Relatively Speaking: Survey says!


The Keystone to Successful Research



Before we get to today's topic, County History and Boundary Changes, I have an announcement:


You are invited to participate in a doctoral research project being conducted by Bonita Williams Lloyd. The project is being done in partial fulfillment of the requirement for her Doctorate of Psychology at the American School of Professional Psychology, Argosy University/Twin Cities campus, Eagan, Minn.


Lloyd, an avid amateur genealogist is especially interested in family relationships and functioning including family “secrets” and their role in the genealogical search. One of the goals of this research is to see if uncovering family secrets leads to better understanding of family dynamics and improved family relationships.


I found the survey questions interesting, thoughtful and many of them timely – especially the reasons for doing genealogy. I’m anxious to see the summary of the final results which Lloyd will make available upon request.


It takes 12-15 minutes to complete the survey questionnaire and will be available at least through October. Additional information and the survey can be found at:



Alright, onto today's subject:

In the U.S., many records essential for genealogical research were created by county or New England town governments. These include court, land and property, naturalization and citizenship, probate, taxation and vital records. County and town courthouses are the primary repositories for these records, and the key to successful research is finding where those records are housed.


Note: in this discussion, the terms “county” and “town” are considered one and the same.

In order to do effective research in a specific locality, you must first learn the jurisdiction that place was in during your time period of interest.


Most U.S. county boundaries have changed many times before finally established as we know them today. An ancestor may have stayed in the same place, yet lived in several counties during his lifetime.

Boundaries and place names changed frequently during the early days of our country. For example, Knox County, Ind., once included all of Indiana, half of Illinois, a little of western Ohio, half of Lower Michigan, most of Upper Michigan and a little of the east side of Wisconsin. Verify boundaries and place names with historical atlases and text pertaining to the area of interest.


Did your ancestor suddenly disappear from the county records? Check to see if a new county was formed about that time.


If you do not find the records where you think they should be, try surrounding counties or nearby states. For example, the narrow western arm of Maryland: In addition to the obvious Maryland counties, check nearby counties in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia.

A classic example . . .

A classic example of county boundary changes are illustrated in “The Researcher’s Guide To American Genealogy,” by Val D. Greenwood. He cites a family living at Jefferson, N.C. between 1700 and 1800 might well be found in the records of six different counties without every having moved.


First a researcher would find them in Bath County (organized 1696), next Bladen County (organized 1734), next Anson County (organized 1750), next in Rowan County (1753), next in Wilkes County (1777) and finally in Ashe County (1799) where Jefferson is still located.


Greenwood continues with another example in western New York, stating “that area which now comprises 45 entire counties and part of two others was all in Albany County in 1683.”


He adds, “This ‘genealogy’ of places is vital. You must know it or you will not find the records you need. When a county was divided the records concerning the area which was divided off were left in the original county and that is where they are usually found.

“It would be impossible to satisfactorily separate them because they are kept in the same registers intermingled with the other records of the parent county. There are a few situations, however, where some records have been copied and the copies placed in the new county, but this is rare.”

Other facts to keep in mind:

In 1790 there were 292 counties in the then 14 states. According to the 2000 federal census, there were an estimated 3,139 counties or county equivalent units in the 50 states.


Alaska is the only state without counties and none has ever been chartered. Instead, legislative/political areas have been created and are referred to as “boroughs.”


County government in Connecticut was abolished in 1960. Counties continue only as geographical subdivisions.


In Louisiana, a parish has the same function as a county in other states.


Independent cities also function as counties and have existed since Williamsburg, Virginia was charted in 1722. Today Virginia lays claim to more than 40 independent cities; others can be found in Baltimore, Maryland, St. Louis, Missouri and Carson City, Nevada.


The state with the greatest number of counties is Texas with 254; the state with the least number is Delaware with only three.


Since 1790, 138 counties reported in the censuses have since been renamed, abolished and subsequently absorbed into other counties.


And lastly, according to the U.S. Census Bureau site at Broomfield County, Colorado, created in 2001 is the most recent county organized.

Additional Research Helps

Many books are available which provide details and in-depth studies of county formation, county histories and county boundary changes. A sampling follows:

Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 (1987), William Thorndale & William Dollarhide.

The Handybook for Genealogists (11th Edition), Everton Publishers.

The Source, A Guidebook of American Genealogy (3rd Edition), Loretto Dennis Szucs & Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, Editors.

Ancestry’s Red Book, American State, County & Town Sources (2004), Alice Eichholz, Editor.

On the Internet, “Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites” at offers some excellent county research helps. From the home page, scroll down to “United States Index,” click on “General U.S. States,” and then scroll down to and click on “Maps, Gazetteers & Geographical Information” for several county research sites.


Carllene Marek has been chasing ancestors for more than 25 years and chasing her muse for many more. A second-generation Californian, she has helped with several computer user groups, family associations and genealogical and historical societies. She has also compiled numerous indexes for assorted publications and written book reviews for various historical and genealogical publications.

Carllene currently writes a monthly newspaper column, “AncestreeSeekers,” for the Chico Enterprise Record and the Oroville Mercury Register. She and her husband live in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California with a blended family of eight children, 12 grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.

, a second-generation Californian, has been chasing ancestors for more than 25 years and chasing her muse for many more. She helps with several computer user groups, family associations, and genealogical and historical societies. She compiles indexes for assorted publications and writes book reviews for various historical and genealogical publications. She and her husband live in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
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4 Responses

  1. I read with interest your article on county divisions and the importance of understanding them. You covered the subject very well. It is a subject that is very important for the genealogist to understand. Thank you for citing "The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy." It is always nice to know that something I have written is helpful to someone else.

    God bless you for your good work!


  2. Carllene Marek says:

    Dear Mr. Greenwood,

    I thank you for your thoughtful comment and most of all for giving the genealogical community a superb learning tool and guide. "The Researcher's Guide To American Genealogy," is timeless and one of the finest. I've had my copy since 1988 and use it often.


  3. Barbee Hodgkins says:


    There was no place to leave my email so that you could send me the results of your survey which I would like to have. It was very interesting and has stimulated my thinking on several items.

    No place to tell you that my big success was proving an important family story for several generations was false.

  4. Carllene Marek says:


    Thank you for your comments. I'm sorry you missed the survey results "link" but I will be posting them to "Relatively Speaking" as soon as they are available. Stay tuned! CM

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