Your Guide to Using County & Local Histories in Your Genealogical Research
Local and county histories often provide information on citizens of that area, as well as information on the settlement and growth of a geographic area.
Information on your ancestors may be interspersed with the description of the area's development. In addition, biographical sketches often contain a substantial amount of family information, as well as a (usually glowing) description of the activities and traits of the subject of the sketch.
Because biographical information was usually written by family or friends, often in return for paying to have the data included, you are unlikely to find family skeletons or mention of any facts that might not reflect well on the family. Sometimes "facts" might be erroneous -- either because the teller mistakenly thought it to be the truth or purposely stretched the truth to make a better appearance.
Often these histories cover a single county, but some cover whole states or regions of a state; others will limit coverage to a city, village or town.
|To better understand how to use county histories, read these online articles
How do I find out what county and local histories were published for an area I am researching?
Book: Filby. A Bibliography of American County Histories (1985; reprinted 1995) (find in a library) -- this book lists many, but by no means all, of the published U.S. county histories. A preview copy (i.e. not all page included) of this book is available at Google Books.
Use this Google search technique: type in the name of the state you are interested in plus the words bibliography county histories. Here are some examples...
It won't always work, but it's worth a try.
Are they all indexed?
No, but that situation is rapidly improving. An index might exist in one of several forms:
1) The original book was indexed. Most earlier local histories were not originally indexed. Often there was an index or listing of the names of subjects of biographies; sometimes an index that included individuals for whom there was prominent mention, but little all-name indexing for those volumes. Histories published in the 1970's and later are more likely to be indexed.
2) Some one (or a group of people) created an index after the book was published. Such indexes might be on 3x5 cards, often held in a library or historical society; typescripts with mimeo copies distributed to 2 or 3 libraries, or separately published and bound volumes, offered for sale.
3) A reprint was issued with an index. Often the index is a published version of those indexes described in 2) above, but in many cases only after having been checked for accuracy and updated to correct errors and include omissions in the original index.
4) A digital copy is available that can be searched. The best digital copies provide an image of the original with a text version that can also be used. The original image is important because it allows the researcher to absolutely certain what was published. The text version is usually obtained through a computerized procedure called "optical character recognition" (OCR). It is that text that allows full text searching. It also allows us to cut and paste data into our notes. (Images can only be saved and viewed as though a picture of the page.) OCR techniques are good, but the results are not 100% correct, so we want to have access to both.
How find get your hands on the one you want to see..
Use OCLC's "Find in a Library" service at to learn which libraries own copies of a book. After you have typed in your search and click on the title of the very one you want, type your zip code in the "Enter Local Information" box and the system will sort the libraries so that those closest to you appear at the top of the list. Notice also that when the record for a specific book appears, there are 4 tabs along the top. If you click the one that says "subjects" then click on the subject, you will find other like books.
Many out of copyright local and county histories were filmed by UMI and offered as a multi-part microfiche set titled "Local & Family Histories." Some large genealogy libraries own the whole set on microform. It is this set that is the basis for the local and family histories section of Ancestry.com and HeritageQuest.com. (see online section below)
If you want a copy for your own collection, you might want to get an original, but keep in mind that the acidic paper of the late 19th, early 20th century is rapidly deteriorating and those books may soon be too fragile to use. Another choice is to buy a reprint. ProQuest (was UMI) has a Books On Demand service that sells reprinted copies. Another publisher that offers reprint versions of old family and local histories is Higginson Books; another is Heritage Books. For more choices, see my page on genealogy publishers & vendors.
What is available online?
Online County Histories, Biographies and Indexes -USA. A Genealogy Guide. -- another of Joe Beine's great guides. It can't be complete... too much is getting added too fast, but it provides a good start at finding out what is online.
This wonderful site lists online county histories --when the state page comes up, you may have to scroll down to find the state you want. It lists them by date, not title,.
Check Linkpendium's USA state and county guides to see if a local history is available online. Sometimes they are listed under Biography... etc. and sometimes under History. You will want to check both the page for the whole state and the page for county you are researching.
Ancestry.com and HeritageQuest.com both provide a number of family and local histories, and may be available through your local public or academic library. You can subscribe to $Ancestry.com$ -- in fact, you can often get a free trial period, but if you do, you will have to be diligent about canceling. It may take you more time and trouble than you would like.
Sometimes the county history itself isn't online, but a person who owns it is wiling to do lookups. One place to find such offers is the U.S. GenWeb site for that county. Hendrickson. Count on County Histories gives links to several other sources of getting a look up in the county history you want to see.