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
Stray animals, or estrays, were a chronic problem because of the damage they caused to neighboring property. Identifying earmarks were used by many owners to ensure the return of their livestock.
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.).
Residents were compensated for providing assistance to the poor or for services performed for the town.
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.
Public notices addressed a wide array of subjects, such as the appointment of firemen (see image, above right) or the formation of business partnerships.
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
Minutes of town meetings are extensive. They include names of officials, election returns, and financial records.
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.
Early birth and family records list children with date and place of birth (suggesting prior residence), but only occasionally include the mother’s maiden name. Later birth records offer more detail.
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.
Death records may include only the name and date of death, or may be very detailed. Later records commonly identify birthplace, occupation, age, cause of death, and identity of parents.
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).