Genealogy Connect

Missing Ancestors? Check the Feeder States!

Posted on October 26, 2015
By Jena Crable

Here’s a familiar genealogical conundrum: A researcher has traced his/her ancestors from present-day California back to the Dust Bowl-era in Nebraska, into Missouri just as it was achieving statehood, and finally to Indiana in the 1830s. At that point, the trail has grown cold even though legend has it that the family patriarch was a Pennsylvania patriot during the Revolution. So, how does the genealogist pick up the scent of the missing ancestor at this point?

One way to find missing ancestors is by studying the various migration routes our relatives traveled to their new homes. For instance, before 1800, between Boston, Massachusetts, and Charleston, South Carolina, our forebears followed one of a score or more of tested land and/or river routes. Our hypothetical Pennsylvanian, for example, might have traversed the Southern Road, from Philadelphia to Baltimore, where he could pick up the National Road. This would have taken him into western Maryland, briefly back into Pennsylvania, and then into western Virginia (today West Virginia), before the road leveled off in Ohio and Indiana. By the 1830s, of course, canals and railroads were beginning to compete with roads and turnpikes as the principal means of westward transportation.

If we know the most likely routes our “missing ancestors” could have taken from the Eastern seaboard, we can begin to look for them in the so-called “feeder states” or “stop-over states,” where they quite likely established quarters for a period of time–owing to reasons of topography, health, limited resources, and so forth. Western New York, for instance, was an important way station for New Englanders heading along the Great Genesee Road to Ohio, and Kentucky was an important “feeder state” for persons traversing the “Wilderness Road” to Missouri, as was Tennessee for persons intent upon Arkansas.

Since your ancestors couldn’t have vanished into thin air, you might be able to pick up their trail in one of the “feeder states.”

October is National Family History Month! Genealogy Connect contains a number of outstanding reference works to help your community identify deep historical connections while exploring their roots. 

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