Genealogy 101: Using State Historical Societies for Your Research

Introduction: In this article – part of an ongoing “Introduction to Genealogy” series – Gena Philibert-Ortega describes how helpful state historical societies can be with your family history research, and includes links to societies in all 50 states. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

What are the repositories that you look to for information about your ancestors? A local public library or perhaps a county government archive? Have you taken advantage of the resources a state historical society can provide your genealogy?

An article about the Oregon Historical Society, Oregonian newspaper article 17 December 1899
Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 17 December 1899, page 22

Haven’t considered using a historical society for your genealogy? There are many reasons you should. Here are five reasons showing how a state historical society can help you expand your knowledge of your ancestor’s life.

Online Catalogs

Even if you have no plans for visiting the state where your ancestor lived, there can be benefits to perusing that state’s historical society’s online catalog. Learning about what extant sources exist for that area and what the society offers is important. You may even uncover a record that documents an important event in your ancestor’s life, including vital records or vital record alternatives.

Each society’s online catalog is different, but in the case of the California Historical Society you can search their collection via their online catalog and their Digital Library search. There are also larger collaborative online catalogs, such as the Online Archive of California and Calisphere (an online collection of digitized items). It’s important to remember that some larger societies might have both a library catalog and a digitized collection catalog (more on that below). Make sure to check both for relevant items.

Whenever you search an online catalog, make sure to read any search helps or FAQs the website might have to help you craft a search to find what you need. If you think something should be in the catalog but you cannot find it, consider emailing the society librarian or archivist with your search questions.

Digitized Collections

It’s not unusual to find that your society of interest has an online digital collection. There are so many that I love, but one of my favorite examples is this guide to Wisconsin in the Civil War from the Wisconsin Historical Society. This wonderful guide with links provides the ability to search 25,000 pages of documents, including “soldier’s letters, diaries, and memoirs; regimental histories and rosters; photographs, maps, biographies and battle summaries.” My favorite part of this collection is the digitized book by Ethel Alice Hurn, Wisconsin Women in the War between the States (1911), about Wisconsin women’s experiences during the Civil War.

Remember that digitized collections are much more than just photographs. They can include documents, books, maps and more. You may want to check back regularly to see if new items have been added to the collection.

Historical Resources

Most of the state historical societies have online historical resources such as website links, blogs, articles, and even encyclopedias. A good example is The Handbook of Texas on the Texas State Historical Association website. This online encyclopedia has 27,000 articles with “entries on the influential people, eras, and events of Texas history.” I love the entry for the city of Vine Grove, Texas, that includes a mention of a blacksmith and the horticulturalist Thomas Darby. The blacksmith is my ancestor Moses Henry Chatham, and Darby lived in the same home that Henry did.

Make sure to peruse your website of interest for ways you can learn more about the history of where your ancestor was from.

Publications

Many of these societies publish various materials, including newsletters, magazines, and sometimes books. Check both the Membership and Shop web pages to find relevant publications. Just like genealogical societies, the benefit of membership to a historical society typically includes their periodicals – which help you not only keep abreast of what is going on in that society but also new collections and articles on topics of historical interest.

Genealogy

Well it’s probably obvious to you that historical documents can also be genealogically-relevant records. In some cases that might not be spelled out on the website, but in others it might be more obvious. Case in point: the Kansas Historical Society. At the top of their website is a Research link; click on the link and there is a drop-down menu that includes Genealogy Indexes as an option. For those with Kansas roots, this is a great place to start the search for your ancestor’s name.

Haven’t Searched a State Historical Society Website? Now’s the Time

Expand your research by seeking out the state historical society in your ancestor’s home state. See what their library and archive collections, as well as their digital collections, can offer you. You might be surprised about how much they have that can benefit your research. As you plan future research trips you might want to include a stop at a historical society in your list of must-visit repositories.

Resources

Here is a list of state historical societies for all 50 states:

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