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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

County Histories

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, September 27, 2015

County histories are the mainstay of Genealogical Collections in America’s libraries.  Even before the popularity of family tree research, any public library would pride itself in having the county history for its own county, and likely for surrounding counties.


Regional Genealogical Collections often search for county histories relating to their states, and today in the era of digitized collections, state historical societies often have digitized copies of all the county histories for their area.


Researchers estimate that there are some 5,000 county histories that have been published covering at least 80 percent of America’s counties.


County histories are encyclopedic in scope, and provide a wealth of knowledge about a specific county, and are one volume that covers a myriad of subjects about an area.


Most of the classic county histories were published between the years of 1880-1920.  Following the U.S. Centennial in 1876, the need to assemble county histories became apparent and many of the subscription-based county histories made their appearance.


As part of the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial, many of these earlier works were republished, often with better indexes that the originals.


These massive works were expensive to produce and often were sold on a subscription basis to cover some of the publishing costs, with space for the sponsor to add family biographies or business histories.


Publishing houses in Chicago, Cleveland, and New York managed the products, with an editor (either local or connected to the publishing houses) assigned to the project.


Delays in production were common due to the size and complexity of the work, and many lawsuits were filed over failures to provide the promised book, or failure to include something promised.


Jefferson County has two books that fit the description of “county histories.”  The older one is the 1880 “History of Belmont and Jefferson Counties, Ohio, and Incidentally Historical Collections Pertaining to Border Warfare and the Early Settlement of the Adjacent Portion of the Ohio Valley” by J.A. Caldwell.


Librarians simply call it “Caldwell’s History” due to complexity of the title.


The 1976 reprinting contains the 1930s index of the Jefferson County portion done by Mary Donaldson Sinclair, and a 1970s index by a Committee from Belmont County.  The original 1880 edition has a Table of Contents and index unusual to these works that is helpful in locating specific information.


This is a huge volume of information, with the original book containing 611 pages as well as a 30 page supplement regarding the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis Railroad – The Panhandle Line; not to mention the additional indexes.


J.A. Caldwell was shy, not including a biography of him.  The text is well-written and easy-to-understand even 135 years after it was written.


“20th Century History of Steubenville and Jefferson County, Ohio and Representative Citizens” was published in 1910 by Richmond-Arnold Publishing Company in Chicago, and authored by Joseph B. Doyle (1849-1927).


From the age of 21 until 1905, he worked in various capacities with local newspapers, and was librarian of the Jefferson County Law Library.  He authored a number of local history books, and was associated with the Historical Society of the day, and on the Board of Union Cemetery and the Public Library to name only a few of his concerns.


He was a logical choice to write and edit this massive 1197 page history, with more than half of the book containing well-written family biographies.


Due to the technology of 1910, the biographies are arranged in the order received, with the Doyle’s biography being the “second” one received.


The historical portion of the book follows a logical format, with early history unfolding to the surveying of the area, then dividing into pioneers, military service, government, highways and trails, industry, newspapers, and a geographical division of the county and city.


A 1976 reprint by the Jefferson County Historical Society contains an earlier index that had developed to assist in finding information in the volume.


I believe that both county histories are now out-of-print, but remain available from antiquarian sources ranging in price range of $ 75 – 500 depending on condition.