The odds of finding mention of your ancestor in a printed biography are better than you might imagine. Many small towns printed centennial books or booklets, which often mentioned early settlers in the region. It is also common to find a county history chock-full of biographies. That's the good news.
The bad news is many of these books are not indexed; those that are may not be accurate. However, the time you spend leafing through a county history isn't lost time—you'll learn a lot about what life was like for your family.
I've found anything from tidbits to full-blown biographies of my ancestors in county and town histories—I bet you can too. A word of caution though: Don't believe everything you read. The biography of one of my Civil War ancestors tells about his illustrious service with a Union regiment formed in Tennessee. It fails to mention (not a surprise) that he belonged to a Illinois regiment early in the war and had deserted.
A favorite source for finding county biographies is my local Family History Center. A second is an online site that has catalogued inventory from hundreds of used bookstores: the Advanced Book Exchange at www.abebooks.com. If you use this source, just type in the name of the town or county as a keyword and see what comes up.
For example, I typed in Shelby County, Ind. Four books came up in the results list. One was a person's biography, one an atlas, one a plat book and the last was a county history from 1822 to 1876. The history cost $150—more than I want to pay. But because I know it exists, I have the option of trying to find it locally, or getting online to a Shelby County mailing list (to find county mailing lists go to RootsWeb.com and click on the link to mailing lists) and ask if someone will go to the local library to do a look-up for me. I could also call the Shelby County Historical Society and ask for help.
What other sources are there for tracking down biographies?
• Cyndi's List Biographies
• Finding Previous Research with Biographies
• Local Histories
• Locating Published Genealogies