We take for granted today the relative ease and affordability that one can be transient, especially when single or in a couple without children. May jobs permit or even require us to be mobile.
A common mistake in researching family history is to assume our ancestors simply relocated as we may today to a new home in another village, town or to the opposite end of the country. We may find records that are a match in name only, and excitedly apply them to our tree as they seem to conveniently fit. We can’t apply ideas about the way we live today – people a few centuries ago didn’t have the luxury of moving for a retirement by the sea, or receiving a promotion providing they move to another city.
Certainly some were shipped out of their country against their will, or willingly moved country due to famine or the lure of gold. Then there were many who had no choice but to fight in battles, whereby they disappeared completely or were located as a casualty of war somewhere very far from home. Criminals would happily ‘disappear’ and unmarried pregnant women would often temporarily move before their pregnancy became visible, better employment in the next village may have been secured, or a marriage may have meant relocation to the next village or parish.
Typically the average person didn’t move far, as even without the variety of many and bulky possessions we have today, they didn’t wish to leave the security of their kinship group. They also often relied on the family business for their employment. The actual process of moving was tricky; before the convenience of public transport, unless you owned a horse and cart you had to walk.
So you will have to consider – how ‘portable’ were your ancestors in the era that they lived?
This will have a very different answer depending on whether you’re considering a household 50 years ago, 150 years ago or 500 years ago, what country they were living in, their occupation and financial capacity to move.
Research and consider carefully what was going on.
What was happening in their immediate area that may have prompted a move? Or the wider area, such as with the Industrial Revolution which saw many move from scattered homes in the countryside and small villages into the bigger towns. Were there battles, plagues, famine? Did your ancestors have the financial capacity to move? Were there any family scandals or stories that may give clues? A change in financial circumstances may cause someone to become a pauper and homeless, whereby they may relocate to the nearest poorhouse or workhouse. Religion could have seen your ancestors being persecuted and moving accordingly.
Your genealogy ‘thinking cap’ will be tested! Remember, the further back in time you’re looking the more difficult it was for a person and family to move and thus not a decision to take lightly.
They may have lived in an era when arranged or parental approved marriages were the norm. Wealthier families often married from within their extended family, and also cast their view countrywide when considering a suitable spouse for their offspring. This meant that sometimes a married couple had grown up a great distance apart, and any pre-marriage records of them obviously won’t be in the same place.
In early times, at a moments’ notice, Lords of the manor would send the men from their villages off to battle. Many a free man once recorded in deeds, jury rolls and church records disappeared, without any record of their death much less burial. Or they may turn up in records on the other side of the country where they are imprisoned, fined or found to have married.
Marriages may have been typically at the bride’s church – often but not always the same as the groom’s – but the couple generally would live where the groom had come from. So if the groom was from another town, the bride who you were researching would be most likely to appear in records of another town, parish or state. Of course this wasn’t always so, but may apply to the place and time you’re investigating.
First born sons into well off families inherited the family home and land assets, while later born sons would frequently find themselves provided with a smaller or less favorable landholding which may see them attending another church, resulting in brothers appearing in records of two different churches.
Certain occupations meant that the person would travel, often and far such as a sailor or merchant. Generally though this was not the case. If you know the occupation, consider how likely then it would be for them to suddenly turn up a long way from home, and that you may be looking at the wrong person. Investigate thoroughly, as although there may be logical explanation as to why they have relocated, but you may discover your ancestor never left at all.
Sometimes people who seemed to move did not at all. The Industrial Revolution didn’t just prompt moves from the country, it also saw villages merge together or into the nearest town so place names changed rather than your ancestor moving residence. Countries and territories that changed name after wars would again mean that people who did not move may have seemed to have disappeared from their location. Sometimes small spelling variations and errors meant your ancestor has become temporarily ‘lost’ because of a few small spelling details until your modify the way you search for them.
And of course, sometimes a person or family is hidden from our sight because they were accidentally missed by the person transcribing a census or other documents – they will simply not up in our searching via databases but only by meticulously going through the actual records.