I haven’t gone on many genealogy trips, but in all cases I’ve found the most noteworthy information at the local Historical or Genealogical Society.
Sure, the libraries have a room or a section dedicated to Local History. There will be marriage and death records, histories of the county, and some cemetery information there. But the librarians are not terribly eager to help.
When I asked for the genealogy information at the Mt Pleasant Library on the Friday morning of my trip, the librarian’s face dropped. She asked me if I just needed the room unlocked or if I needed help. She said that last part apprehensively. From her cue, I said I just needed the room unlocked, and she said, “Good,” and lifted her hands up to indicate the information desk behind her. “Because I’m the only one here until lunchtime.”
Okay. So. No tips from the librarian, I guess. Got it.
Later that day, I went over to the county courthouse. Since it was Friday and I was leaving Sunday, I knew it would be my only chance to find records there. The county clerk opened a room for me. There were books and files literally from floor to ceiling on two of the walls. It was intimidating. I just started looking through all the drawers marked “K” to find records on Kelleys, since that was the main family name I came to research. I found an heir book, a list of family members named in wills. That was interesting. I learned there was another John Kelley family in the town at some point. I spent three hours in there, but I didn’t find anything solid. I had no clue what to look for.
Counterpoint: On the Saturday afternoon of my Iowa trip, I went to the Henry County Heritage Trust. There I was helped by two genealogists who had done their own research using the information they housed. They were super knowledgable of their inventory and very eager to help.
Toward the end of five hours researching, one of the women pulls out this dusty book from the bottom of the files. I’m not paying much attention at first; I’m looking through newspapers for any mention of my family. After about 15 minutes, she says “Aha!” and she tugs my elbow.
It turns out the book was an index to all of the land sales in the county going back to the 1840s when Iowa was first opened to white people. In it, she found a record for John Kelley, his wife Eliza, and Mary Stewart (!) buying and selling land together.
There it was! The connection I’d been searching for. Since it was just an index, though, I had to ask her to go to the county courthouse the following Monday, after I’d returned to Chicago, to that very same room of books and drawers I’d been in, and look up the actual record.
Moral of the story: If you’re going on a trip to dig into your family tree, I highly recommend you go to the local History or Genealogy Center first, if possible. That way you can ask a local genealogist/historian about the records available, and you have a better idea of what to look for when you visit the library or the courthouse. The centers are usually volunteer run, though, so they may have limited hours.
I’m not trying to diss librarians or libraries here. Librarians are often underpaid and overworked, and libraries often have the largest collection of local history documents. I am just saying start with the local societies first.