How do you know if your ancestors were Quakers? Here’s how to research your Quaker ancestry.
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Max Carter: 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.
How to Research Your Quaker Ancestry
Thomas Hamm: 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.
The Value of Knowing Your Quaker Ancestry
Mary Crauderueff: 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.
Thomas Hamm: 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.
Where Quakers Lived
Thomas Hamm: 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.
Max Carter: 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.
Quaker Record Keeping
Thomas Hamm: 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.
Max Carter: 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.
Using Quaker Libraries
Mary Crauderueff: 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.
Max Carter: 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.
Using Online Resources
Thomas Hamm: 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.
Mary Crauderueff: 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.
- How much do you know about your own ancestry? What is the value of looking into it?
- Do you have Quaker ancestors? Where did they live?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.