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Guest Post: “Lives of Ancestors All Remind Us”: Family History Books

By: Amy Tanner Thiriot - September 17, 2013

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.

Family History Books

The collection was recently updated with many new items. The collection tends toward Northern American and Western European sources, but it does include some international resources.3

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.

Discussion

Do you have suggestions of other practical ways to judge the reliability of a history?

If you click over to Family History Books, please return and let us know if you find anything interesting.5

Do you have a favorite family or community history, either professional or amateur?6

Notes

  1. 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. []
  2. The fee is currently around $7.50 to have a film sent to your local center for about three months. []
  3. 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. []
  4. This one is not in Family History Books, but it is a recently-published work by a member of the Keepapitchinin community. []
  5. 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. []
  6. 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.” []


24 Comments »

  1. Thank you for this reference. Last year I found a history of the Harmon family originally from New England (a Nauvoo and pioneering family) on Google Books for free to my great delight. This is one line that I had not learned much about other than my 3rd great grandfather, Alpheus Amuleck Harmon freezing to death in a blizzard walking home between Carthage and Nauvoo at the end of a mission to Wisconsin and his son, Henry Martin Harmon witnessing the Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith and later surveying the town of Afton in Star Valley, WY with amazing accuracy with crude tools. I learned the Harmons were all involved in fighting in the Revolution (mostly in Penn.)

    Comment by Allison in Atlanta — September 17, 2013 @ 8:03 am

  2. I haven’t kept up with all that FamilySearch is posting — including this. Thanks for the pointer.

    Since most family history books and many local history books contain lists or charts of families, another way to quickly evaluate the reliability is to check some random families. Does it show the children born at regular and realistic intervals? Are the children all born before the mother dies, and when she is at an expected child-bearing age? Does everything just make sense from your experience with real life? Real life does have irregularities — children may appear to be born too closely together if there’s been an adoption, and I suppose it’s possible that some family had triplet daughters named Mary, Molly, and Polly or Martha, Mattie,and Patty, but in general the details should make sense to you even if you don’t know anything at all about the families.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 17, 2013 @ 8:54 am

  3. This looks like a great resource, thanks, Amy! I have on occasion run across one of those wonderful old genealogical histories all digitized on Google Books. This is a handy tool to search after them.

    As to reliability, there is one of those thick, family books at the FHL establishing that I am descended from Odin! Now that’s kinda cool. . .

    My trick with Wikipedia is to go to the footnotes there and often they can lead to reliable sources, some even with links to the web.

    Comment by Grant — September 17, 2013 @ 9:06 am

  4. This is great, Amy. Thanks. One thing I miss about electronic sources is not being able to check out the other books on the shelf. It’s surprising what you can stumble across this way.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — September 17, 2013 @ 9:19 am

  5. I read a history of my gggrandmother written by my ggrandfather from there just yesterday. The week before I read a biography of my ggrandparents that included the text of his mission call letter in 1883. Lets just say it is a bit more involved now-a-days.
    Great fun, particularly if you are trying to make these people real and not just some dates in a database.

    Comment by STW — September 17, 2013 @ 11:07 am

  6. I see that the FHL has a copy of one of the more notorious books in my family history: Guy Rix’ “History and Genealogy of the Rix Family in America

    Shortly after Pres. Woodruff announced the doctrine of sealing generations of families together in temples, the Ricks family hired a professional geneologist to go back east and research their genealogy. He repeatedly asked for additional funds to continue the work, eventually going England. …Or so the family thought!

    In the past 20 years, it’s been firmly established that he never went to England. The picture of the castle-like “ancestral home” on p.3 of the book is taken from a Victorian novel, and the coat of arms on p.7 is a complete fabrication.

    The Daily Telegraph wrote up a story on the whole thing after local Englishmen started questioning why so many Americans from Southeast Idaho were inquiring after a castle that never existed.

    Apparently the American research is mostly valid, but with whoppers like that in the introduction, everything else has had to be rechecked and verified.

    Comment by The Other Clark — September 17, 2013 @ 12:23 pm

  7. Allison — I’ve run into a few Harmons in the Eminent Women project, relatives of some of the women. Does your family line go through Washington County?

    Ardis — Thanks for the additional tips. Genealogy can involve lots of detailed work, but it is important to get the details right. I recently sent an email to someone wondering why she’d added an extra child to a family, too close to another child even to be an Irish twin. (Of course she never replied.)

    Grant — Odin? You must be so proud. : ) I don’t recall if we’ve ever discussed royal genealogies on Keepa. I do recall one discussion on another blog.

    And despite my joke about Wikipedia, it can be a great starting place for research like you mention. There are devoted volunteers like John Pack Lambert and Hodgdon’s secret garden (who is that anyway?) and many, many others who have made major contributions to Mormon-themed articles.

    Wikipedia is also great for locations. Pull up any locality and then click on the coordinates right under the line at the top of the article. It will bring up amazing resources.

    Gary — I miss browsing the stacks! Using digital books is like listening to an mp3, versus putting a vinyl recording on the record player. There’s a tactile and informational experience you miss when you don’t wander through a library.

    STW — that’s the real interesting part of doing genealogy, isn’t it. The names and dates are bare bones, useful to build a structure, but the stories are what make history come alive.

    TOC — Oh my. That’s a perfect illustration of not believing everything you read just because it’s sandwiched between two beautiful covers. (Or downloadable on Family History Books, for that matter. Yikes!)

    Comment by Amy T — September 17, 2013 @ 12:35 pm

  8. I came to this late. I love the practical how-to of this post (and the comments). Thank you!

    Comment by David Y. — September 17, 2013 @ 2:09 pm

  9. Oh, thanks, David. I wondered if I wasn’t preaching to the choir, but I know how much I’ve appreciated people — Ardis and the crew at Juvenile Instructor and others in the Bloggernacle — mentioning theories and resources and historical arguments.

    Comment by Amy T — September 17, 2013 @ 3:08 pm

  10. Anything authored by Gustav Anjou is most likely fraudulent.

    From FTM: “In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Anjou (who died March 2, 1942) wrote genealogies containing falsified information so his rich and famous clients could feel good about their illustrious connections. Anjou is estimated to have single-handedly tainted the lineages of more than 2,000 surnames.”

    A little poking around shows that his frauds run the gamut from Andrews to Worcester with a lot of names in between.

    Comment by STW — September 17, 2013 @ 3:30 pm

  11. Good resource that I will need to check out. I will report back later.

    Comment by kevinf — September 17, 2013 @ 4:46 pm

  12. You have done a great service for beginners as well as advanced researchers. Would you give me permission to use this when I teach my next SS Family History course?

    Comment by Maurine — September 17, 2013 @ 11:15 pm

  13. Thanks! I didn’t know about books.familysearch.org!!

    Comment by Kent Larsen — September 18, 2013 @ 11:38 am

  14. Sure, Maurine! What an exciting time to be teaching a family history class with all the great new tools, Family Tree and all.

    That’s crazy, STW. I just read a little more about Anjou and it looks like the discoveries of his frauds could be written into a Hollywood film.

    Thanks, Kent. Let us know, Kevin. : )

    Comment by Amy T — September 18, 2013 @ 12:13 pm

  15. Just looping back to make another comment here.

    So, I love (LOVE) that these personal histories are digitized. “Family History Books” is a fantastic concept. And I’m so pleased it’s a work in actual progress. Wonderful!

    But what I don’t love is the search engine associated with the site. Unless you know exactly what book or item you’re looking for, it’s an extremely difficult slog finding things of interest. For one, it’d be nice if it had a “browse” option. And I wish it allowed for searching with additional parameters/categories. Last, I wish it had a way to–initially–limit/filter the results as to a particular collection.

    Got any connections with the programmers at FamilySearch, Amy? :-)

    Comment by David Y. — September 19, 2013 @ 5:48 pm

  16. I would pass along your suggestion but that feature is kind of available in the catalog:

    https://familysearch.org/catalog-search

    I say “kind of,” because it’s in beta, and because it shows all the holdings of the library, not just what’s digitized.

    So, say you wanted to see everything they had about Punxsutawney. When you put that in the “place” category it only brings up six items, so you’re going to want to back off to the county, which is “Pennsylvania, Jefferson,” and which is where most of the records would be found in any case. You’ll get a page of results, divided up into categories.

    The section for Jefferson County history shows seven books, and one of them is available digitally. Others may be available through Google Books or archive.org.

    Searching for names is not a problem if it’s a rare name (Oxborrow, for example) but it is a problem if it isn’t rare (Smith, Young). There are some parameters you can narrow, but they’re of limited use.

    Hmm. You’ve convinced me. I’ll see what I can do about passing along the suggestion. : )

    Comment by Amy T — September 20, 2013 @ 8:40 am

  17. Thanks, Amy. I realized that I should have said that once you do a search, the site does allow a fairly good way of filtering the results. This is very helpful! Alas, I just wish it were possible to narrow things down from the get-go. (And, yes, unfortunately, there are a lot of “Youngs” and “Johnsons” in my family line.) Thanks again.

    In the meantime, I’ve had great fun perusing the “digital stacks.” I read about a pioneer bride who changed her mind about being married and hid in a wagon and came West to SLC [no footnotes in that one, tsk tsk], and also enjoyed reading Susa Gates Young’s “rose-colored glasses” life sketch of Brigham Young — an address delivered via KSL radio in 1929! So, it’s all good. Family History Books is definitely cool in my book. :-)

    Comment by David Y. — September 20, 2013 @ 12:34 pm

  18. Maybe I’m not doing it right, but my complete lack of Mormon pioneer ancestors, (and my paternal grandfather was the only son of a German Jewish couple, and all of his family and their records were destroyed in WWII) so I am having a hard time even figuring how to start looking.

    Any suggestions? My mom has done most of her ancestors back to the Civil War era, but I didn’t find anything putting in the names and locations for births marriages and deaths, in the search engine. Is it fairly normal for no one to have written about non-Mormon families?

    Comment by Juliathepoet — September 24, 2013 @ 5:05 am

  19. Great question, Julia. If you look at one of those birth locations, note the name of the county, and look for that. There’s a pretty good chance that there will be a county history that will explain why your family was there at the time. If it’s a good enough county history, there’s a chance that it might even mention your family.

    Educating oneself about the history of the places, the place names, and general emigration patterns can be the next step in overcoming what people like to call “the brick wall.”

    As my dad likes to say (paraphrasing here): although you will eventually come to the end of the line and not be able to trace your family lines any further, when people say they’ve reached a “brick wall” that usually means they haven’t bothered (or known) to learn enough about what they’re researching to know where the records and historical information are located.

    He will illustrate that point by stories of being regularly approached by people looking for ancestors in, for example, West Virginia in the 1700s. (There was no West Virginia in the 1700s. West Virginia was created in 1863.)

    Comment by Amy T — September 24, 2013 @ 7:30 am

  20. One more note. If you need to know what county your ancestor lived in, there’s no better resource than the Newberry Map:

    Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

    Select the state you’re interested in, then click on “View Interactive Map” and select your date.

    Did you know Utah used to have a Shambip County? Did you know that Washington County, Utah, used to stretch from what is now the western border of Nevada all the way into mid-Colorado?

    The same will be true for many other states. Many records and histories are located at the county level, and it sure helps to know what county your ancestors lived in at the time.

    The county records can be a great resource. I’m currently reading some county court records on microfilm. It’s a painstakingly slow process, but I’m finding some interesting tidbits — mostly crime and divorce and naturalization — and will hopefully find more when I finally get to the time period I’m researching.

    Comment by Amy T — September 24, 2013 @ 7:36 am

  21. I’ve read through this post a couple of times now, but wasn’t ever in a position to comment. Thanks, Amy for the highlights. I really appreciate it. These family histories are an important source for 20th century lived religion as compilers often include details or diary excerpts, which are otherwise more difficult to ascertain.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 24, 2013 @ 9:10 am

  22. That interactive county boundaries map is very cool! I could play with that for hours. Thanks Amy

    Comment by Carl C. — September 24, 2013 @ 9:19 am

  23. Oh, thanks for the comment, J. Here’s an update, Carl, if you like maps. I was just catching up on a favorite genealogy how-to blog and saw this update about how to use the Newberry maps together with Google Earth:

    On Granny’s Trail: Google Earth and Time Travel

    Comment by Amy T — September 24, 2013 @ 9:28 am

  24. Thanks Amy, I like that one too! Im sure I’m the only one that didn’t know this one, but just in case there is another neophyte out there, I’ll post this. Awhile back I was struggling with trying to identify where a Land Patent was located on the map, and found this tool for google earth. http://www.earthpoint.us/TownshipsSearchByDescription.aspx
    It was so easy, just enter the information as it appeared on the patent, press the “Fly to on google earth” button and presto! It takes you there and has the section all marked out, overlaid to the google earth map

    Comment by Carl C. — September 24, 2013 @ 10:16 am

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