Are you a genealogist? If not, you probably know someone who is, since it’s one of the most popular hobbies in America. As a librarian, I’ve answered hundreds of questions from people researching their family histories, both here in Highlands County and when I was working for the Special and Digital Collections Department at USF. This summer, I’ve been able to put those research skills to good use in my own family’s search for information.
If you’ve never done any genealogy before, it can seem like quite an overwhelming task. I think my family has a pretty typical array of old papers, documents, obituaries snipped from the local paper, and photographs in which none of the subjects are identified. So how do you get from this mess to a legible family tree? Your library card can get you started! Check out the library website, MyHLC. One of our online databases is called Universal Class and it has an excellent course called Genealogy 101. This course describes some of the types of resources often used by genealogists, and discusses some of the strategies you can use for research. It’s totally free, and you can work entirely at your own pace, from the comfort of your own home.
Your Highlands County Libraries subscribe to a great genealogy database called Heritage Quest, also available through the library website. Heritage Quest has a number of useful tools, particularly the U.S. Census records, city directories, the U.S. Indian Census Rolls, and several thousand family history books. One of the most interesting features is the Maps section. You can pick any state and see how the borders and county lines changed over time, all laid over the modern map. Highlands County, for example, has at various times been part of Mosquito, Hillsborough, St. Lucie, Manatee, Brevard, and DeSoto Counties, before becoming its own county in 1921. But this isn’t just for fun: the more precisely you can place your relatives’ location, the better your results—especially if you are searching for people with common names.
Location can also help you conduct newspaper research. Most genealogists are well aware of how useful obituaries can be: most contain the subject’s birthdate and birthplace, date and location of death, and the names of any surviving immediate family members (spouse, children, and sometimes siblings or grandchildren). Often there is also biographical information or a photograph. Back in the days before Facebook, when important events happened in people’s lives, they would inform the local newspaper. These little snippets of local gossip are of tremendous interest, providing a glimpse into our ancestors’ daily lives. This photograph, taken around 1917 in Wabasso, Florida, is of my great-grandfather, Jacob O. Jameson. We knew from the family history that he was born in McAlisterville, Pennsylvania, and started coming down to Florida seasonally in the early 1900s, and that he became a permanent Floridian sometime in the 1910s. Old issues of the St. Lucie County Tribune have helped us recreate his movements from 1909-1911. Now we know when he came back to Florida, when he bought his property, when he became postmaster—and that he was also quite a popular young man! “Grandy” is mentioned almost every week, attending various parties, beach outings, boating trips, and other social events.
The St. Lucie County Tribune is one of the many papers available through the Florida Digital Newspaper Library. Newspapers from all over the state are represented, some going back to the nineteenth century, some more recent. They can be searched by location, title, and full text, although the full text function is not perfect and sometimes misses results, or gives false positives. Another great newspaper database is the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America, which has many of the old Florida papers as well as a sizeable collection from other states. If you’re interested in Highlands County newspapers, the Florida Digital Newspaper Library has the last ten years of the News-Sun available for free online. Big research university libraries like USF and UF usually have great digital collections available through their websites: photographs, oral history interviews, marriage records, newspapers, obituaries, and more!
Researchers who want to know more about Highlands County history should visit one of the three historical organizations in our county. The Sebring Historical Society has back issues of local newspapers going back to 1913, city directories, maps, and lots of other resources. In Avon Park, the place to go is the Avon Park Depot Museum, which has a number of interesting artifacts; be advised that they are closed for the summer, reopening in September. The Lake Placid Historical Society also operates a museum, featuring a graphic timeline of the city’s history among its other collections. All three of these groups are conveniently located near a Highlands County Library branch. If you can’t visit us in person, you can also use Ask A Librarian to chat, text, or email a Florida librarian. Check out the widget on our website! This online reference service is staffed by librarians all across Florida, and it’s a great way to ask questions, genealogical or otherwise. Whether you’re a genealogy novice or an ace researcher, the staff at your Highlands County Libraries are happy to assist you in whatever ways we can!