Tuesday 4 November 2014

Usefulness of Community History Books

A few years ago I was looking for information concerning the father of a client, by the name of August Becker. Eileen (the client) knew he had been married before he met her mother but apparently neither one would ever talk about that marriage while Eileen and her siblings were growing up, or what happened to the union in the end. The parents had been deceased for many years before we started the research – Eileen herself was in her eighties – so we had no one to ask about the situation. She did know that her father had apparently lived in Eastern Alberta at one time so that was a start.

I will have more to say about some of the very interesting stories uncovered about the family in a later post but what I wanted to highlight today was the usefulness of local area history books. I have a couple in my collection for my own family. They were produced in the 1970s and contain the recollections of original settlers and/or their children about the areas where my parents were raised. Many local communities took advantage of government grants back then to assemble the stories and information about the areas and the families. The books provide, in many cases, first-hand accounts of people, places and historical events not available elsewhere. There are many such historical summaries spanning the country, highlighting villages and farming regions in most provinces.

I also have some pages from a similar book titled Portrait and Biographical Album of Washington, Clay and Riley Counties, Kansas, published by Chapman Publishing Co. of Chicago, in 1890. It is part of a large series of similar books put out by Chapman, Biographical Publishing Co., Lake City Publishing Co., Record Publishing Co. and others in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dozens are available to read and download for free at Archive.org (just search for “portrait and biographical”). Most have the description “. . . Portraits & Biographical Sketches of Prominent and Representative Citizens” but also offer historical information about the communities. I found a few similar books that can be read on Open Library and Google Books. I am sure there are many other websites as well where genealogists may access books of interest.

The book with information about Riley County, Kansas contains very interesting information about one of my 2nd great-granduncles, who was a prominent doctor in Randolph, Riley County, and his parents, my 3rd great-grandparents. The biography opened up another line of inquiry for information about my ancestors which I had not seen anywhere else.

Anyway, I did a search for a similar book for the Provost region of Alberta and found one available for purchase on Amazon, called Early Furrows: A story of our early pioneers in Provost, Hayter, Bodo, Alberta and surrounding districts, published in 1977 by the local Senior Citizens Club of Provost. Not only did it contain a write up of the first August Becker family, it had a photograph of them as well.
Photo of the family of August and Nellie (Needham) Becker, taken on their homestead near Provost, Alberta about 1915 (copied from Early Furrows; photo was provided by Emily (Becker) Henry, second from the left)
Seeing the family for the first time delighted Eileen and set us off on more searches for August’s first family and Eileen’s half-brothers and sisters, whom she never knew or knew about.

The Early Furrows book, along with many others, including my own KIK Country, about the communities of Keoma, Irricana and Kathryn, near Calgary, has since been scanned and can be accessed on the our roots nos racines website which has a wide collection of material on Canadian local histories.

Local area historical publications are always worth looking at. Sometimes recollections of those submitting information are not entirely accurate but they they do provide a great resource written by members of those families who lived in the areas. The information in the books can easily be compared to that found in other data sources.

Grants are available in Canada from many provincial departments and other organizations to support the activities of local communities, including the assembly and publication of history books. In Western Canada, these websites might be investigated:
Alberta      http://culture.alberta.ca/

Next up: more about those elusive Becker family members Eileen learned about and some of the surprises she had when stories she was told turned out to be not exactly truthful.

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.