9 Ways to Use County Histories in Genealogy

How to use Pennsylvania county histories to research family history and genealogy.

9 Ways to Use County Histories in Genealogy
Photo by Spencer DeMera / Unsplash

In the late 1800’s many books were published on local Pennsylvania county history. Most of these books, often 500-1000 pages each, are found digitized on Internet Archive. As a genealogist researching early PA ancestors, are these county histories helpful to research? Is it worth reading through them?

Here’s nine types of information you can find in these PA county histories, so you can decide for yourself:

  1. Early Churches – County histories often recount the first churches of each denomination and where located.
  2. School Records – Each county erected local schools, academies, or even colleges to educate their citizens. While it can be rare to locate these records, knowing the names of the schools can help when contacting archives.
  3. Migration of People – Knowing what ethnic groups moved into the county can assist in narrowing research. People also moved out into other areas of PA or to other states, and this is recounted too.
  4. Significant Events – Local events such as natural disasters, major inventions or industries beginning, and tragedies such as fires or murders, or often noted in these books. Your ancestors would have been witnesses to such events and possibly played a role in them.
  5. Businesses and Industries – Each region of Pennsylvania is known for different kinds of resources – some areas for coal mining or iron mining, some forestry, and others focused on agriculture. Each resource spurred it own set of industries in the county. Knowing the kinds of work your ancestors did explains plain terms like “laborer” on the census. Additionally many businesses have records kept in archives with items like ledger books showing pay rates or attendance. Very helpful documentation to track ancestors between censuses.
  6. County and Municipal Formation Dates – While this basic information is available on many websites, the PA county histories go into detail on the circumstances surrounding the dates. Your ancestors may have played a role if living there at the time, such as signing petitions, attending meetings, or serving in local office.
  7. The Locally Famous – The locally famous were the store merchants and business owners, the farmers with large tracks of land, the wealthy, and local elected officials. Sometimes archives hold the diaries, journals, and letters of these people in their collections. Your ancestors could be mentioned in some of those papers.
  8. Military Service – The largest call to military service in PA was for the Civil War in 1861–1863. Local county histories often go into great detail on how the PA military units formed for the Union Army, noting names, ranks, hometowns, and sometimes relatives.
  9. Family Relationships – This is the one piece of information genealogist want first! It’s unavoidable that the author of a local county history will drop in that someone is “the son/father/husband” or “the daughter/mother/wife” of others mentioned. It’s only a few words so it requires some careful reading to not miss it.

That’s quite a bit of information! Each piece of it can fill in the picture of your ancestors’ life and provide clues for further research. In Podcast Episode 43 Looking for PA County Histories, I go into what I found to help my research on an early PA Scots-Irish family.

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