Our Old Citizens (1888)

Genealogy Notebook presents stories, research and information on Pennsylvania family histories. Ran regularly, Spring 2004 to Spring 2006.

Rarely are so-called “genealogical records” created with genealogists in mind. Whether it’s the U.S. Census, church registers, newspaper reports, or courthouse wills and deeds, these “primary sources” are given a new use by genealogists. But even this “new use” by genealogists, which usually takes the form of seeking data about direct line ancestors, is not, and should not be, the end point.

Primary sources, when used in this secondary way, can often yield far more data, including important historical and interpersonal context and clues for additional research on a researcher’s family. What this entails is taking the “macro approach” of looking at a whole data set rather than a “micro approach” of just scanning for individual records for one particular family name or small number of surnames. While this is more work than many genealogists traditionally put forth, the rewards can be equal to the effort expended.

When the Meadville Tribune-Republican in Crawford County published in its 1888 “Centennial Edition” the names of people living in the county who had been born before 1820 – as well as many of the then-current county residences, birthdates, birth­places, and migration year if not born in the county – it was likely just trying to honor “Our Old Citizens” (as the headline to the listing read).

When the Conneaut Valley Area Historical Society in Conneautville placed a transcript of this list on its Web site, its obvious and primary purpose was to give genealogical researchers access to these names as a way of finding data about possible ancestors. This is an excellent resource listing approximately four hundred names, but what about researchers with ancestors not quite old enough to appear on the list or who were overlooked? Is this list, therefore, useless?

Enter a secondary use for “Our Old Citizens.” A total of 349 people on the list show birthplaces, including 150 in Crawford County, 55 from New York state, 52 from a variety of other Pennsylvania counties, 42 from New England, 12 from other states, and 38 born in foreign countries. This data can be employed in a number of ways.

— If the ancestor being sought is not on the list, but known to be a neighbor to someone on the list with a known birth­place, then the researcher should test the theory that the ancestor might be from the same area .

— By breaking down the data further – by time period, for instance – it can be shown that migrations from different areas took place at an unequal pace. Therefore, if the time period for the subject ancestor’s arrival in Crawford County is known, but the place of origin is not, the migration trend during that era could be a clue.

— The time and place coordinates can be used in other ways, too. Fifty-two “Old Timers” had nativity spread out in twenty-five different Pennsylvania counties. However, just nine of the counties accounted for three or more migrants, and a majority of these counties – Dauphin, Lancaster, Ly­coming, Northumberland, Union – in turn bordered the Susquehanna River. While this amounts to nothing more than clues, those clues can be the difference in making the “needle” of an ancestor” bigger and the “haystack” of geographical areas to search smaller.

There are many other examples of using this type of analysis. A key that they all have in common is finding a set of data that is large enough to be meaningful and, yet, small enough for a researcher to handle in an amount of time that make sense for the project.

Suppose a researcher is looking for the unmarked grave of an ancestor from the early nineteenth century who is noted in another record as being buried in a particular graveyard. In this time period, many burial grounds were not divided into lots as are today’s cemeteries. Generally, burials were made consecutively in rows, often with one space left for a surviving spouse before continuing the row. In a graveyard containing “gaps” in its rows, would it not make sense to make a plot plan that shows the known burials chronologically? This plan could then be compared to any extant church or pastoral burial registers to form a hypothesis on which individuals were buried in those gaps.

A problem that bedevils property researchers is the fact that many eighteenth-and nineteenth-century deeds were not recorded. Incomplete deed chains such as these result in the names of owners being, in turn, unknown. How can a deed chain be completed without all of the links? One strategy would be to research deeds for that township in the time period in which the chain is unlinked. Ii enough deeds of property owners who adjoined the unlinked land can be found, then the property ownership of the un­linked property itself might well be revealed. Hopefully, not too many of the adjoining owners are referred to, for example, as “land now or late of Franklin Baer,” since “late of” could mean the property was sold long ago by the person named.

Finally, the surveys of townships known as “Warrantee Township Maps” that show data about each parcels original landowner can be used in a number of ways beyond simply identifying the first purchaser. The dates that show of the steps in the process of buying land can show roughly how a particular township was settled, although in some cases, individuals were squatting on land for which they had obtained no documents for a substantial period of time. Additionally, since many of these first purchasers were themselves immigrants – and since immigrants from the same village tended to cluster – knowledge of the immigrant origins of adjoining first purchasers, through published sources or other documentation, may have a bearing on where to look for the origins of other persons.

Individuals wishing to learn more about this topic can find these resources on the Internet: Conneaut Valley Area Historical Society at http://cvalls.org/cvalls.html/.

Warrantee Township Maps, Pennsylvania State Archives, Record Group 17, Records of the Land Office.


For Further Reading

Bates, Samuel Penniman, et al., History of Crawford County, Pennsylvania, Containing a History of the County. Chicago: Warner, Beers & Co., 1885.

Hatcher Patricia Law. Locating Your Roots: Discover Your An­cestors Using Land Records. Cincinnati, Ohio: Better Way Books, 2003.

Moore, William Bruce, ed. Crawford County, Pa. Cemetery In­scriptions. 4 vols. Meadville: Crawford County Genealogical Society and Crawford County Historical Society, 1982-89.

Munger, Donna Bingham. Pennsylvania Land Records: A History and Guide for Research. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1991.


James M. Beidler writes and lectures on genealogy. He authored “Genealogy,” a chapter in Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth, co-published in 2002 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the Penn State Press. His “Roots & Branches” weekly newspaper column appears in the Lebanon Daily News and the Altoona Mirror. He is a former executive director of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania. Readers may contact him directly by e-mail at jarnes@beidler.us.