How to Research Your Quaker Ancestry


By the Revolutionary War period, Quakers were
about the fifth largest religious group in the American colonies. Almost half of the American colonies were
controlled by Quakers: the Jerseys, Rhode Island, Delaware, Pennsylvania, North and
South Carolina—we were a large group. And so most Americans, if they shake their
family tree, a Quaker nut is going to fall out. I have seen some genealogists speculate that
if your family arrived in the United States before 1860, there’s probably a 50-50 chance
that you have a Quaker ancestor somewhere. There are so many values to knowing your Quaker
ancestry. Some people just really like to know as part
of their identity: Who am I made of? Who do I come from? I hear stories all the time of people that
say that they started going to meeting because they heard that they had Quaker ancestry. It’s like putting together a puzzle. Everyone has parents, so there are always
links to be pushed back one more generation. It’s also interesting to see how families
spread out, particularly when Quaker families before 1900 were routinely having 8 or 10
or 12 children. If your ancestors lived, for example, in Kentucky
in the 19th century, they weren’t Quakers because there were no Quakers there. On the other hand, if you can trace them back
to the 18th century in a place like Chester County, Pennsylvania, or Guilford County,
North Carolina, or on Long Island, then the chances are very good that you’ve got a
Quaker connection somewhere. And you could trace your family’s migrations
along the Quaker migration routes. From England into the colonies, from the Delaware
Valley down into the south, and then anti-slavery migrations up into Indiana and then following
the frontier, a route into the Northwest by the late 1800s and then a route into California
in the late 1800s. All along that way will be these Quaker colleges
that were established by the Friends as they moved west. Genealogists are usually very excited when
they discover they have Quaker ancestors because Quakers have been such good record keepers
over three and a half centuries. Quakers are probably easier to trace than
those of any other church—with perhaps the exception of the Latter-Day Saints, the Mormons,
for whom of course genealogy is a religious duty. Quakers kept excellent records because, as
a non-conformist group, much of the legality of their marriage and their burials related
to their keeping meticulous records about who was marrying whom and where, and where’d
they come from. These records have been kept in Quaker libraries. You can contact us at Haverford, you can contact
our sibling collections at Swarthmore or Guilford or Earlham (at least in the United States)
and we can try to help you figure out where your family is from and where Quakers might
have intersected with that. If you’re over in London, it’s the Friends
House Library in London. In Philadelphia it would be Haverford College,
Swarthmore College. Out in Indiana it would be the Earlham College
archives. Here in Greensboro it would be the Guilford
College archives. Other Quaker colleges out to the coast—George
Fox in Oregon, Whittier in southern California, Friends University in Wichita, William Penn
University in Oskaloosa, Iowa—would also have those sorts of records. If you’re comfortable with online technology,
chances are that your local public library is going to have a subscription to Ancestry.com. So you can simply put in that name: “John
Hadley, Alamance County, North Carolina, 1850” and see if there is any match with the Quaker
records from North Carolina that have been digitized. Ancestry.com has more than 6.5 million Quaker
records, and these predominantly come from a collaboration between Haverford, Swarthmore
College, Guilford College, and Earlham College. They have Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Baltimore
Yearly Meeting, I know Indiana, North Carolina Yearly Meetings. They have a lot of material and you can go
through and go by the Yearly Meeting and just look at minutes up to 1935. I think that there’s a real value in knowing
it’s not just who I am today, but it’s this larger family that we come from, and
that includes our ancestors.

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