On the move

2 years ago

Our ancestors had the itch to move.  It’s a human urge to wonder what is beyond the next hill or valley or to seek a better life. 

I’ve had people boast to me that their ancestors spent seven generations in one rural village, but that wasn’t always common. Most of our Maine ancestors migrated north from Massachusetts and other New England states.  They sought land and a better life but quite often kept moving around Maine seeking a more advantageous situation.  Many never found that and moved every few years. Their children would often grow up and move around as well. 

A large exodus occurred after the Civil War when returning veterans who had seen country beyond Maine felt the urge to move west. It was something that had begun in the 1830s.  Free land grants encouraged people to try for new opportunities they couldn’t find here.

Whether your ancestors remained on the family farm or in a town for many generations the odds are that some of them moved. Tracking them can be done in 10-year intervals through the federal or state censuses or through annual town or city directories if they lived in cities large enough to print these. Phrases such as “removed to” reveal when people left a city and often where they went. 

Did your ancestors farm and move around? Did they own their land? Many of Maine’s farmers leased land and found earning a living hard on our rocky fields carved out of the woods. You can research land deeds in the county courthouse to find out if they owned land and sold it when they moved. Occasionally you’ll come across situations where the head of the family didn’t own land, but lived with a son or married daughter who may have.  If tax records survive they’re also a good resource.

Also, you’ll sometimes encounter court records that show people were forced to leave their homes when they couldn’t make payments.  This happened in the Great Depression of the 1930s, but you can find examples from earlier dates. Earning a living from the land was especially hard when you had to make payments to an owner.  Most Maine farmers were basically subsistence farmers. They kept body and soul together through what crops and animals they grew. Earning hard cash was another matter altogether, and in Maine’s frontier period this was especially difficult.

Newspapers often will list bankruptcies and you may find an ancestor’s name and sometimes an actual story, particularly if the ancestor held many mortgages, a failed business, owed a large sum of money, or there were important creditors.  It’s never a fun thing to encounter this in your research, but it happened, and it doesn’t mean your ancestor didn’t work hard. It means they got in over their heads and struggled to stay afloat financially. 

The same thing happens today. Now, as then, people often pull up stakes and move on seeking better jobs, more opportunities, or just to see somewhere new.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com.