Adding local history to your ancestor’s timeline

A few readers commented on the importance of local history, over national history, on the last blog about adding historical events to your ancestor’s timeline. They are absolutely right. It’s not always easy to find local history events, but local events usually had a more significant impact on your ancestor’s daily lives than events that took place far away. This doesn’t discount though, the need to learn about the national history as well, where you will get a sense of wars, migrations, the financial climate, and discrimination against ethnic and religious groups. This post will focus on local history in the US.

Town and county histories are a good place to start learning about local history. Many local histories were written around 1900, or at the 100th anniversary (or some other noteworthy time period), of a town’s founding. They are often found in local libraries. Some of the older histories may be found in digitized form on Google books or Internet Archive. Digitized local histories can also be found at (requires a subscription) or HeritageQuest Online (may be available at your local library). There are also some digitized books available at (look at the books tab).

If a print or digitized version of the history for a given locale cannot be found, there are a few more places to look. The US GenWeb Project is a volunteer website with the goal of building a free genealogy website for every county in the United States. If all else fails, a google search may yield some helpful information.

Local town records, including town meeting records and church records, should also be investigated.

Whether looking at local history books or websites, a few things must be kept in mind. The local history books were often of a celebratory nature, and people would sometimes pay to have their name appear more prominently. As with all good genealogical research, tidbits found in local histories must be backed up by additional research and documentation. The same applies to information found on websites and in published genealogies.

Don’t just look for your ancestor’s name in the books or websites. Find out when churches and school were built, and when new congregations were formed. Even if you ancestor was Baptist, if the only church in town for years was the Methodist church, he may have attended that church. If the family was in the area before schools were started, did the parents teach the children to read and write?

Let’s see what is available in local history resources for Thomas Sumner (Thetford, Orange County, Vermont Colony). A future post will cover the local history for Levi Savage.

I found the “Gazetteer of Orange County, Vt.” at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston. The first several pages describe the creation of State of Vermont, and tension between the settlers and various competing governments: New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and the French and the Dutch. In 1764, King George annexed Vermont to New York (prior to this parts had belonged to New Hampshire, p. 34). In 1777, a convention was held that declared Vermont an independent state (p. 6). Below are the local events that are of interest in our research that were found in this book:

1) Competing claims mentioned above may have affected his land interests and ownership2) Town of Thetford chartered in 1761 (p. 35)
3) A Thomas Sumner appointed by New York government present at first session of court in Vermont, May 29, 1770 (p. 36).
4) Court in session with a Thomas Sumner, Esquire Judge, present for the following dates: 28 Aug 1770, 27 Nov 1770, 28 May 1771, 25 May 1773 (pp. 36-39).
5) “In 1777 Capt. John Strong, John Wright, John Robinson and William Moor served as a committee of safety, and the same year seven men suspected of tory sentiments were disarmed by the committee and made to take the oath of allegiance before their arms were restored. March 26, 1777 William Moor, Abner Howard and Joseph Hosford, the “committee of inspection,” took, according to an act or resolve of Congress, the real estate and personal property of Thomas Sumner, who had left town on account of tory sympathies, and placed Capt. John Strong in charge of it.” (pp. 425-6).
6) “At this date [1773] Rev. Clement Sumner was settled here…During the Revolution, Mr. Sumner being a tory, found it convenient to depart, going to Swanzey, N. H. where he exchanged his right in Thetford for the farm of William Heaton.” (p. 450).
7) In 1797 the state was divided into 11 counties (p. 9). It is possible, and perhaps likely, that some of the boundaries may have changed from when Thomas lived there. This is important to know when looking for government records.

According to the published genealogy “Record of the Descendants of William Sumner of Dorchester, Mass 1636” by William Sumner Appleton Clement and Thomas were brothers, both with tory leanings. This book also states that Thomas was a “Justice of the Peace, Commissioner, and Associate Justice of Inferior Court of Common Please of Gloucester Co., 1770; but being a decided Tory was obliged to leave the country, moved to Nova Scotia, thence to Canada, where he d. near Toronto, 4 January, 1820.” (pp 17-18). This book is also available at HeritageQuest Online.

From these records we learn that IF we have the right Thomas Sumner, he was in the Thetford area by 1770 and left about 1777. At least of his family members were also Loyalists, although his brother Clement did not have to leave the United States–he was able to relocate in New Hampshire.

Read more about the various acts of Congress and the states in punishing Loyalists.

5 thoughts on “Adding local history to your ancestor’s timeline

  1. Thomas Sumner actually returned to Vermont after the Revolution from New Brunswick. I am a descendant from his son, Azor Betts Sumner, named after a prominent Loyalist doctor, Azor Betts. He left the country AGAIN when the War of 1812 began, staying true to his Loyalist roots, moving to Ontario, where he died in 1820. Azor remained in Vermont until the Year Without A Summer in 1816 forced him and many of my ancestors to the Western Reserve of Ohio. Whatever Tory loyalty resided in his father Thomas and uncle Clement was not present in Azor.

  2. I love what you’re doing with the blog – I’m really passionate about trying to do something similar with mine. So important to bridge that gap between family and social history and makes it much more interesting 🙂

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