10 December 2012

Tuesday's Tip - Local Histories/ Vanity Biographies

Local histories can  take many forms and many of them can be excellent resources for genealogists.  But this blog is about is a special category of local history. Published primarily from the later 1870s through the first decade or so of the 1900s, these  books often called themselves histories. But any history that they might deliver tended to arrive in the form of short vanity biographies submitted by local citizens. You can find them in virtually every state under a wide variety of titles such as Men of Mark, or Commemorative Biographical Record, etc. The truth is that these books were first and foremost a clever way for publishers to create and sell books. They were almost always sold by subscription, and, with the exception of a few very prominent locals who often lent their name to the title page, it tended to be only those local citizens who subscribed that were allowed to submit the brief brief biographies to be included in the books.

Reading through these biographies can quickly bring to mind the introduction of  one of Garrison Keillor's   introductions to one of his tales of the fictional town of Lake Wobegon - "where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all of the children are above average." In these books, you will find no scoundrels.  All of the citizens in these biographies are prominent, hard-working, highly regarded citizens who have contributed to the well-being of their communities. This, along with the fact that the bios were nearly always taken directly from the information submitted by the subject of the biography or by his family, means that they cannot always be taken as strict truth.  Truth stretches easily here.  Still, if we recognize this potential,  these can be lovely little packages of information. Consider, for example, what we learn in this biography of Robert R. Pinkerton, found in the Commemorative Biographical Record of the Upper Wisconsin Counties, J. H. Beers & Co., Chicago, 1895:

It will be necessary to verify much of the info below, but a wonderful starting point has been found. Some of the possible follow-up research suggested by these finds is in blue text.
  • Robert R. Pinkerton is the son of Samuel Pinkerton. Check the census and local records for entries on Samuel Peacock
  • Robert was born 17 January 1842 in Ireland. 
  • He immigrated to America at age 5 - about 1847. This told me to check Records for Passengers Who Arrived at the Port of New York During the Irish Famine, documenting the period 1/12/1846 - 12/31/1851 online at NARA.

  • Five years passed between Robert's immigration to America and his moving to Wisconsin - This alerts me to search the 1850 U.S. census. Follow-up can be made in the local records when the family is found.

  • Robert had a brother named John who lived with or near him in Waupaca, Wisconsin.

  • Robert married Zelia Jewett in 1872. Look for marriage record.

  • Zelia Jewett's parents lived in southern Wisconsin. Find Zelia's family on the U.S. or Wisconsin State census reports.

  • Zelia died in 1874, after having one son, Walter Pinkerton. Look for cemetery record and probate records, if any.

  • In 1895, Walter was in college in Monmouth, Illinois. This record led to the discovery of his going on to medical school after college and his becoming an M.D.

  • Robert married 2nd to Maggie Cochran. Look for marriage record.

  • Maggie was born in New York and her family traveled to Wisconsin with the Pinkertons. We know have a pretty good idea of where Robert spent his first five years in America.  Find both families on the census in New York and in Waupaca County. 

  • We have the names of Maggie's parents and siblings. Can be used to find the family on the 1850 and later census and to find them in newspapers, marriage and other local records.

  • We have the names of the three children born to Robert and Maggie, Rosa, Jennie, and Arthur, along with the fact that daughter Rosa died at age 7.  Search census records, cemetery records, marriage records.

  • Maggie Cochran Pinkerton died in 1889. Cemetery and possibly probate records

  • Robert R. Pinkerton was a farmer who also speculated a bit in real estate and occasionally loaned money at interest.  Land Records, Court Records

  • Politically, he was a Republican
    Good hunting!


  1. Excellent post - love the Keillor quote, so true. Thanks so much for showing how to take one of these "histories" farther along and learn more.

  2. Thank for posting. All those links will certainly help you read between the lines of this "history." Have been trying to find the history behind some old letters I'm posting. Looks like you are doing this with the "history" you found. You article makes me want to look a little deeper.

  3. Great tips for analyzing and researching the information you find in these local histories.