How Do We Study the Lists?
The Museum’s Research Process
Following the Museum of the American Revolution’s discovery of poll lists that document the first generation of women voters in early New Jersey, a team of Museum staff members and associated researchers set out to learn more about the women and men, Black and white, named on the lists. Since 2019, the research team has been visiting archives in New Jersey and using online genealogical tools such as Ancestry, Fold3, Find A Grave, and FamilySearch to conduct its research. The team has so far uncovered dozens of previously untold stories about diverse Americans who participated in the young nation’s democratic process. The research continues to this day.
Our research team initially set out to answer the question: who are the women named on the poll lists? This would involve attempting to find where they lived, their family relationships, their social status, their religious affiliations, and their political and community activity. Using each poll list as a starting point, the team identified and transcribed the women’s names and flagged names that had the possibility of being either women’s or men’s names. Each poll list also contained information such as where the election took place and when. This information would help to narrow down the time and place in which these women lived and participated in the political activity of voting. New Jersey’s voting requirements at the time of the elections also had to be considered. Legally, all voters had to be at least 21 years of age, residents of the township in which they voted for at least one year, and legal property owners. The team considered these facts as they narrowed down their searches.
Even with online genealogical databases, researching women who lived in the late-18th and early-19th centuries can be difficult. Census data, tax lists, and other government records from this period are primarily organized according to the name of the person who served as head-of-household. It was not until the 1850 United States Census, for example, that all household members, in addition to the head, were listed out in this type of record. Due in large part to the legal tradition of femme coverture, men were almost always considered the head-of-household for a family (in rare cases, husbands and wives were listed jointly). Widows and single women of femme sole status were listed as heads-of-households in governmental records, but in far fewer numbers than men.
The tradition of a married woman taking her husband’s surname (another part of femme coverture) also added difficulty to the research process. If a single woman voted in 1801, for example, but got married just a few months later, her surname would be different on records dating from nearly the same time in which she voted. If additional primary sources, such as a marriage record, could not be found, this could cause a research “dead end.” Married women also did not typically write wills or own property due to femme coverture, further limiting the survivng records they appear in.
Considering these difficulties, as well as in researching women voters during this period, the research team had to strategize. One successful research method was searching online with Ancestry using only the female voter’s surname in the township or county in which she voted. This often helped researchers locate the woman’s potential husband, father, and brothers who could have written wills that named their wife, daughter, or sister (often by first name only) as a beneficiary. Wills were particularly valuable in this case because they contain identifying information, such as where the family lived and when, which helped to confirm the woman’s connection to the township in which she voted. Searching by surname also helped to reveal that many women voted with family members such as their widowed mothers, single daughters, brothers, fathers, and uncles.
Many women in New Jersey, some of whom lived in the same township or county at the same time, also had similar or identical first names and last names. Sometimes these women were related, other times not. As the research team encountered this issue, they tried to resolve it by considering New Jersey’s voting requirements at the time. This issue, for example, came up in the case of Anne Cowperthwaite, who voted in an election held in Chester Township, Burlington County, in 1807. Two Quaker women named Anne Cowperthwaite, mother and daughter, lived in Chester Township at the time and both women met the age and residency requirements to vote. The elder Anne Cowperthwaite was born in 1754 and her daughter was born in 1784 (she was about 23 in 1807). But the elder Anne Cowperthwaite was still married to Job Cowperthwaite in 1807, while her daughter was single. Legally, under femme coverture, the elder Anne Cowperthwaite would typically not have been considered a legal property owner as a married woman. Her daughter, who may have owned some personal property as a single woman, even though she still lived in her father’s household, is more likely to have voted. Future discoveries about either Anne Cowperthwaite, however, may solidify which woman actually voted in 1807.
The Museum’s research team also sought to answer the question: do the poll lists include the names of people of color who voted? The answer is, yes. At least four free men of African descent, and possibly one woman of African descent are listed on the Montgomery Township, Somerset County, poll list from October 1801. One of those men, Ephraim Hagerman, is identified as Black with the word “negro” next to his name on the poll list. The other voters have no racial descriptor next to their names. Their race has instead been determined by cross-referencing the names on the poll list with tax lists from the township. Tax lists often included the word “negro” next to the name of a tax payer if they were of African descent.
The polling location information at the top of each poll has also led to significant discoveries. The research team has been able to find, for example, that the Rocky Hill Inn, which served as the polling location for Montgomery Township voters in 1801, still stands. It is now a private residence. Discoveries like this provide a compelling physical link to the revolutionary story of women and free people of color voting in the early United States.
More information is waiting to be found in local historical societies, amongst the pages of family Bibles, and in attics across the country. Do you have information and research to share? Contact the Museum of the American Revolution.
The Museum would like to thank Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Adam Zielinski, Eliza West, Nicole Belolan, Joseph Klett, Veronica Calder, Elaine Buck, Beverly Mills, Ted Blew, Candy Willis, Rosemarie Zagarri, Philip Lampi, and researchers from FamilySearch, led by Rebecca Jane Bettinger, for their work to help uncover the stories of the voters on these poll lists.