What can be found in 18th- and 19th-century Vermont town records? One never knows until one looks! That’s the thrill of the hunt.
There was no standard format used to record a town’s business; there are 246 incorporated towns and cities in Vermont and the records of each are unique.1 In the town record books you can expect to find the minutes of town meetings and the various posts to which your ancestor may have been elected. Some town record books contain vital records, either interspersed randomly among other lists and notations, or in separate sections. Sometimes the town records contain pages divided into quarters or sixths, with a section reserved for individual families’ vital dates. These sometimes include the birth dates and locations for individuals born in other states before the family migrated to Vermont. Some towns recorded their early vital records in a separate book. Other items you might find in the town records include grand lists (lists of taxpayers), lists of freemen (voters), warnings out, lists of the town poor whose care was put out for bid, scholar’s lists, religious certificates, cattle marks, and other miscellaneous items. Most are unindexed, or minimally indexed at best.
If your ancestor’s name is not found in town records, you can still learn something about him by what the records do not say. For example, I learned that a client’s family were not landowners, and the ancestor’s father was not listed among the freeman authorized to vote. He did not participate in town government or on local committees. He was not warned out of town during a time period when these warnings were frequent, which indicates that he established residency there and may have been born in this town. This family did not choose to register their children’s births with the town, perhaps avoiding the expense of the recording fee. But neither was the family the poorest of the poor, as their names were not found among those dependent on the town for support. Their names were also not found among the lists of dissenters from the majority religion, which indicates that they likely attended the Congregationalist Church. Contrast the picture this paints as compared to a simple conclusion that nothing was found in town records. There is much to be learned from town records even when an ancestor’s name is not found.
So where can you research Vermont town records? FamilySearch has an online collection they’ve titled “Vermont Town Records, 1850-2005,” but these appear to be the returns of births, deaths and marriages that each town submitted to the state. So far, some of the towns in this digitized collection contain only 20th and 21st century vital records. This may change as more records are digitized. Some early Vermont town record books are available through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and are available on loan to your local Family History Center. (Make sure you search the catalog with the name of the town, not just the county.) You can also make a trip to Vermont or hire a local researcher. The original town record books reside in each local town clerk’s office. Many of these early town records are also available on microfilm at the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration in Middlesex. They are time-consuming to read, but there is no better way I know to escape into Vermont’s late 18th and 19th centuries and experience the town affairs where your ancestor lived. You’ll never know what you’ll find until you look.
I’ll be writing more in an occasional series of blog posts about some of the specific types of records you might find in these town books. I’d love to hear about any interesting documents anyone has found in a Vermont town record book!
(Photo credits: Peacham Town Clerk’s Office and Town Clerk, Pomfret, Vermont, photos by Redjar and used under the creative commons license.)