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Three Reasons You Need Local History Books

When you're finding answers in documents and microfilm, it's easy to overlook the thick, somber history books dutifully detailing a town's history. But if you pick up that book you may be surprised at what you find.


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When you've got momentum in your genealogy search and every microfilm and document you find is giving you exactly what you want, it's easy to overlook the thick, somber history books dutifully detailing a town's history.

But when the good luck dries up (and it will), you may come to the realization that a local history book can be worth its weight in gold. Here are three reasons why any family historian needs their local history books.

1. Local history books may have the answers you're searching for

It happened to me. For years, my husband's family lamented the loss of their direct maternal line. "I came across my great-grandmother's maiden name once on a birth certificate," my mother-in-law would sigh wistfully. "But it's disappeared, and now no one can remember the name. I think it was Ruttenbergs. Or Runnenberg."

The dusky, exotic looks of Great-Grandma, along with her mysterious origins, led to numerous family myths of Indian blood, gypsy blood, adoption, and scandal. Until I picked up a massive tome on the history of a local township, that is. It listed every lot in the township, along with an indexed list and history of all the owners. I took a chance on "Ronnenberg." There she was, along with her entire family. Another local history book filled with pictures of her uncles revealed that her dusky looks appeared to be both inherited and German.

2. Local history books may suggest people and resources for your search

Historians and historical societies, especially in small communities, are a tight-knit bunch. The acknowledgements page alone of a local history book is a list of people worth getting in touch with. Not only can you use their help, but it's likely that they will find the information you have priceless as well.

You may even find relatives - the woman who had contributed the Ronnenberg family information to the township history was a Ronnenberg herself. She also happened to be a pleasant woman that had curled with my mother-in-law twenty years earlier. Since neither of them was named Ronnenberg by that time, they were friendly acquaintances for years with no idea that they were also kin.

Relatives, even distant ones, whom you find through a local history book may be sources of valuable information, the same way you might be to them. Also, once you find one book by a local historian, find out what else they've written and what they recommend. I ended up with several local history books, and each one added important pieces of information.

3. Local history adds color to your family tree

Maybe I would have found the missing Ronnenberg line even if it weren't for the local history books. But I definitely would have missed out on stories from their lives. From another local history book I discovered that several Ronnenbergs (great-uncles) played in the local citizens' band in the first half of the 20th century. One great-uncle had served as a reeve, councillor and mayor of the town we had just moved to.

They weren't all civic-minded accomplishments, however. I also discovered that Great-Grandma's husband lived nearby. From his entry in the township book I learned that his family had been suspected of brewing moonshine on their farm, a tale that is now lovingly recounted each time my husband's family breaks out the scotch.

Whether they were serving the town or just serving drinks, if your family has lived in a certain area for generations, there's a good chance at least one line will appear in local history books. But even if they aren't, the photos and history of where they lived give you an idea of their life beyond just their name. Old photos of the church they were married in, or the main street in town, are excellent additions to setting the scene for their branch in the family tree. If you've just been making a beeline for the library's computer or microfiche, take a moment next time to pick up a history book - you may be surprised at what you find.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

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

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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