Local histories contain valuable gems of information for family history researchers, regardless of whether the family lived in the city or in a rural area. But these resources are often overlooked. And even if they aren't entirely ignored, we may find ourselves just checking the index for surnames of interest.
As it turns out, when our surnames don't appear in a local index, it's a huge mistake to dismiss it. Listed below are some good reasons to give those local histories a second look.
Insight into the Community
In browsing A History of the City of Brooklyn by Henry R. Stiles (1867-70) recently, I found information about epidemics, political and legislative events, celebrations, incorporations, explosions, fires, the organization of clubs, and much more. There was talk of school fairs and the date when water was first piped into the area. One section chronicled the mobilization of troops for the Civil War and included details of the efforts of the community to support the families of volunteers during their absence.
History of Cook County Illinois: From the Earliest Period to the Present Time (Chicago: A.T. Andreas, 1884) is typical of the county histories that were published regularly from the last half of the nineteenth century until the early part of the twentieth century. In addition to casual mentions of thousands of individuals, there are nice biographical sketches of hundreds of others that can provide essential clues for continuing research. For example, in turning randomly to page 534 in the Cook County book, I found a sketch that illustrates the potential importance of these biographical sketches:
"CHRISTOPHER MC LENNAN was born in 1837 in Lancaster, Glengarry Co., Canada, youngest son of John and Catharine McLennan. His mother died when he was five years old, and his father, by birth a Scotsman, but a resident of Canada from the age of ten, died on his farm in Glengarry County in 1866. C. McLennan was brought up to the business of surveyor and civil engineer and is a graduate of McGill College, Montreal, of the class of 1859. He came to the United States in 1864 and has followed his profession in Chicago and Hyde Park since the spring of 1868. In 1875 he took up his residence in Hyde Park and has been appointed to his present position of village engineer and superintendent of public works for five years out of seven from 1877 to 1883. He was professionally connected with the surveys of South Chicago and Irondale, preparatory to their being laid out and subdivided into village sites."
Even if we are not fortunate enough to find a biographical sketch of the subject of our interest, there are other things to consider. We can't forget that even if great-grandfather wasn't prominent enough to get a mention, there may be other clues to his personality in these books. (I emphasize "he" because women were less often the subject of biographical sketches and were usually mentioned as "wife of," "widow of," or "child of.") Also, you may want to consider whether the subject of a biographical sketch was related to the family in some way. Frequently, groups emigrated from the "old country" together, and by learning more about one member of a pioneer group, we can also find valuable clues to others.
Portraits, Maps, Engravings of Places Ancestors Lived
Many county histories include a good number of portraits of prominent individuals and etchings of courthouses, religious institutions, schools, and other institutions our ancestors would have seen each day. Maps included in most of these volumes are also important for understanding the place(s) where our families lived.
Local and county histories often include valuable information about the various institutions in a particular area. Churches, orphanages, charitable institutions, schools, hospitals and dispensaries, cultural institutions, cemeteries, businesses, and methods of available transportation are frequently discussed in great detail.
Background information on churches or synagogues in the area can be especially helpful and can often lead to religious records that may fill gaps where civil records don't exist or can't be found. Even where civil records are available, these church records may contain information not included in civil registrations.
Newspapers and Periodicals
Newspapers are some of the most valuable resources available to family historians, but we may not know what newspapers or periodicals were available for our area of interest during the times of our ancestors. Local histories can contain important information in this aspect, including dates of publication, area of coverage, and political affiliation. Religious and ethnic newspapers and periodicals are also often mentioned.
Although indexes are included in many local histories, they are in most cases very incomplete. Generally, only prominent individuals are included in older indexes, and the book itself may include numerous references to individuals not included in the index. Also, at the time that many of these histories were published, indexing was a very manual process, and it is quite possible that individuals included in the history with significant biographical data are not included in the index.
History of Cook County Illinois: From the Earliest Period to the Present Time (Chicago: A.T. Andreas, 1884) is available to Ancestry.com subscribers here.
And more local histories can be found by clicking here.
Juliana Smith is the editor of the Ancestry Weekly Discovery and author of The Ancestry Family Historian's Address Book.