Sometimes the key to finding information about your ancestors is through
local history. The material you gather studying the development of geographic
areas can not only lead you to new data, but also help you visualize the world
in which they lived. All these facts help you to understand them as people
rather than just names and dates. You can start with general histories of
Massachusetts to read about immigration patterns or work from specific details
such as place names. In either case it’s a good idea to begin by searching card
catalogs, online bookstores, and websites for available resources. Then develop
a bibliography of printed materials that can help you fill in the blanks on your
Here are some of my favorite printed local history sources to help you get
started. Watch for additional material on these resources in future
You’ve just discovered from a document that your family once lived in an area
you never heard of. One of the best ways to find out more about that location
is to consult a gazetteer. Contemporary gazetteers will tell you where a place
is, but nineteenth century volumes let you peek into the past. These
dictionaries of place names contain an amazing amount of useful data. Suppose
your ancestor lived in Farleyville, Massachusetts. Well, in the 1890 A
Gazetteer of the State of Massachusetts by Rev. Elias Nason and George J.
Varney you’ll discover Farleyville is actually a village in the town of
Wendell. By turning to the appropriate page you will locate a description of
Wendell that includes the number of inhabitants (509), its location, and a list
of all the villages within the town. The fact that it is on the Fitchburg
Railroad line tells you how people and goods were transported. Economic data,
such as the types of industries active in the area, might enlighten you about
what they did here, and you can use that information to track down
employment records. The notation that there were both Congregational and
Baptist churches can lead you to church records. Gazetteers for Massachusetts
are available at NEHGS and at other repositories, so start browsing online card
catalogs for available copies.
The use of travel guides will allow you to build on what you’ve learned in
your study of gazetteers. In the nineteenth century, Moses King published a
series of guidebooks for major cities. His King’s Hand-Book of Boston,
first printed in 1878, is like taking a walk in the past. Information about
roadways, buildings, charitable organizations, clubs, churches, and schools is
given, sometimes accompanied by an illustration. You can use the facts to make
your family story more interesting or to track down additional records for
places no longer in existence. In the twentieth century, auto clubs printed
driving guides to non-metropolitan areas that included tourist information.
Massachusetts: A Guide to Its Places and People (Houghton Mifflin, 1937),
compiled by the Federal Writers Project of Works Progress Administration,
mentioned local history and presented a modified tour of towns. Before you know
it you will want to use these guides to take a trip in time and add historical
details to your genealogy.
County and Town Histories
In the nineteenth century, publishers printed local histories that included
biographies and even genealogies of families who contributed to the cost of
publication. These “mug” books, so called because a picture of the subject often
accompanied their biography, are fun to look at. The basic facts of local
history appear but because of their narrow focus these county and town histories
often include details broader histories leave out. The biographies are meant to
flatter contributors so all details should be researched and verified. Not all
early families have bragging rights to having immigrated with John Winthrop. An
earlier column, “County Resources in
Massachusetts,” covered printed histories and where to find them. Consult P.
William Filby's A Bibliography of American County Histories (1985) or
John Haskell's comprehensive Massachusetts: A Bibliography of Its History
(1976) for titles and locations. The Committee for a New England Bibliography
periodically updates Haskell's work and you can search the latest volume (nine)
online. The NEHGS research and
circulating libraries also have a wonderful collection of these books.
It is not enough to follow the written word about your ancestor’s town. Take
time to look at pictures and imagine what life was like. The Arcadia Publishing
Company publishes illustrated town histories in their Images of America
series. Books exist for many Massachusetts towns. Arcadia is always looking for
knowledgeable people to work with them to publish a local history. If there
isn’t a volume on your town, propose the idea to them and make it happen.
Contact information is available on their website. You can purchase these books
through online booksellers or borrow them from a library.
City directories can help you create a year-by-year timeline for your
ancestors. The first city directory was printed in Boston in 1789, and other
areas eventually followed suit. The NEHGS Research Library has a complete
collection of Boston directories on microfiche on the 4th floor.
Standard listings include names, residence, occupation, and sometimes the place
of employment. While these volumes are useful to track an ancestor’s movements
during their lifetime, the full research potential only becomes known if you
look in the front and back of the book. This is where you will find maps, street
names, business directories, advertisements, and lists of clubs, companies, and
churches. Discover the name of the minister at the church where your ancestor
married or verify when a photographer was in business. There are so many ways to
use a city directory that this topic requires a column all of its own.
Many researchers use newspapers to search for birth, marriage, and death
notices without scanning the news for important events. Reading newspapers can
uncover your great grandfather’s reasons for moving to a particular area. His
migration might have been triggered by a land company’s notice placed in the
paper or the opening of a new factory. If you truly want to get a sense of what
your ancestor’s lives were like then take some time to read the news. The Boston
Public Library has a large collection of newspapers published in Massachusetts.
One of the first things that new immigrant groups did when they settled in a
particular area was print a newspaper. A list of ethnic papers appears on http://www.bostonfamilyhistory.net/, and a search of the Boston Public Library catalog will
result in many of these newspapers as well.
Background research can help you find solutions to brick walls and let you
discover the “real” person behind the name and date on your pedigree chart.
Repositories in Massachusetts" to expand your search for printed material
beyond Boston. Public libraries and local historical societies are also good
hunting places for new material, printed or otherwise. Two helpful guides are
Elizabeth Petty Bentley’s Genealogist’s Address Book (GPC, 1998) and
Marcia Melnyk’s Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, Fourth
Edition (NEHGS, reprint 2001). The five resources covered in this
article gives you a head start to put together the pieces and put more branches
on your family tree.