Digging Deeper into Early Town Histories

I’m in the midst of writing a number of posts about our ancestors, their social history and cultural influences and realized that it was the perfect time to remind genealogists of the importance of historical details about the towns in which ancestors settled.

Unlike Europe, where our families left towns that had existed for centuries before them, colonial settlers arrived to a vast wasteland, so to speak, and built brand new towns.

Whether your ancestor was an original settler or a latecomer, understanding a town’s beginnings and history gives context to your ancestor’s life.

What is really great about town histories is that they are often found in county histories, which have been published from the late 1800s right into modern times. Many of them are out of copyright and can be digitally accessed through Google Books.

Another great resource is FamilySearch Books, which has partnered with other libraries.

A third website is HathiTrust Digital Library.

One more option is Internet Archive.

All you need to do is enter the name of the town or county to locate histories. County histories always have sections that included individual town histories.

Many smaller towns that have celebrated centennials and other anniversaries have published town histories at the time of the celebration. Some of these are in the public domain, while others remain under copyright.

Of course, there are way more recent books, which are under copyright restrictions, which can be borrowed from libraries or purchased.

Not only was I able to find a digital copy of History of Passaic and Its Environs by William Winfield Scott from 1911, I also found Bob Rosenthal’s book. Wonderful Passaic,  about his life growing up in Passaic, which overlapped my life.

Reading these two books imparts an understanding of the truly diverse ethnic origins of immigrants who lived in Passaic from the 1600s into the 20th century.

I have never been to the Miramichi River area in New Brunswick, Canada, but one of my Loyalists was an original settler. Bill MacKinnon’s book, Over the Portage, is on my book shelf:

From Bill, I’ve learned about the founding of settlements on the Miramichi and, as a bonus, discovered a list of the original applicants for land, which even includes the LOT NUMBERS assigned to each! Appendix IV has a list of the 1809 grantees, which is actually a biographical sketch of the head of household and his family. Another bonus!

Understanding the social history of our ancestors’ lives isn’t possible without having a good grasp on the history of the place in which they lived.

It is more than well worth your time to search for town and county histories and this is one area of genealogical research where finding resources couldn’t be any easier.


One thought on “Digging Deeper into Early Town Histories”

  1. Excellent post – genealogy and family history are about so much more than just names and dates…understanding the world in which our ancestors lived helps us get a real sense of who they are AND gives us insight into the challenges they faced.

    Another related sources is oral history. Local family history societies and museums/archives often have oral history collections. They are a goldmine for family historians!

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