One of the most important features to the genealogist is the Family History section or the Biographical Sketches section. A lot of these articles are authentic and verified, but some are not. Using a history for your research is like using any other document, you must verify the information. You need to find the documentation that supports your dates and places.
When you look for your family in one of these books, remember that the information is second, possibly third hand. Somebody wrote it originally, then somebody copied the information to hand in for the book. Once the information was received to go into the book, it had to be typeset in some form. Think about how many times the information has changed hands already, and it is not even printed!
Although you have to take this information with a grain of salt, the value of it is limitless. Yes, there may be mistakes, but these biographies can lead you back into another county, another state, even another country. By just reading the biographies, you may find out that your ancestor had several marriages, so you will need to look more for those records. You may find out that your ancestor served in a war, so you will need to check the pension lists and the militia records. These biographies may not be perfect, but they can lead you to other information that may give you exactly what you need.
One interesting aspect of these sketches is that family legends or stories may be included in them. Once again, you have to look through your fingers to sift out the truth of these stories, but they may give you the lead you need to find another generation. If your family left the area, some of the histories tell where the settlers migrated to after leaving.
One thing that often happens is that your family may have been original settlers in a county, but the family left early in the history of the county. When you read the local history, you do not find any information or biographies about your family because there is nobody left in the county that is a member of your family. While this is disappointing, you don't want to discount using the history for your research.
The information provided in the history may give you important facts regarding settlements in the area and the patterns of migration. Many histories include the first land records, the first marriages and the first wills. You may find your ancestor in this section. The histories will usually give information on the churches, cemeteries, and businesses in the area. This information may provide you with another clue in your research.
Local and county histories are much more valuable when an index is included. Always check the index, and check for other spellings of your family name. If an index is not included, it is a good idea to check the locations, the churches, and the general history. A family name may appear in some of these sections.
County and local histories are often listed in bibliographies. Check Cyndi's List, either in hard back or online for places to go to find county histories. Many times the county websites on www.rootsweb.com or www.usgenweb.com includes the information about the histories. You can contact the local historical society in the county for information.
Most local and county histories cannot be loaned out, nor are they on the Internet. You will often have to locate a hard copy to use them. It is amazing how many of the books find their way into libraries across the United States. Check www.worldcat.org for information on where the books are located. One source that does offer a wide range of of county histories on CD is Brookhaven Press.
Although regional, local and county histories may not enjoy the best reputations, they are invaluable to the researcher. It takes a lot of time, energy and dedication to publish a regional, county, or local history. The information may not be completely correct, but it is correct enough for the researcher to use it to find more information. If these histories had not been published, think about how much information would be lost.