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 sections. The first provided a history of the county and was usually arranged alphabetically by town or township. The geographic and political background of each municipality was included. The second section 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.
The twentieth century has seen a resurgence of interest in writing locality histories. Many newer publications fill the shelves of libraries and bookstores. These tomes, written at a time further removed from the actual events, rely heavily on previous histories, letters, diaries, and word of mouth. Take a few moments to check the sources and documentation used to write the book to assess its validity as a reliable source.
How County Histories are Helpful
By researching local history you are learning about your family’s community. These details add context to you 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. 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 family histories. Take the time to view them; look for hidden details and clues that might help with your research.
Cautions When Using County Histories
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 indexes can often be incomplete and are 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.
Not all municipalities were fortunate to have a local history compiled. In these situations, look for histories for the next largest or nearest jurisdiction. If a history does not exist for your town or a neighboring town, look for a county or state history. Many state histories have separate chapters or sections for each county or region of the state.
Where to Find County Histories
Historical and genealogical societies typically have local histories in their holdings. To locate an historical or genealogical society in your research area, visit the state pages at the US GenWeb Project. Many state pages also include a list of societies with links to their websites. You might 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 search box.
Local public and academic libraries may hold local and county histories in their collection. To find a library in your research locality, the library locator page on the Internet Public Library website is an excellent starting point. After you locate a library, check their online catalog to identify the extent of their holdings. You might also contact the library directly via e-mail or snail mail to ask if they have county histories in their holdings. Not all libraries catalog all items. Don’t overlook college and university libraries. Many of these academic libraries have Special Collections of local history resources.
The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has many county histories in its microfilm holdings, which can be found in their online catalog. Microfilm can be loaned to your local Family History Center. Visit the Find a Family History Center page on the FamilySearch website to find a Family History Center near you.
HeritageQuest Online provides a collection of 40,000+ searchable books including family histories, local histories, city directories, and more. HeritageQuest Online is available at many libraries and may be accessible from home through your library’s website with a valid library card. A call to the reference desk at your local public library will provide that answer to you.
The Internet has several websites with digitized books that are fully searchable. Many county histories are older publications and are out of copyright making them freely accessible online. Google Books , Internet Archive, HeritageQuest Online (available through your local public library), and the Family History Books at FamilySearch are just a few of the websites where you will find digitized county histories.
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
- North Carolina County Histories; a Bibliography by William Stevens Powell
- Texas County Histories, a Bibliography by H. Bailey Carroll
- Bibliography of the County Histories of Alabama by Robert David Ward and William Warren Rogers
- A Bibliography of Missouri County Histories and Atlases by P. O. Selby
- New Mexico Local and County Histories, A Bibliography by Christine Buder Myers