06 August 2011

Are you sure you're looking in the right county for those records?

When doing genealogical or historical research, it's helpful (if not essential) to know what counties to search for the timeframe you're interested in.  And as we all know, boundaries shift over time.  So you may think you know what counties to search, but is there a chance you're missing something?

Take a look at this example.  Let's assume you're looking for records for your homesteading ancestors who settled in the region between Albuquerque, Los Alamos, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.  This animation shows the boundaries by decade from 1850 to 1950.  Those county boundaries were anything but stable.  Take for example the community of Los Alamos; it was part of the following counties during that period:  Santa Fe, Rio Arriba, Bernalillo, and Los Alamos.

And this is not the exception, it's the rule.  According to historical geography expert John H. Long, on average, a county's boundaries shifted 4.5 times during its existence.  Especially during times of colonization and westward expansion, the boundaries on those frontier counties typically shifted much more than that, new counties were created, and old counties became defunct, and counties swapped parcels of land.

So if you haven't found some records on your ancestors where you expected to, here are 5 quick steps to see if shifting boundaries may be the culprit, and which other counties you might need to look in for the records you seek: