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by Diane Florence Gravel, CG
New Hampshire town records have been maintained since the early days of settlement in the mid-1600s through the present day. Few sources equal their value for historical and genealogical research. The records take several forms: original record books, state transcriptions, annual town reports, and to a lesser extent, loose papers.
Success in using these records requires a basic knowledge of the history of the town’s settlement. Elusive ancestors may be found in the parent town of the community in which they lived.
The original record books were maintained by the town clerks. While most remain in their custody today, some are scattered among other repositories throughout the state. The early volumes have been indexed through circa 1830. The index is available on microfilm through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. The researcher must be cautioned, however, with respect to its limitations. Erroneous transcriptions were not uncommon, and the index does not include every town. For a list of the towns that were not included, see Edward F. Holden’s article on Early New Hampshire Town Records.
State transcriptions of the original records were mandated by legislative act in May 1913, providing for the copying and indexing of “ancient records” prior to 1825, a process that lasted well into the 1940s. The act sought not only records from town clerks, but those in private custody as well. Original records were to be deposited with the Secretary of State and returned to the town after transcription.
Some town reports were published annually by the 1830s; however, many towns began publishing much later. The reports include extensive financial records. By act of the state legislature on 6 October 1887, the clerks were also required to include vital records in the published reports, a practice that continues today. However, several of the larger towns and cities never complied.
Border disputes and fence lines
Improvements on the land and the erection of fences often triggered disputes among neighbors. Fence viewers were appointed at annual meetings and were charged with resolving those disputes. If an agreement was reached, it was likely recorded with the town clerk.
Maintenance of cemetery records was erratic, and often initiated many years after a cemetery was established. Interment records found in town reports, however, list each cemetery, with details of burials during the previous year, including residence, place of birth, age, and date of death for the deceased.
The extent of church records varies greatly. Perhaps the most valuable information lies in the enumeration of taxes collected for payment of local ministers. Occasionally, a taxpayer would claim an exemption because he was of another faith. Pew sales were also recorded, and some ministers even registered their credentials.
Earmarks and estrays
Tax records, often used as census substitutes, include assessments of real and personal property, and assist the researcher in determining social standing. Abatement of taxes was granted for various reasons (e.g., advanced age, departure from town, etc.).
The role of the town health officer evolved over time and eventually required that outbreaks of disease, epidemics and quarantines be reported to the state.
These agreements specified a term of service required to satisfy an obligation, often binding children until they reached legal age.
Land grants and leases
Land grants conveyed during first settlement were recorded by the town clerk. These transactions may not be found in the more frequently used county deed books. Town maps were created, showing the layout of the initial land lots.
It was not uncommon for a town to lease land or buildings from its residents, particularly for school-related needs.
Library records may be extensive, including employees and officers, financial records, and even a list of publications acquired during the preceding year.
From the early days, licenses were required for the operation of certain businesses. For example, a law passed in May 1686 required licensing for taverns, inns, strong-water houses, retailers and “public Victuallers” (restaurants).
The 1790 federal census recorded 158 slaves in New Hampshire, some of whom were subsequently freed. The recording of those manumissions is an important tool in African-American research.
Town records relating to military service may include bounty payments, militia lists, and enlistment records during time of war. The towns provided aid to soldiers and their families when needed.
Accounts of the poor abound in town records. From the earliest days, each town was obligated to care for its poorest residents, who were often “hired out” or placed with other families as a consequence of their standing. Identified as paupers, they were provided with food, clothing and medical care. Town reports itemized all expenses for the poor, including residents on the county farm. If a person died as a dependent of the town, the annual report might include the date of death, place of burial, and list of final expenses.
Although the early towns took care of their own, they resisted newcomers who threatened to become a liability. Those newcomers were “warned out” and ordered to return to their towns of origin. However, all those who were warned did not leave. Many families were ultimately successful in establishing residence and supporting themselves. A typical Warning Out may identify the spouse and children, approximate date of arrival, and prior residence. The practice was abolished with the Settlement Act of 1 January 1796.
These often-neglected records, with detailed descriptions of the intended path for each road, are particularly useful in determining which families were neighbors. Construction of roads also required the services of many residents whose compensation was recorded by the town clerk.
The nature of school records changed dramatically over the years. Early records may be limited to lists of families within each school district. But, by the latter half of the nineteenth century, records were more detailed, and information on selected students was not uncommon. Town reports may describe the success (or failure) of each teacher and identify scholars with perfect attendance.
Town meetings and officials
The incorporation of the town appears among the first pages of the record books, sometimes including a list of original settlers and place of origin.
Recording of vital records in New Hampshire was erratic before the 1880s when the state legislature began enforcing the law requiring registration.
The content of marriage records and intentions varies, some only naming the bride and groom. Others, particularly later records, offer much detail, listing age, residence, occupation, number of previous marriages, birthplace, parents’ names with birthplaces and occupations. Marriage records were not always recorded at the time of the event. Some clergymen and other officiants reported intentions and ceremonies on a quarterly (or even yearly) basis.
By 1887, town clerks were required by statute to include all vital records in their published annual reports, a valuable source when state records are restricted (births after 1901 and deaths and marriages after 1948).
Using the collection
Search: At the Search Documents page, first click on “Search Tips” to review clues for a successful search. Then enter your search terms (names, places, or keywords) and select the appropriate Town Records from the “All Titles” dropdown list. If your search is unsuccessful, try spelling variations.
Browse: From the Home Page, click on “Browse All Titles.” Select from the Category list “News and Town Records.” Select a title.
- Town Records – Goffstown, NHSelect a year to begin browsing these annual town reports.
- Town Records – Hancock, NHSelect a section to begin browsing these records, which include both original town record books and state transcriptions. The first page, shown before a volume, usually identifies the source and location of the volume at the time of filming, followed by an image of the cover or spine of the record book. One should not assume that the content of any volume is limited to the records described in the title or description printed on its cover or title page. The last pages often contain unrelated records that were not recorded in their usual place, likely because of space issues.
The first or last pages may contain a general index. Page numbers listed in the index refer to numbers found at the top of the actual images, and should not be confused with image numbers.
Benton, Josiah Henry. Warning Out in New England. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1911. The author traces the practice in each New England state from its inception to abolishment.
Davis, Walter Goodwin, et al. Genealogy Dictionary of Maine and New Hampshire. Portland, Maine: Southworth-Anthoensen Press, 1928-1939. This genealogical collection of early families is one of the few well-documented works of its time. References will lead the researcher to valuable original records.
Lainhart, Ann S. Digging for Genealogical Treasure in New England Town Records. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1996. This guide describes New England town records in detail and includes indexes to persons and places.
Melnyk, Marcia D., ed. Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research. 4th edition. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1996. An invaluable guide to New England records, this publication includes a listing of towns, by state, with dates of establishment, parent towns and associated counties.
New Hampshire State Papers, online at New Hampshire Division of Archives and Records Management. This 40-volume set contains many records relating to incorporation and settlement of towns and is fully indexed. Other records of genealogical and historical value include Revolutionary War records, provincial court records 1640-1692, and provincial probate records through 1771.
Towle, Laird C. New Hampshire Genealogical Research Guide. Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, Inc., 1983. The value of this publication lies in its extensive lists sources for research.
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