Researching the places where your ancestors lived can help you break through roadblocks that happen when you can’t find family names. That’s why, for this “Best of Family Tree Magazine,” I’m excerpting from John Philip Colletta’s October 2002 article about finding local history information even when no one has published a book about your ancestral locale:
Nothing could be duller than federal government studies, reports and investigations—unless the local history of your ancestral hometown is buried in those bureaucratic papers. For example, the US Congressional Serial Set is a collection of more than 14,000 volumes containing House and Senate reports and documents from the 15th Congress through 1969.
The reports tend to be studies and investigations of congressional committees; the documents span a broad range of topics, including private citizens’ petitions before Congress, as well as reports by executive departments and independent organizations. (The papers of the first 14 Congresses were published as the American State Papers.)
When you click the Search button to search either collection, on the next page, be sure to choose the collection from the pull-down menu under “NOTE.”
For years, family historians have been finding genealogical clues in these federal papers. But not finding an ancestor’s name in the US Serial Set Index doesn’t mean there’s nothing of value here. These 14,000 volumes are chock full of information about people, places and events throughout the country.
Searching the index for the name Ring, for example, I found nothing. But searching under Mississippi resulted in a rich source of Issaquena County history: Mississippi in 1875: Report of the Select Committee to Inquire into the Mississippi Election of 1875, with the Testimony and Documentary Evidence.
Senators interviewed dozens of Mississippians, whose testimony provides a vivid picture of their communities during the decade following the Civil War. I found interviews with former slave Henry P. Scott, sheriff of Issaquena County at the time, and other neighbors of Ring, including his attorney, W. D. Brown. Discussed at length were freedman Noah B. Parker, the justice of the peace in my ancestor’s neighborhood, and a host of events there.
Excerpts from the testimony of just one witness demonstrate what a deep well of information Mississippi in 1875 holds about Issaquena County:
W. D. Brown — sworn and examined
Q. What is your occupation? — A. I am engaged in planting; I am also an attorney at law.
Q. What is the chief crop of your country, sir? — A. Cotton is the chief product.
Q. To clean the lint from the seed you must take it to the gin-house? — A. You must take it to the gin-house; yes, sir.
Q. Is the packing-press, the baling-press, near by there? — A.
It is generally inside the gin-house now. The old-fashioned press was exterior to the gin; the press is now in the rear portion of the gin-building …
Q. In these isolated houses, do the people have any means of extinguishing a conflagration when it is once started? — A. We have nothing to depend upon. That mode of revenge is regarded as the surest…
The Rings often engaged Brown’s legal services, yet when their neighbors were arrested in connection with the destruction by fire of the Ring & Co. store and the deaths of five people sleeping in the living quarters upstairs, Brown represented the defendants!
Given the size and breadth of the US Congressional Serial Set, chances are good you’ll come up with some document containing information about the neighborhood of your forebears. You may also get lucky. If an ancestor, through his or her senator or congressman, petitioned the US government for something—a widow’s pension or financial reparations for some grievance against a federal agent—that petition will appear in the set.
More place-based research help from Family Tree Magazine:
- Seven Steps to Studying Ancestral Places: This free article gets you started researching ancestors’ hometowns.
- State Research Guides: You can purchase individual state guides as digital downloads, or get them all on CD or in a book.