Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Value of Gazetteers for Research (Part 2)

No matter where your family history leads you, gazetteers should be part of your research arsenal.  Last time we featured an 1869 Van Buren County volume.  From there let's talk about some samples from the state and regional  levels.

Michigan was not formerly organized as a state until 1836, and the majority of it was unsettled.  Those who have pioneers who settled in Michigan during those early years will discover boundaries, place names and government was an entirely different animal then.  To assist with that, consult the 1838 Gazetteer of the State of Michigan, by John T. Blois. 

Although not a listing of individual names, the 1838 Gazetteer gives some useful information including brief summaries for each county.  For example, while Van Buren County has 18 townships today, in 1838 there were only seven, namely Antwerp, Clinch, Covington, Decatur, LaFayette, Lawrence and South Haven.  There were only three villages:  Mason, Pawpaw [sic] and Keelersville.  The county, consisting of 633 square miles, was also organized in 1837, and had a population of 1,262 persons. 

Under Topography and Statistics, Keelersville (now Keeler) was situated on the Detroit and St. Joseph road, had its own post office, and was described as "small, and contains a store, a tavern, and a few mechanics." 

If your ancestor was an early settler of the present-day village of Lawrence, you would not that find that name in records of the period.  Originally named Mason, the village wasn't renamed Lawrence until 1846, thus affecting which records would need to be searched.

The Michigan State Gazetteer and Business Directory volumes published by R. L. Polk & Company in the latter half of the 19th and early 20th century are delightful examples of the benefits of gazetteers.  These huge volumes are often more than 4 inches thick and give a summary of each town or village within the state.  The 1895-96 edition in the Local History collection gives the following merchant information for the now extinct village of Pine Grove Mills in Van Buren County:
  • L. D. Canfield, produce
  • Clark Everest, news dealer
  • D. O. Everest & Co, manufacturers of all kinds of woodwork
  • H. C. Harrington, blacksmith
  • C. H. Ruell, general store
  • George W. Smith, musician
  • W. M. Stoughton, railroad and exp agt.
  • Miss Cora Wise, music teacher
South Haven Advertisements - 1895 Gazetteer
Since these Polk gazetteers were published on a regular basis, tracking the history of a town's businesses or an individual merchant would be one use.  And, as typical of directories of the period, these books are chock full of advertisements that are an art form in and of themselves.

As you begin research in other states in the country, consulting a gazetteer will assist with things like boundary changes, obscure or extinct place names, waterways and railroads.  New York state can be particularly challenging and there are two good titles that I would recommend:
  1. A Gazetteer of the State of New York : embracing an ample survey and description of its counties, towns, cities, villages, canals, mountains, lakes, rivers, creeks, and natural topography, by Horatio Gates Spafford, 1824.
  2. Historical and Statistical Gazetteer of the New York State, by J. H. French, 1860.
Both of these titles have extensive geographic descriptions coupled with listings of thousands of names of early settlers.

Records in New England states tend to be organized not by county, as we are accustomed to in the Midwest, but by town.  Using a title such as The New England Gazetteer; containing descriptions of all the states, counties and towns in New England: also descriptions of the principal mountains, rivers, lakes, capes, bays, harbors, islands, and fashionable resorts, 1839, by John Hayward may assist in sorting out towns of same or like names, counties and so forth.

These and other titles in the Local History Collection are just a few examples of the types and coverage of gazetteers.  To locate titles of interest to you, visit some of your favorite larger online catalogs such as MelCat, WorldCat, Family Search, and the Library of Congress.  Make your searches in the title, subject or keyword fields.

Nameless Picture of the Day
unidentified house - perhaps from Bangor area
from the album of Amy (Palmer) Jackson

Can you identify the location of the house in this photograph, probably taken in or near Bangor, Michigan?  Please contact us if you any information and we will publish it in a future blog.  Please include the photo's catalog number with your e-mail. 

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