General History Sources
|This article originally appeared in Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records, edited by Kory L. Meyerink.|
Locating sources that develop a historical background for one’s family history is vital to genealogical research and eventual publication of that research. It is important to know the social, political, and economic history of an ancestor’s homeland, for example. Such knowledge promotes a better understanding of the historical period in which an ancestor was born, lived, and died. Understanding why a family or group of families left ancestral homes for the raw frontier will greatly improve one’s knowledge of them as real people rather than just names on a family chart. Knowing the many hardships and occasional joys they experienced on the frontier, or in immigrant ships, will aid in understanding the sacrifices these ancestors made.
Most of the sources mentioned below will be found in the reference sections of large public libraries. They offer quick access to historical information.
Several sources cover the history of the United States. The Dictionary of American History is an excellent resource for finding quick answers to most questions on U.S. history. Although the word dictionary is used in its title, this multi-volume set is generally considered an encyclopedia because of its depth and scope. Although this set does not contain biographical entries, the analytical, or descriptive, index provides access to prominent names mentioned in each article.
Originally published in 1936, the Dictionary of American History was completely revised in 1976 during America’s bicentennial. Articles on American prehistory, Native Americans, and African Americans were added to broaden its scope. A two-volume supplement published in 1996 brings the study of American history to the year 1995.
The Dictionary of American History offers genealogists concise, informative articles on nearly every aspect of American history. For example, the entry for the Black Hawk War gives the date of conflict (1832), the principle combatants (United States and a faction of Sauk, or Sac, and Fox Indians) and the location of the event (mainly Illinois and Wisconsin). This information appears at the beginning of the article on the Black Hawk War, followed by a discussion of the causes and consequences of the war. Suggestions for other books to read on the subject complete the article.
Another source, the Encyclopedia of American History, by Richard B. and Jeffrey B. Morris (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), offers a unique presentation of American history. It is arranged in four parts: the first part is chronological by year and covers major political and military events in U.S. history; the second part presents historical topics, such as national expansion, immigration, and economic trends; the third part consists of biographies of 450 notable Americans; part 4 presents the structure of the Federal government. An extensive index provides access to the material in all four sections. This arrangement allows the genealogist to pinpoint events that occurred during the time when an ancestor lived. Such information is especially useful for determining why a family moved from one area to another. Did a war, drought, or other force contribute to a family’s migration? A researcher compiling a family genealogy will find this type of information useful when describing the time in which her ancestors lived and died. The Encyclopedia of American History is usually found on library reference shelves.
The Encyclopedia of World History provides similar chronological data on an international level. Why ancestors moved from their homelands, crossed vast oceans, and adapted to a new life in a strange land are important questions. Were there forces at work in their homelands that caused such migrations? This encyclopedia will help to answer these questions by pinpointing major historical events and by providing a broad outline of world events and their chronological periods. Equipped with this information, the genealogist can search for more detailed explanations of historical events in an encyclopedia or a history book.
General histories of the United States can be found in libraries, bookstores, and even in our own homes. A child’s school history textbook will often fill the need for a quick reference to a historical event. However, as one becomes more involved in genealogical research, it soon becomes apparent that more detailed, comprehensive studies of American history are needed.
The Oxford History of the American People, by Samuel Eliot Morison (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), is an excellent example of a comprehensive study of American history written for the general reader. This history spans the time from prehistoric man to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It integrates the social history of the United States with the political history and complements the text with fine black and white illustrations.
Researchers sometimes need more than a basic history of the country or area settled in by an ancestor; they often require information about the cultural, political, or social customs of a particular time to better understand the actions taken by an ancestor. Several reference sources that are found in most libraries will direct the researcher to more detailed historical sources. The two-volume Harvard Guide to American History, edited by Frank B. Freidel, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1974), provides an important first step in locating published works on American history. Vol. 1 is arranged by topics that include religion, education, marriage and the family, fur trade, pioneer life, and military frontier. Within each topic are references to books and periodical articles about that particular subject. Of further value is a short course on historical research that offers excellent suggestions on note-taking and aids to historical research and a good discussion on writing for publication. Vol. 2 is arranged chronologically and then by topic within each historical period. This arrangement is useful when searching for information on a particular time period, such as the Revolutionary War.
A serious drawback to this otherwise excellent resource is the fact that it was published in 1974. Researchers should be cautious when using vol. 1 because the sections on research centers and printed state and local histories are dated.
Another excellent guide for finding information on the lives and customs of our ancestors is the four-volume series titled Index to America: Life and Customs, edited by Norma O. Ireland (Westwood, Mass.: F. W. Faxon Co., 197684). This is an index to popular rather than scholarly works. Index to America was designed primarily for public and school library use. Its editors sought to index magazine articles and books that could be easily found in most libraries. It explores the customs and everyday life in particular time periods rather than historical or political events. Vol. 1 covers the seventeenth century; vol. 2 the eighteenth; vol. 3 the nineteenth; and vol. 4 the twentieth century to 1986. Each volume is arranged by subject with many cross-references to aid the user. Family historians will find references to specific place names, such as Jamestown and Dodge City; to specific subjects of interest, such as homesteaders and homesteading; and to unusual terms, such as pauper’s badges.
Another index to American cultural history is America: History and Life, a Guide to Periodical Literature (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 1964). This ongoing indexing project provides abstracts, or detailed descriptions, for each article mentioned. Coverage includes both U.S. and Canadian history with special emphasis on ethnic studies, family history, folklore, Indian-white relations, and military history. This index is also available online through DIALOG ([[see Electronic Sources]]).
These sources are usually found in library reference areas and are therefore not available for borrowing. For a "popular" history book to take home and read at leisure, search the library’s circulating section. Libraries using the Dewey Decimal System will offer a wide variety of American history books in the 973 section. These books can also be found in local bookstores and sometimes even in garage sales.