Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mentor Monday continued: Tapping genealogy resources for historical research, Part II

Last time, we looked at newspapers and vital records as research resources. Today, some other, less-obvious places to look for information.

Town and state histories, organizational histories and documents, family histories:
In the nineteenth century there was a huge interest in recording the histories of towns and states. These books often include quotes of everything from congressional records to criminal citations to headstones and bronze memorial plaques. It’s not uncommon for them to also include detailed family-tree information about every resident of a community at the time of publication. Later town histories tend to have been produced in conjunction with anniversary celebrations and may be more circumspect, providing essentially “summaries” of the town’s history. On the other hand, recent books sometimes have indices and bibliographies, both of which may make them more useful than some of the older tomes. Many of the old Town Histories have been scanned and are available from commercial genealogy sites such as At the same time, a lot of them are also on the internet archive (, or google “wayback machine”) – here you are more likely to find an OCR scan that hasn’t been corrected, not as easy to read – but free!

Histories compiled for organizations like the Rotary Club or the Lodge may not meet modern standards for unbiased accuracies (some may question whether those standards are myths, anyway) but they may be the only recorded source of some delightful bits of information about local activities. Family history books are self-edited and published, usually the result of someone’s life-long obsession; again they may be self (or rather, ancestor)-aggrandizing, but they also often preserve the memories of people who were elderly a hundred or more years ago.

Census pages, military records, immigration records and ships’ manifests:
These dry documents, mostly just lists, can reveal surprising details that may bring your subjects to life. The US census has asked for different information in different years – some of the early 20th century census records include details of occupations, years married and age at marriage, literacy, racial heritage and languages spoken. The census pages also allow you to see who lived next door and across the street from your subject, which in turn could reveal how she met her husband. Military enlistment documents give physical descriptions as well as dependency information.
The census bureau has many of its reports available on line at, however access to the scanned pages is as far as I know only available from Immigration and ship’s manifests may tell you when your subject arrived, at what port of entry, and from where.
Be aware that all of these forms (except for some of the military enlistment documents) were completed by employees, not by the subjects themselves – and generally on the basis of information given by one member of a household. This means that spellings may be erratic (some immigrants were given surnames "created" by immigration employees who gave up on the attempt to transliterate Eastern European names). Details are not always accurate, either. My mother spent years chasing a reported birthplace of her great-grandfather that was incorrect – it had been reported both to the census-taker and to whoever completed his death certificate by a daughter-in-law. When you find conflicting records (and you will), this second-hand recording is one factor to take into account.

Maps and city directories:
There are post office maps from the mid-1800s that have household names marked on them, showing where families lived at the time. City directories predate phone directories, any and all of them may show you both where your subject’s family lived and what their business or professional details were. Some of these are available from genealogy and local history sites (for maps, try googling the name of the community and choosing "images" from the options at the top of the page) but your best bet is the local library's non-circulating collection.

Deeds and probate records:
Maintained at the county level in the United States and Britain, these official records primarily detail transfers of property, although they can also include records of indenture and other legal obligations. Older deeds and many probate records often list not only land and buildings but also other household goods, providing a glimpse of the owner’s status and creature comforts. Both deeds and probate records can also yield clues about siblings and in-laws that may prove to be productive avenues of research. Like vital records, these documents are public record but often only accessible on site, and/or for a fee. Do be aware that county lines are not fixed – the county your subject lived in may have been merged into another county later, or towns may have been shifted from one county to another. Massachusetts eliminated a number of counties some years ago and the old records of those counties have become very difficult to access. Different states and counties have different policies and access-protocols for this information: some are completely searchable and viewable online, many have indices online but the documents themselves are on microfiche, others are still only recorded in giant, heavy, leather-bound books. Look for the "registry of deeds" and the state's name and you'll probably find a link to the information you need.

Yearbooks, alumni newsletters and school archives:
Few discoveries are more fun than your subject’s high school yearbook. Senior pictures, club affiliations, even the nicknames and quotes they chose to put under their names; all these tell you a lot about the person who grew up to be a famous scientist or President of the United States (What? You haven’t seen Barry Obama’s yearbook picture?) has a growing collection of scanned yearbooks, but I’ve also found them just by googling the subject’s name and town then drilling down  a dozen pages in the results. Again, search for "images" with your subject's name and town or state to increase your chances of success. (One family was sure their grandmother was an adult immigrant from Scandinavia – until I found her U.S. high school yearbook photograph.) Alumni newsletters often produce lovely tidbits about people’s personal and professional lives, and sometimes even wonderful quotes from your subjects. To find them you generally have to go to the school's webpage and use their search function.

Often the only tangible record of an “ordinary person” may be the inscription on a headstone. Cemeteries also preserve records that may not be available elsewhere – the death of infant children, repeated names in the same generation, a military rank. Today cemetery transcriptions, indices and photographs are available all over the internet. Check out (one man’s project, over 200,000 photos). I found the date of death for Emma Fielding Baker in the about her grave at Only the year is on the stone, so I emailed the person who uploaded the photograph (via the helpful link on the page) and he told me where he had found the full date. is another such site. has links to a lot of cemetery transcriptions. Local historical societies may have transcripts of cemeteries and family plots within their towns. You should look at multiple sites because there is no coordination among these projects – and of course, if you can travel to your subject’s home town, check with the local library and historical society, and go wander in the cemeteries. (Note – gravestone rubbing is generally not allowed these days, so take a notebook and digital camera and leave the charcoal at home.)

Family trees:
A number of genealogy websites encourage people to post their family trees on-line. Look on Cyndi's list for these pages. Sometimes these trees even include the family historian’s notes and photographs. You may find transcriptions of unpublished material, old letters, family Bible notes, etc. You may also be able to email the person who developed the family tree, to ask additional questions, get permission to quote unpublished material, or even gain access to other family information sources.

Caution [picture this in big flashing letters] – even first-hand information can include inaccuracies; family histories often enshrine legends or embellishments. Everyone wants to prove they are related to Charlemagne or Queen Victoria; or at least that their family includes a Mayflower passenger or an Indian captive.

You can spend a lot of time in the genealogy world - it's a bit like eating potato chips. There's always another connection, another potential source. Keep in mind whatever your original purpose was, and resist the urge to figure out where your subject's grandmother's father was born. But every once in a while, you'll find that sparkling treasure that makes the digging worthwhile.



More great information!

By the way, you can make your Caution flash by using html code, but it doesn't work in comments, otherwise I would show you.

Barbara said...

Wow! What a lot of useful info. I'm glad you didn't wait 6 weeks to post part II!

I'm Jet . . . said...

Double wow!