewett, is well attested in Cleveland, where he and wife Eunice Andrews arrived about 1816, and he died in 1850. He was b. in Hollis, Hilsborough, NH. I’ve got his parents as Enoch Jewett and Lydia Pike. A town history of Hollis, however, shows a different birth year and different wife for Moses, and has him living in California! Actual town records, including birth and death records, might help me confirm whether or not Enoch and Lydia really were my Moses’ parents. It’s not helping that Enoch and Moses are used over and over in the Jewett family, from their arrival in Rowley MA in 1638 and dispersal though New England and west.

  2. If a Tax List appears in a printed source, do NOT assume its been indexed (if the book has one). ALWAYS REVIEW THE ACTUAL LIST. The Tax List as appendix in Ruth Wheeler’s CONCORD (1967) is one such example, as I quietly pointed out to a frustrated Richard Temple descendant while we were both working away in Leslie Wilson’s treasure house in the bowels of the CFPL. Once thought lost (by RW), it is in fact on one of Leslie’s microfilms, as are a host of other Tax Lists.

    Given that there are really only 2 or 3 pieces of actual Concord town records that exist from 1635 to about 1688-90, save for the excellent original vital records and a large chunk of the South Quarter land records, these tax lists are VITAL to understanding how the town,s people interacted among the so-called quarters from about 1690 to 1735 (when Bob Gross picks up the story in Minutemen).

    I continue to plug away at “annotating” that list, in a gen-bio sense, for another project, the story between Brian Donahue’s Concord and Bob Gross’s Pulitzer winner. (Surely, you all had it assigned in college?)

    1. I am a Gross descendant and wondering who Bob Gross is and his Pulitzer winner.
      Jeanine (Gross) Lawrence

      1. First off, a correction. The prize was the Bancroft for Best History. Gross won it in 1977 for THE MINUTEMEN AND THEIR WORLD (Hill & Wang, 1976). This is a history of Concord, Massachusetts between 1735 and 1824, focusing on society & families, but comprehensive on the political side, also. The interaction of the two is book’s major theme.

        The trade paperback copy I presently have was part of the 29th printing published in 1996. There is an 25th anniversary edition with a new forward available most easily through eBay. He is currently (or may be emeritus shortly) full professor of American History at the University of Connecticut, after spending many years at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA. Run a general Google search for “robert gross” concord. Your 1st hit should be his faculty page at UConn.

        It is a very good book in terms of the research (a lot of which is packed into the end notes), and in the writing, he having started out in the newspaper business. It will never go out of print.

        As Gross told me the last time I saw him, the book as printed IS what was accepted by Columbia University as his dissertation. (I was looking to see several tables cited in his end notes but not printed in the book. He assumed they were somewhere in his files.) Since then, he’s published articles and edited a book of documents on Shay’s Rebellion, etc., but a second original historical work has not appeared. Long known to be a continuation of the social/family side of Concord from 1824, and officially called The Transcendentalists and Their World and still under contract to be published by Hill & Wang, people I have discussed it with, within the Concord history sphere, assume (1) it might get done when he retires, or (2) have given up expecting it at all. I still go with no. 1.

        Brian Donohue’s CONCORD, also a prize winner, and published by Yale in about 2006, looks at Concord’s environmental history in terms of how the farmers actually farmed/ used the physical landscape and how they interacted with their commercial world, from settlement through the mid-late 19th century.

        For overall Concord history to 1835, Lemuel Shattuck’s main text in his HISTORY OF CONCORD remains necessary, though the genealogical section was inadequate then and is thoroughly outdated now.

  3. Every once in a while the town records yield a little gem, like this one from Dorchester: “These prsents witnesseth that I Timothy Tilston of Dorchester doe bind my self heyers executors administrators unto the Select men of Dorchester and ther Successors from time to time to Secuer and saue harmless the Towne of Dorchester from all damage and Charges that may arise by meanes of James Bridgman my father in law his Inhabiting in Dorchester or an of his while he or they remaine in Dorchester as witness my hand this fowerteenth day of Nouember 1670. Timothy Tilestone.”

  4. After the death of her husband John in 1721, my ancestor Susanna (Cunliffe) Webb became the responsibility of the town of Northampton, Massachusetts. The town treasurer’s reports for the next ten years detail how much was spent on housing her and with whom, how much was spent for her medical care, her linen, her shoes … and her rum.

  5. I began looking through town records on a whim, thinking my ancestor might have been mentioned once or twice at most. I found, however, that the town meetings were held annually in his home! For years and years! The records allowed me to confirm his presence in the town during a 20 year period when, for whatever reason, he was missing from the census. It also provided the name of the road where his home was located. Treasure.

  6. I had been searching for any birth records for my gg grandfather in Plymouth, VT in 1836. After reading page after page of town records, I was looking at the school receipts for students, paid by their parents. Low and behold, there was a record of my 3rd g grandfather paying for a son under a different name but surely the correct one as his sister and brother were also listed. Since that time a DNA test has reveled that my gg grandfather wasn’t of the same DNA as the old family lineage. So now I am in search for adoption records as I have found the correct DNA lineage for my gg grandfather. Town records take some deep reading but do provide results.

  7. I agree, the Town Records are full of information on even the most “common” ancestors. I loved finding sketches of registered animal markings (my Daniel Freeman’s was a square notch cut from the tip of the left ear) and handwritten plot maps with names. Especially fun are the warnings out of town for one reason or another. Which seem not to have done a lot of good, because many of them continue to show up in subsequent years. Definitely a “must read”, especially in Colonial and Revolutionary years.

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