Genealogy: Part 1—Effectively tapping into local, county, state historical societies and libraries

10-17-2014 8-38-48 AMBy Barry J. Ewell

The history of a family over many generations lies buried in different sources and places. Like a good detective, the genealogist must search for the pieces of a family’s past in those many sources such as books, documents, and manuscripts. The genealogist must also be patient and imaginative, for the search can take years and involve a string of clues that lead to new sources. The facts–names, dates, events–that a genealogist gathers through the years are like pieces of a puzzle. Gradually those pieces can be fitted together to make a picture of a family, its many members, and its unique history.

For many genealogists, historical societies and university and state libraries are a vast reservoir of information, tools, and experts that will enhance and magnify your research by leaps and bounds.

Personal Experience:  Interwoven Historical and Genealogical Resources
As a genealogist, I have focused much of the research on records available on-line, in microfilm, and in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.  Naively, I thought I had reached most of the available resources that pertained to my family.  Then my perception changed with a trip to the roots of my family— Kentucky, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and. Virginia.  What started out to be a 10-day trip ended up being a month-long discovery of who I am, where I came from and Whose I am.

Prior to my trip, I thought I had done extensive preparation through online searching at the Library of Virginia, spoken with and made arrangements to visit a few county historical societies, and identified where my family lived.  I searched my own records to see what information I had and collaborated with fellow family genealogists.

By the end of my trip I had traveled 2,500 miles, taken 24,000 digital images, identified 150,000 plus ancestors from direct and collateral lines;  visited and researched university archives and special collections; public and regional libraries; state, regional, and local historical, and ethnic societies; and state, county, and local government agencies.  I had also spoken and counseled extensively with subject matter experts, walked the land of my family, visited the graves and cemeteries of my family, found never before known records, and met cousins both of Anglo- and African-American descent.

The result of this experience came about because of interwoven historical and genealogical resources that were dedicated to collection, preservation, and interpretation of artifacts and documents.  They included:

  • Colleges and universities archives and special collections
  • Corporate archives
  • Federal, state, and local government
  • State, county, local, and ethnic historical societies
  • Regional and community public libraries

If I learned one thing, it was simply that it was a combination of all the resources to effectively help me learn and tell the story of my ancestors.   I found that each of the organizations had information that was shared by more than one organization; furthermore, I found each had unique and precious elements of my past.  Finally and probably most importantly, I found a deep appreciation for the resources of individuals who freely gave of their time, expertise, and donations to acquire collections and make them available.  I was also grateful to institutions and organizations for their dreams and vision to coordinate, collect, preserve, and manage the history.

The Mission and Role of Historical Societies, Library Archives and Special Collections

Historical Societies
The mission of historical societies is to nurture and promote awareness and appreciation of state, regional, and local history and culture.  This is done through the identification, collection, study, and preservation of materials (i.e., common, rare, and unique) that include printed, manuscript, map, and photographic collections which are made available to the public, researchers, and genealogists. Societies receive over 75 percent of inquiries from genealogists.

Societies can be private or operated as a government agency.  If they are managed through government, they will be required to follow all state government rules, regulations, and statutes.

Many historical societies make these collections available through on-site, on-line and inter-library loan resources.  The types of services you will see historical societies provide include:

  • Public lectures
  • Seminars
  • Conferences
  • Consulting services
  • Arrange school and general group tours
  • Support scholarly research
  • Maintain museums of changing, permanent, and traveling exhibitions
  • Operate a research library
  • Publish books, magazines, and newsletters

In addition to Historical Societies, there are other categories of “Societies” that can provide a wealth of knowledge and information to the genealogist.

  • Lineage/Hereditary Societies.  A lineage society is an organization whosemembershipis limited to persons who can prove lineal, documented, descent from a qualifying ancestor. Hundreds of such organizations exist in America, such as who fought in the American Revolutionary War (Daughters of the American Revolution, DAR), who came across the plains as Mormon Pioneers (Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, DUP), or those who arrived on the Mayflower.
    • Many lineage societies publish books of interest to their members, and of interest to other researchers. These books are found in most major genealogical libraries and can help you determine if a society might have information about a possible ancestor.

A good resource to identify such societies includes:

  • Immigrant and Early Settler Societies.  Dozens ofsocietieshave been established focusing on specific immigrant groups, or early settlers of some locality. While these societies have an interest in immigrants, they do not always know where any particular immigrant came from in the old country. Their objectives do not include establishing the immigrant or settler’s ancestry, only their descent to current persons.  Examples of these societies include:
    • Society of the Descendants of the Founders of Hartford (Connecticut), which requires the ancestor be living in Hartford by early 1640.
    • Order of Descendants of Ancient Planters, those persons who arrived in Virginia before 1616.
    • General Society of Mayflower Descendants, descendants of the Mayflower passengers.
    • The Order of the Founders and Patriots of America, (pre-1657) founders who established families in America, among whose descendants, of the same surname line, were persons who fought for American independence in the Revolutionary War.
  • European Ancestry Societies.  Some lineage societies focus on ancestors who were notable long before the Americancolonieswere established. Therefore, descendants who wish to join need to trace their ancestry back to the immigrant (called the “gateway” ancestor), and then trace that immigrant’s ancestry back to the qualifying ancestor in the old country. Usually the qualifying ancestor was part of British royalty or nobility.  Examples include:
    • Order of the Crown of Charlemagne in the United States of America, which requires documented descent from that early emperor. This means tracing your ancestry back more than 1,000 years.
    • Descendants of the Illegitimate Sons and Daughters of the Kings of Britain
  • Nationality or Ethnic Lineage Societies.  These are societies that focus on an entire ethnic group. They gather information, teach their members, and publish stories, findings, and sources, about that group. A small number of such societies, and actually the oldest such societies in America, are true lineage societies.Membershipis limited to those persons who can prove descent from an early settler of a specific ethnic group.  Examples include:
    • Dutch in New York
    • Germans in Pennsylvania
    • Scots-Irish in the Carolinas
  • Special Interest Societies.  These societies focus on research and archives focusing on specific areas of interest where generally large groupsofindividuals have interest.  For example:
    • B-26 Marauder Historical Society
  • Genealogical Societies . Genealogical societies exist throughout the United States and Canada in every state or province, most counties and many major cities. The people in these societies share the same interest you do: individually discovering a heritage. They gather together, usually monthly, to learn from each other about how to trace their ancestry. They recognize that together they have much more knowledgeable about the ins and outs of family history research than they do individually.
    • To locate societies in a specific area or for more information about genealogical societies in general, contact the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS). This is an umbrella organization of more than 525 genealogical groups throughout North America.

University and State Library Archives and Special Collections
The mission of library archives and special collections is to grow, organize, care for, and manage collections of records that are of local, regional, state and national interest – many of which date back to the early colonial period. They are responsible for those items that are especially rare and unique in the Library’s collections, including rare books, broadsides, sheet music, photographic images and fine art. These collections are made available to researchers from across the country and the world through on-site, on-line and inter-library loan.  In addition to managing and preserving its collections, the libraries provide

  • Research and reference assistance
  • Consulting services
  • Administers numerous federal, state, and local grant programs
  • Publishes books, magazines, and newsletters
  • Offer the public exhibitions, lectures, and other educational programs