Researching Your Shaker Ancestors

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Contributing Writer
Janet Wahlberg

Shaker Ancestors? Weren’t these people celibate? Yes, they were. The Shaker Sect was formed in England in the mid-18th century as a breakoff sect from the Quakers. Mother Ann Lee, an early leader, and 8 others traveled to colonial America to establish communities here. At one time there were 6,000 members and many communities primarily in the northeastern portion of our country. Today, there is just one active community. It is located at Sabbathday Lake in Maine where the two remaining Shakers live.

My great grandfather and his two siblings were taken to the village to be raised after their mother died and their father was unable to care for them. Until the mid-20th century the Shaker Faith took in children who were orphaned or whose family could no longer care for them where they were provided with housing, clothing, education and taught a trade. Many of these young people formally joined the Shakers and stayed for their lifetime. Those who did not left possessing an education and a trade to carry them through life.

My grandfather and his siblings eventually left the village.  Great Grampie was in his teens and had not fully completed his training but was able to find work on nearby farms with the skills he had learned. He farmed as a sideline all his life. His brother, my great uncle Chellis, was the oldest. He moved to another village in Canterbury, New Hampshire where he remained for 4 more years serving as their master carpenter. He eventually left the faith and moved to Seattle where he worked as a carpenter for the remainder of his life.

How do I know the above information?? The fact that they lived with the Shakers came from family conversations. The day to day details of their lives such as when they arrived at the village, their education, trips to town, visitors, illnesses they suffered, etc. were found in the records kept by the Shakers. They kept meticulous records and I have copies of the records of the time that my family spent with the Shakers.  Some of the records were obtained several years ago from a personal visit there by my brother. More recent records were obtained from a journal kept by a Shaker brother from the village where my uncle moved to that was published. In addition, I contacted the Sabbathday Lake Community with some questions that I had regarding my great uncle Chellis. The librarian there as well as the remaining Shaker brother responded with new information.

You are probably wondering how you can do any research on this topic. Certainly, there are books on the faith itself which are fascinating. Of course, there is always the internet. However, when it comes to researching actual individuals, it becomes a bit more complicated.  I can schedule a visit to the village to do research the next time I am in Maine as it is still active. The village in Canterbury, New Hampshire will do some research for you if you contact them.  I did find a website from the Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio at https://www.wrhs.org/research/library/genealogy/ . This collection contains the Shaker records, membership file, manuscripts, and printed materials from all of the Shaker settlements in the northeastern United States  (123 microfilm rolls and 1,187 microfiche). These records are not digitized.

Now you just need to determine if you have any ancestors who may have lived at a Shaker Village and what village they were at. If there are children or even a mother and children that disappear and then reappear over time, you might find them if there as they took in whole families as well as just children. Use the internet to see if there was a Shaker village in that vicinity. Then check the Federal and any State Census records as every individual at the village was listed by name in the census records, so if they remained over a State or Federal Census date you may find them.

Even if you do not have any connection to the Shaker Faith, take the time to read about them as they have a rich history of industry as well as many inventions credited to their communities.

To read Janet Walberg’s previous genealogy columns or to delve deeper into her writings and insights for searching out and recording your own family’s genealogy, please go to jamestowngazette.com and visit Janet’s own web page.