All in the Family

Have you ever wondered why it appears as if everyone in Berks County is related to each other?  Well, there is a reason for that.

It is 1730…something.  You are sitting on 900 acres with a big stone house, a big stone barn and some additional outbuildings.  You have actually done well carving out your wealth in the Pennsylvania wilderness.  One day, your wife looks at you and says it’s time to start marrying off the older children.  What to do?  You are isolated on your plot of land and meeting new people is a little difficult.  There is no match.com or eHarmony.  Your closest neighbor is at minimum a couple hundred acres away.  Therefore, to keep your wife happy, you pay one of your neighbors a visit and try to make a match.  Eventually, your daughters are married off and living on other farms.  Your son’s are married and their families are working on your land.  Your wife’s happy, your happy…done.

Matchmaking in the 18th and 19th century was definitely more complicated than that.  While it would make for some very interesting research, it will not help you in locating your family’s history.  What’s key to remember when doing your family’s genealogy/history is that 1: there is always a bigger picture and 2: it is all relative…literally.  People are always interacting with each other.  When you own a large tract of land and your neighbors own large tracts of land, it limits interaction, but there is still interaction, just not with a lot of people.  In a roundabout way, I am trying to suggest that you should not limit your research to just your family.  When you start researching families surrounding yours, you will notice connections and find information that you did not know exist.  So where do you look?

1. Deeds.  When performing a deed search, you need to be aware that there are different types of deeds and you need to attempt to look for them all to be successful.  There are:

  • Patent – is an exclusive land grant made by a sovereign entity, in this case the Penn Family, or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, to a tract of land.  Really, what is important is that it establishes the first landholder in the chain of landholders.
  • Warrant – type of deed that says the landowner holds clear title to the land and can legally sell it.
  • Quitclaim Deed – is the opposite of a warrant, in that the owners selling the land cannot swear they have clear title to do so.
  • Indenture – is a legal transfer of property for a fixed and agreed upon amount of money.
  • Deed Poll – is a change of name on the deed.  It only obligates one party for the responsibility of the property.
  • Sheriff Sale Deed – usually is issued in cases, for instance, when property is sold to pay off debt.  This will sometimes describe how the property was seized by the county.

In some instances, names will appear on a deed, and you realize that it was the husband of a daughter that you did not know existed.  Believe me when I say, that they are bogged down in legal jargon and I am always amazed at the inability of the clerk to spell chestnut.  I always wonder how accurate the land surveys are after 50 years when that Chestnut sapling is grown and that stone shifted because someone tripped over it.  Regardless, the interesting part is through all of that, in the part I call “Change of Hands”.  That is were it relates how the property came into the hands of the grantor, who is now selling it.  Read the deed in its entirety, because you will never know what you will find.

2.  Wills.  They contain a wealth of information and like deeds, can point to family members that are not found in church records.  They might also prove a connection with another family or your family.  Some are very interesting to read because they can spell out in detail, how the children should provide for the care of their mother, including how many cows, lumber and water she is allotted.  Just like a deed, read the whole thing.

A lack of will is just as interesting.  When someone dies intestate, then the fate of their estate is decided at Orphan’s Court.  Just to clarify, this court has little to do with orphan’s.  Orphan’s Court is a probate court and is there to protect personal and property rights.  If you can’t find a will and your research trail is cold, check with the court for a ruling on the estate.  You never know what you will find and sometimes nothing is something.

These two types of documents are just as valuable to your research as the church records.  They are also the least used.  Just the other day, I had a researcher interested in knowing more about their property.  The first thing I asked them… “Did you read the deeds?”  Oh, I did a deed search (usually stated multiple times).  It is always 2 hours into the research that you send them out the door to the courthouse because they did not read the deeds.  Trust me…we know you didn’t read the deeds, just like we know you didn’t consider the wills…it’s our researcher intuition or psychic powers telling us.  If you need some help, bring in the photocopies, we are happy to assist.

When you live in a small community, everyone knows everything about you and it does seem like everyone is related.  It is a small town reality and perception all at the same time.  If you go back far enough, you can cross paths with just about anyone.  That is what keeps researching fun!

 

Introduction

I am going to attempt to keep a blog of the behind the scenes at the Henry Janssen Library, in addition to other things I find interesting.  The Henry Janssen Library, the research library for the Historical Society of Berks County, is on Facebook, which I do not update as often as I would like.  You can also learn more about our services at www.berkshistory.org/library.  I am still getting my feet wet, so to speak, so please bear with me.

First and foremost…yes, I am an outsider.  I am not from Berks County; was not born or raised here.  I am actually from Lockport, NY, known as having the most locks on the Erie Canal, among other things, located around Buffalo and Niagara Falls.  For the first year and a half I lived here, I thought I was on another planet.  It takes a while to adjust to moving, which I did to take the Archivists position at the HSBC.  Each new place has a different rhythm and pace.  Reading reminds me of a city, plopped down in the middle of a field, which gives it a unique character that is actually peaceful.  No major city traffic, no city noise and if you travel 10 minutes down the road, you are in the country.  Berks County is the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country (Lancaster, PA just has better publicists) and that heritage is old, strong and interesting.  One does not have to grow up in a location to appreciate the history of where they are living.  In fact, one of my favorite pre-wedding gifts from my soon-to-be hubby is his grandmother’s handwritten PA Dutch Cookbook; of, course, I have to preserve it first.

As stated in the About Me section, I am the HSBC’s first officially trained archivist.  What exactly does that mean?  Answer: A LOT OF WORK.  Since October of 2008, we have started inventorying the entire collection, mostly because we really do not know what we have.  Hidden, literally, in this facility is a wealth of information, which has been buried in boxes and hidden from the light of day.  The library was run for years by retired librarians, who did what they could based on what they knew and to make it easier on them to find things.  There is no consistency in how they cataloged a book, let alone a document, or why some donations received more care than others did.  The bigger the collection, the better the chances there is no finding guide, nor did that collection receive the proper care.  Archives are all about arrangement and access; and unfortunately, sometimes the best way to start organizing is to start from scratch.  In the two and a half years since starting the inventory, we have located and identified manuscripts, deeds, maps and other documents that no one knew we had; and it is only the beginning.

I will try my best to inform and educate not just on preservation, arrangement and access, but on the history as well.  I am not an expert on Berks County History, nor will I ever be, but my main job is to educate and inform.  Archives and history are not boring and static and if you have ever visited us, you know we like to have fun and learn.  I hope you will come to appreciate this history as I have and find this interesting and informative.  Please feel free to comment or add your own information.  History does not exist in a vacuum everyone has knowledge to contribute.