What do you do when you’re watching Groundhog Day and want to know more about the history of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania? Or perhaps you’re watching Napoleon Dynamite and want to learn more about Preston, Idaho.
Perhaps you’re writing a book and need some local color to spice up an otherwise dull chapter.
Perhaps you have Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors like the Freed or Landis families and wonder if anything has been written about them. Or maybe you are descended from the Brackens of Pine Valley, Utah, and have heard a few Bill Bracken stories over the years but don’t know much else about the family.
So what do you do?
How to find family and community histories1
Just a few years ago, most of the options for finding family or local histories were expensive and complicated unless you lived in or near the community you were researching and had access to a good local history collection at your public or university library.
If you didn’t have access you could take a research trip; search used book sellers; go to a library such as the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City or the Allen County Public Library in Indiana; order a microfilm from the FHL to be sent your local LDS Family History Center for a fee;2 or use Interlibrary Loan.
Over the past few years, Google Books and Archive.org have put many books online, and are worth checking, but family and community histories tend to be underrepresented in their collections.
Now there is an amazing new resource.
FamilySearch, the genealogical organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has worked together with the Allen County Public Library, the Brigham Young University libraries in Provo and Hawaii, the Church History Library, the Houston Public Library, and the Midwest Genealogy Center to create a database of over 100,000 digitized family and community histories.
For the Freed descendants I mentioned above, there are 4,791 potential sources. The top two are E.A. Freed’s History of the Freed Family and Isaac Freed’s History of the Freed Family. If you click on the first one, you can read it online or download a pdf copy onto your hard drive. If you click on the second one, it has copyright restrictions, so you get the disappointing message, “You do not have sufficient rights to view requested object.…” In this case, you make a note of the history you need and visit your local Family History Center where you can view it online. (See the Family History Center Finder for locations and hours.)
For the Bracken family, you’re also out of luck. Oh Ye Mountains High: History of Pine Valley, Utah, requires a trip to the Family History Center, but it’s definitely worth it since it’s a gossipy, detailed book about just about everyone who ever set foot in Pine Valley in the pioneer days. Here are a couple of its stories:
Bill [Bracken] was driving a team around Cottonwood Canyon, a very crooked winding road. He said that he went around a turn and met the ugliest man he had ever seen and asked him who he was. The man replied that he was Bill Bracken. Bill retorted, “Why you’re not either because I am Bill Bracken.” Then Bill said, “I suddenly discovered that I had gone around a turn and met myself coming back.”
Once Brother Warren went to Bill’s Ward teaching. He gave Bill a sermon on the Word of Wisdom. He told Bill he should stop smoking and drinking. Bill agreed and said that he knew he should live a better life and stop his bad habits. When Brother Warren got ready to go, Bill accompanied him to the door and said, “Well, I smoke and you steal chickens so I guess we’ll reach heaven about the same time.”
How can you tell if a history is reliable?
Here are some practical questions to ask.
What are the author’s qualifications? What connection to the subject matter or credentials does the author have? Does he or she have actual knowledge or use reliable sources, or both? The Pine Valley history is based on interviews with Bill Bracken’s brother Marcellus, and as you read it, much of it is accurate but some of it is meant to be humorous and you would want to do some fact checking and get a feel for what’s true and what’s tall tale and use the content appropriately.
Does it have footnotes? Footnotes or endnotes are uncommon in older histories and are usually overkill in memoirs, but the purpose of footnotes is to note where information comes from or to explain things in more detail. As a rule of thumb, the more footnotes a history has, the more likely it is to be reliable. Some examples of well-footnoted histories are Eugene Perkins’ exhaustive The First Mormon Perkins Families and Bruce Crow’s A Land of Strangers: Cane Creek Tennessee’s Mormon Massacre.4 An example of an under-sourced history that has some known problems is Arthur Richardson’s The Life and Ministry of John Morgan.
Does the history use reliable sources? Check the preface, acknowledgments, footnotes, and bibliography. These will give some clues about reliability.
Is the information verifiable? Some sources may be enjoyable as cultural artifacts, but if you are going to take the next step and use the content, you will want to check its reliability first. Some of any book’s contents will be easily verifiable. Go ahead and check as many things like names and dates as you can against other sources. The more facts an author gets right, the more likely the book is to be reliable.
Do you have suggestions of other practical ways to judge the reliability of a history?
Do you have a favorite family or community history, either professional or amateur?6
- Of course you can turn to Wikipedia, that fount of all knowledge and learning, but its local history articles are usually too short to be of much use, except for finding exact locations. [↩]
- The fee is currently around $7.50 to have a film sent to your local center for about three months. [↩]
- A search for Lesotho turns up 32 records. A search for the Marshall Islands turns up 113, many of them having to do with World War II. [↩]
- This one is not in Family History Books, but it is a recently-published work by a member of the Keepapitchinin community. [↩]
- The collection is comprehensive enough that anyone who has at least one family line back several generations in North America or Western Europe should be able to find at least one item of interest. [↩]
- The title of this post comes from an anonymous little poem, a nod to Longfellow, found in one of my favorite family histories. “Lives of ancestors all remind us, / We leave pictures to our kin, / And departing leave behind us, / Relatives who point and grin.” [↩]