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Genealogy: Your Family's Hometown

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County Histories: The “Mug” Books

Almost every county in the United States has had at least one county history published, and some have several. They vary in content. Those published in the late 1800s or early 1900s typically consisted of brief histories of each of their townships or towns, churches, lodges, medical profession, schools, newspapers, county government, and notorious happenings, and even those who served in the military from the county. They may include the name and place of origin of the early pioneers of the area—who established the first grist mill, the first physician, town officers, and other similarly valuable information. Consult P. William Filby's Bibliography of American County Histories. Or in your Internet browser insert “bibliography county histories,” and listings for specific states will be displayed. Look in your library for town histories. Though town histories are not listed in Filby, many have been published.

Pedigree Pitfalls

Note the year of publication of the book; was your ancestor living then? If not, someone else provided the data and may have guessed at some of the facts.

The county histories are sometimes referred to as “mug books” because often they included biographies with photographs (or pen sketches) of the early citizens. The lack of a biography was no reflection on a person's standing in the community, however. The books were mostly on a subscription basis; those who paid were included, while others were not. To subscribe or not depended upon the frugality and monetary priorities of the individual. The histories published in the late 1800s were supplied by people far closer to the time of the events and should be (but aren't always) more accurate than recollections of present-day descendants.

View the mug books with caution. If the biography includes several earlier generations, there can be multiple errors caused by loss of memory or lack of knowledge of the family background. (Or even, sometimes, by a desire to elevate their standing in the community or to obscure details of a less-than-desirable past.) All facts must be confirmed. Nonetheless, the biographies are unique and provide an insight often lacking in any other source. You will learn of your ancestors' schooling, jobs, purchase of the farm, the church they attended, when they “found” religions, and other fascinating facts.

Tree Tips

If you can establish the name of the community in which your family lived, first search those sections in an unindexed book. The location will give you a starting place.

A common problem with published county histories is the absence of an index. Usually only the name of the subject in the biographies was listed; the other names within the sketch were not. And rarely were the names in the town and historical sections indexed. It can be a tedious process to locate your ancestor's name among the pages. Fortunately, many individuals or groups initiated projects to remedy this shortcoming. Even if an index has not been published, there may be a card index at the library created by locals for the histories of their own county.

Vital Records: The Facts of Life

Vital Records—births, marriages, and deaths—are among the richest of documents that help build the family tree. Searching them may take some effort because it often requires going to a variety of locations. They can be scattered among the shelves of the courthouse, city hall, county health department, local historical society, and even church and state archives. First, check at the library to see if anyone has compiled or published any of the local vital records. Although you don't want to rely upon the published version (because of possible omissions and errors in transcriptions), you can use it to initiate the search. The preface of the book of vital records might explain where the various records are housed, available time periods, and which vital records, if any, have been destroyed.

The Web Shines Here

The Internet provides a variety of ways in which you can supplement the search for a county's vital records. One valuable website is www.vitalrec.com. Or go to www.cyndislist.com, and scroll down to “Death Records,” (or to any of the other vital records listed there).

Another alternative is to go to www.usgenweb.org, and use their links to get to the state and county of your search. Examine the county website carefully to see if any of the vital records have been posted, published, or microfilmed.

At http://home.att.net/~wee-monster/deathrecords.html is a nifty website “Online Searchable Death Indexes for the U.S.A.” categorized by state. It includes obituaries, cemeteries, and the Social Security Death Index, in addition to death records.

Local Records

If you are fortunate, your county may be one for which abstracts of other early records have been published. These might include an assortment of land records: deed abstracts, surveys, land entries, and others. Though you should also examine the originals in the courthouse, the published records have the advantage of an all-name index for the book, whereas the courthouse clerks only index the main parties.

A multitude of other published abstracts might be found: court minutes, order books, wills, inventories, and others. Look for mention of members of your family and clues to relationships. Later you will make your first trip to the courthouse and experience the excitement of using the original records. For now the published books can aid you in understanding the variety of available records.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy © 2005 by Christine Rose and Kay Germain Ingalls. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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