Location, Location Location: Changing Names and Jurisdictions & Finding Records

My recent trip back to Massachusetts underscored the SUPREME importance of understanding a Town’s history. It is not just the names that often changed, but their jurisdictions and sometimes their ACTUAL location.

What do I mean by knowing a Town’s history. Specifically nothing will serve your genealogy research and your family history writing more than understanding the broad historical outlines of a Town’s past. The older the town the more this matters and this is true of European as well as North American Town’s. And one must realize that we sometimes have both civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions and within those we have different levels of jurisdiction.

I live in California and yet even with a seemingly shorter written history it was a part of Spanish holdings, then Mexico, before becoming part of the United States. Then within California we have Federal, State, County and Town records. In New England and elsewhere we have the addition of Townships in between Counties and Towns. All of these entities have changing jurisdictions and sometimes overlapping ones.

1846 Map of Mexico

I am going to write about two Town’s I recently visited to give you an idea of why knowing a Town’s history is imperative. First off we have the Town of Rehoboth which currently resides in Bristol County, Massachusetts. Before the arrival of European settlers the area was known to the Wapanog natives as Seaconcke now spelled Seekonk. It was claimed by the Plymouth Colony and the Plymouth Colony included the Southeast part of what later became Massachusetts. So if you are looking for the earliest records of Rehoboth they would be in the Plymouth Colony records. In 1643 the “township” of Rehoboth was organized. So as of 1643 most records were kept by the town of Rehoboth and those records are found at the Rehoboth Town Hall. The formation of Bristol County Massachusetts in 1685 means that Land and Probate records then moved to the County Courthouse in Taunton, Massachusetts; while vital records (births, deaths and marriages) and Town Meeting records remained in the Rehoboth Town Hall.

The changing Territory of Rehoboth from A history of Rehoboth Massachusetts by Rev. George H. Tilton

However the Town of Rehoboth and its Town Hall are not even in the same state or location as the “original” Rehoboth. Furthermore the original township of Rehoboth has been divided into several new Townships including Seekonk, Swansea, East Providence, Attleborough, Cumberland and Pawtucket. The location of the original Seekonk/Rehoboth was the small circled 2 on the above map. The current location of the Town offices are in that little tab in the Northeast corner (adjoining Taunton); a distance of about ten miles as the crow flies. So if you were, as I did many years ago, to take a trip to Rehoboth and did not know its history you might miss the Ring of Green which is the center of the original Rehoboth and it is located in Rumford, Rhode Island ( a part of the township of East Providence) and not in Massachusetts!

Where to find records for REHOBOTH:

  • Before 1643: The Plymouth Colony (transcriptions) original in Plymouth (some images here)
  • After 1643: Rehoboth Town Hall Rehoboth for Land, Vital, Probate, Town Meetings etc
  • After 1685: Probate and Land records move to Taunton, MA
  • For that part of Rehoboth that became Swansea, Proprietor’s Records begin in 1667 and Town records begin in 1670 and and so forth for each town that broke off from the original Rehoboth
  • After 1862 for records of the original lands on which the “original Rehoboth” resides including Deeds, probate, lands, and town meetings will be found in East Providence

So if you want to make a search of any of these original early records you are going to be visiting many places. However with the completion of the digitization of Family Search’s collection from microfilm you can see the filmed records at any Family Search library or affiliate.

1685 Map A New Map of New England New York New Iarsey, Pensilvania Maryland and Virginia:
Showing locations of places mentioned in this Blog post.

The second Town, is that of South Kingstown as it is now known, but was originally known as Kings Towne before it was split in half into North and South Kingstown in 1722. And before that it was part of Narragansett Country, the name taken from the tribe who lived their. The Township of Narragansett was carved out of South Kingstown first as an enclave in 1888 and incorporated in 1901. The Township of Kings Towne was founded in 1641 but the records do not begin until 1692. The Town Hall for South Kingston is located in the village of Wakefield, in the township of South Kingstown (sometimes spelled Kingston). Are we confused yet? When it comes to locations and jurisdictions it can get very complicated.

Where to find records for South Kingstown

  • Earliest records for the area are going to be in Providence which was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams who purchased land from the Narragansett tribe.
  • Next area to be populated that has records pertaining to South Kingston is Portsmouth. Roger Williams helped Anne Hutchinson and followers to purchase Aquidneck Island, where Pocasset (later Portsmouth) was founded in 1638. Portsomouth’s vital records began in 1636 and Town Records in 1638
  • In 1639 William Coddington (Quaker) & eight other prominent families left Portsmouth to found Newport. Some of the early inhabitants of South Kingston were from Newport but their early records start about 1647, So before that check Portsmouth.
  • The records of the united “Kings Towne” before its split in 1722 are located in North Kingstown. Although founded in 1641 the records do not begin until 1692 for Town records and probates and for vitals 1700. So again you’ll need to check Newport or Portsmouth.
  • And finally Land Records begin in 1696 in South Kingstown, Town Meetings in 1704. Within the Land Evidence book are some vital records in the 17th C.

Rather than go into every detail of every place that your ancestors lived please consider taking a deep dive into the history of several places your ancestors lived. I promise you it will be rewarding, especially in terms of writing with more understanding of your ancestors lives.

Please note that early records may contain more than what it says on the title. As above they often contain vitals and other miscellaneous records so if you have the time read through all the earliest records. You may find some gems as in my early post.

PART two of this post is here.

Kelly Wheaton Copyright 2021. All Rights Reserved.

1 Comments on “Location, Location Location: Changing Names and Jurisdictions & Finding Records”

  1. Pingback: Location, Location, Location: Finding Records Look EVERYWHERE Part 2 | Wheaton Wood

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