Successful interpretation of an historical record requires many skills. Of course, you first need to know the record might even exist. Then you need to be able to find the record, whether online, in a state archive or in the basement of a town hall. Perhaps then you need skills in paleography, knowledge of how read early handwriting. But then, to really understand the record, to truly grasp its significance, you need to understand the laws and customs under which the record was created.
There are several ways to understand such laws and customs. You could, for example, seek out the published laws of a state, in huge multi-volume compendia, and try to discern which laws were in effect at a given time, and which constrained the duties of a town officer like a town clerk or selectman. This would be quite a task. Fortunately, you don’t need to do it. Certainly the town clerks of the past didn’t do this. They had the benefit of published manuals that provided summaries of the laws that pertained to their duties, often accompanied by reusable templates or forms they could apply in their work.
One such manual I recommend looking at is William M. Richardson’s 1829 The New-Hampshire Town Officer, which can be freely viewed or downloaded from the Internet Archive.
Think of this book as a way to get in the head of a New Hampshire town clerk or selectman circa 1829, to see how he saw his role and his responsibilities.
The thirty-four chapters cover a wide range of topics:
- Of Town Meetings
- Of the Drawing of Grand and Petit Jurors
- Of the Perambulation of Lines Between Towns
- Of the Powers and Duties of Constables
- Of the Laws Relating to the Maintenance of Illegitimate Children
- Of the Profanation of the Sabbath
- Of Marriages, Births and Burials
- Of Masters and Apprentices
- Of the Laws Made to Prevent the Spreading of the Small Pox
- Of the Laws Relating to Post Guides
- Of the Laws Regulating Fences
- Of the Laws Regulating Swine
- Of the Law Relative to Stray and Lost Goods
- Of the Laws Regulating Pounds
- Of the Laws Relating to the Sale of Cord Wood
- Of the Laws Regulating Weights and Measures
- Of Licensed Houses
- Of the Laws Relating to Pedlars, Hawkers and Show-men
- Of the Laws Regulating the Keeping, Selling and Transporting of Gunpowder
- Of the Laws Relating to School Districts
- Of Actions and Process in Favor of and Against Towns
- Of the Power of Towns to Make By-Laws
- Of the Laws Relating to Watchmen in Towns
- Of the Laws Relating to Idiots, Lunatics, and Persons Distracted
- Of the Duties of Selectmen With Respect to the Rations and Arms of the Militia in Certain Cases
- Of the Laws Related to Common Nuisances
- Of the Laws Relating to Proprietary Records
- Of the Laws Related to the Extinguishment of Fires
- Of the Choice of Representatives in Classed Towns
- Of the Laws Related to the Marking of Sheep
- Statutes Allowing Premiums for Killing Wolves, Wild Cats, Bears and Crows
- Of the Maintenance of Paupers
- Of the Assessment and Collection of Taxes
- Of Laying Out, Widening, Straitening, Repairing and Discontinuing Highways, and Other Matters Related to Roads
There is much here that should be of interest to a genealogist. Of course, Chapter 7 “Of Marriages, Births and Burials” is a must-read, although it is sobering to see that this chapter is but two pages in length, compared to the six pages of Chapter 12 “Of the Laws Regulating Swine.” Clearly, the recording of vital records was not a top priority for town officers in 1829 New Hampshire. But we already knew that, didn’t we?
If you are not already using town tax records in your research, read at least the start of Chapter 33 and consider how you might use such records to narrow down the dates which your ancestors were in a particular town.
I consider this book to be an essential companion when reviewing the “New Hampshire, Town Clerk, Vital and Town Records, 1636-1947” collection on FamilySearch.org. It makes it easy to go from the record, to the law that defines the related requirements, to the template of the language the town officers might use in that circumstance. Richardson’s The New-Hampshire Town Officer helps me get into the head of that town clerk or selectmen, and by doing so helps me better understand the records. Give it a try yourself. You can’t beat the price!
(Illustration is “Old Derryfield [Manchester] Meeting House” from Allan Forbes, Towns of New England and Old England, Ireland and Scotland (Boston: State Street Trust Company, 1921), 120.)
Publisher: Jacob B. Moore (Concord)
Coverage: New Hampshire, 19th century