Have you ever used mug books in your research? No! Not police mug books! I mean the county histories published in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
In addition to historical data and details for the area, stories about local townspeople were also published, often at the back of the book. Residents could pay a fee, write up their own family stories to be published and, for an additional fee, include a photograph of someone, usually the head of the family.
Because of the time frame in which these books were published, most are long out of copyright restrictions. An exception might be if a modern company obtained the rights to republish the volume. I’ll give an example of such an exception in a bit. However, whether in or out of copyright restrictions, these mug books are readily accessible in public libraries and genealogical repositories. Because it is tempting to post these sketches online, one should always determine whether or not the tome is in the public domain.
Now, I have to admit that my dad’s family were poor immigrants in the late 1800s and never got into any of those books. My mom’s family never seemed to go for them, either, although there were business men in the family who could have afforded it. I guess they never saw the need.
However, my husband’s collateral family lines have appeared in various volumes throughout the Midwest, where I think they were quite popular.
What might you learn in these mini-biographies? First, remember that the information in them is only as accurate as the memory (or the will) of the person sharing it. These sketches are kind of like public member trees found online. They are fabulous for clues, but if part of the story sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
Why would someone pay to publish a family history that was inaccurate? Sometimes, the facts that they thought were true were not. Perhaps a name, place or event was remembered inaccurately. Perhaps they didn’t know, but wanted to say something. Some saw the opportunity to embellish their family histories by mentioning (incorrect) ties to famous people or events.
So, reader beware! Consider the details as clues to be followed and proved or disproved.
Many years ago, I came across The Biographical Souvenir of the State of Texas, Containing Biographical Sketches of the Representative Public, and Many Early Settled Families, which was published by F.A. Battey in 1889.
In it is a wonderful sketch about Joseph A. Brasher, son of Hampton Brasher. Hampton was my husband’s 3X great grandfather who died during the Civil War. I would share the entry with you, except that I checked and the Southern Historical Press purchased rights to this book and re-published it in 1978 so it is again under copyright restrictions.
What did I learn about Joseph A(ddison) Brasher? He provided the names of his father and grandfather, where they lived in Kentucky, and named all the children his father had by two marriages. Mr. Brasher included information about his Civil War service and noted that his father died on 19 December 1864 while in the Confederate Army. I learned when Joseph Brasher arrived in Texas, how he met his wife-to-be, and who their children were.
In this case, Mr. Brasher was 100% accurate in the family information he shared. I’ve been able to corroborate the facts he provided, even locating the hospital record of his father’s death.
In a Goodspeed Publishing Company Kentucky volume, I discovered a biography about Valentine Whitmer, a brother to my husband’s Whitmer ancestor. Mr. Whitmer stated that he was born in Rockingham County, Virginia. I knew the family had lived in Botetourt County, Virginia before moving to Kentucky, but had no idea they had ever resided in Rockingham County. Was the information accurate? I’d say it was because I located the baptismal record of Valentine Whitmer in the registers of the Friedens Church in Harrisonburg.
Valentine Whitmer, Last Entry on the Page
Lastly, in a Tennessee mug book, I found a mention of Harriet Williams Pryor. She was the sister of my husband’s 3X great grandfather. I spent about 20 years sorting out the various extended Williams family members, taking them back to Cumberland County, Virginia. In the earliest years of that county (formed in 1749), there were three Williams men – brothers Matthias and Thomas plus a man named Roger Williams, who was a contemporary.
I have long theorized that Roger was a first cousin to Matthias and Thomas and that before this Roger were his father and grandfather also named Roger.
Harriet Williams Pryor’s entry stated that her Williams family was descended from Roger Williams of Rhode Island. I’ve never found any evidence of a New England connection in her Virginia family. However, I believe the story that she was descended from “a” Roger Williams supports my theory that the three Cumberland County men were brothers and cousin and that the earlier Roger created the family link between them.
With Harriet’s story, the mug book entry was just an unverified and probably untrue statement.
I have discovered, more than once, that the old county histories often had no biographical index. That meant paging through one or more volumes that could be 500-800 pages or more. Because of time limitations, most of the time those books went back on the library shelves and I often wonder what I might have found in them if I had had more time.
If you haven’t ever perused those old county histories, I can almost guarantee that you are missing out on some great finds.