In almost every family genealogy there are people that disappear having “gone
west.” This refers to any territory west of where the rest of the family lived.
Depending on when your ancestor got that restless feeling it could be New York
or California. Your Rhode Island family tree may have several individuals who
migrated to other areas of the country or even within the state. These wanderers
went north, south, west, and even east (into Massachusetts). A few resources and
research rules will help you locate them and add a little missing information to
those genealogical charts.
This little rule can’t be repeated enough. Unless you understand the
historical events that influence the decision of your ancestor you’ll never know
where to look for information. Start with general historical works like Sydney
James’ Colonial Rhode Island: A History (New York: Scribner, 1975) or
William McLoughlin’s Rhode Island (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986). They
help you fill in the timeline of occurrences during your migratory ancestor’s
lifetime. Another classic is Stewart Hall Holbrook’s The Yankee Exodus, An
Account of Migration from New England (New York: Macmillan, 1950). In it he
covers the various places New Englanders migrated to, as well as how and why.
Some people, encouraged by advertisements from various emigration companies,
sought economic opportunity elsewhere. Other folks just liked to wander.
Rule #2Follow the transportation systems and trade routes.
Highways were necessary for commerce, but they also carried individuals away
from their original point of settlement. Some of these colonial highways became
the turnpikes of the nineteenth century and are still there today (such as Post
Road [Route 1]). Remember that travel was slow even after 1750, when old Indian
paths became wagon routes with most travelers averaging twenty miles a day in
Transportation into and out of Rhode Island also occurred along the major
waterways, both man-made and natural. Narragansett Bay and the Blackstone River
both carried settlers and traders. With so many islands in Narragansett Bay it
is not surprising that some Rhode Island families held land in several
locations. For instance, those operating plantations along the western edge of
Narragansett Bay often owned additional land in Jamestown (Conanicut Island) or
had business connections in Newport. Traversing the waterway was necessary to
oversee management of their estates. Steamboat travel between major cities began
in various cities between 1812 and 1816, linking Rhode Island with Connecticut
and New York via the Long Island Sound. The Blackstone Canal primarily carried
goods (and probably a few people) between Providence, Rhode Island, and
Worcester, Massachusetts, starting in 1828, but it was replaced by the railroads
in the 1840s. The advent of railroads enabled the transporting of large groups
of people between states and immigrating to other geographic areas became even
easier. Passengers made connections to different lines and most small towns had
Maps are the best way to trace the transportation routes used by your
ancestors. You can find some online at the Library of Congress website under the American Memory page, and
in libraries. The graphics division of the Rhode Island Historical Society Library has the most complete set
of maps in the state, followed by the Rhode Island State Archives. Also consult William Dollarhide’s
Map Guide to American Migration Routes, 1735-1815 (Bountiful, Utah:
Heritage Quest, 1997) and Douglas Waitley’s Roads of Destiny: The Trails that
Shaped a Nation (New York: Robert B. Luce, 1970).
Rule #3Discover your ancestors’ reasons for migrating
Most families migrated due to the following:
Plentiful land in the South and West brought young men seeking farmland while
the availability of jobs enticed them to travel into Rhode Island. According to
the 1865 census of Rhode Island, men from Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia,
South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi were living in the state.
Military conflict resulted in soldiers serving in areas outside their
hometowns. In addition, political upheavals may have caused populations to flee.
For instance, during the American Revolution, many of the loyalists living in
Newport, Rhode Island, fled Aquidneck Island to Canada where they established a
city of the same name in Nova Scotia. Revolutionary War general Nathaniel
Greene, a Rhode Island native, spent time commanding campaigns in Georgia and
South Carolina. In 1785 he decided to move his family to the plantation awarded
him by the government of Georgia. Some pensioners of the Revolutionary War
received bounty land in Ohio for their service, which encouraged many to settle
Established southern families sent sons north to study at elite universities,
so don’t be surprised to find your Rhode Island ancestor with southern roots.
After the Civil War, Bathsheba A. Benedict of Pawtucket purchased a plantation
near Columbia, South Carolina, to educate freed slaves under the auspices of the
American Baptist Home Mission Society. Benedict College, founded as Benedict
Institute in 1870, originally trained teachers and ministers. Many of those
students migrated north after they graduated.
Wealthy families and their servants often traveled during the social season.
Newport families went to Saratoga Springs, New York, and New York City families
migrated to Newport, building many of the mansions still in existence today.
There was seasonal travel among the families on the Social Register and many of
those individuals intermarried, dividing their time between Rhode Island and
Marriage between prominent families formed business and social connections
regardless of location. These marital alliances meant that records regarding the
families — including vital records, census documents and land records —are in at
least two locations. While one of General Greene’s children grew up in the
south, Nathaniel returned to Rhode Island when he married Ann Clarke.
Just as immigrant families often settled in the same areas as their homeland
neighbors, migrating groups of Rhode Islanders did the same. Many people from
small towns banded together to settle towns and cities in the West. The best
resource is Holbrook’s Yankee Exodus.
Many of the original settlers of New England were refugees from religious
persecution, but in later generations traveling missionaries established new
communities of believers For example, a group of Newport Quakers traveled to
Charleston, South Carolina, to form a religious community. A good source of
information on migratory Quakers is William Wade Hinshaw’s Encyclopedia of
American Quaker Genealogy (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Edwards Brothers, 1936).
Search for parish records for evidence of where your ancestors went. Sometimes
you can find a paper trail dismissing them from one church to join another.
It makes sense when you have trouble tracking that migrant member of your
family to go back to your family tree. The clues may be in the papers you locate
for a collateral relative. Those emigrant ancestors might have sent home letters
or photographs so make sure to use online resources like message boards to
connect with distant cousins and look at published genealogies for clues. Don’t
forget to research periodicals using the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) online
at Ancestry.com. The Rhode Island
Genealogical Register ran a column called “They left Rhode Island.” You
never know where you’ll find the information to solve your research puzzle.
If your ancestors were restless you might have difficulty finding them
because there were multiple migrations. Look for clues in family papers,
photographs (check the photographer’s imprint), and research each family member
to see if you can find out where they went. Online research makes it easier to
search large groups of records at one time (census, city directories, etc) or
place a query on a message board. While you’ll have to double-check all the
online information you find with traditional research and original source
material, looking online makes sense when you don’t know where to find a person.
Once you’ve completed your research, tell the story of your search and what you
found for future generations.