Historical Societies - Finding Your Family Story

Uncategorized Oct 06, 2021

Are you researching your family history and have little more than names and dates? Do you feel that there's more to your family story? Have you hit a brick wall in your research? If you know where your ancestors lived and when -- the local historical society can help.

Historical societies are dedicated to researching, interpreting, and preserving local history. This not only includes historical events, but the history of families that lived in the community.

Their collections contain artifacts, books, and records. Many have museums, libraries, and offer historical lectures and tours. Items are acquired for their historical significance and donated by local families. Historical societies contain history and genealogy information you won't find anywhere else.

Dates are great, but history puts their lives in context.

Just what might you find? Your great-great-grandmother's diary. A postcard sent home from your grandfather during WWII. A photo, map, and original deed of your ancestral family home. You might even find new ancestors.  

Things to look for at a historical society when researching your family:

Historical Photos
Don't have a photo of your great-grandpa? The historical society where he once lived just might. Historical societies have extensive collections of photos and postcards. Many are digitized and available online to view and purchase.

Not all photos are identified and tagged, so don't rely 100% on search results using names. Search for civic or social groups your ancestor might have been in and photos from the time period they lived there. Even if you don't find your ancestor, pictures from the same time period give you a sense of what their life was like when they lived there. All great additions to your family history album or story.

Artifacts
Historical societies usually have an extensive collection of personal archives and artifacts donated by local families. These can include scrapbooks, clothing, medals, artwork, even automobiles. Some of these items might have belonged to or been used by your ancestors.

Books & Personal Papers
Libraries at historical societies contain historical books about the local area, pamphlets, written genealogies, biographies, diaries, letters, and manuscripts. If you don't find anything authored by your ancestor, look for items written around the same time period. While researching a pioneer family in Pennsylvania, I discovered a diary kept by their neighbor. It included several first-hand accounts about my target family, including how they cleared their land, built a home, and a tragic fire that took the two youngest sons' lives.

Newspapers
You can learn a lot about your ancestors from the local newspapers they read. Not all are digitized or available online. Obituaries, society news, and legal announcements are excellent sources for genealogical data. Advertisements can give you a sense of what was important and what things cost while your ancestors lived in the community.

Records
The records kept by historical societies vary greatly. They can include everything from vital records, land records, probate records, and more.

Maps
Historical maps can show you what the town looked like when your ancestor lived there and how the community grew over time. Look for Sanborn insurance maps and lot maps.

Publications
Most historical societies have a monthly or quarterly newsletter. While these often contain information about upcoming events, they often contain historical articles, photos, and profiles.

Special Events, Lectures, and Tours
Lectures, special exhibits, and walking tours are interactive ways to learn about your ancestor's community and history. It's also a way to meet local experts who are often all too ready to assist you in your research endeavors.

Research Assistance
If you can't visit the society in person, skilled staff researchers will research your ancestor or family for a small fee. Most charge by the hour, so when submitting your research request, let them know what you already know and be as specific as possible in what you want them to investigate. Often the staff are long-term locals and can direct you to other places to research.

Where can you find historical societies?

Historical societies can be found at the local and state level. Simply do an online search using the "location" + "historical society." Or call to the local library in the area. 

 

So if you've exhausted researching vital records and you want to know more about your ancestors, check out some historical societies. Dates are great, but history puts their lives in context.

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