"The first house we had there was a half-dugout . . . an old half-dugout with a dirt floor."
Local family histories are but one source in what is often referred to as the Local Area Survey—a systematic evaluation of local sources relevant to your area of interest. This article aims at providing a greater appreciation for local histories, along with some insights as to what you might find and how you might apply your findings. Print and online local histories are discussed.
While state histories can be useful for providing the big picture of your area, it is the county and local community histories that let you get up close and personal with your ancestors.
Where To Begin? Your local public library is a good place to start, especially if you live near the area you are researching. If your area of interest is elsewhere, you might consider what libraries or historical archives close to you might have the information. Your local Family History Center is a good place to check. To find a family history center near you, visit http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Library/FHC/frameset_fhc.asp.
What might be available? Online library catalogs are a great resource. The Family History Library in Salt Lake has a vast collection of local histories from all over the world, so a good place to look for titles may be with the FHL Online Library Catalog at www.familysearch.org. You may also check the local library in your area of interest—many have online catalogs. To find a library, you may wish to consult LibDex, and worldwide index of library catalogues and web sites at www.libdex.com/.
You may also search online. Most city and county web sites have a "history" link. Many Rootsweb and USGenWeb state and county sites offer histories of their local areas. And numerous history pages exist, maintained by individuals and groups with special interests. Google or other Internet search engines are excellent tools for locating online histories for your area—be sure to include the word history in your locality search term. When using Google, be sure to click Images tab of your search results page. You may find some great pictures, and the images may lead you to a site rich with photographs.
One exemplary site for online histories is the Texas Handbook Online, providing a brief history on just about anything to do with the state of Texas, not only the history of individual communities—cities, towns, counties, but also biographies and historical facts on railways, rivers, agriculture, and landmarks—the list goes on and on.
Remember, a key function of local histories is to provide background and context of the time in which your ancestors lived—do not dismiss a local history just because your family name does not appear. Pay close attention to such things as industry and economy, migrations patterns, and the growth of the community; look also for churches and other organizations in the area, as they may be resources you will want to research. Biographical sketches are also useful, even if they are not about your ancestor, they may be relatives or in some way be associated. Everything is a local history is fair game—it just takes some astute observation to pick up on the clues.
As mentioned, images can be priceless. Photos of the time and place can go a long way in bringing you closer to your family. In the personal histories I have collected of my mother and grandmother, are references to living in a "half-dugout" in Oklahoma and New Mexico. I could only imagine from my grandmother's description what that structure might be like.
The first house we had there was a half-dugout . . . a old half-dugout with a dirt floor. We dug half of it up. We just had half a window above ground, the rest of it was underground. Then we had steps. We just built one big room where we all slept, eat and all in that one room. But that's how we lived there.
Researching my family in a Texas local history, I found a photo of a half-dugout—not the same place, certainly, but in the same time period and within close proximity. I have since found other photos of half-dugouts on the web—I've yet to find images of a "monkey stove," which leads to the question of relevance.
How can you apply what is found? Whether or not your family was prominent enough in the area to be named in the local history, you can learn a great deal about the life and times of your family and come to understand them better. The more familiar you become with the local history of a place, the more you will become attuned to its relevance to your family and the clues it may contain. Here are just a few examples.
- Compare what is known about your family. As you review a local history, compare what you find to what is known about your family. Pay close attention to information that be relevant to ancestral occupations.
- Be mindful of churches and other local organizations. Learning what churches and other organizations existed at a particular point in time gives you other places to search for records. Be mindful also of patterns within a community, ethnic groups, for example, religious faiths or occupations.
- Look for town histories and area maps. Maps for a given time period are extremely valuable in researching your family history. Local histories may provide information on towns that are no longer in existence. Maps may also show important transportation routes, indicating a path your family may have taken in relocating from one place to another. Local histories can also be an aid to your census research by providing information about the establishment of towns and counties; a town usually comes into being when a post office is erected. One key element in a local history is the record of newspapers that existed at the time, when a paper came into being, when it changed hands, and when it ceased publication. Armed with this information, you can then begin locating newspaper archives.
- Take note of local events, happenings, and general context. Understanding the history of events within a community may help you compare what happened locally to what happened within your family members' lives; a typical example is migrations brought about by a change in the community. Major events, economy changes, and war—all such events provide useful insights and may even answer certain questions. But the general context and background of a community may go far in helping you better understand what your family may have experienced.
- Look also for pioneers and prominent citizens. In reviewing the biographical sketches of pioneers and prominent citizens within an area, you may find people who figured in your families lives. Certain doctors and clergymen may have played a role in specific events. Through local area pioneers, you may find land purchases that have bearing on your family. Finally, some of your more distant relatives may be listed in the history and, oftentimes, learning about them may inform pieces of your own family's puzzle
Numerous other benefits of local histories could be given, but nothing informs like experience. Local histories can give you the population of a community at a given time in history and, perhaps, let you know there were only 238 people in the community at the time your family lived there, which gives you great hope that a continuing survey of local area sources may yield some promising results . . . and local histories because they are so relevant are simply a good read