Unusual Records: Researching County Histories

Unusual Records: Researching County Histories

Tracking down your ancestor's hometown or place of birth isn't always easy. In this edition of Unusual Records, Rich Venezia shares another resource for finding where your ancestors resided.

county histories genealogy research

County histories, also sometimes referred to as “mug books” can provide a researcher information on the local history of where their ancestors lived and the area’s settlement, as well as supply glorious maps and illustrations. They may also contain a (sometimes quite detailed) biography of an ancestor’s life, which may include information on that individual’s place of birth.

A case study

William Purcell immigrated to the United States from Ireland in 1853 when he was about ten years old. He first moved with his family to Huron County, Ohio. He then moved to Quincy, Adams Co., Illinois, in the mid-1860s. There, he married Isabella “Belle” Brooks, daughter of the local newspaper editor, on September 3, 1873. They had three children together – Edith, Austin. and William. Mr. Purcell was somewhat active in local politics, and served as an Assistant Marshal for the Adams County Central Democratic Committee’s grand mass meeting in 1876. He started a livery business in Quincy in the mid-1870s, but died shortly after, in March 1879.

Hunting for a place of birth

William’s obituary provides no details on his place of overseas origin – just that he was a native of Ireland. William left quite a sizable estate for the time, roughly $3700. His thirty-page estate file also provides no clues as to his place of birth (though this would be quite unusual, anyway). His gravestone is not helpful in this endeavor, nor does any other contemporary document in which we find William specify his place of birth.

Luckily for us, the country’s centennial spurred a huge interest in local history and genealogy. Counties across the country began to record their histories around this time, often including sketches of their most prominent (and some not-so-prominent) citizens. The History of Adams County, Illinois, published just after William’s death, provides us with the information we seek – it specifies William’s place of birth as Kilcooley, County Tipperary, Ireland.

Finding county histories

County histories can be found in many places, both online and in hard copy. Start with the county genealogical or historical society in which you’re researching, or even the main branch of the county library. As well, websites like HathiTrust, Internet Archive, FamilySearch, Google Books, and Ancestry.com host numerous county histories. A great resource is P. William Filby’s book A Bibliography of American County Histories, printed in 2000, listing over 5,000 published county histories.

It is important to keep in mind that individuals may have paid to have their information included in this type of publication. As such, incorrect information may have been given deliberately for one reason or another. Information is only as good as its source (and, perhaps, the source’s intentions)!

As for the Purcell family

As for William’s widow and children, tragedy soon struck Belle again. Both Edith and little William died in the early 1880s. Belle moved to Springfield, Illinois, in the mid-1880s, where she died in 1894. Her son, Austin, the last legacy of this Purcell family, died there in 1919.

This is part seven of an eight-piece series on unusual genealogy records. To uncover more clever places to research your family history, check out Unusual Records: Are You Overlooking Important Records?


If you want to become an expert when it comes to immigration records, also be sure to check out our Immigrant Ancestry MEGA Collection.

You’ll Love This Collection If:

  • finding  information on your immigrant ancestors appeals to you
  • you want to find the migration route your ancestor took, from origin to port to final destination
  • you’d like to learn where to find immigration records
  • you want to know if your ancestors were naturalized
  • you’ve traced your family line as far back in America as they can, and want to take your research to the next level

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