Have you ever heard of a mug book? It’s not a book full of criminal mug shots, but a nickname for the popular biographical sketch books done in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These “mug books” can fill in missing pieces of genealogical data on your family tree and breathe life into your family history. Here’s what you need to know!
Using Ancestor Biographies in Place of Missing Vital Information
Records do not always exist. We have all searched for birth, marriage, and death records that we cannot find. Sometimes, we use substitutes for these things, like a census record, but often the exact date of the event or the details surrounding it are lost in the past.
Biographical sketches or “mug books” can fill in those lost details. Though they are not considered a primary source of information and sometimes thought of as unreliable, the information they contain can serve as hints. They are especially helpful when there has been significant record loss in your research area. These mug books often survived when records in a courthouse did not.
What Might a Biography Include?
The short answer is…A LOT! A typical biography found in a “mug book” may include:
- the full name of the individual
- parents’ names including the mother’s maiden name
- birth date and location
- marriage date and location
- name of spouse and their vital information
- children’s names
- current residences
- hobbies and interests
Ancestor Biographies Help Enrich Family Histories
Let me share with you a couple examples of helpful and interesting information located in some biographical sketches.
Where Did Pricilla Go?
The Dilbone family of Miami County, Ohio suffered a great tragedy in 1813. The parents were killed by a renegade Shawnee and the four children were said to be left in the care of family and friends in the area. As I tried to locate these children, the whereabouts of daughter Pricilla seemed to allude me. I assumed she had died or married, but found no death or burial record, no tombstone, and no marriage record. Death records were scarce for Miami County before 1867.
In searching out ALL the descendants of the Dilbone family, I found one grandchild’s biographical sketch published in Van Wert County, Ohio. John Dilbone, son of the oldest living child of those massacred, had his biography in that book. Thankfully, this biographical sketch mentioned the death of Pricilla. She had died “at the old home place,” which would have been the Dilbone home in Springcreek Township, Miami County, Ohio. Though this “record” was made many years after the fact, it may be the only one that mentions her death and location.
What was James Coddington like?
I located a biographical sketch book for Bureau County, Illinois and found my husband’s third great-grandfather, James Coddington, mentioned several times. There was a photograph of him included! From just a few paragraphs, I learned:
- James was born 25 Jan 1798 in Allegheny County, Maryland.
- He was an avid hunter.
- He learned the mountains and passes which helped him as he was engaged in surveying for the National Turnpike and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
- He had a “rugged and robust” frame and weighed on average 200 pounds.
- He married Catherine Fear who was born in 1814.
- James and Catherine had ten children, five who were still living.
- Children included: Mary A., the wife of D.W. Chase of Dover Township; Caroline, the wife of Calvin Shugart before her death in 1873; J. Harvey of Dover Township; Annor, the wife of Milford Frazee of Dover Township; Henry C. of Dover Township; and Martha B., the wife of Peter Ostram of Lancaster, Nebraska.
- James died in Maryland in 1876. He had an accident. His wife was with him in the accident and also received injuries, but recovered and was still living.
How do I find biographical sketch books for my ancestors?
There are two main ways to find a biographical sketch book for your targeted ancestor’s location: ask the local library or find a copy online.
In most cases, finding a copy of the book for FREE and online is easy. I typically search Google Books first. I search by county name, state, and the word history. For example: Miami County Ohio history. You can also exchange the word “history” for: settlers, early pioneers, or citizens.
Once you have found a book online, you can search within the volume for a particular surname. A word of caution: if you spell the surname differently than what was printed in the book, you will not find what you are looking for. It is always a good idea to check the index in the back of the book just to be sure.
What stories, pictures, or fun tid-bits have you found out about your ancestor using biographical sketches? I would love to hear about your finds in the comments below!