Town halls are common in individual towns and cities in the United States, but particularly in the northeast. While town halls in newer areas of the country are simply places where the municipal business of the city is conducted, northeastern town halls can often be treasure troves of genealogical information. It’s usually easier to get information from them in person on a genealogical research trip, so put them on your list of places to visit when you go out in the field.
Here’s how to use northeastern town halls to look for genealogical information, how to approach the staff there to do searches for you, and what types of information you may find there.
Town halls have a long tradition in the northeast. Most have been around since at least the American Revolution, and some have been around even earlier, even going back to colonial times. The largely Puritan immigrants who settled the northeastern colonies were exemplary record keepers. While other areas of the country, particularly the south, did not require vital records on citizens to be kept until the mid-1800s to early 1900s, the area that is now New England required it from the start. Births, deaths, and marriages were all recorded almost from the time the settlers arrived on American shores from England.
That tradition is continued today. While the town halls of the northeast conduct a lot of business that regular city halls do in other towns, they are also record repositories. You won’t find this in city halls in other parts of the country, at least not in the way records are kept in the northeast. Most northeastern town halls have handwritten record books going back to the founding of the town, and sometimes even earlier when the town was part of another town. You can find ancient records here, whereas you would have to go to the state’s vital records office, the county courthouse, or the local historical society to get this information in other places.
From traveling extensively in the northeast and making liberal use of their town halls, I know that most of them are very friendly and only too happy to help you look up the information you need on your ancestors. In some of the smaller towns, it may be the most excitement some employees get in their workday. I’ve had town hall clerks spend large amounts of time with me going through old record books looking up information on my ancient ancestors who lived there, and the clerks were always chatty and interested in their town’s history.
In larger towns, you may find a more municipal-like environment and need to wait in line to be served or even put in a record search request that you come back later to pick up. It all depends on how big the town hall is and how busy it is. Even the bigger town halls will still have ancient records, and usually records going up into the early to mid 20th century, as well.
You can find first-hand information on births, marriages, and deaths of your ancestors in these town halls in their record books. Some information you find may not be recorded anywhere else, such as births and deaths of children of your ancestors who died in childhood, and even the names of the parents of your ancestors (which is useful if you haven’t found this information elsewhere… it can give you a jumping off point for a new generation to research).
If you are traveling in the northeast and have ancestors from there, do not neglect the town halls. There are genealogical treasures in these places you want to find.