Family Histories Are Not Just for Members Only
Many budding genealogists aspire to write their own family history (and if you haven’t started yours, here are 20 reasons why you should). But how many people bother to consult the thousands of genealogies already in print?
Like the old adage that children should be seen and not heard, it seems that most family histories are unfortunately destined to be written and not read—at least, not by anyone outside the immediate family circle.
Frankly, it’s easy to understand why. Although once a primary tool for genealogy research, family histories have now been overshadowed by higher-tech alternatives. With DNA testing, distant relatives are within spitting (or swabbing) distance of anyone willing to pay a modest fee. Key documents previously hidden away in filing cabinets are now available online. And online family trees also make the fruits of other people’s research easy picking.
But even before the digital era, published family histories suffered a tarnished reputation. As early as 1897, the preface to A List of Some American Genealogies which have been printed in book form (available online at Internet Archive) cautioned that family historians often "show a lack of genealogical ability and a surprising preponderance of credulity, especially where an attempt is made to connect the family written about with some ancient English house."
Guidebooks like The Everything Guide to Online Genealogy continue to remind researchers of "the old adage that just because it’s in print doesn’t make it true… Always use original records, where possible, to verify information from published family histories" (p. 45).
This is excellent advice that everyone should heed. But researchers today are far more likely to simply ignore published family histories than adopt them wholesale. Don't make either mistake! Whether or not your own family lines are included in published histories, these resources can provide unique information about an era and context that will bring your family history alive.
Even details that are not factually accurate can provide insight into the prevailing attitudes that colored our ancestors’ lives. For family and other historians, published family histories can supply a personal perspective and intimate details that are not readily available elsewhere. And many early published family histories are now available online, making them easier to discover than ever before. This guide will help you start exploring these underused resources.
How to Use Family Histories—and Why
Family histories contain details about customs, personalities, and historical events that may not be available from any other sources.
Many family histories contain colorful descriptions of local customs that might otherwise be lost to time. An appealing example is found in Family genealogy comprising the ancestry and descendents of Jonathan Barlow and Plain Rogers of Delaware County, N.Y. (available online at HathiTrust). When John Ellison [b. 1624] was appointed overseer and granted four acres of land in 17th century Hempsted, Long Island, he "was required to furnish the town with two gallons of rum to drink" (p. 347) (emphasis in original)—a tradition we think should be revived and applied to New York City developers.
Your ancestor may have worn a suit like this! [Source: Colcord genealogy. Descendants of Edward Colcord of New Hampshire, 1630 to 1908] (available online at
Other customs from this era are better left to history. For example, according to The Barker Family of Plymouth colony and county (available online at HathiTrust), when Isaac Barker was driven insane by a sermon (circa 1740), he "was chained by his waist to a window-sill in the large room of the homestead" (p. 19). Thank goodness we don’t have to rise at 3 AM to scythe the neighbor's hay, supply the leather for our shoemaker, or eat food from a shared wooden trench (to list just a few of the local traditions we found described in online family histories). But however happy we may be to bury these practices in the past, it is still thrilling to discover the details of our ancestors’ daily routines.
Family histories often include biographical sketches and oral histories of people who lived in the same place at the same time as your ancestors. These stories can reveal what life in that community was really like. An example is this vivid description of Noah Baker (1719-1810) in A genealogy of the descendants of Edward Baker of Lynn, Mass, 1630 / prepared and published by Nelson M. Baker (available online at HathiTrust):
He was a "Separatist" (Baptist) preacher, settled in Sunderland, Mass, and spent most of his life there. Hon. Osmyn Baker writes, 'I remember his visiting my grandfather, when I was very small, for his having a shining bald head, and for his incessant and voluble talk on religious subjects.' An old man here, of a former generation, when asked if he ever heard him preach, replied, that he 'never heard him do anything else' (p. 35).
For those who trace their ancestors back to 18th century Sunderland, such anecdotes convey an intangible flavor of life in that place and time—and may reveal as much about your family’s experiences as official documents or facts about direct relatives.
Within family histories, you may also find a record of events that had a profound impact locally, but received little attention in history books. The Genealogy of the descendants of Thomas Angell, who settled in Providence, 1636 (available online at HathiTrust) contains a poignant description of an 1840 flood in Johnston, Rhode Island that killed 18 people, including Philip Angell (who had moved there "so that his children could work at the mill"). This event would assuredly have affected the lives of your ancestors living there, even if the story did not survive in history books or your own family lore.
Family histories also illustrate the personal impact of well-known historical events on families like your own. Although every student learns about the California gold rush, this description of the fate of Harry Lewis in Historical sketch of the family of Michael Presbury Bird of Roxbury, Mass., a pioneer of East Smithfield, Pa. in 1801;…history of the Sumner family (available online at HathiTrust) adds everyday details and a memorable personal touch:
While teaching at Llewelyn [Pennsylvania], the gold mines of California were discovered, and he with others was attacked with the gold fever… The weather being too hot to enter the mines, he commenced cutting hay which was worth $80 a ton. He paid $80 for a scythe, $10 for a pitchfork, $8 for a rake. Flour was $10 per cwt., port $30 per cwt., sugar 25 cents a pound, rice 10 cents a pound, dried apples $30 a bushel. He did his own cooking and slept on the ground under a tree at night, where he once lay ten days sick, with no one to care for him but the Indians to bring him water. In November he built a log cabin at the mines, preparatory to digging gold, when he was again taken sick, with no one but strangers around him, and died January 19, 1850… Such were the trials of the early gold seekers in California (p. 33).
The many anecdotes about Native Americans in published family histories, though told from a white perspective, help restore a little immediacy to a part of American history that is too often conveniently forgotten. While biased and one-sided, these stories can at least provide clues about the nature of early interactions between Native Americans and settlers, which profoundly affected so many lives. A good example is the incident described in Samuel Craig, senior, pioneer to western Pennsylvania, and his descendants, comp. by Jane Maria Craig:
Mrs. Boyd was much afraid of the Indians. Once when Mr. Boyd was away for supplies of food, their oldest little boy—a fair complexioned child with long white curls—was playing before the door, and she saw two Indians with him examining his curls; she was greatly alarmed, as she thought they might scalp him, and as quickly as she could she gathered all the eatables she could find and motioned to them to come and eat, which they did, and after eating departed, but she still feared they might return and kill them. A short time after, when Mr. Boyd was at home, they did return, but they brought a deer which they had killed and gave it to the 'white squaw who had fed them when they were hungry' (p. 29).
As Nolan Rice Best put it, in his 1897 History of Peter and Mary Best and Their Family (available online at HathiTrust): "Family history carries with it a degree and character of interest pertaining to no other sort of human annals. It is history down to bed rock; history at close hand; history not on far battlefield nor in lofty forum but come to stand in the very doors of our own dwelling places" (p. 1).
Historically Underrepresented Groups
Published family histories are a rich source of information about many people who are underrepresented in more traditional historic sources, including women and African-Americans.
Given the so-called "cult of domesticity" that designated home and family as women’s "proper sphere" throughout the 19th century, it should come as no surprise that published family histories are a rich source of information about women’s activities, many of which are not well documented elsewhere.
But it may surprise you to find how many women discussed in early family histories were engaged in employment outside the home, either for a brief period before marriage or for more extended careers. Among many interesting examples is this account of the "first woman dentist" in The Beaman and Clark genealogy; a history of the descendants of Gamaliel Beaman and Sarah Clark of Dorchester and Lancaster, Mass. 1635-1909 (available online at HathiTrust):
In the autumn of 1859, there appeared on the western horizon a cloud that struck terror into the hearts of the community, especially the male portion of it. People were amazed when they learned that a young girl had so far forgotten her womanhood as to want to learn dentistry. At the present time  it is impossible to give a just conception of the bitter opposition and the foolish objections that Lucy Beaman Hobbs had to meet. The main objection was that her place was at home taking care of the house. They forgot that she had no home and that was the reason why she wanted to learn dentistry… In the autumn of 1867, Dr. Taylor, then recently married, removed to Lawrence, Kan. where she has practiced for many years with great success. For eight years she was the only woman dentist in the world (p. 55).
While Dr. Lucy Hobbs Taylor has since gained widespread recognition for her achievements (see, for example, this Wikipedia article), many other women’s careers are recorded only in the pages of their family’s published genealogy. A notable example is this lively portrait of Emma Amelia Nille [b. 1876] in Brief historical sketches of seven generations; descendants of Deacon David Baumgartner, who was bon 1735
(available online at Internet Archive):
Niagara Falls is one of many vacation sites where the intrepid Emma Nille enjoyed a "good jolly time."
She also took a business course in a "Business College" in Huntington, and also a number of terms of instrumental music. After she was through with her school work she became book-keeper for her stepbrother Adam Beck, Jr., with who she stayed three years… She has been rendering very excellent service for the Company ever since she is with them, proving herself possessed of rare business qualities, which were duly recognized by increasing her salaries from time to time, and promoting her to cashier. She is particularly fond of traveling and sightseeing during her vacations, and otherwise loves to have a good jolly time. She has been to Niagara Falls, Chicago Work’s Fair, Buffalo and St. Louis expositions, Northern Michigan, and many other places of minor interest… Thus far she has preferred the single path of life, and is truly enjoying life hugely (p. 120).
Among the many early career women described in published family histories are:
Artists, including the “celebrated” painter Martha Sue Baker (A genealogy of Eber and Lydia Smith Baker of Marion, Ohio, and their descendants, available online at HathiTrust), and the French sisters, Grace A. and Abbie A., "both teaching and filling orders for paintings and decorated china" (Ancestry and descendants of Deacon David Batchelder of Hampton Falls, N.H., born Jan. 13, 1736, died Mar. 11, 1811, available online at HathiTrust)
Businesswomen, such as Mrs. Hetty [Vermillia] Benton, who conducted a "quite profitable" millinery business in Hamtpon Falls, N.H. (David Benton, Jr. and Sarah Bingham, their ancestors and descendants, and other ancestral lines, available online at HathiTrust)
Lawyers, including Lillion Brock [b. 1883], admitted to the D.C. bar in 1907 (The family of Blackleach Burritt, Jr., pioneer, and one of the first settlers of Uniondale, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, available online at HathiTrust) and St. Louis’s first woman lawyer, Lemma Barkeloo [1840-1870], who died when she was just 30 years old (The Bergen family, or, The descendants of Hans Hansen Bergen, one of the early settlers of New York and Brooklyn, L.I, available online at HathiTrust).
Women from the mainly prosperous families that compiled family histories were more likely to be employed inside the home than outside it. But these sources document a wide variety of other ways women found to apply their talents.
A winning example is Sallie Wilson Baker [1859-1906], described in A genealogy of Eber and Lydia Smith Baker of Marion, Ohio, and their descendants (available online at HathiTrust) as "one of the charter members of the Women’s Whist League of America, and President for nine years of the Women’s Whist Club of Brooklyn, which she organized. She was recognized as one of the leading whist players of America and won many prizes and trophies in tournaments and competitions, and was considered one of the best beloved and most popular players in the whist world" (p.24).
Whatever their occupation, women of exceedingly strong character often emerge from the pages of family histories. Consider Mrs. Mary Wilkinson Cook Brown [1776-1861], described in An Elaborate History and Genealogy of the Ballous in America; carefully compiled and edited by Adin Ballou; with numerous artistic illustrations (available online at HathiTrust):
She had strong passions, a strong mind, and a strong constitution. With comparatively moderate education but energetic common sense, she was very much a woman on her own account, and cut her way through the bramble of life heroically. She lived before the theory of sexual co-equality had blossomed, but was one of its practical exemplars in advance… She was not disposed to cower before that unjust and cruel popular opinion which tramples on female sinners as outcasts, while it excuses and coddles male sinners as favorites welcome to refined bosoms. She fearlessly presumed that there was the same moral standard for both sexes—equitable alike in its condemnations, its approvals, its consideration of circumstances, its excusabilities, and its opportunities of reform (pp. 446-447).
These are only a small sampling of many edifying personal histories waiting to be discovered.
Published family histories sometimes contain anecdotal information regarding the lives and experiences of African Americans, even though the vast majority of them were written by and about white families. These accounts make for painful reading, but they are an under-tapped source worthy of more examination.
For example, The descendants of Capt. Thomas Carter of "Barford", Lancaster County, Virginia, 1652-1912; with genealogical notes of many of the allied families (available online at HathiTrust), lists by names the so-called "servants" of Thomas Davis in the late 1780s. Written in 1912, it refers to a purported episode involving "a big Guinea negress named Nan, who had lost but little of her savagery since coming to this country. She frequently went on a rampage and 'cleaned up the place,' on one occasion poisoning thirteen of the other servants badly, after which she was sold to the cotton plantations in Mississippi" (pp. 167-168).
Most early family histories were written by affluent white families, but they can still provide clues for African American genealogy research
Learning the names of slaves, and where they may have been sold, can provide important clues for researchers, including people searching for their ancestors. These stories can also reveal much about racist attitudes.
Slaves are also often individually named in the text of their owners’ wills, and a good number of published Southern family histories include transcriptions of these documents. A typical example is the will of Elizabeth Jeffreys, found in Boddie and allied families (available online at HathiTrust):
I give and bequeath unto my son, Osborn Jeffreys, and his heirs forever my negro boy named Dick, upon condition that he pay to my three Grandchildren Robert Hilliard, Mary Hilliard, and Sampson Hilliard, or the survivors of them, when they come of age or the day of marriage, the sum of Twenty-Seven pounds current money of Virginia, to be divided equally between them… I give and bequeath unto my son Robert Hilliard and his heirs forever my negro wench named Joan upon condition that he pay unto my Granddaughter Elizabeth Boddie, when she comes of age or the day of marriage, the sum of Ten pounds, Virginia money… (p. 117).
Copies of these records may or may not be available elsewhere. They can be invaluable sources for genealogists. Even if the wills have also been preserved in state repositories of probate records, these digital transcriptions are searchable online.
Some published family histories also provide a vivid reminder that slavery was not restricted to the South. For example, according to The Bergen family, or, The descendants of Hans Hansen Bergen, one of the early settlers of New York and Brooklyn, L.I (available online at HathiTrust), “the custom of giving drams to their negroes was quite common among the early settlers” of New Jersey, including the author’s ancestors:
Charity [Bergen, d. 1822] was born to command and did command up to the time of her death, she managing and giving all directions for the farm, of which she was left in possession, after the death of her husband. They had fourteen slaves, and amongst her peculiarities, as related by one of her descendants, was her taking her stand morning, noon and night, in the door, leading from the family room to the kitchen, with a well filled flask of apple whiskey or apple jack in her hand, when the slaves coming in for their meals would be called by name, beginning with the oldest, and each be allowed to take a good stiff dram of the raw stuff, and then retire from the door, hat in hand, with a “dank gij vrow,” or, thank you Missus’” (pp. 248-249).
Lessons for Writing Your Own Family History
Published histories of other families can teach key lesson for writing your own – and many examples of what to avoid. Too many published family histories are simply boring recitals of facts. While still useful for establishing the family chronology, these dry compilations do little to bring family history alive. Authors who managed to convey the characters of their ancestors -- not merely their dates of birth, marriage and death – are the ones that will continue to be read by an audience far beyond their own family. And the same will be true of the family histories compiled today.
Consider this vivid description of Hosea Ballou in An Elaborate History and Genealogy of the Ballous in America; carefully compiled and edited by Adin Ballou; with numerous artistic illustrations (available online at HathiTrust), published in 1888:
Spicy songs delighted him, and many such he could sing with glee, as well as recite from memory. He liked a merry dance with strains of lively music, even down to old age. He had strong passional affections, and like too many of that type failed to realize the happiness he sought in that direction. Neither his affectional, domestic, or financial experiences were enviably fortunate (p. 500).
The author, Adin Ballou, displayed a refreshing willingness to expose family foibles – a rare quality in a genre invented expressly to bolster the family pedigree. Apparently the members of other families who published family histories were all sterling, exalted, honest, industrious, upright, noble, heroic, courageous, valorous, modest, energetic, fearless, exemplary, estimable, commendable, and/or admirable in countless other ways. More candor – expressed with tact, of course, at least when living relatives are involved! -- will make your own family history more accurate, useful, readable, and entertaining. Instructive is Adin Ballou’s portrayal of ancestors’ Ezekiel Ballou and his second wife Nelly Parkhurst:
They had their commendable domestic and social qualities, but not always a smooth and sunny pathway. Doubtless it would have been brighter and happier, could they have mastered adverse circumstances and by living more in the upper story of their natures, and less in the basement; which, in greater or less degree is true of us all (p. 533).
A few telling details are often enough to capture essential characteristics of family members -- and thus bring them to life for future generations. A poignant example is in David Benton, Jr. and Sarah Bingham, their ancestors and descendants, and other ancestral lines (available online at HathiTrust), where the author documents the life of George Vermilya Benton -- who committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train – by recalling his touching bent for hero-worship:
He was an enthusiastic admirer of men of genius and renown, and was much given to commenting on their greatness. And especially do we recall his intense interest in Abbott’s Life of Napoleon, published serially many years ago in Harper’s Magazine, and with what excess and glow of speech he recounted the marvelous achievements of his hero (p. 53).
Similarly, the plucky spirit of a Mrs. Agnes [Craig] Morehead is captured forever by the following vignette highlighted in Samuel Craig, senior, pioneer to western Pennsylvania, and his descendants, comp. by Jane Maria Craig (available online at HathiTrust): “Once when she was expecting company and on ‘hospitable thoughts intent’, her husband objected to having a chicken killed, reminding her of the price for which it could be sold, but instead of having the desired effect she killed two” (p. 124).
Including an apt quotation of an ancestor’s characteristic remarks can accomplish the same purpose. For instance, what better way to reveal the character of Mrs. Adele Garrigues, a “correspondent of the newspapers,” than with these words of hers: “‘I hope I have written nothing meretricious; and if I have occasionally slipped in a truth in too plain a form to be entirely palatable, it has been my only triumph.” Genealogical records of Henry and Ulalia Burt, the emigrants who early settled at Springfield, Mass., and their descendants through nine generations, from 1640 to 1891, p. 157 (available online at HathiTrust).
For many more tips on writing your own family history, come to one of NYPL’s regular free classes on Writing Your Family History. Bonus: Once you have finished, you can add your family genealogy to the Milstein Division’s invaluable collection of family histories for the use and appreciation of future genealogists and historians.
Family Histories in the Irma and Paul Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History and Genealogy
Family histories have held a preeminent place in The New York Public Library’s collections since it was created in 1895, from the merger of the Astor, Lenox and Tilden libraries. The very first major purchase by the new institution was a collection of 3700 family and local histories – “the first in which the stamp of the New-York Public Library has been placed,” as The New York Times reported on April 22, 1896.
First stamp of the New York Public Library , 1896
As this distinction reflects, the founding of the library dovetailed with a growing enthusiasm for family history, especially among New York's elite. In Reading Publics: New York City's Libraries, 1754-1911, author Tom Glynn characterizes this trend as “a reaction of New York's first families to the waves of new immigrants that dramatically altered the demography of the city in the late nineteenth century" (p. 155). In order to distinguish themselves from these "hordes of foreigners," elite New Yorkers founded associations such as the Holland Society (established 1884) and the Sons of the American Revolution (established 1885), which required prospective members to document their pedigrees. As a result, the end of the nineteenth century saw a dramatic uptick in the publication of – and demand for -- family histories.
NYPL's 1897 catalog of the family histories in its collections ran to 104 pages
Usually compiled and self-published by a family member, these volumes (often referred to as “genealogies”) formed the cornerstone of early genealogical collections at libraries across America -- including NYPL, which has one of the largest collections of published family histories in the U.S. Before it was possible to trace your roots through online matching tools like “member connect,” DNA circles, and cousin matches, these published genealogies were the main tools for linking your own family lines with others, and for tapping into other people’s family trees.
Unfortunately, these early published family histories were written almost exclusively by and for the elite (or those aspiring to this status). Help us to diversify our collection, and provide a more representative sampling for future generations, by writing and donating the published history of your own family!
How to Find Family Histories
Ironically, the technology that leads fewer people to consult published family histories has also made them far easier to access and sample than ever before. The reason? Most early family histories (those published before 1923, and thus out-of-copyright) have been digitized and are available in free online libraries such as HathiTrust, Internet Archive, Family Search Books and Google Books.
Not only does this mean that researchers located far away from NYPL or other major genealogy collections can access family history books at home. It also makes it easy to locate these works by searching for keywords appearing anywhere in the text. To appreciate this dramatic sea change, let’s examine the “old-fashioned” way to find published family histories (still the only way for non-digitized works): library catalogs.
A catalog record contains only a brief description of a book – its title, author, and one or more assigned subject headings. But family history titles typically include only the surname of the principal family described (e.g., The Babbitt Family History, 1643-1900). If you get lucky, the title may also include the surnames of related families, a maternal surname, and/or a geographic location (e.g., The Ancestors & descendants of Augustus Rudolphus Bailey and Lucy Hosmer Smith of Elmore, Vermont). Catalog subject headings rarely add to the description; at best, they may provide an additional name or two, or (less frequently) a date or geographic location (e.g., “Babbitt family, Edward Bobet, d. 1675”). The upshot is that to locate a family history through a library catalog, you must know and be looking for the specific family or families mentioned in the title of the book.
Typical catalog record for a published family history
The ability to search the full text of an ever-growing number of digitized family histories has opened many new possibilities for uncovering hidden treasures in these texts. In addition to being able to locate any name that may appear in a family history, whether included in the title or not, researchers can search by a locality, profession, ethnic group, or countless other keywords that may be relevant to your family history or topic of research. Searching with period terms that we would never use or condone today, but that commonly appear in older texts -- such as “Indian,” “squaw,” “negro,” “wench,” “negro,” “spinster,” etc. – can unlock anecdotal information that is not available anywhere else.
For family and other historians, the digitization of these texts has made it easy to explore a treasure trove of stories, tales and lore that can enrich your understanding of our shared history and your own ancestry, even if they do not relate specifically to your kin. So start exploring these underused resources! and discovera more personal side of American history.