Stumped? Have You Checked for These Records? Part 4: Old Settlers Organizations

Postcard from Ancestry Historical Postcard Collection: Old Home Week, Medina N.Y., ca. 1893-1907 by Paula Stuart-Warren, CG

Might a story about a relative’s journey across the U.S. or a listing of family birth dates and places be helpful? Such details are often found in the records of pioneer settler organizations. The social aspect of these organizations was a prime factor in their development; many early settlers had survived tough situations, felt a special kinship, and a need to maintain contact. Pioneer Associations, Old Settlers Clubs, and similar groups filled these needs.

Some were begun by the pioneers to commemorate their own pioneer status in the community. Others were formed by descendants of the pioneers. As new settlers arrived in an area, earlier residents felt encroached upon. They may have formed a group with guidelines that made it impossible for these “new kids” to join. Other localities had very loose rules for membership and old settler gatherings became a community-wide event.

Some groups had officers, application forms, and dues. Other were spur of the moment–“let’s have a picnic” and possibly attendees were asked to sign their names, ages, names of family members, when arrived, and where they came from or where they were born.

Membership was generally restricted to those who were residents before a specified date, such as statehood or county formation. Ethnic restrictions were evident in a significant number of the organizations and many restricted membership to white males. They usually ignored the Indians who were the true early settlers. Groups experienced declining membership as members moved or died, and guidelines were relaxed to admit spouses and descendants. Some organizations had different levels of membership so that settlers of a later time period could join. Other pioneer organizations sprang up with members who shared similar occupations or hobbies.

The Pioneer Association of Wyoming listed duties, including attendance at funerals of all members and any other person the officers stipulated, with a fine of $2.50 for failing to attend without sufficient cause.

Later Evolvement
The pioneer organization may have later evolved into the state or county historical society. The Pioneer and Historical Society of Oregon was especially diligent in collecting data on the pioneers and their families with a stated purpose of preserving this for future historians in the society’s archives. The secretary’s report of 1875 pleaded for several things:

  • More complete data from everyone 
  • Relatives or friends of deceased pioneers to give the name; age; nativity; time of starting and arriving on the coast; the month, day, and year of death; and the full name, age, and residence of descendants
  • Written statements of events regarding the trip to Oregon 

The following is from the published fourth annual proceedings of this society in 1875:

William Henry Gray, born Sept. 8, 1810, Herkimer County, N.Y.; started for this coast April 15, 1836, arrived Sept. 2, 1836.
Mary Augusta Dix Gray born Jan. 2, 1810, Clinton County, N.Y.; started for the coast Feb. 24, 1838, arrived August 28, 1838.
Sarah Story Naylor, born Cook County, Tenn.; started for the coast May 15, 1843, arrived 1843; died 1852.

Group of One
Judge Elial Todd Foote, for many years a resident of Jamestown, Chautauqua County, New York, wrote to settlers and their families, including many who had moved elsewhere. The replies are fascinating, sharing family details and migrations. In 1873, Foote added annotations to a copy of the 1828 census of Jamestown with death dates and locations to where old settlers had moved. He helped organize a June 1873 town reunion and the Fredonia Censor listed those attending with details on old settlers. His papers are at the Chautauqua County Historical Society in Jamestown. 
The earliest year of settlement shown is 1787. Foote listed the year of arrival in the county or if born in the county, name of the pioneer, residence as of 1873, and age. For example:

1805: Mrs. H. Walker, residing in St. Johns Michigan, age 71
1805: Mrs. Zetta Cushing, born in Massachusetts in 1770; settled in Pomfret in 1805; died  in Fredonia in 1839

Beyond Hereeditary Societies
Some old settlers’ societies have gathered more information on entire families and migration detail than most hereditary and lineage societies. Many settler groups kept gathering information from the settler for long periods of time.  
Finding Records
Search for records and published data of these groups at historical and genealogical societies, museums, university and public libraries, and the Family History Library. Check the finding aids listed in Part Three of this series (see the links at the end of the article). Booklets and annual volumes exist for some groups and may list names and dates of death.
County and town histories often tell of organizations, date of creation, and the first officers. Since many members were community movers and shakers, even possibly the newspaper owner, newspapers covered the organization’s activities. The article may appear in relation to meetings, dinners, or picnics and list those who had died since the previous event, those attending from the furthest distance, or who had the most grandchildren. If the newspaper had space, a list of past and present members, date of arrival in the area, and where the person died might be listed as well as places where members had moved. Events usually occurred at the same time each year and this gives an approximate date to search in unindexed papers. 
Commemorative Booklets
A booklet about an 1867 Old Settlers Festival in Buffalo, New York, contained details such as these:

Mary Ann Bowen, now Mrs. G. H. Wilcox, Elmwood, Tuscola Co. Mich.
Caroline Bowen, now Mrs. Edmunds, Madison, Wisc.

Many New England towns held Old Home Weeks and some produced booklets with names and dates.
Research Reminder    
Don’t forget to do research in original records to verify the data given. That is unless your ancestors had your perfect mind and never got a name, date, or place wrong!
To learn more, check out these websites and do some keyword searching for your areas of interest.

150th anniversary of the settlement of Newbury, Vermont:
Old Home Week, August 11-16, 1912
The Old Settlers Association of North Texas
Old Settlers Union of Peoria (Illinois)
Greene County Old Settlers (Iowa)

The “Have You Checked for These Records?” series is designed to acquaint readers with records often overlooked in the research process. For those of you who missed earlier installments, here are links to them:

Part 1: Overview

Part 2: Orphanage Records

Part 3: Century Farms

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article. 

About the Author
Paula Stuart-Warren, CG, of St. Paul, Minnesota, is a professional genealogist, consultant, writer, and lecturer who is frequently on the road. She coordinates the intermediate course, American Records and Research, at the annual Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. She writes for several periodicals including Ancestry Magazine. Comments will reach her at but she regrets that she is unable to answer individual genealogical research inquiries due to the volume of requests. From time to time, comments from readers may be quoted in her writings; your name will not be used, but your place of residence might be listed (i.e., Shreveport, LA).
Upcoming Appearances by Paula Stuart-Warren
31 March 2007, Sacramento, California
Root Cellar-Sacramento Genealogical Society, Annual Spring Seminar
13-14 April 2007, Columbus, Ohio
Ohio Genealogical Society 2007 Conference
21 April 2007, Moline, Illinois
33rd Annual Quad Cities Genealogical Conference

2 thoughts on “Stumped? Have You Checked for These Records? Part 4: Old Settlers Organizations

  1. This is the first copy I have received since I wrote to say I no longer received any publications from Ancestry quite some time ago. I hope this means I will continue to get it.
    Nadine Mordt

  2. You’ve given me a great deal number of places to look, which I will do once I’ve gotten over this bump.

    I’m looking for information about a photographer (New York City or the Bronx) who was quite popular in the 1920s and 30s. I know his name and some of his descendants, but not the location of his studio(s). Any ideas.

    Thank you.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *