United States Reconstructing Ancestral Migration Routes (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course United States Migration Patterns  by Beverly Whitaker, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

History and Geography: Keys to Understanding Migration Patterns[edit | edit source]

One cannot separate the history of an American family from the history of the nation itself, beginning with its colonial roots. Wars, treaties, native Indian tribes, slavery, immigrants, economic rise and fall, epidemics, agricultural problems—all had such an impact that it is useful to study these in chronological order, comparing them to your own ancestral timelines.

Use caution as you identify place names. Remember that location names and boundary lines changed. Prepare a dated list of counties through which your ancestors may have passed; this prepares you to seek records appropriately.

A knowledge of geography is as essential to the genealogist as is a strong background in history. Climate and topography, navigation routes and trail— all these influenced the decisions and lifestyles of your ancestors. As you combine a study of history and geography, you will encounter an assortment of migration patterns that impact upon your family tree.

Likewise, it is impossible to separate a study of migration patterns from a study of American transportation. Early colonial settlement depended almost exclusively upon water transport along the Atlantic coast and along the rivers that ran toward the coast or its bays. As inland settlements grew, the need arose to connect these areas with roads such as the King’s Highway (also called the Boston Post Road). But these early roads had abominable roadbeds. As settlers pushed still further inland to the break between the coastal plains and the piedmont area, the Fall Line Road was built, and later the Upper Road. The earliest road west started in eastern Pennsylvania, then turned south to the Great Wagon Road through the Shenandoah Valley.

The French and Indian War brought military roads. The discovery of a pass through the Cumberlands in the lower Appalachian Mountain Range resulted in the Wilderness Road. Between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, a huge transportation network developed, including still more roads, river and canal traffic, and ultimately the railroad. As both the cause and the effect of new settlements, commerce was always the trigger for improved transportation.

America’s Waterway System[edit | edit source]

A few geographical facts about America’s waterways aid the understanding of routes chosen for migration. One must recognize that the Atlantic seaboard rivers were navigable for only short distances.

In the North, the rivers carrying the bulk of the traffic were the Kennebec, Connecticut, Hudson, and Delaware.

In the South, it was the Potomac, James, Savannah, and the Santee. The Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri river system consisted of 4,000 miles plus 15,000 miles of tributaries, touching 20 states between the Appalachians and the Rockies. The Great Lakes had 2,000 miles of navigable water.

But there was still a need and a desire for overland travel. This explains why the National Road was so enthusiastically endorsed in the early 1800s. Its earliest sections connected the eastern seaboard to the inner river system, from Cumberland, Maryland, to the Ohio River at Wheeling, (West) Virginia.

Canals were another link. George Washington was one of many who promoted canals. These man-made waterway feats dominated the landscape in the early 19th century in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

Among the largest were the Erie opened in 1825, the Pennsylvania Canal in 1833, the James River-Kanawka, and the Louisville and Portland built to bypass the falls of the Ohio River, 1826-1831, and the Chesapeake and Ohio in 1850. In 1848 the Illinois and Lake Michigan Canal connected the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, and in 1853 the Wabash and Erie Canal connected Lake Erie to the Wabash River and down to the Ohio River. But none of these canals were as successful as the Erie Canal. Due to high construction costs, almost all lost money, and they soon lost out to the railroads which were springing up.

Robert Fulton’s 1807 steam engine led to steamboats making upstream trips on the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri Rivers. This had a very positive commercial effect both on West to East shipping and on Mississippi transport.

Methodology for Exploring Migration Patterns[edit | edit source]

In order to locate one’s immigrant ancestors, one must start where a family’s journey ended and trace the “trail” back, perhaps over several generations. This process educates and provides a glimpse into the values and motivations of forebears. I agree wholeheartedly with atlas compiler Carrie Eldridge who says, “If you truly want to understand your ancestors, take the time to find out where they lived and traveled. It will be a rewarding experience.”

Analyze Your Pedigree Charts and Family Group Sheets[edit | edit source]

There are questions you should be asking:

  • Ÿ Does it appear that my family settled on or near waterways?
  • Ÿ Might they have followed one or more of the old Indian paths?
  • Ÿ Did they use rivers and canals as their highways? Railroads?
  • Ÿ Did they end up near the end of a heavily-used overland migration route?
  • Ÿ Did they move together with an ethnic or religious group?
  • Ÿ Did they move with old neighbors or settle near neighbor’s new locations?
  • Ÿ Did they live near or with extended family members?
  • Ÿ Did their migration come close on the heels of the death of a family patriarch?
  • Ÿ Did movement parallel natural disasters, wars, or other historical events?
  • Ÿ Does it appear that the family’s migration took several generations?

Migratory Tracings[edit | edit source]

Superimpose a particular family over against a background of geographical history. You will be amazed at how much you can learn simply by compiling a list, or tracing, of a particular ancestor’s movements.

To form a “tracing” of a particular individual, prepare a chronological listing of events and place names. Indicate places of birth, marriage(s), and death, the birthplaces of children, any military service location, land ownership, along with any additional migration data you can identify. Don’t overlook such data for siblings, an aid to tracking the whole family. And pay particular attention to the oldest member of a family whose movements you may then be able to trace backward.

When you have a well-developed tracing, transfer key information to a map. Use outline maps such as those sold by school distributors or photocopy maps from your library’s files. Place dots on the map for each event’s location. Then draw a continuous line from dot to dot to establish the sequence of migration. Add a legend of place names and dates. To indicate a couple’s heritage, show with two different colors the migration trail of each family, intersecting at the location of the marriage.

Locality Resources[edit | edit source]

Frontier settlers are often difficult to trace to prior origins. Clues can often be found by taking an historical approach to the problem—digging into the history books, learning migratory routes, understanding the transportation difficulties faced, and recognizing settlement patterns.

Beginning at the journey’s end for an ancestor, dig into the local history and records contemporary to the events of that person’s life. Be alert to occupations and church affiliation. Widen the search to include other family members and even take note of neighbors and church associates who may have been traveling companions. Take note of persons’ names for whom your ancestor may have been a witness or an executor. Examine land purchases to determine whether others in the neighborhood purchased or sold land the same day. Look carefully at financial records and note whether someone stood security on a note—a friend or relative?

Probate records not only name administrators, bondsmen, and family who are to inherit, but also they frequently provide tax receipts, unpaid bills, and unfinished business and other records from the former home place.

Look carefully at marriage records. Usually a marriage within the first five years of settlement was to a girl from “back home.”

Seek out newspaper accounts and county and town histories; examine old maps and atlases, court records, property records, church and community records. Museums and historical societies may even have unpublished manuscripts, Bible records, obituaries, diaries, or letters. Libraries may have published genealogies, indexes to cemeteries, school notes, mercantile records, or military accounts in their local history collections. If your ancestor lived in a city, you might check City Directories year by year until your ancestor no longer appears. Pay attention to both tax records and delinquent tax records which can flag your attention to the period in which your ancestor may have moved on. Check for military service, pensions, bounty land, and land patents. Remember when you work with New England records to look for town records instead of county records.

Give attention to place names that might have originated in the area of a settler’s origins. This might be retained in the names of creeks, settlements, and churches.

Birthplaces of children as recorded in census records may guide your ancestral search back in time and place. At each locality, repeat the search for evidence of your ancestor’s presence there.

Recognize that a family may have stopped along the way for a generation or more before reaching the destination you recognize as “home.”

Whenever possible, conduct a portion of your research in facilities located in the areas your ancestor passed through. When travel isn’t possible, substitute correspondence with a person living in the locality of interest and try to obtain photos of the area. Even travel literature will give you some insight and connectivity.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course United States Migration Patterns offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.