County histories were prolifically written during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many were written to coincide with the country’s centennial celebration in 1876 when a burst of interest in genealogy helped to fuel the population’s interest in the past. Writers and publishers quickly seized the opportunity to create tomes of widespread interest.
Most early county histories were written with two distinctly separate parts. The first provided a history of the county and was usually arranged alphabetically by town or township. A physical description that discussed the geography, topography, and history of each municipality was included. The second part was biographical and contained profiles of founders and prominent citizens at the time the book was published. Often, maps were included to illustrate the writings. Although these maps may not be drawn to scale, or may omit certain physical features, they are still useful to show the area at an historical point in time.
By researching local history you are learning about your family’s community. These details add context to your family history and provide clues for your genealogy journey. Don’t toss aside a local history just because your ancestor’s surname is not in the index. Not every name is indexed in most county histories. Rather than searching for names, use the tomes to search for the place to learn about your ancestor’s home and uncover little-known facts unique to the area.
- Biographies of prominent men are usually included. A lucky genealogist will find an ancestor’s biography. Many of us are not so fortunate. Much can still be gleaned from these biographies giving insight into the era and locale at an historic point in time. These men were neighbors, and perhaps friends or associates, of your ancestors.
- The topography of the region is usually given with much detail. Soil conditions, elevations, and natural geographic features may all be included in the descriptions. This detail can help you to learn the “lay of the land” and can provide insights into difficulties your ancestors might have faced because of a particular geographic setting.
- Stories of founders are passed along. These stories provide interesting anecdotes for genealogists by providing background about the circumstances surrounding the settlement of the communities.
- Most local and county histories provide details of the histories of churches, cemeteries, schools, hospitals, and businesses. These histories can be valuable in locating these institutions, or identifying ones that no longer exist.
- Many local and county histories include maps of the area. Some may be small and include just a neighborhood of focus while others may depict the entire area of the book’s focus. These maps are particularly valuable when you find a county history published at the time your ancestor lived there; the maps will provide a reasonably accurate depiction of the time and place you are researching.
- Political and economic situations are included in the municipality profiles. Details of local industry and population statistics are often presented in text and/or table format.
- Many county histories hold detailed information about the military involvement of its citizens. Local battles might be summarized or highlighted. Often there are regiment lists or other lists of men who were in the military or local militia.
- The county demographic details together with the biographies can provide insight into the everyday lives of the residents.
- A local or county history written during the late 1800s might have the only written documentation about a small hamlet or village where your ancestors lived. Small villages might have lost their identity through the years and either became a part of a larger jurisdiction or, worse, ceased to exist. A county history written when the small village existed can provide details about a long-lost residence.
- Pictures, drawings, and illustrations are typically found in many local and county histories. Take the time to view them; look for hidden details and clues that might help with your research.
Many biographies included in these histories were solicited and a fee paid by the family for inclusion in the book. This situation lent itself to embellishment of accomplishments and status within the community. Many biographies were unedited and unverified by the publishers, so they went to print exactly as the family wrote and submitted them.
The index, if there is one included in the book, can often be incomplete and is rarely an every name index. Not finding your ancestor’s name in the index of a county history does not necessarily mean that he won’t be mentioned in the pages of the text. Often, only the most prominent of men were indexed. Reading or scanning through the pages of the book might lead to fascinating discoveries. If you are fortunate enough to find a digitized version of the county history online, it may be keyword searchable.
Societies: Genealogical and historical societies may have local histories in their holdings or may be able to point you to a repository that holds physical copies or microform of that county’s history. To locate a genealogical or historical society in your research area, visit the state pages at the US GenWeb Project. Many state pages include a list of societies with contact information and links to their websites. You may also search the Internet for a genealogical society by entering the local jurisdiction (town, city, or county) followed by the words “genealogical society” or “genealogy society” in the search engine box.
Libraries: Many public and academic libraries hold published county histories in their collections. To find a library in your research locality, the library locator page on the Internet Public Library website is an excellent starting point. There are several links on this web page that will allow you to search for libraries in specific geographic locations. After you locate a library, check the online catalog to identify the extent of the library’s holdings. You might also contact the library directly to ask if they have county histories in their holdings. And don’t overlook college and university libraries. Many of these academic libraries have a Special Collections department with local history resources.
HeritageQuest Online: Access to HeritageQuest Online is available through many public libraries. Phone your local public library, or check out their website, to see if they provide access to this great resource. You will likely be able to access the collection with your current library card. HeritageQuest Online provides access to many digitized books including family and local histories. And best of all, it’s free through your local public library.
Internet Archive: The Internet Archive has thousands of digitized county histories that can be viewed, for free, online. To find a county history for the research area you are interested in, type the following into the Internet Archive search box: “county state history” replacing “county” and “state” with the area you are researching, i.e. “cumberland county pennsylvania history.” For accurate search results, be sure to type the full name of the state and not the postal code or an abbreviation.
Print Publications can also help you to identify if a county history book exists for your research area. These books are available in larger libraries with genealogical collections, academic libraries, and often through interlibrary loan:
- A Bibliography of American County Histories, compiled by P. William Filby
- Consolidated Bibliography of County Histories in Fifty States in 1961, by Clarence Stewart Peterson
- Index to American Genealogies and to genealogical material contained in all works as town histories, county histories, local histories, historical society publications, biographies, historical periodicals, and kindred works by Daniel S. Durrie
- Travel and Description, 1765-1865, together with a list of county histories, atlases, and biographical collections and a list of territorial and State laws by Solon J. Buck
updated July 2017