from scholarly works and my personal experiences.
Understanding Quaker Records
Researching a Quaker ancestor is a challenge! Quaker traditions and customs affect
how you should interpret data—even Federal Census records.
The following information applies to Quaker research from the 1600s to about 1828. In
1828, the Society of Friends split along doctrinal lines. If you are doing research beyond
1828, some of the same information will apply, depending on the location or doctrinal
leaning of the Meeting.
|This is an example of minutes written on 30 of 1 m 1833 at the Norwich (Canada) Monthly Meeting.|
Benjamin West is mentioned. Following this is a note about the visit of Joseph Hoag, a respected
minister. West and Hoag were probably fourth cousins.
(1) A Friend didn’t usually live down the street from his Meeting place.
If you discover your ancestor is associated with a particular Quaker Meeting location, it doesn’t
necessarily mean that he lived in that town. He might not be in the same county, State, or
country! For example, during the 1790s, the Nine Partners Meeting in Dutchess County, New
York, held jurisdiction over Meetings in Canada.
As membership increased in the late 1700s and early 1800s, Meetings were divided into
associated units—from gatherings in homes, to Preparative Meetings, Monthly Meetings,
Quarterly Meetings, and the Yearly Meeting. Beginning in the 1820s, the Meeting units divided
again, this time into Orthodox versus Hicksite (or other Quaker movements). Always follow the
non-Quaker paper trail using Federal Census records or court documents to find your ancestor’s
(2) Quaker data are found in Meeting minutes.
Every Meeting was managed much like a business. Detailed Meeting minutes were written in
record books. In these handwritten books there might be birth records, inventories, membership
transfers, disciplinary actions, etc. There were Men’s Meeting Minutes and Women’s Meeting
Minutes, as the genders were considered to be equal. Dates of Meetings were listed with the
day of the month, month designator, and year, i.e. “20 of 12 m 1822.” Pay close attention to
Quaker Census. A Meeting’s membership list (also called a Quaker census) might include
all members’ birthdates and birthplaces. Usually the list will only include names for a
particular year. But some lists span several years—adding new members but not
subtracting those who have died or moved to another location.
Birth Records. By writing the baby’s name in the official book, the Meeting (as a
congregation) promised to take care of the child should anything happen to the parents.
There are no Quaker baptisms. In general, a firstborn boy was named after his mother’s
father. A firstborn girl was named after her father’s mother. Names did not have to be
Marriage Records. When you find a marriage record, it is actually an acknowledgement
that two people declared their marriage to each other. No minister or legal official was
required. No elaborate ceremony was held. A certificate (document) would be drawn up. It
would be signed by witnesses at the Meeting, and copied into the minutes.
Death Records. A mention of a Friend’s death in a record is highly unusual. Burials were
simple, without ceremony. Usually there was no marker (tombstone). This tradition
changed over the years. After the 1820s, there were often markers but these were not
ornate. These customs reflected the belief that all people were equal in life and death.
Quaker Discipline. Disciplinary actions were designed to keep Friends on the proper
path. Discipline might be required for disorderly conduct, immodesty, inappropriate
language, and not attending the Meeting. In all cases, there were chances to be in good
favor again—with a change in behavior, writing an apology, and/or doing work in the
service of the Meeting.
Dismissals. Dismissals from the Meeting happened occasionally. The family historian
might think, “That’s the end of it—my ancestor was no longer a Quaker after that.” Not
true! A Friend could offer an apology, usually written, expressing his understanding of the
dismissal. After consideration by committee, the individual was allowed to return to the
Meeting. The most common reason for dismissal was “marriage out of unity.” Another
common reason was not adhering to Quaker beliefs. This reason was used often in the
years up to the major schism of 1828.
(3) The United States Census records can be tough to interpret.
If you attempt to correlate 10-year census records with what you know about your Quaker
ancestors, you may feel like giving up. There are too many or too few children! Some are in the
wrong age group! These issues show up in 1790 to 1840 census records, because children’s
names are not listed.
We know the usual explanations: high infant mortality and census-taker errors, for example. But
there may be other reasons, and these have to do with Quaker customs.
Apprenticeships. In general, the progression of a child’s life was set. Beginning at about
age 8, a boy and girl would go to school until they were 14 years old. From 14 to about
age 21, boys would be apprenticed. This was almost mandatory. Their field of study was
determined by discussion of Friends in their Meeting. Girls might also become
apprentices. The children were placed with fellow Friends. The apprenticed children lived
with their new family, who were usually acquaintances or relatives. They were counted
with the other children in the house during a Federal Census.
Taking in additional children. The Friends believed that all Quaker children should be
given care until they could manage for themselves. This included orphans and children
from poor families. The phrase was “put out to Friends.” If there are extra children in your
ancestor’s census record, there may be children who have been welcomed into the family
from these circumstances.
(4) There are some excellent, free resources on the Web for your research.
Many minute books have been lost over time. If a Meeting place was laid down (discontinued),
the record books would often be taken home by a Friend, rather than passed along to the next
closest meeting. These books are still being discovered.
Most Quaker records that still exist have not been scanned for online use. You must go to a
depository library to view these, or request film or microfiche through the LDS or universities.
However, if you are persistent, you can find things for free. A large number of Quaker-related publications and data may be found at: https://archive.org/details/
The best university source for American Quaker records is the Friends Historical Library
Collection at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. The on-line site has an index feature that is
very useful. Visit the site at: http://www.swarthmore.edu/friends-historical-library.
Canadian records are also available. Name searches, indexes, and some transcribed minutes
are found at the Canadian Quaker Archives site, http://quaker.ca/archives/. The Canadian
Friends Historical Association site includes the archive of their journal, and transcriptions of
Nine Partners Monthly Meeting. This is at http://www.cfha.info/.