There is an important genealogical source for New England researchers, one that often contains unique information that you will not find anywhere else. You won’t find this source on Ancestry.com, but is often freely available online. It is an official government record that can be quite valuable, if you know where to look for it, and how to use it.
I’m talking about town annual reports (also called municipal reports). Not to be confused with privately published town directories, town annual reports were (and still are) published annually to describe the finances of the town, summarizing the town’s receipts and expenditures. The earliest ones I’ve seen date to the early 1800s and were rather sparse, just giving the basic accounting. But over time the reports started getting more and more detailed, amounting, in some cases, to 400 pages or more.
What You Might Find
From a genealogical perspective, the kinds of riches I’ve found in annual reports include:
- Tables of all the births, marriages and deaths in the town for the preceding year. This can be quite important if the original vital records were destroyed in a later fire, for example.
- I’ve even seen cases where a town report includes a section of previously unpublished vital records from earlier years. E.g., Dover, N.H.’s 1902 annual report has several pages of previously unpublished marriages from 1860-67.
- List of cemetery interments in the previous year, which might name out-of-town deceased persons, “brought home” to be buried.
- Names of elected officials, including minor offices (fence viewer, sealer of weights, etc.)
- Names of holders of special licences from the town, e.g., licenced drainlayers.
- Names of town employees, from clerical staff to police to teachers.
- A list of everyone the town paid in the previous year. If you had an ancestor who was in the construction trades, it is quite possible that he did contract work for the town at some point.
- Members of volunteer fire engine companies.
- List of high school graduates in the past year.
- List of students with perfect attendance, or honor roll students.
- In general, a lot of background information on the town, major events that occurred in the last year, a lot of local color that helps you understand your ancestor’s life.
Riches in Poor Records
But of all the information found in an annual report, perhaps the most unique and most important bits are found in the sections detailing the operations of the town’s poor house or poor farm.
If you’ve ever tried it, you know that tracing the lives of poor ancestors is quite challenging. Paupers tend not to own land or have estates that end up in probate court. They tend not to show up in the newspapers with tales of a lavish society wedding, or get detailed coverage in their obituaries. At the same time, not many 19th century poor house records survived. So, to the extent the poor house is covered in the town annual reports, this can be critical.
The kinds of poor house records you can find in annual reports include:
- Names of current residents of the poor house. Men are usually given by first and last name, but women are often just Mrs. Smith, or Widow Smith.
- For immigrants, sometimes country of birth is given.
- For paupers lodged with others in the town, who took them in and how much they were compensated.
- Names of paupers who were sick, and how much the doctor was paid.
- Names of paupers who died in the past year, and their ages.
- I know this does not sound like a lot of information, but sometimes it is all you have. I recently cemented a Mayflower Society application by tracing a man who seemed to drop off the face of the earth, but was shown to be in the poor house, where he died, by using the information in a 19th century town annual report.
How to Use
First thing, read the title page carefully. It will typically say it is the report for “year ending…” and then give a date. Note this date. Don’t assume that the town operates on a calendar year basis. They may operate on a fiscal calendar that starts in July, for example. And don’t assume the publication year is the same as the year of coverage. A report might cover the year 1900, but be published in March 1901. There are many variations.
Second, look for mentions of your ancestor over a series of consecutive reports. When was he first mentioned? When was he last mentioned? When was the last time he was called “junior”? When was the first time he did something only an adult could do, like be elected to office?
Although any one piece of information might be slight, putting it together can give you more powerful insights.
Where to Find Town Reports
- Massachusetts: You can download many from the state library’s website.
- New Hampshire: The University of New Hampshire has many of them in their online Digital Collection.
- Maine: The University of Maine has many available from their DigitalCommons website.
- Vermont: The Secretary of State has copies since 2003 in their online VT-Re·Tain (instructions on their website). I’m not aware of a central archive for historical Vermont town reports but if you search the web for the name of the town and “town report” or “municipal report” you will sometimes get lucky, e.g., the Northfield Historical Society’s nearly complete 160 year run of town reports.
- Connecticut and Rhode Island: Similar story. I am not aware of any centralized collection. Try the usual suspects: town clerks, local libraries, historical societies, state libraries, state historical societies, etc.
(If you know of any other good sources of town reports, especially for Connecticut or Rhode Island, please let me know!)