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  • Sources at NEHGS for the “Old Northwest”

    Jane Bramwell

    Published Date : June-August 1991
    The Northwest Territory, or the “Old Northwest” now the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota was first opened to European settlement by the French in the seventeenth century.  In the decades immediately before the Revolution this region was a bloody battleground among native Americans, the French, and the British colonies of North America.  In 1783, by the Treaty of Paris, the land west of the Ohio River was ceded by Great Britain to the new United States.  In 1787 the Congress of the Confederation created the Northwest Territory.

    In the aftermath of the Revolution, people from the crowded eastern states poured by the thousands into the Old Northwest.  The next fifty years was a the of constantly shifting territorial, state, and county boundaries.  Land was purchased from private land companies as well as from the federal government and the infant states.  Research must thus often be conducted in several archives.  For example, before Wisconsin became a state in 1838, it had been part of the Northwest Territory, the Indiana Territory, the Illinois Territory, the Michigan territory, and its own Wisconsin Territory each with a different center of government and record keeping.  As in all frontier areas, registration of births, deaths, and marriages, complete church records, and intact tombstones with clear inscriptions were a rarity.  Fortunately the frontier period in the Old Northwest passed at about the same the that the Civil War and the issues leading to it crystallized our national consciousness.

    The excellent Federal Land Series, edited by Clifford Neal Smith, attempts to consolidate in usable form “archival materials on the land patents issued by the United States Government.”  NEHGS has just acquired volume 4, parts 1 and 2, to add to the earlier three volumes.  Because early vital records are scarce for many Old Northwest areas, the first record you find of a given family group is often in the census.  NEHGS is now acquiring all federal censuses through 1850 for these states.  We have a complete set for Michigan, the 1820 and 1830 censuses for Indiana, and 1840 for Wisconsin.  Besides the census rolls themselves, we have all published federal census indexes for these years, and will be acquiring published volumes for 1860 and 1870 as these become available.  Our most recent such acquisition was the 1870 census index for Chicago (including Cook Co.), Illinois, edited by Bradley W. Steuart.  The AISJ Computer Data-Base for all Historical and Genealogical Societies (886 microfiches, 1988), more commonly known as the “consolidated census index” and edited by Ronald Vein Jackson, arranges all entries in existing federal census indexes into a single alphabetical listing for each census year.  This massive index is probably the best place to begin looking for an elusive kinsman who “went west.”

    One result of post-Civil War national consciousness was the new market for county and town histories -specifically, those published by subscription, and often consisting in large part of biographical sketches of subscribers.  These histories, commonly known as “mug books,” are notorious for inaccurate accounts of colonial generations, but are excellent sources for the early settlement and evolution of a particular region, and the data given by the subscriber about himself, his parents, and his children can usually be trusted.  Since many of these “leading citizens” were grandsons of Revolutionary soldiers who later moved west, it would be foolish to ignore these books.  NEHGS has many “mugbooks” for the various counties of the five Old Northwest states.

    Ohio, the first state born of the Old Northwest, was admitted to the Union in 1803.  It is rightly regarded as the crossroads of the future United States -- parts of it were settled primarily by settlers from New England, New York and Pennsylvania (and many from the latter two states were New England-derived), while other areas bear the influence of people who moved north from Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina especially.  Fortunately, Ohio has excellent finding aids, including Ohio Genealogical Guide (3rd ed., ca. 1984) and Ohio Wills and Estates to 1850: An Index (1981), both edited by Carol Willsey Bell.  NEHGS also owns a copy of The Henry M. Baldwin Genealogical Records, bound in 67 volumes with an eight-volume index.  This set contains “cemetery, war, church, court, personal and miscellaneous genealogical data gathered throughout western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio during his lifetime, May 25, 1867 to April 25, 1918.”

    The Ohio Genealogical Society (OGS) publishes two periodicals that transcribe original records.  We have a complete run of Ohio: The Crossroad of Our Nation, Records and Pioneer Families (1960-).  Recently we began receiving the OGS quarterly journal The Report, which we have from vol. 24 (1984).  A third periodical containing material on 76 of Ohio’s 88 counties is Gateway to the West, published from 1967 to 1978. Genealogical Publishing Company has reprinted this journal as a two-volume set, edited by Ruth Bowers and Anita Short (1989).

    Indiana, also a crossroad, became a state in 1816.  As happened in Ohio, many settlers migrating from the Northeast or Southeast moved into Indiana for a generation or two, then headed further west.  NEHGS has The Indiana Magazine of History from vol. 26 (1930).  A feature of this journal from 1936 to 1961 was the section “Indiana Genealogy,” reprinted as Genealogical Sources, compiled by Dorothy L. Riker (1979). “Indiana Genealogy” evolved into the periodical The Hoosier Genealogist, of which NEHGS also has a complete run (1961-). Many of the record transcriptions in this journal [96] (through 1984) have been reprinted as the Indiana Source Book, 5 vols. to date (1977-).  The microfiche Indiana Biographical Index is a finding aid to biographical sketches in more than 500 county histories and biographical works.  Abstracts of the Records of the Society of Friends in Indiana, edited by Willard Heiss in six parts (1962-75), became volume 7 of the Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy (volumes 4 and 5 cover Ohio).  And A Biographical Directory of the Indiana General Assembly, volume 1, 1816-7899 (1980), contains “a biographical entry for each member of every legislative session during the nineteenth century.”

    Illinois gained statehood in 1818, shortly after Indiana The Collections of the Illinois State Historical Society Library, vols. 1-35(1903-1970) contain a wealth of diverse information.  For example, vol. 2 is Cahokia Records 1778-1790 (1907); vol. 5, Kaskaskia Records 1778-1790 (1909); vol. 6, Newspapers and Periodicals of Illinois 1814-1879 (1910); vol. 8, The George Rogers Clark Papers 1771-1781(1912), continued in vol. 19, 1781-1784 (1926); vol. 12, The County Archives of the State of Illinois (1915); and vol. 35, The Black Hawk War, 183 1-32, Volume 1: Illinois Volunteers (1970).  NEHGS also has a complete run of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly (1969-).

    Almost two decades passed before Michigan became a state in 1837.  The forty volumes of what was essentially the Collections of Michigan’s historical society (though under different titles) contain short articles on Michigan history.  The two volumes of the recent Michigan Surname Index (1984-89) are arranged alphabetically by the person’s name, include birth, death, and marriage dates, and name of spouse or other family members, and are keyed to names and addresses of researchers.  Ann and Conrad Burton, Michigan Quakers (1989) abstracts 15 meetings of the Society of Friends from 1831 to 1960. Another work dealing with a distinct group of settlers is Genealogy of the French Families of the Detroit River Region, Revision, 1701-1936, 2 vols. (1987), by Fr. Charles Denisson.  The Detroit area has a long tradition of genealogical scholarship.  The Detroit Society for Genealogical Research Magazine (1936-), of which we also have a complete run, is a distinguished journal whose scope includes Detroit, Michigan generally, and neighboring states and regions (New England especially) from which Michigan pioneers migrated.

    Except for a small part of present-day Minnesota the remainder of the Old Northwest became the state of Wisconsin in 1848.  The twenty volumes of the Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, published from 1855 to 1915, include many short historical articles and papers, along with longer monographs, such as a transcription of the Register of Baptisms of the Mission of St. Ignace de Michilimakinak, 1695-1821. Wisconsin Historical Publications, a successor series, included eleven more volumes of the Collections plus several other works, notably The Preston and Virginia Papers of the Draper Collection of Manuscripts (1915). The Draper Manuscripts, gathered by Lyman C. Draper and housed at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, is an unsurpassed collection of original papers and documents covering the history of “the trans-Allegheny West, a region embracing the western areas of the Carolinas and Virginia, portions of Georgia and Alabama, the entire Ohio River Valley and part of the upper Mississippi Valley from the period of frontier conflicts in the 1740s and 1750s to the American Revolution and the War of 1812.”  A brief summary of each document or group of documents in these two sets of papers is included.  Josephine L. Harper, A Guide to the Draper Manuscripts (1957), gives brief descriptions of all record groups and sub-groups in the collection.  Given their wide geographical range the Draper Manuscripts should be consulted by anyone with Old Northwest interests.  The Wisconsin State Genealogical Society Newsletter, which NEHGS owns from vol. 12 (1965) to the present, publishes county records.

    Two sources that cover the entire region are the Old Northwest Genealogical Quarterly (15 vols., 1898-1912), and Paul J. Larcau and Elmer Courteau, French-Canadian Families of the North Central States: A Genealogical Dictionary (8 vols., 1980-81).  The titles mentioned above are just a few of the many items NEHGS owns on the area known as the Old Northwest.  The library is trying to acquire as many published or manuscript transcriptions of original records as possible.  Thousands of New Englanders settled this area, and many ancestors of NEHGS members passed through this wide region on their way further west. -JB

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