County History Books

Can We Trust Them?

Seems like I have covered this topic before, but I don't see it in the listings, so perhaps I am just getting old!

For many genealogists, the various county history books are considered not only a wealth of information; but a prize to own.

However, upon closer inspection, these books may not be quite as reliable as they should be or quite as reliable as "we" allow them to be.

Many, too many times I have had another researcher tell me-- "The (fill in county) history book says such and such, it disagrees with my findings, so maybe I need to change my records...."

Although these various books are fantastic for the actual "county" history (geographics, founding, governments), but when it comes to the various people mentioned in the books (or not mentioned) oft times, there was a great deal of latitude used. What I mean is that depending on just who submitted the biography on a person would depend on just how favorable or unfavorable it was.

I know with a certainty, that when the "History of Owen County 1884" was created; the deciding factor on just who was or who wasn't covered in the biographies was just how much money a person was willing to "donate" to the publishing costs. These "publishing donations" were normally equal to the cost of a book. This "donation" in turn gave them the "right" to PURCHASE a copy of the book. (In case you are keeping track, these people would be paying for 2 books before they were done. Of course, if they were written about in the book, they were going to want a copy of it!

Not all persons felt that they could justify this cost coming out of the family money..many of these people had a difficult time feeding families at that time. Remember, in those days it was common to have 6-8 children to feed.

This may well explain why you can't find "your" ancestor in one of those county histories. If they were not in public office or an owner of a business~~ I mean, if your ancestor had the unfortunate happenstance to be just "Joseph Schmidt" the farmer down the road, the man who raised his corn and pigs, fed his family and simply survived; then he most likely won't be found in a book on the county.

Other entries pertaining to persons were submitted by grandsons, granddaughters, nephews or which ever family member chose to. Were they really likely to "pay" the money, then place something in there unfavorable about their relatives? Probably not.

Lest you think I am simply being "mean", think about it... Have you ever read one of the bios that was not glorifying the person? Have you ever seen one that actually made a comment about a particular bad trait? Okay, I take that back, 1 of my ancestors were "financially embarrassed" at one time. That is about as bad as I have found.

I know I am sounding pretty offensive about these books, but so many people put so much stock in them that they tend to disregard the actual records such as census records, wills, land records in favor of what "the book" says.

I certainly don't intend for anyone to totally disregard whatever the book has to say~~ but I feel that the researcher would be much better off or at least their records would be in better order if they were to document what the book says BEFORE taking it as gospel truth.

Just for a small example; I have an ancestor- Andrew Evans- who was the sheriff in 1820, he took census readings at that time also (his name appears on the papers), however, the county history book states that he arrived here in the "late" 1820's. The Goss family of Gosport are referenced as being of English and Dutch descent; I have ship listings showing them arriving from Switzerland (by way of Germany), also parish records from Switzerland on the family.

I am sure that you are thinking, so what? what's the big deal. The big deal is that whatever data you find and place in your database as fact (whether it is or not) will possibly be passed along to another researcher somewhere down the line; they in turn will take it as fact just as you presented it to them and they will pass it along until eventually the 'real' facts will be forever covered up.

It is again understandable that descendants are going to publish favorable reviews on their relatives, after all, county opinions did matter. If you notice, in most every bio you read, it is clearly stated just how that many voted Democrat or Republican. Those things probably mattered a great deal at that time. But they don't really tell us anything about that person. Those write ups were usually used to highlight the great person they were. While given, some of them were.. some of them were human also and not everyone's life was always just so perfect as it is presented.

Don't discourage if you cannot find your ancestor or any of your relatives in one of those books. It simply means that they either didn't feel that it was important enough to take food off the table, he was probably just your average man attempting to take care of his business, keep in mind that many people were of the more modest side and didn't do much bragging on themselves so the average man wasn't likely to put forth his "biography". And those persons were the ones that most likely would have given the most honest records of their own lives.