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Watching For Pitfalls When Using Local Histories In Genealogical Research

Discovering a copy of a local church, town or county history that mentions the family a genealogist is researching can be an exciting find.


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Discovering a copy of a local church, town or county history that mentions the family a genealogist is researching can be an exciting find. However, there are pitfalls in relying on these local histories by themselves. Many genealogies have been erroneously compiled because previous researchers relied exclusively upon material that they found in print, for which they didn't check out through primary resources.

Information found in genealogies, county, town and church histories varies greatly in depth and accuracy. Beginning genealogists should be careful about accepting anything and everything in print as 100 percent accurate. Errors abound in almost all such works. Genealogies are especially suspect, particularly when sources of the information are uncited or if cited, not done properly to enable the researcher to determine that an actual marriage certificate was examined, for example. It also is difficult to weigh the credibility of the source —was he or she an eyewitness to an event or merely re-telling stories he or she had heard?

Some local histories are excellent, while many are of dubious worth. Many county histories published in the late 19th century were by subscription. There was no independent verification of any of the genealogical information, so they shouldn't be accepted at face value. These are known as "mug books." Anyone with enough money to subscribe could submit material. As a result, it was the wealthy whose names appeared in the books. And, quite naturally, they extolled their virtues.

Local histories vary in reliability also, but for the most part are probably more accurate than the "mug books." It's a good idea for a researcher to check P. William Filby's American & British Genealogy & Heraldry and its 1982-1985 supplement to see if a particular history is listed. Filby lists the book's title with a brief description, along with such comments as "many errors and omissions," "use with care," "not definitive, but useful" or "standard work on the subject."

County histories often consist of two sections. The first being a history of the county, arranged by towns or townships, and the second being biographical, containing profiles of the founding fathers and families who lived there when the book was published. These books can be valuable because some of the information may have been obtained directly from local individuals, who may have had first-hand knowledge of the facts. However, often compilers of these books used interviews or questionnaires, so the data wasn't edited or verified independently. Add the possibility of errors occurring from the time they took notes to the typesetting process, and it's easy to understand why information might be wrong. Therefore, genealogical information in them should be checked with primary and/or good secondary sources.

The American Centennial in 1876 and the Bicentennial in 1976 spawned many town histories. These often include information about the founding fathers, biographies of the local political leaders, doctors, ministers, and other professionals. In them also researchers may find lists of those who fought in the Revolutionary or Civil War, or names of early town or county officials such as the sheriffs, council members, and postmasters. Some New England town histories include early vital records as well as church, probate and land records.

But finding copies of local histories and old genealogies can be difficult. Many of these are out of print and few libraries offer them on interlibrary loan. A good source is the Family History Library of the Mormon Church, which may have a copy on microfilm. Researchers should examine the Family History Library Catalog at the Library's nearest location to determine if the publication has been microfilmed. If it has, it can be ordered for about $3.50 from Salt Lake City and will be sent to the regional Family History Center near the researcher. Genealogies in the Library of Congress or Complement to Genealogies in the Library of Congress, found in most libraries, may also list local histories. The latter index tells which libraries have a copies of which histories.

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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