Ranking among the best sources for biographical information about your ancestors, county, town and other local history books often reveal names, dates and places plus more interesting details such as occupations, religious affiliations, education and military service. They describe the growth of agriculture, industry and transportation in your ancestors’ community, giving you an insight into everyday life. Clues on locals who served in the military and descriptions of churches, schools and cemeteries might prompt you to investigate other records.
Often published in limited numbers, county and local histories have traditionally been hard to find, and they often lack indexes. But they’re increasingly being digitized online, and online tools help you find print copies available in libraries and from stores or private owners. Discover what details may await you in local histories and learn how you can find these books.
What’s in a local history?
Town, county and other local histories experienced their publishing heyday in the late 1800s and early 1900s; often they were published to mark a centennial or other anniversary. Typically, they describe an area’s founding and growth, important events, common ethnic groups, and local churches, schools, social clubs, businesses, cemeteries and newspapers. They may name directors of important organizations and contain biographies of well-known individuals. One type of local history, a “mug book,” included biographical information for those who paid a fee.
If your relative was a prominent citizen or early settler of an area, he’s more likely to be named in a local history. But even if he or she isn’t mentioned by name, you’ll glean clues for further research. For example, you might form theories about your ancestors’ religion and church they attended, reasons for a migration and where they went, or organizations they belonged to. You’ll learn about their neighborhoods and discover what their everyday life was like.
That’s why it’s worth paging through books that cover places your ancestor lived, even if searching a digitized version turns up no results. Check the index, if there is one, for mentions of people and places you’ve come across in your research. Just keep in mind that local histories are secondary sources, compiled and edited long after the events occurred by people who weren’t necessarily there. Folks profiled may have influenced the content of their biographies. All these factors are opportunities for errors to creep in. Try to find original records, such as birth or baptismal certificates, immigration documents and wills, to verify the genealogical information you find.
Finding local histories online
When you’re researching ancestors in distant counties, starting your local history book search online makes sense. To get a sense of what’s available on the internet, I looked for 27 local histories I’ve used in my own family history research, mostly in printed form. Published between 1869 and 1993, they cover towns and counties across the United States and Canada. All 17 of the pre-1923 books (which are in the public domain) are accessible online for free. Of the rest, published later and presumably still under copyright, I can find only three on Google Books <books.google.com>, which offers only “snippets” of the pages containing my search terms (we’ll cover how to get such books in print). Use the following sites to find digitized county and local histories:
Googling my great-great-grandfather “Stephen S. Olmsted” (in quotation marks to search on the exact phrase) results in a biography of Newton McDowell Milroy in the 1912 History of Knox County, Illinois, on Google Books. Olmstead was the grandfather of Milroy’s wife: “Stephen S. Olmsted was an agriculturist and cabinet-maker, and was married to Clarissa McMorris. His death occurred in 1897.” A match in History of the City of Spokane and Spokane County, Washington, vol. 2, also published in 1912, refers to Stephen’s son, Elmer Devando Olmsted. It says Stephen was “a second cousin of Martin Van Buren, president of the United States.” My research shows they actually were third cousins twice removed.
Try searching on various forms of your ancestor’s name (such as a nickname and initials), with and without quotation marks. Especially if it’s a common name, add a term such as a place name or a spouse’s name. A search on Stephen S. Olmsted “Knox County” turns up references to Stephen in biographies of his brother from a transcription of the 1886 Portrait and Biographical Album of Knox County, Illinois.
To really mine Google Books, use the Advanced Book Search at <books.google.com/advanced_book_search> to search on a combination of terms. If you know the book you’re
looking for, search on the title or author in the designated fields, plus your ancestor’s name (type it in the Exact Phrase box to find the name exactly as you type it).
The titles of most town and county histories include the place name plus the word history. To find references to the McMorris family in histories of Delaware County, NY, you might put McMorris in the box for “all of the words” and Delaware County or Delaware County history in the Title box. A match in the 1880 History of Delaware County, NY says my ancestor William McMorris settled on lot no. 2 in the Kortright patent and that he and his wife were of “Gaelic or Scotch and Irish descent.”
You can search with a subject term to help catch books with unconventional titles. Local and county histories have subject terms like Mankato (Minn.)—History or Wabash County (Ind.)—History. You can leave out the word history and just search on the place name, but use the traditional state abbreviations, not full state names or two-letter postal abbreviations. A search on the phrase Ralph Withers and subject Frederick County (Va.) turns up a match in Pioneers of Old Frederick County, Virginia, which says that Ralph Withers Sr. and his wife Margaret gave 140 acres of land to their grandson Philip Crume, Jr. in 1779.
There’s no option to download a page, but if a book is free, you can hover over the E-book—Free button on the left and choose download PDF to save the whole book to your computer. Take a screenshot if you want just a page or two.
This digitized book site <www.hathitrust.org> works much like Google Books. Similarly to that site, not all books are available in full. If a match comes from a “locked” book, see if it’s also in Google Books, which might provide more context in a “snippet view.”
Click on the Full-Text tab to search for a word or phrase anywhere in the collection. A search on the phrase John J. Shaubut produces 23 matches. To view the match in Mankato, Its First Fifty Years, click on Full View and enter a word or phrase in the box to “Search in this text.” Type Shaubut, click the Find button and you get matches on six pages in the book. Click on the first match to view the page, which has a biography and photo of Henry Shaubut. You can download a single page, a range of pages or a whole book.
The Advanced Full-Text Search makes searching on multiple terms easy. My ancestor John French was married in Pittsfield, Mass., May 18, 1782. To find him in books about Pittsfield, search on the exact phrase John French in Full-Text + All Fields, and enter Pittsfield as the Title. Matches include multiple copies of the 1876 History of Pittsfield. Click on a Full View link, search the book for the phrase “John French” and click the Find button. The match on page 393 tells how, on May 22, 1782, the selectmen of Pittsfield deemed the Frenches “likely to become burdensome and chargeable to the town” and authorized town constables to warn them to leave.
My great-great-grandfather Ithamar Cooley lived in Delaware County, Iowa. To find him in local histories, select All Collections from the Search tab, Iowa under Explore by Location, and Delaware under Narrow by Region. Select The History of Delaware County, Iowa in the category for Delaware County Stories, Memories & Histories. You can browse pages using the links on the right, or search for a name or keyword. A search on the name Ithamar Cooley produces 11 matches. One, in the biographical directory for Milo Township, gives Ithamar’s date and place of birth and date of marriage, his wife’s maiden name and birth date, and the names and birth dates of 11 of their 13 children. It also notes that Ithamar, a farmer with 90 acres of land, was a member of the Republican Party and the Advent Christian church.
Archives Unbound: County and Regional Histories & Atlases
My third great-granduncle William Parry lived in Athens, Pa. To find him in town histories, click on the Advanced Search tab, enter “William Parry” (in quotation marks) to search on the exact phrase and select Full Text. On the next line, select And, type Athens in the box and select Document Title from the options. This finds matches in books with Athens in the title. Click Search. There’s one match, in A History of Old Tioga Point and Early Athens, Pennsylvania. Click on the title or View Document for links to the six pages with hits. The book has a silhouette of William, the toll keeper of the town bridge, with information on him and his family. “There was but one street in the town, and a joke by Parry, when started at his end of it, would be caught up and carried along to the other, until the entire street resounded with convulsive laughter.”
In addition to the free historical records and family trees at <www.familysearch.org>, you also can search 265,000 family history publications including books, journals, gazetteers and almost 22,000 histories. About a fifth of the books are viewable only by users at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City or a branch Family History Center (find one near you at <www.familysearch.org/locations>).
First, select Books from the Search tab. To search for a name anywhere in the book collection, select Advanced Search, then “is (exact)” and enter the name as a phrase. Trying various spellings of my ancestor Peter Low Myer’s name, I got a match on Peter L. Myer in Biographical Review: containing life sketches of leading citizens of Schenectady, Schoharie and Green counties, New York. To view the match, click on the book’s title and download the book as a PDF file on your computer. Then open the file with Adobe Reader and search for a word or phrase. (Using Internet Explorer, I was able to open and search the PDF file from within the browser without having to save the file first.) Harmon Becker’s biography, starting on page 20, says that his wife Julia’s grandfather, Peter L. Myer, “was born and brought up in Saugerties, Ulster County. Removing thence to Schoharie County, he devoted his energies to tilling the soil. His death occurred at the venerable age of 91 years. He, too, served with honor in the Revolutionary War.”
Most books in FamilySearch Books are listed in the FamilySearch Catalog (select Catalog from the Search tab). You can download PDF versions from the catalog, too.
This service, available through subscribing libraries, has 28,000 family and local history books. My ancestor William White lived in Cumberland County, Pa., in the late 18th century. Selecting the option to match all terms exactly, searching the books for William White with “Any Event” in Cumberland County, Pa.,
produces 32 results. A match in A History of the Cumberland Valley in Pennsylvania tells how a William White, possibly the father of my ancestor of the same name, built a log cabin at “a Place much esteemed by the Indians for some of their best hunting Ground.” The History of Cumberland and Adams Counties, Pennsylvania says that, on July 10, 1763, Indians charged at the cabin and shot White at the door.
At <www.archive.org>, you can get free access to millions of digitized books in the public domain. The site doesn’t give you an option to search the full text, though. Instead, find relevant books by searching for an author or title, then browse individual books and search each for a word or phrase. For example, click on Advanced Search and in the field for Title Contains and enter Butler County Ohio history. The two matches include the Centennial History of Butler County, Ohio. Click the title to open the book to the title page. You can download the book as a PDF, text or other type of file. Click the magnifying glass to the right of the book (not the one above it) to search for a word a phrase in the book. Type “George W. White” in the Search Inside box, click the Go button and after a moment, two orange markers appear below the page images. Click on the first one to view George W. White’s painting of a fort. The second marker links to his biography, detailing his early years as a struggling artist and his successful career as a portrait painter. You also can try using Google to search the Internet Archive collection by entering your search terms plus site:archive.org.
Collections on subscription site MyHeritage include 450,000 free digitized books from around the world. To focus on local histories, click on the Research tab and select the Books & Publications category. My ancestor Stephen Adams lived in Moultonborough, NH. Searching for his name and the keyword Moultonborough produces several useful matches. According to the History of Sanbornton, Stephen “built the first large boat, or ‘gondola,’ for freighting purposes, on Lake Winnipiseogee.”
If you have a family tree on MyHeritage, the site will automatically find matches for your relatives in its digitized books. You also can click on a relative’s Research This Person link and narrow matches to family and local histories by selecting Books & Publications on the left.
World Vital Records
This subscription site <www.worldvitalrecords.com> has thousands of historical books. A search from the home page includes county and local histories. To find books about a place, select Card Catalog from the Search tab. Enter the town or county in the Title Contains box and click the Refresh button. Click on a title to search or browse. As with FamilySearch Books, viewing books here seems to work best with Internet Explorer.
Getting print books
Despite the huge number of online local histories, many aren’t digitized—including those published in 1923 or later, which generally aren’t in the public domain. These books are often available in local libraries and archives, and at large genealogy libraries such as the Allen County (Ind.) Public Library. To find them, use WorldCat, which lists the holdings of more than 10,000 libraries worldwide, including FamilySearch’s Family History Library. Search on a town, county or state plus the word history or biography. Also try searching with the full state name and its abbreviation, such as Clay County Minn history and Clay Minnesota history. The catalog may have multiple listings for the same book, sometimes for different editions or formats (such as microfilm or print). Each listing includes details about libraries that hold the book. If no library near you has it, ask your public library reference desk for help requesting the book through interlibrary loan (usually for a fee around $5). You also might be able to order copies of just the pages pertaining to your family.
Where to find
How to find in the FamilySearch catalog
Click the Books tab and search for names and places. Alternatively, identify books from your ancestors’ hometowns by searching the online catalog by place. Look for matches with the subject headings History and Biography.
Alternate and substitute records
Put It Into Practice
2. What feature common to most online book collections is lacking in Internet Archive?
3. What’s the most comprehensive online library catalog, covering thousands of libraries around the world?
1. George W. White was a member of a traveling minstrel group. What was its name?
2. What was the name of George’s first roommate in Cincinnati, who would go on to become a prominent landscape artist?
3. What tragedy caused the loss of some of White’s best paintings?
4. Write a citation for this record.
1. Pick an ancestor you’d like to learn more about. Try to find references to the person in Google Books, using search tips in this article.
2. Research the same person on Hathi Trust.
3. Use WorldCat to identify county and local histories about the places where your ancestor lived. If the books aren’t online, look for copies in libraries or through dealers.
1. Google Books and Hathi Trust 2. Full-text searching 3. WorldCat
1. Webb’s Serenaders and Sable Sisters 2 W. L. Sonntag 3 A fire at Wood’s Museum in 1857 4 Bert S. Bartlow, et. al., editors, Centennial History of Butler County, Ohio (Indianapolis: B.F. Bowen & Co., 1905), page 921-922, Internet Archive (http://archive.org : accessed [insert date]).