As states became settled and more populated, counties divided and subdivided until they became the boundaries we have today.
Your ancestor may have lived in the same spot all his life, yet his records would be housed in the county at the time the record was filed.
So how do you know which counties to search? Randy Majors has created a great tool just for that purpose. He used the Newberry Library’s Atlas of Historical County Boundaries Project, and made an online, interactive tool titled, Historical County Boundary Maps Tool. Found at randymajors.com, you can enter in a present day place and a historical year. Hit the search button, and the tool will give you a map with current roads and the county boundary at that time. If you click on the county map, it will inform you the county name at that time and the date the county was created.
I tested this tool and found it very easy to use, even for a non-techie like me. I searched for the town of Virgil, New York. I found Virgil to be within the following county boundaries for the years searched.
- 1790 – Montgomery County
- 1792 – Tioga County
- 1800 – Onondaga County
- 1810 – Cortland County
So, If my ancestor arrived in Cortland County in 1792, and I only searched Cortland County, I could be missing out on documents created before Cortland County was created.
- Sometimes it was easier to go across county lines to file a document, rather than to the home county courthouse, so check use this tool to locate nearby counties and check them as well.
- Sometimes a family may have held a document for years, even passing it down through generations, before they actually filed it. So, you will want to search all the years, rather than just when you think an event happened.
In summary, if I were looking for a land deed created by a man living in Virgil, New York, from 1791-1820, I would search all four counties, plus their neighbors, for the period from 1791 (or the date the county was created) until the end of the deed indexes!
I know that sounds like a lot of searching, but you just may find the document you need in a place you didn’t expect to find it.