In the course of researching my family, I have found Google Books and Internet Archive to be great sources of history. Initially, Google Books seemed to have more resources but Internet Archive has grown and also is a valuable source.
What You Will Find
Both of these websites scan out-of-print and hard-to-find books and make them available for free viewing and downloading. For family history sources you will find local town and county histories as well as more broad based state or regional texts. These types of books are typically found only on the shelves of a library in their county or region so being able to search for information within them is virtually impossible unless you live in that area. This is where Google Books and Internet Archive are performing a great service because now these texts are available on-line. The stories in these books can be real jewels in your family research because they often tell personal stories about an ancestor. Census records and other data-bases are great sources of information but often the data they provide is limited to statistical facts and figures (birth, marriage, death, burial, enlistment, etc.). While we all need this information, it is a bit dry . . . the real great finds are actual stories about an individual . . . often about an ancestor long dead where there would be no other way of finding out about them.
Personal Histories Come Alive
The great thing about finding a personal story about and individual ancestor or family is that it brings history alive. I will give you an example. I have a 3rd great grandfather named Apollas Holcombe. I know of him, when he lived, where he lived and died, his parents and children, etc. I also know that he served in the war of 1812. The war service was a great piece of information and I found it from New York State records. What I have just told you, however, is a bunch of statistical facts. The real good stuff came when I stumbled across a book called the “History of Macomb County Michigan” published in 1882. This is typical of a text published in the late 1800′s that documents the history of a county and includes biographies of some local citizens. Here is were it gets interesting; Apollas did not live in Michigan, he died in New York but his son Ira did. Ira, as it happens, is not my ancestry but the brother of my 2nd great grandfather, Reuben. Ira gets a couple of paragraphs in the section of the book on the Town of Washington. But Ira was a farmer and his life wasn’t that interesting so the author writes more about his father and father-in-law then Ira, himself. This is where I hit pay dirt!
Here is what I find out about Apollas: “born in 1791; was a soldier of 1812, and wounded at the burning of Buffalo by the British in 1814; a bullet struck his uplifted arm and sped to the shoulder; the “knuckle” of the elbow joint was cut off and came out of the wound, which was in a state of suppuration two years, occasionally capping over; one day, he remarked to his son (Ira) that he believed the bullet had returned to the place of entry, and, taking his knife, probed the cavity and took out the bullet, which, with the fragment of bone, is in the possession of Mr. Holcomb (Ira).”
WOW!, What a great piece of information, and as a bonus, Apollas’ father, Micha is also mentioned along with his Revolutionary War service.
How to Find Sources
Over the course of the last few years, I have found information, like the example above, on a number of my ancestors. The quality of the information does vary, however. Sometimes it is just a sentence or two and other times it could be a whole page. Either way, the information adds to the story and often provides collaborating information about an ancestor. It may also give a clue that sends you searching for additional information somewhere else. How to find the information? There are basically two ways to find the information you are looking for. The first is what I call the “accidental find.” You may find a source, when random googling but I have found that names in Google Books and Internet Archive documents do not always show-up in web searches. However, if the source has been copied to another site, such as a local genealogy site, then a name may be search-able. The second way is to go right to Google Books or Internet Archive and search within those sites. This is hit or miss and takes some time but the rewards can be great. It helps if you already know where your ancestor was living. For example, my 1st great and 2nd great grandfathers both lived in Green County, Wisconsin in the 1800′s. So I went to Google Books and Internet Archive and searched for the ”History of Green County Wisconsin.” This yielded a few texts and sure enough, biographies existed about both of them (in two different books). Finding this stuff is great but keep in mind that unless your ancestors are famous, most will probably not be found, even in these local texts. But when you do find one, its a great feeling and provides information that would otherwise be lost in time.