Required Reading: Classic resources you shouldn’t research without.
When you began tracing your family tree, you probably didn’t realize you’d need to acquire some legal expertise — that is, in laws that affected your ancestors’ lives. Luckily, learning how legal history intertwines with your family’s history isn’t as tough as passing the bar exam. Governing the Hearth: Law and the Family in Nineteenth-Century America by Michael Grossberg (University of North Carolina Press) explains — in plain English — legal policies on common-law marriage, adoption, women’s and illegitimate children’s rights, child custody and other family affairs. Many laws Grossberg discusses remained on the books well into the 20th century.
Hot off the Press: New books to heat up your family history search.
1 Days on the family Farm: From the Golden Age through the Great Depression by Carrie A. Meyer (University of Minnesota Press) offers a window into turn-of-the-century farm life as described by Midwestern farm wife May Lyford Davis. May’s meticulous accounts of farming and records of everyday events can give you insight into your own farm ancestors’ experiences.
2 Separate graveyard superstition from fact in Cemetery Walk by Minda Powers-Douglas (Author House). The author interviewed cemetery sextons, gravediggers, preservationists, funeral directors, writers, artists, authors, ghost hunters and other taphophiles (cemetery enthusiasts). Her book reveals what’s really behind your ancestors’ attitudes toward death and graveyards.
3 Has someone recently published an article outlining research on your early American family? Find out by checking New Englanders in the 1600s: A Guide to Genealogical Research Published Between 1980 and 2005 by Martin E. Hollick (New England Historic Genealogical Society). Alphabetized by surname, the entries list which publications mention other family members, as well as ties to royalty, full-family genealogies, and/or DNA studies.
Pro’s Picks: Genealogy gurus share their reading recommendations.
The Whiskey Merchant’s Diary: An Urban Life in the Emerging Midwest edited by Linda A. Fisher (Ohio University Press)
Recommended by: Dennis Northcott, associate reference archivist at the Missouri Historical Society (MHS) <mohistory.org> and a 12-year family history veteran
Book summary: The diary of Joseph J. Mersman (1824-1892), a German who immigrated with his family in 1833, begins in November 1847 in Cincinnati, where he was an apprentice under a local whiskey rectifier. In March 1849, he moved to St. Louis and established a whiskey and tobacco business. The diary’s final entry is in 1864.
Likes and dislikes: The editor’s derailed annotations highlight the importance of researching in primary sources, and place the diary entries into historical context.
Behind the scenes: I met Dr. Fisher when she visited the MHS archives in 1993 to prepare a lecture on St. Louis’ 1849 cholera epidemic. A reference to this epidemic in our archives catalog led her to Mersman’s diary. She found the diary so fascinating, she devoted several years to exhaustively investigating Mersman’s life.
Lasting impressions: When Dr. Fisher wanted to learn about the whiskey business, she interviewed Jim Beam’s master distiller. She consulted dozens of newspapers, tracked Mersman’s descendants, and traveled to archival repositories in 25 states.
Best bonus: This book has reminded me of the wealth of resources available to genealogists. These sources aren’t always indexed — and they’re not all online — but they are accessible to determined researchers.