Many of us have lineages traceable to America's earliest settlements. That makes our ancestral quests far different from those whose forefathers arrived via Ellis Island early in the 20th century.
Many of the first settlers traveled down wagon roads and Indian trails, along rivers and canals and railroads south and west, living and writing American history as they went.
Whether motivated by religious freedom, the lure of land where they could raise a family, or the possibility of gold in "them thar hills," they likely took with them the necessary tools: picks and pans for digging gold or seeds, hoes and Bibles for planting crops and churches.
As descendants of these early sojourners, we must pack our own tools for identifying the trails they traveled and the records they created. What do we need to work backward 400 years to identify the first in our line to set foot in the new world? Determination and knowledge.
Each of us has to muster his own determination, but knowledge is everywhere for the garnering.
Online sources to steer you
Two great places to start are USGenWeb Project (www.usgenweb .org) and Google (google.com). I find myself jumping back and forth between the two as I work online.
Suppose a man first settled in Maryland in the late 1700s. Several generations of his descendants traveled across Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana to Illinois, where the family lives today.
Once at the GenWeb home page, I can see to the left a list of all 50 states. The sites for those states are each a little different, but basically all will relate the history of the state, when it was formed and settled, and, in many cases, what groups of migrants came into the area. Each state site also will offer links to each of its counties.
Exploring all the nooks, crannies and links for states and counties will arm a researcher with the knowledge necessary to begin a quest for records. For example, suppose while researching in Richmond, Ind., records I learn that the previous generation lived in Zanesville, Ohio. Not having a clue where that is, I Google "Zanesville" and learn that it is in Muskingum County. From GenWeb I select that county.
Filling in the details of life
At the Muskingum site I find some wonderful maps, links to repositories that house the records I'll need, a digitized copy of a 1905 county history, connections to historical newspaper articles, and many other materials to keep me busy for awhile.
If ancestors followed this migration route, it won't take long to realize they were likely using the National Road, heavily traveled in the first half of the 19th century. Explore such possibilities by Googling them.
"National Road" in the Google search engine nets several interesting connections, including one historical account (at www.history-magazine.com/natroad.html) that says, "The traffic was so heavy that generally it was safe from highway robbery, but the traveler by coach had his expedition spiced by the occasional assaults of highwaymen, who sprang out of the pines that in some places made perpetual night of the most brightest day. Nearly every mile had its tavern, and every tavern its pretty maid or jovial host."
Such vivid descriptions certainly paint pictures of what life in that time and place was like. Forefathers didn't live in vacuums. They were influenced by the politics of the community in which they lived, the directions in which their religious beliefs pointed them, floods that washed away the fields, and sicknesses that swept through neighbors' homes.
As genealogists we cannot hope to succeed in retracing our families' footsteps if we don't have the knowledge of what their lives were like.