Given Name(s) Last Name

from the Ancestry Daily News
  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.

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?


  • Look at all references to the book in 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.

    Found It?
    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.

    Analyze It
    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 is important.

    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: or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to ardsssist with personal research.

  • Other genealogy articles by Michael John Neill