Are Quakers in Your Ancestral Mix? by Mary Penner

What do James Dean, Daniel Boone, Richard Nixon, Dave Matthews, Betsy Ross, Joan Baez, and James Michener have in common? They either had family members who were Quakers, were raised in a Quaker home, or counted themselves among the Quaker faithful.

Having Quakers in your family tree, even if they weren’t famous, can be like a genealogical parting of the Red Sea opening up a promised land flowing with ancestors.

The Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers, traces its origins to George Fox. In mid-seventeenth century England, Fox was disillusioned with the current religious practices and sought a more enlightened form of worship. When he was nineteen, Fox believed he received a revelation from God. This revelation, based on the concept of “Inner Light,” fueled a movement that snowballed into a full-blown religion across England.

Eventually, Quakers made their way across the Atlantic, but the welcome mat wasn’t always out. Two Quaker women, suspected of being witches, were promptly deported from Boston in 1656. Undeterred, more and more Quakers immigrated to North America and before long the religion had a strong presence in the Colonies.

Family history researchers relish having Quaker roots because the Quakers were diligent note-takers. These notes, or minutes, recorded at their monthly meeting for business, hold bundles of clues about our Quaker ancestors. For example, the minutes noted marriages. The industrious clerk recorded the marriage vows that my ancestor Manoah Chiles repeated when he married his second wife in the Virginia Cedar Creek Monthly Meeting in 1742. He also threw in some valuable genealogical scoops: “Manoah Chiles, son of Henry, deceased of the county of Hanover, and Anne Cheadle, daughter of John Cheadle of the county of Caroline.” The minutes often recorded births and deaths of members, as well.

Additionally, Quaker minutes frequently noted the comings and goings of its members. You might find a record stating that a member transferred to a different meeting. You will also learn about members who were disowned. Many were dismissed from the group for engaging in military service. My ancestor, Peter Hubbard, involved in a contentious land dispute with his brother, was disowned “whilst he remains in that un-Christian spirit.”

How likely is it that some of your ancestors were Quakers? If your ancestors lived in the eastern third of the country before the middle of the nineteenth century, the chances are good that you’ve got a Quaker in your background. Quakers were widespread throughout the colonies in the eighteenth century with strong populations in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, and North Carolina. In the next century, large populations of Quakers lived in Tennessee, Indiana, and Ohio.

Start your search for Quaker ancestors with the works of William Hinshaw. His six-volume Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy abstracts more than 500,000 details of Quaker happenings. Digital images of all six volumes are on Ancestry. Search the Ancestry Card Catalog for “Quaker” and you’ll find Hinshaw’s works as well as a number of other resources related to Quakers.

The book, Our Quaker Ancestors, by Ellen and David Berry provides a solid overview of the types of records available and where you might find them. This book is available in the Ancestry Store.

A number of early Quaker records are housed at college libraries. Check out the Friends Collection at Earlham College. You’ll find a large digital library of Quaker-related materials. Another substantial collection is at Swarthmore College’s Friends Historical Library.

Hundreds of websites are devoted to Quaker research. And, of course, Quakers are still quite active today. If you encounter an ancestor who joined the Society of Friends you may be in for some interesting discoveries.

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Genealogist Mary Penner writes “Lineage Lessons,” a weekly genealogy column, for the Albuquerque Tribune. She can be reached through her website (

10 thoughts on “Are Quakers in Your Ancestral Mix? by Mary Penner

  1. When I started my research, I had no idea that my son’s roots went all the way to having his gr. gr. etc. etc. grandparents buried in England next to William Penn (I know there are thousands out here who can claim the same!). But, it really opened up a HUGE research bonanza. Finding that most of his paternal ancestors were Philadelphia Quakers made finding such wonderful primary sources easy as pie. Regicide? His gr. etc. grandfather died in the Tower of London. Yellow fever? His gr. gr. gr. grandfather and early MD and founding member of so many Philadelphia institutions, stayed in Philly and ministered along side of Benjamin Rush. His gr. gr. grandmother? She eloped with a man, wrote an apology letter to her uncle Samuel Powel, mayor of Philly, that ended up with “I’ll be over for the money later” basically 🙂 and her husband went on to be arguably the first Coast Guard cutter captain in the US. Find a quaker relative or relatives and the world of genealogy is your oyster! As for me? Don’t ask. I’ve been trying to find the same missing ancestor for over thirty years…. No quakers in my line unfortunately.

  2. PS – I meant to add this: I became a Quaker myself LONG before I knew about my husband’s family. Later in life, I remarried and once again married another person who had deep quaker roots that he knew nothing about. So, those ancestry ‘commercials’ on Antiques Roadshow always make me smile. I adopted the religion. I ended up marrying two men who later learned that they were descended from notable Quakers. There must be something to ancestry’s ‘commercials.’

  3. Since quakers weren’t tolerated in the Puritan New england colonies of New Hampshire, connecticut or Massachusetts they often found a haven in Roger Williams’ RI, (even though he was a Baptist) especially along the coastal areas around Newport, RI and neighboring southeastern MA and Cape Cod.

    Since quakers led a life of simplicity many of them were buried on family farms without inscriptions on headstones


  4. I have not one Quaker ancestor, I have all my father’s Quaker ancestors . Until the late 18th or 19th century, that is. It did make it easy to track back 12 generations via the Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy! It is not so easy to track them in the old country – Ireland, England, Scotland. I know there is a Quaker center (library)that might help in London but do not know the address or who to contact. I did receive a copy of one 17th century letter of an ancestor – but would like to find more. I don’t think there is a Hinshaw Encyclopedia for England. By the way, the above comment about sources for Quaker information left out Haverford College. The library there has a good collection of Quaker material.
    At the moment I am really angry at the Quaker past way of life. My father’s family went from Virginia to North Carolina where they lived in the swamps (they owned 1,000 acres of the Dismal Swamp). The small Quaker meetings there were the center of their lives. They made marriage within the meeting a religious thing. Of course that meant marriage with cousins. My family is a tangled web of cousin marriages and marriages with certain families over and over again. In one case three of my line married three of one of those other lines on the same day. Results? Genetic difficulties. I have a serious blood problem (Factor V Leiden – in my case heterozygous) that makes for serious clots. I will be on Coumadin for life – and that carefully monitored. Then I had a bicorneate uterus (a biforcated uterus) that caused 6 miscarriages before it was found and surgically corrected and I had two daughters successfully. Three other members of my family have had both conditions. I know that the Quakers did not know what harm cousin marriage could do. It’s just that they were (and in some cases are) so sure that they are right – about their rules and way of life. It’s dangerous to be so sure! Has anyone mentioned this kind of problem to the polygamists?? It must be worse for some of them.

  5. The New Jersey Archives contain minutes of Quaker meetings and are rich with information.

    In the 7o’s, while living in Millbrae, CA. I drove into S.F. to a genealogical library, the name of which I can’t remember. I inquired about my ancestors, the Borton’s, and the well informed librarian said, “Look in the Haines books as they intermarried. From there, I purchased the Borton and Haines family history books, and I was soon guided to the New Jersey Archives. What wonderful information. Thank you Quaker ancestors and thank you to helpful librarians and fellow tenealogists.

  6. There are two great sources of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware Quaker information in Philadelphia. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania (both are now located in the same building) have great collections and you can access the catalog at HSP online.

  7. Just wanted to say thank you!!thank you!! thak you
    for all the information on finding Quaker ancestors.

  8. Thank you for this article on Quaker genealogy. It is a relief to find that I am not at a dead end with my ancestors. I have known for many years that one branch of my father’s side of the family tree included Quakers who moved to Addison County in Vermont. I just recently found that ancestor from a different branch that seemed to be a dead end was buried in the Friend’s cemetery in the same county. I was a bit frustrated after finding one of the cemeteries and finding that most of the graves were marked by unmarked rocks. I did feel lucky that I found it as it was about 500 feet off of a small dirt road with the only break in the brush around it being a narrow path for a small mower with a clearance of about 7 feet. I never did find the second one that I was looking for within 2 miles even though it seemed to be clearly marked on 2 different maps. I will keep searching for these ancesors with these new ideas. Thank you again!

  9. Descendants of Mary Barrett Dyer, the Quaker martyr, who was hanged in Boston on June 01, 1660, includes both Presidents Bush, and Senator John Kerry. “Quaker” Presidents also include Herbert Hoover, and Dwight Eisenhower.
    Others are Daniel Carter Beard (co-founder if BSA).
    Inter-marriage is not just a Quaker thing. Other religious groups have historically done the same. Also, early American settlements were isolated, due to lack of roads, which promoted inter-marriage within the community. It was common for a brother and sister to marry a sister and brother, or first or second cousins, especially in rural areas.

  10. I’m just now getting to this information and wanted to say that my mothers’ paternal line has ties to Isaac Pennington through one of the female members. I’m still trying to fill in the blanks but enjoy researching the Quaker way of life. While my mother’s father and grandfather weren’t ‘practiced Quakers’ (is that a proper term?) I know that they held many beliefs and practices to heart! This line came into the Carolinas and moved to Indiana.

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