Big changes have come to — all content is now read-only, and member subscriptions and the Shop have been discontinued.
Learn more
New? Start Here
Genealogy How-To
 Getting Started
 Getting Organized
 Developing Your Research Skills
 Sharing Your Family's Story
 Reference Guide
 Biography Assistant
Free Genealogy Classes
 Beginning Genealogy
 Internet Genealogy
 Tracing Immigrant Origins

Family Finder
First Name:

Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Biographical Sources
by Rhonda R. McClure

November 15, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

We strive to locate the birth, marriage, and death information on our ancestors. In doing this, we hope to find out the names of their parents and perhaps more about them (for example, where they were born). This is all done in our insatiable attempt to get one more generation on the family tree.

Of course, our first attempts at figuring out this information usually involve looking for vital records. When we are researching twentieth century ancestors, this is an option. What happens, though, when you get beyond the time period for vital records? Where can you turn for this information?

Biographical sources may offer you vital information.

Biographical Sources — An Alternative

Last week we looked at church records as an alternative to vital records. This week, you will be introduced to biographical sources.

Biographical sources offer you an insight into the life of an ancestor. They may be devoted to those individuals living in a given town, county or state. Or, they may concentrate on people working in a certain occupation or who were members of a specific organization, such as a fraternal organization.

The focus of the work will determine the likelihood of your ancestor being included, as will your ancestors life and occupation. For instance, when reading the biographical write-ups in a county history, you may notice that generally the well-known (often rich or well-off) citizens are included. In some instances, these individuals paid to have their information included in the publication. Such publications are often referred to as "mug books."

Mug books have limited space for the biographies they include. Much of the book is usually devoted to the history of the county, including the founding of and early history of each town within the county. Often you will find numerous lists of those who were elected or served in some capacity in the local governments and civil positions. The history of various religions that grew and prospered in the area my be documented, along with lists of the first religious leaders and members. What this means is that the mug books have precious little space for the inclusion of prominent citizens and for many of us who descend from farmers, our ancestors are omitted.

It is possible that other avenues may lead you to biographies on your ancestors. Looking beyond the traditional county histories, you may find that your ancestor belonged to a club or organization that has published a history. Because the number of individuals included in such a book is less limited, it is possible that your ancestor was included with a biography.

Even if your ancestor wasn't considered a prominent citizen, it is possible that his occupation has a directory. There are directories of lawyer, doctors, and other occupations. A perfect example is such an occupational directory is Artists in Ohio, 1787-1900: A Biographical Dictionary by Mary Sayre Haverstock and published in 2000. This massive compilation include biographical information on every identified artist that had some connection to Ohio. They may have been born in Ohio, lived there for a time, or died there. Another example is the Directory of Deceased American Physicians, 1804-1929 (available as part of Genealogy Library or on CD-ROM).

Finding Biographical Sources

Sometimes the hardest thing about finding biographical sources is expanding your search to include resources outside the genealogy department of your local library. Sometimes, we get into the mind set that all of our research must be accomplished in the genealogy department, as though we will be drummed out of the genealogy corps if we dare to move beyond the confines of that section of the library.

Be creative in your sleuthing for biographical resources. Think not only about where the ancestor lived, but about what he or she did for a living. Think about where other books about such occupations might be listed in a library. Be creative with the library catalog, searching on the subject of the occupation rather than the locality of the ancestor's residence.

When searching for such information in the Family History Library Catalog, you will want to be sure to look under the locality search for such subheadings as directories, dictionaries, and occupations. Once you have exhausted these avenues, run searches for subjects including your ancestors occupation, fraternal associations and religion.


Such publications may be found in the Family History Library. They may also be hiding in an archive or historical society. Some may even be tucked away in public libraries.

Take advantage of any online library catalogs you can find in your research. See if there is a website for a union or organization that represents the occupation of your ancestor. Many of the fraternal organizations have website, but directories of the members may be found in historical societies for the areas in which your ancestors lived.

Don't just concentrate on the localities where your ancestors settled. If they traveled through four or five states to get to that land where they finally settled down, you want to see what may be available for the states they traveled through. As we saw with the Ohio artists, they just had to be in Ohio at some point in their life to qualify for inclusion.

Finally don't limit your research to older volumes. The Ohio artists volume was just completed this past year. While an occupation or organization may not have published a volume contemporary to the time your ancestor lived, some enthusiastic historian or genealogist may have compiled something just as useful recently.

In Conclusion

When you can't get personal information about birth or parentage from vital records, whether they were not kept or have been destroyed, you may find that biographical sources offer a reasonable alternative.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

Back to Top of Article

Home | Help | About Us | Terms of Service | PRIVACY
© 2011