We all learned general United States history in school. While good to know, it’s not what we need to do genealogy research in Pennsylvania. Our PA ancestors spent most of their lives focused locally, rather than nationally. If you learn the history of a community and Pennsylvania in general, you’ll be more successful in your genealogy research.
Here’s what I use to research local PA history –
Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission
The PHMC manages over twenty different museums around the state of PA. Many of these places are more living history sites, then traditional museum. They are a great way to understand how your ancestors lived and worth a visit. Check out the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission website for locations near where your ancestors lived.
The Pennsylvania Trails of History sites range from homes to battlefields to former industrial sites. The website for each museum is filled with photos and a summary of the history. Each location has its own archive of materials on the people who lived or worked there. If your ancestors were around or near one of these places, definitely visit. If you can not visit, study the website and contact the staff for research.
The PHMC also runs the Pennsylvania State Archives, home to the records genealogists use in their research. Be sure to check out my podcast episode to learn more about the Archives.
Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Pennsylvania Heritage magazine’s homepage tells us it “brings to life the compelling saga of Pennsylvania history through diverse, insightful stories spanning all periods, from ancient to contemporary, by leading authors in their fields.” All the back issues are browsable and you can search by topic. It’s published quarterly by the PHMC.
Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies
Penn State University has digitized past issues of the journal, Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies. Access is free for 2013 and older editions. To search across all issues for a location or family surname, simply use the search box at the top of screen. The journal is published by The Pennsylvania Historical Association.
Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography
Published by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography contains interesting history from all time periods. Free access for older editions is at Penn State University. Newer editions are available on JSTOR. Thanks to OCR technology these are easily searchable and you can download pdf files for further study.
Local Historical Societies
When researching your family in Pennsylvania, the more specific you are the better. Each county in PA has its own historical society or history center. A listing is available here on my website. Even a brief history of the county will give you the context you need for research.
Some local historical and genealogical societies have published journals and magazines and I list them in this post. All have published newsletters for members and try to connect people. Contact them and join as a member to support their work.
When you at stuck in your research or just trying to understand what was happening in the time of your ancestors, did into these historical sources. Lean on the work of scholars, historians, and authors to learn the PA history you need.
Updated 22 March 2021; Published 1 May 2020
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