from the Ancestry
Michael John Neill – 11/6/2002
Mugging My Relatives
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century there
were hundreds, if not thousands, of county histories published in the United
States. Many of these county histories contain large sections of biographies
of local residents. Also during this time, numerous books entirely of
biographies were published. Genealogists frequently refer to these
publications as "mug books," as they typically contain pictures of some
residents. They are an excellent genealogical source.
Look at all references to the book in the card catalog.
County Histories Are Not Divinely Inspired
The biographies in these histories must be taken with a grain of salt. In
some cases, an entire shaker of salt is necessary. If you read enough
biographies, you will notice some similarities. Everyone listed was an
"upstanding citizen," an "enterprising and industrious" resident and the
"pillar of his community." For some of us that may explain why we have few
relatives listed in these publications.
In all seriousness, these materials are a source that should be utilized by
every genealogist with ancestors living in the area at the time the book was
published. Individuals got themselves in the "mug book" by paying to have
their biography published, so money was a significant factor. These
biographies frequently mention siblings, parents, and children; sometimes
extended family members are listed. When using these references, search for
ancestral siblings, brothers-in-law, sons-in-law, and other relatives. Do
not just focus on your ancestor.
Finding The Books
An excellent way to find county histories is to search library card catalogs
for references to such materials. If these sites contain no references,
readers may wish to post a query to the appropriate county mailing list at
We will look at three libraries which in the aggregate include a significant
proportion of county histories that have been printed. Researchers should
also search library catalogs for local, regional, and university libraries
located in the area where the families being researched lived. While the
first two libraries discussed do not loan books on interlibrary loan, the
knowledge that a book exists can be a great start. Armed with a
bibliographic citation from the Library of Congress or the Allen County
Public Library it will be easier to potentially get the book on interlibrary
loan from your own local library. Getting the book on interlibrary loan will
be easier if a microfilm edition of the book exists.
Library of Congress:
Click on "Basic search."
Type in the name of the county ("blahblah county") and choose subject browse
from the pull down menu listed below the search box. Click on "begin
search." Then page through until you get to the state you want. View the
entries for either "blahblah county biography" or "blahblah county history."
I would not enter in the name of the state until I was really familiar with
using the catalog and the abbreviations.
Allen County Public Library
Click on "Library Catalog."
Choose the button option for "browse." Enter in the name of the county ("blahblah
county") and click on the "subject" tab. Browse through all the results.
Again, I would not enter in the name of the state or even an abbreviation
for the name of the state until I was quite familiar with the catalog.
Something may be overlooked.
Family History Library
Click on the "Library" tab. Then click on "Family History Library Catalog."
Put "blahblah" in the place box and the complete name of the state in the
"part of" box. Scroll through all the subject headings, but probably history
and biography will cover all the "mug books" the Family History Library has
for a specific area.
Searching The Books
The original books rarely have a complete name index. If there is any index
in the original book it generally is to the name of the biographee only, not
to all the individuals that may be listed in a specific biography. With
unindexed or partially indexed materials this emphasizes the necessity of
searching for extended family members.
Indexes may exist though. In some cases, indexes were created separately
many years later. Generally, these indexes are created by genealogical or
historical societies or an individual. In other cases, the books were
reprinted many years later with an index added. What does this mean for the
researcher using the card catalog?
Indexes that are separate publications will generally have a separate
card. Make certain to view these publications in addition to the actual
history or book of biographies.
If the library has original copies and reprints, each will have separate
catalog entries. The card catalog entry should indicate if either of the
versions contains an index.
When you find the biography, make certain you either copy or read the entire
biography instead of simply skimming it. When making a copy for later
reference, copy the title page and the publication information so that a
complete citation can be created later. Also make certain page numbers are
clearly shown on each copy. Performing these tasks while making copies will
facilitate the documentation process.
Look For More
Your ancestor's biography might have appeared in more than one
publication. A biography on a different family member might provide
additional clues. Do not quit with just one biography.
What To Do With It?
Analyze it, analyze it, analyze it. Read it and think about it.
Biographies in county histories always contain genealogical clues and
typically a few genealogical red herrings. It is the job of the genealogist
to work with other records in order to determine (as best they can) what was
correct in the biography and what was not.
One technique I like to do with any biography is to create a chronology of
the entire biography. There's a reason for using the phrase "entire
biography" instead of the biographee. That is because the biography
frequently starts before the birth of the biographee. Biographies also do
not always list all information in strict chronological order and frequently
imply a time frame for an event instead of specifically stating when the
event took place.
Additionally obtain maps for all the areas mentioned in the biography and
map out the likely migration path for the families listed.
Many record finding aids require the researcher to have an approximate
date of an event in order to search the index effectively. Use a biography
to approximate dates such as dates of marriage, birth, and death. Some of
these dates will be explicitly stated in the biography, but many will have
to be carefully inferred.
Next week, we'll analyze a biography I recently obtained on a relative and
see what sources it suggests and why organizing the biography in other ways
EDITOR'S NOTE: For more information, see
Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records, edited by
Kory L. Meyerink, or County and Local Histories, by Kory L. Meyerink.
Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical
Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and
is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois.
Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board
of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars
and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and
contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry
and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at:
visit his website at: www.rootdig.com/,
but he regrets that he is unable to ardsssist with personal research.