Each town, whether in America, England, Canada or China, has its own story to tell. Sometimes the great events of history will have affected the community, while other times the community will have generated its own fascinating dramas. Researching the local history of the town, village or city where your ancestors lived is a big step toward understanding what their life was like - the people, places and events that impacted the course of their own personal history.
Local histories, especially county and town histories, are full of collected genealogical information. Often they profile every family who lived in the town, providing as complete a family structure as the early records (often including family Bibles) permit. Even when your ancestor's name does not appear in the index, browsing through or reading a published local history can provide a great head start into understanding the community in which they lived.
Historical maps of a city, town or village may provide details on the town's original layout and buildings, as well as the names and locations of many of the town residents. Tithe maps
, for example, were produced for about 75 percent of the parishes and towns in England and Wales during the 1840s to document the land subject to tithe (local payments due to the parish for the upkeep of local church and clergy), along with the names of the property owners. Many types of historical maps can be useful for locality research, including city and county atlases, plat maps and fire insurance maps
, among others.
Libraries are often a rich repository of local history information, including published local histories, directories, and collections of local records that may not be available elsewhere. Begin by investigating the website of the local library, looking for sections titled "local history" or "genealogy," as well as searching the online catalog, if available. State and University libraries should also not be overlooked, as they are often the repositories of manuscript
and newspaper collections that may not be available elsewhere. Any locality-based research should always include the catalog of the Family History Library
, repository of the world's largest collection of genealogy research and records.
Minutes of local court proceedings are another rich source of local history, including property disputes, the layout out of roads, deed and will entries, and civil complaints. Estate inventories--even if not the estates of your ancestors--are a rich source for learning about the types of items a typical family might own in that time and place, along with their relative worth. In New Zealand, the minutes of the Maori Land Court are especially rich with whakapapa
(Maori genealogies), as well as place names and burial ground locations.
Talking to people who actually live in your town of interest can often turn up interesting nuggets of information you'll find nowhere else. Of course nothing beats an onsite visit and first-hand interviews, but the Internet and email also makes it easy to interview people who live halfway around the world. The local historical society - if one exists - may be able to point you to likely candidates. Or just try googling for local residents who appear to show an interest in local history - perhaps those researching their family genealogy. Even if their family history interest is elsewhere, they may be willing to help you locate historial information on the place they call home.
The Internet is quickly becoming one of the richest sources for local history research. Many libraries and historical societies are putting their special collections of local historical materials into digital form and making them available online. The Summit Memory Project
is just one such example, a collaborative county-wide effort administered by the Akron-Summit County Public Library in Ohio. Local history blogs such as the Ann Arbor Local History Blog
and Epsom, NH History Blog
, message boards, mailing lists, and personal and town websites are all potential sources of local history. Do a search on the name of the town or village along with search terms such as history
, or migration
, depending upon your particular focus. A Google Images
search can be helpful for turning up photos as well.
Obituaries, death notices, marriage announcements and society columns capsule the lives of the local residents. Public announcements and advertisements show what residents found important, and provide interesting insight into a town, from what residents ate and wore, to the social customs that governed their day-to-day life. Newspapers are also rich sources of information on local events, town news, school activities, court cases, etc.