PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.
“County Histories” were published in the United States between 1875-1920, and generally provided a well-rounded history of a particular county.
They were more commonly published in the north central part of the country, as the east coast had much earlier historical accounts, and the west was not well-settled by that time.
I was looking for information in a 1986 “Ohio History” journal, and came across an article that uses a county history of Ross County, Chillicothe, Ohio to perform a case study of an early settler of the area and how culture is written into the history of that settler.
While that proved fascinating, my greater interest was with the author of the piece, Dr. Andrew R.L. Cayton, a professor of history at Miami University of Ohio.
Dr. Cayton and I graduated from high school together and I have watched as he has advanced in his field of humanities, and authored many books and articles about various fields of history.
He provides a great overview of county histories in his opening paragraph to the 1986 journal article:
“In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it became fashionable to publish massive volumes detailing the histories of individual Midwestern counties.
Very often, these books were the products of the cooperative efforts of several county residents who employed a topical rather than a chronological approach to their subject.
With the obvious goal of boosting local pride, the authors traced the evolution of noteworthy economic, social, and political institutions.
Often, they would also devote a substantial portion of their histories to short sketches of the lives of prominent local citizens.”
Those local biographies also provided the needed income to publish these large books, and their sales then completed the needed financial boost to make the books a reality.
Jefferson County has two books that fit the category of “county histories,” the 1880 “History of Belmont and Jefferson Counties, Ohio” by J.A. Caldwell and the 1910 “20th Century History of Steubenville and Jefferson County, Ohio” by Joseph B. Doyle.
Librarians refer to them as “Caldwell’s and Doyle’s” since the actual title of both extends well beyond what I have provided.
Caldwell’s is 611 pages with an appendix and measures more than 13” tall. Doyle’s is 1197 pages and while shorter in height is much thicker in depth.
Both histories provide an early history of the United States and our area before settlement. Some of these histories were copied from one county history to another, or were standard histories provided by a state society.
The text is generally divided geographically from villages, cities, and townships, with Caldwell having shorter biographical sketches than Doyle. The Doyle history was developed as a subscription, with paid authors providing family histories.
Original Caldwell volumes are rare, in my 30 years with the library we had only one Caldwell book ever donated and it was in pieces in a box. Doyle volumes are more common, and well-meaning people around the country have sent us several books that were found in homes and library book sales.
Both titles have been reprinted with indexes (not contained in the original) making them a resource for use today in tracking local history and genealogy.
One Doyle book was obviously owned by someone who read it cover-to-cover and made notes in the margin. Several times he wrote, “Doyle copied this whole section from Caldwell!”
Both Caldwell and Doyle are copied and reused for other local publications without regard for citations. Both and pre-1924 and now out-of-copyright so many village histories, church histories, and township histories liberally use the information at will.
I enjoy the sections of both histories that discuss “life on the frontier.” While facts and information are great, the stories of what it was like to live and exist in the early days are interesting to read today.