How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the 1890 Census and Love the County History

Julie Huffman, Librarian, History & Genealogy Department,
Dr. Strangelove Meets Genealogy
Warning: county histories can contain explosive information!

To the bane of many genealogists, the eleventh census of the United States was heavily damaged by a fire at the Commerce Department in 1921. Less than one percent of it survived, which means we have census data (e.g., age, place of residence, family members, etc.) on only 6,160 Americans in 1890. To non-genealogists, this may seem ho-hum, but to those of us trying to piece together the paths of our ancestors between 1880 and 1900, it's a big deal.

To soothe our anguish, we turn to census substitutes to fill in the gaps: state censuses, city directories, and voting registrations, for example. These are great suggestions for finding some of the lost hard facts of your ancestors' lives. But I would like to offer up the "county history" as another option—sort of a "soft" information resource that can add color and substantiation to your genealogical research.

"County Histories" are (often) histories written by the locals, featuring biographies of citizens (sometimes with a portrait), rosters of those involved in military campaigns, and political, social, and religious affiliations of the members of the society. They can also include what newspapers were around at the time, who the civic leaders were, if any natural disasters had occurred, and—of course—the county's history.

Their heyday was between 1880 and 1900—just the timeframe we need to help salve some of the wounds from the census fire. They came about in part because Ulysses S. Grant issued a presidential proclamation in 1876, recommending that the people of the states assemble in their counties or towns to put together historical sketches of their communities in anticipation of the Centennial anniversary.

Whether in response to this or to the American dollar, publishers such as Goodspeed, S.J. Clarke, Inter-State, and many more leaped to the challenge and began publishing county histories with glee. In the 1800s and early 1900s, these publishers approached citizens within individual communities. They told them if they would pre-pay for the book, they would write and publish a history of the community…usually featuring the relations of those pre-paying citizens.

Ergo, one of the reasons I called county histories "soft" information a little earlier. They tend only to speak glowingly of the denizens of their community because the denizens in the community largely paid for them. And, according to P. William Filby, author of A Bibliography of American County Histories, county histories were often called "mug books" because the publishers printed them without any attempt to check the facts (but, he concedes, they could have been called "mug books" due to the portraits accompanying many of the biographies). So, you do want to take the information you find in county history with a grain of salt (as you want to take all the information you find, in my opinion).

But, that being said, they can give nuggets of genealogical gold you can't find anywhere else. For example, I've had a county history reveal the immigration date of some relations from Scotland—something I haven't been able to find in any passenger lists. And a 1910 history of Scott County, Iowa, called my 4th great-grandmother a "great favorite with the old settlers." I cannot say what this means, but it's better than a poke in the eye! And it's surely not information one would find in the census.

Even if your relations were not community bigwigs, they might be found in these books (especially in the rarer, more focused town histories). Many of my farmer relations have one- or two-paragraph bios in these books that have helped clarify their lives for me.

Because these books were primarily published before 1923, they are often in the public domain, and you can find many digitized for free on the Internet. This is not only great for easier access, but it usually allows one to do full-text searching of the book using keywords. This is super helpful because many of these county histories don't have indexes! Here are my favorite digitized book sites to try: (make sure you select "Free Google eBooks" from the "Any Books" pull-down menu within "Search Tools") (although sometimes the full-text searching is "iffy") (you can access it for free at any of our library branches and Central)

HeritageQuest (a database you can access from home with a library card at (search their "catalog" or "books" to see if they have a digitized version—you'll see a link at the bottom of the catalog record)