Sunday, January 21, 2018

A Genealogist's Quick Guide to Finding County Histories

To commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, FamilySearch estimates that, "Thousands of county histories were published as part of the U.S. Centennial Celebration of 1876."

With more than "5,000 county histories...published for over 80 percent of the counties in the United States," the chances are good that your ancestors' county was among them. 

Why are county and local histories important to my genealogy?

In my experience, there are two key reasons why county histories are an imperative for genealogists: context and biographies.

Context: As the name implies, the volumes detail the history of the county. You may ask, why is this important or helpful in family history if I'm focused on people - family - and not places?  
Simply put: these accounts illustrate the world your ancestors' inhabited. What better way to understand great-grandpa's life than by immersing yourself in his community, including the environment, politics, economics, and culture that whirled around him?  
These forces shape people; our family is no exception.  
Were there economic hardships that your family had to navigate? How were they affected by local politics? Did the environment and climate propel them into a particular occupation or present unique challenges? 
This context can help us understand how and why our ancestors' lives unfolded as they did. If you're writing your family's history, this context is a must.
Biographies: If you are lucky, you may find that your ancestors or collateral family were featured in a biographical sketch. Many prominent citizens were highlighted. 
A Polk County, Iowa history included a biography of my third great-grandfather. It documented his exact birth and marriage dates; new information to my research. Furthermore, I learned that in his youth in Ohio he was an apprentice and learned the cooper's trade. Genealogy gold!  
Even if your direct ancestor isn't featured, grandchildren, nephews and nieces, cousins, or neighbors may be featured and reference your ancestors when documenting their origins. 
Where can you find county and local histories?

County and local histories can be found in many places. I've had luck with the following three resources:
  1. The best place, of course, is to start with the county. Check with the local historical and genealogical societies as well as the county libraries. They often have hard copies of these volumes in their reference or local history sections.

  2. Turn to the pervasive power of the internet. One of my favorite resources is Google Books. Do a Google search for your county with the keyword history and see what results you get. You may discover that your county's history has been digitized and made available online and often for free. 

  3. Explore FamilySearch's catalog. Type your county name into the search field and review the available resources under the "History" heading. An increasing number of historical local histories have been digitized, and some of these can now be reviewed online in the comfort of your home. Depending on the publication rights, you may have to view them online at your local Family History Library.
These histories can be found in many places. You can even buy them online. The above pointers are only a sampling of go-to repositories.

Where else can family historians find county and local histories? Bonus points to free, widely-available resources!


Thanks to Janice of the Cow Hampshire blog and Schalene of the Tangled Roots and Trees blog for two great recommendations:

  • Hathi Trust Digital Library, which bills itself as "a partnership of academic and research institutions, offering a collection of millions of titles digitized from libraries around the world."
  • Internet Archive, which bills itself as "a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more." 

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