Genealogy for Geeks, Part 3: Published Histories

Internet People

Joseph Van Doren Davison, my great, great grandfather.

Genealogy isn’t all about names and dates. There is a real personal side to it, if you look past official records and read published histories that include information about your ancestors and the lives they led.

I recently found a treasure trove of information about one ancestor, Joseph Van Doren Davison, who had previously been a bit of a dead end. I didn’t know much about this great, great grandfather of mine, despite having spent time with my great grandmother, his daughter, many times in my life (she lived to be 103; I was 23 when she died). But online searches, both at and in Google Books, revealed many clues. I learned more about his family and how he spent his life.

I learned that Joseph Van Doren Davison was a textile merchant, owning his own business after having worked his way up by being a clerk and even being in charge of a muslin department at one concern. When he ran a shop of his own, the shop was known for the quality of its goods. He left the shop in the (hopefully) capable hands of his sons when he retired. In addition to his day job, he also had a very active role in the community in Mercer County, New Jersey. He was president of the Board of Health. He participated in the Sunday school and board of trustees of his church. He was on the police committee and was a member of two different fraternal orders. He owned many houses that he rented out. He was even able to travel abroad. He who was previously just a name to me now had a whole life history.

Anyone can search for biographical information on the lives of those in their family tree. These histories are sometimes written about family groups, or kept by churches, but the ones I found for this particular ancestor were all centered around geographic areas: cities, counties, and states. Fortunately, this branch of my family lived in New Jersey for quite a long time, so the story was easy to follow once I found the trail. My research also gave me more evidence of my paternal family tradition of giving children middle names that were family maiden names.

Genealogy is for geeks! Image by Jonathan Brown, used with permission. (

I highly recommend researching your family history both with Google books, and on I found plenty of information in both locations, and interestingly, there was little to no overlap in my search results from the two places. Google Books was very helpful with research such as this. They have excellent search capabilities, and if the book is public domain, you can just save the whole thing to your bookshelf. You can perform additional searches on the books you find, and view them in a variety of formats. is also fantastic for researching written histories. Their document interface doesn’t have quite as many ways to search as Google does, but if you’re doing research on, chances are you have a family tree on the site. (And if you don’t, you should start one. It’s free!) Any histories you find you can attach to the records of those on your family tree that are mentioned in the histories. Then you won’t ever have to go looking for the information again. Another nice thing about attaching any reference material to a person on is that their system pulls out facts from the resource, whether it is a census record, a passport application, or a published history, and asks you if you want to add it to the person’s record. If you do this enough times with enough records, you can get a run down of where your ancestors spent their lives, when they traveled, from where they emigrated, all on one page.

While the published histories that I have found have only led me so far to Joseph Van Doren Davison’s parents and grandfathers, they have painted a picture of a man that I never knew, that died long before my parents were even born. And that is more valuable to me than just another name or date.

The next time you call or visit your parents, grandparents, aunts, or uncles, ask them to tell you about something they remember from their past, or anything they remember about other ancestors. They will have knowledge and impressions that will be important to your family history down the line. Once someone dies, their memories go with them.

To know your ancestors’ stories is to know where you come from, where your roots lie. For this particular branch of my family tree, my roots are firmly planted in New Jersey.

Note: provided me access to their records for the purposes of these reviews.

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