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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree - February/March 2005
Why Migration Studies Can Extend Family Lines

Knowing the migration patterns and routes used by our ancestors in the westward expansion of the United States is critical to success in genealogical research.  The phrase "go west young man" held a unique context that has a totally different meaning than most people today can comprehend unless they have an interest in history.

Our ancestors were faced with a variety of factors that prompted them to move westward.  Some migrated voluntarily while others were forced to move.  A sampling of the most common factors that led to migration would include the following:

1. Promises of new land
2. Economic opportunity
3. Religious issues
4. The desire to have a fresh start in life
5. Escape a family problem or community situation
6. The shift in our economy from agriculture to industrialized
7. Development of our canal and railroad system
8. Natural or man-made disasters that occurred in a given community or region
9. Epidemics

Land and economic issues tended to be main factors that fueled migration to the west.  The amount of available land quickly disappeared along the eastern coast as our population increased.    Agriculture was the dominant occupation in our early history.  Inefficient farming methods caused the soil to lose its fertility quickly.  This forced farmers to look westward.  Families tended to be large.  Since the first-born usually inherited whatever property or wealth a family owned, the children were eventually forced to look elsewhere for employment.  As the industrial revolution began to take hold in America, many young people were eager to escape back-breaking labor on farms for city life.  Men who were skilled enough to work on canal and railroad projects were always moving westward.  Although America was touted as a bastion of religious freedom, various religious groups found it difficult to adjust or find acceptance in certain areas in the east.  The Mormons would be one of many examples of religious groups that chose to move westward.

When tracking ancestors who migrated, you should consider the following factors:

1. Study a county or state history of the area where the migration occurred (this may shed information on where they migrated from)
2. Check the topography of the area was to see what land, sea, or mountain barriers existed at the time period when your ancestor would have been in the area
3. Locate the nearest county courthouse to the area where surviving records for that time period would exist
4.  Investigate all possibilities of how they got from Point A to Point B
5. What types of transportation would have been feasible in the terrain
6. Based on what you know about the ancestor or family, compile a list of what records might have been generated (birth, marriage, death, school enrollment, etc.)

Compiled genealogies can provide significant clues to migration patterns, sketches of homesteads, family group sheets and pedigree charts.  Histories of given localities are another excellent source.  This information can be found in books, videos, websites, oral history compilations, regional histories, ethnic histories, and church records and histories.

The Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy periodically holds a 20 course session on this subject at their January educational conference.  I strongly recommend this tract for anyone researching their family.  Information on future subjects can be found at the following website:

Bryan L. Mulcahy
Reference Librarian
Fort Myers-Lee County Library
2050 Central Avenue
Fort Myers, FL  33901-3917
Tel: (239)- 479-4651
Fax: (239)- 479-4634

Return to February/March 2005 magazine


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