You know the drill by now. You find something on your ancestors in an old book and you are on Cloud 9 because now you have something factual to go on, it is in a book!
Well do you ever consider the source of that printed source? Do you ever wonder, “Gee I wonder how he knew that?” Well it would be good to think about the sources that were available to the writer at the time the book or other printed source was written.
I thank my lucky stars every time I find an entry in an old county history because it gives me a little platform to launch a new research project, or might provide clues that will send me off to search in greener pastures.
Most of the men and women that compiled those huge old county history books were nuts just like you and me and they had a story to tell that they thought was interesting enough to share with everyone.
Think about the time period that the author lived in and what was their background and why would they write it. Many of these big old books were published from about the 1850′s through about the start of World War I, with the largest majority coming to print soon after the Centennial of 1876 which I believe created an interest in the founders of this country over the previous 100 years.
I have a picture in my mind of one of these compilers having boxes and scrapbooks of old documents and newspaper clippings and journals and perhaps albums of photos or sketches that related to the early history of their community. Chances are they knew other people in their area that had similar collections and liked to swap yarns so I envision many letters back and forth.
So lets say an author is about 50 or 60 years old when they get bit by the bug that says ‘better leave a trail’. They can remember back 40 to 50 years and they know what their parents told them growing up and they can go and interview the older people still living in the area.
These things were their sources right? They had few books that they could refer to for sources other than natural history books, gazetteers and possibly an earlier publication on the same subject that might have been released a generation or two previous.
They did not have Google, Ancestry.com, Rootsweb or any of the multitude of databases that you have right at your fingertips. They wrote history the old fashioned way, they did historical research in old record collections and they served up countless memories from various sources.
The point here is to not take anything too seriously that is found in print in any of these old publications, but by all means do not discount them or bypass them! By being able to prove, or disprove, any of these printed words using modern research methods or to at least build a strong case for a new hypothesis will afford you countless hours of pleasant research and a much stronger affinity to those that signed their name on the dotted manuscript say a hundred or more years ago.
In the future I plan on bringing you some stories about my favorite historians and why I want them to come back and do it all over again, this time with a computer.