Mugging My Relatives

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Mugging My Relatives

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century there were hundreds, if not thousands, of county histories 
published in the United States. Many of these county histories contain large sections of biographies of local 
residents. Also during this time, numerous books entirely of biographies were published. Genealogists 
frequently refer to these publications as "mug books," as they typically contain pictures of some residents. 
They are an excellent genealogical source.

County Histories Are Not Divinely Inspired
The biographies in these histories must be taken with a grain of salt. In some cases, an entire shaker of salt 
is necessary. If you read enough biographies, you will notice some similarities. Everyone listed was an 
"upstanding citizen," an "enterprising and industrious" resident and the "pillar of his community." For some 
of us that may explain why we have few relatives listed in these publications.

In all seriousness, these materials are a source that should be utilized by every genealogist with ancestors
living in the area at the time the book was published. Individuals got themselves in the "mug book" by paying 
to have their biography published, so money was a significant factor. These biographies frequently mention 
siblings, parents, and children; sometimes extended family members are listed. When using these references, 
search for ancestral siblings, brothers-in-law, sons-in-law, and other relatives. Do not just focus on your 

Finding The Books
An excellent way to find county histories is to search library card catalogs for references to such materials. If 
these sites contain no references, readers may wish to post a query to the appropriate county mailing list at

We will look at three libraries which in the aggregate include a significant proportion of county histories that 
have been printed. Researchers should also search library catalogs for local, regional, and university libraries 
located in the area where the families being researched lived. While the first two libraries discussed do not 
loan books on interlibrary loan, the knowledge that a book exists can be a great start. Armed with a 
bibliographic citation from the Library of Congress or the Allen County Public Library it will be easier to 
potentially get the book on interlibrary loan from your own local library. Getting the book on interlibrary loan 
will be easier if a microfilm edition of the book exists.

Library of Congress:
Click on "Basic search."

Type in the name of the county ("blahblah county") and choose subject browse from the pull down menu 
listed below the search box. Click on "begin search." Then page through until you get to the state you want.
View the entries for either "blahblah county biography" or "blahblah county history." I would not enter in the 
name of the state until I was really familiar with using the catalog and the abbreviations.

Allen County Public Library
Click on "Library Catalog."

Choose the button option for "browse." Enter in the name of the county ("blahblah county") and click on the 
"subject" tab. Browse through all the results. Again, I would not enter in the name of the state or even an 
abbreviation for the name of the state until I was quite familiar with the catalog. Something may be overlooked.

Family History Library

Click on the "Library" tab. Then click on "Family History Library Catalog." Put "blahblah" in the place box and 
the complete name of the state in the "part of" box. Scroll through all the subject headings, but probably 
history and biography will cover all the "mug books" the Family History Library has for a specific area.

Searching The Books
The original books rarely have a complete name index. If there is any index in the original book it generally is 
to the name of the biographee only, not to all the individuals that may be listed in a specific biography. With 
unindexed or partially indexed materials this emphasizes the necessity of searching for extended family 

Indexes may exist though. In some cases, indexes were created separately many years later. Generally,
 these indexes are created by genealogical or historical societies or an individual. In other cases, the books 
were reprinted many years later with an index added. What does this mean for the researcher using the card 

Look at all references to the book in the card catalog. 
Indexes that are separate publications will generally have a separate card. Make certain to view these 
publications in addition to the actual history or book of biographies.
If the library has original copies and reprints, each will have separate catalog entries. The card catalog entry 
should indicate if either of the versions contains an index.

Found It?
When you find the biography, make certain you either copy or read the entire biography instead of simply 
skimming it. When making a copy for later reference, copy the title page and the publication information so 
that a complete citation can be created later. Also make certain page numbers are clearly shown on each 
copy. Performing these tasks while making copies will facilitate the documentation process.

Look For More
Your ancestor's biography might have appeared in more than one publication. A biography on a different 
family member might provide additional clues. Do not quit with just one biography.

What To Do With It?
Analyze it, analyze it, analyze it. Read it and think about it. Biographies in county histories always contain 
genealogical clues and typically a few genealogical red herrings. It is the job of the genealogist to work with 
other records in order to determine (as best they can) what was correct in the biography and what was not.

One technique I like to do with any biography is to create a chronology of the entire biography. There's a 
reason for using the phrase "entire biography" instead of the biographee. That is because the biography 
frequently starts before the birth of the biographee. Biographies also do not always list all information in 
strict chronological order and frequently imply a time frame for an event instead of specifically stating when 
the event took place.

Additionally obtain maps for all the areas mentioned in the biography and map out the likely migration path for 
the families listed.

Analyze It
Many record finding aids require the researcher to have an approximate date of an event in order to search the 
index effectively. Use a biography to approximate dates such as dates of marriage, birth, and death. Some of 
these dates will be explicitly stated in the biography, but many will have to be carefully inferred.


Knowing the location of a family's farm facilitates research in a variety of records. A will or estate inventory 
may provide you with a description of where your ancestor lived. And from there, figuring out where the farm 
is located does not have to be difficult. Let's outline the process one might take to locate such property. 

[Note: This discussion pertains to those states (federal lands) that were normally surveyed using townships 
and sections. More information on this can be obtained at the Bureau of Land Management's Web site.] 

Goldensteins in Nebraska
I was working on my Goldenstein family, which had spent eight years on a homestead in Nebraska. I 
knew the Goldenstein family lived near Gothenburg, Nebraska, but I did not know the farm's exact location. 
And since certain other records would be easier to research if I had a location more precise than "near 
Gothenburg," I knew I needed to pin down the homestead. 

From a copy of the Goldenstein family's homestead claim (originally obtained by a great-aunt), I knew the 
family homesteaded in the 1880s on the southeast quarter of Section 12 in Township 11-N, Range 25-W 
of the sixth principal meridian, located in Dawson County, Nebraska. (An article on this family's homestead 
records appears on the Web site.) 

I needed to know where Township 11-N, Range 25-W was located. 

In federal land states (those states where land ownership generally "starts" with the federal government), 
property is generally organized into townships with 36 sections each (there are exceptions). These 
townships, actually referred to as Congressional townships, all have numbers assigned to them based 
upon their location with respect to base lines and prime meridians. A "true" section is one square mile. 

Base lines and prime meridians were lines set by surveyors to aid in the surveying of unsettled and newly 
settled country. Some states have multiple base lines and prime meridians. Base lines are set to run east 
and west (and are horizontal), and prime meridians are set to run north and south (and are vertical). These 
lines are long and in some cases run from across an entire state. Townships are then described according 
to their relative position to a base line and a meridian. A township will be either north or south of a base line 
and east or west of a meridian. 

A quick check of the Dawson County GenWeb site located a plat book from 1907. (A plat book is an atlas 
or map of an area that indicates who owns what property, with outlines of property lines and acreages 
usually listed.) While the Goldensteins had left Dawson County by 1907, the map would help me locate 
their homestead's relative position to Gothenburg and other natural features. Using the images of the 
township plat maps available at the Web site, I determined that the Goldensteins had lived in Gothenburg 
Township approximately a mile and a half from the city limits of Gothenburg. The family also lived a couple 
of miles from the Platte River. 

The family lived in the northeast part of Gothenburg Township; neighboring townships were German (to the 
north), Blaine (to the northeast), and Willow Island (to the east). Willow Island Township was less than a 
mile from the Goldenstein's homestead claim. If I had had less information about the family's residence, 
searching census records and other records organized by township would have been helpful because I 
could have searched these neighboring townships. However, in this situation, I knew the family's exact 
location during its entire time in Nebraska. Searching neighboring townships would also have been necessary 
if the father had been a tenant farmer who frequently moved from one farm to another every few years. 

The township maps on the Web site were listed according to their numbers, not their names. Gothenburg 
Township was 11-N, Range 25-W. Willow Island Township (to the east of Gothenburg Township) was 11-N, 
24-W. German Township (to the north of Gothenburg Township) was 12-N, 25-W. Blain Township (to the 
northeast of Gothenburg Township) was 12-N, 24-W. In order to find the numbers for a specific township, I 
viewed the township map, located the township I was interested in, and found the numbers. [On a map of 
just one township, the numbers are frequently on the top of the page. On a map of an entire county, the 
numbers are frequently on the edges of the map.] 

From Homestead to Cemetery
Once I had located the townships and the homestead, I could use the information to find other records. I 
noted that the Web site contained a map of cemeteries in the county. Armed with the family's residence, 
I could start with the closest cemetery and fan my way out to find potential gravesites. Likely, the family 
used a cemetery within a reasonable distance of its homestead claim. 

A little search of the cemetery pages resulted in the tombstone of the family's son, who died while the 
Goldensteins were in Nebraska. The burial was in the American Lutheran Cemetery (Christ Lutheran). 
This cemetery was located in German Township, directly north of the township where the Goldensteins 
lived. The 1907 plat showed the location of the cemetery and indicated that there was an adjacent church 
and that a school was located nearby. The cemetery would have been approximately three miles from the 
Goldenstein homestead, as the crow flies. 

Geography and Genealogy
Finding the exact location of a piece of property can assist you in your research by allowing you to potentially 
see the ground where your ancestors lived. It may also lead you to other records. So whether for facts or for 
"color," locating property should not be overlooked. 

Much more could be said about locating specific properties. In fact, the Bureau of Land Management Web 
Site has some graphics that may assist you in your understanding of sections, base lines, and meridians. 
Our discussion here has really only scratched the surface.

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