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Community History

Researching Individuals

Local history research on individuals is basically fleshed out genealogy set within a community context.  You will use many of the same tools and sources that genealogists use, plus sources and skills that historians employ.

The first step is to note what you already know about the person.  When did he/she live?  When did he or she come to Smith County?  What was his or her profession?  What was he or she known for?  Do you already know of some sources of information, written or otherwise?  What else do you want to find out?  Where is that information most likely to be?  Who would gather and keep that information over the years?


Online Bibliography of Smith County

Vicki Betts, former history librarian at UT Tyler, created a Bibliography of Smith County, Texas which includes books, articles, links to webpages, and information on local government offices.  Citations note whether the item is available at the Tyler Public Library, Smith County Historical Society Archives, Texas College Library, Tyler Junior College Library, or the UT Tyler Library.  If there are no symbols you may have to use interlibrary loan or visit a library in a different city.

The bibliography is so long that it is broken down into alphabetical groups which are listed on the first page.  Click on the letter group that you want to see (for example B, which includes Biography), and then use the search function of your browser to look for a particular surname.  Once you have checked the B section you may also want to check the other areas as well.


Every ten years the federal government counts the number of residents for the purpose of apportioning members of Congress.  Beginning in 1810, officials began asking other questions as well, with the details varying each decade.  Key years for the population census are 1850, when all members of free families (not just heads of households) were first listed, and 1870, the first year that former slaves were listed by name instead of only by age and sex under an owner's name in the separate slave census.

A description of the types of censuses (Population, Slave, Agricultural, Products of Industry, Social, Mortality) and the questions on each is available at the U.S. Office of the Census

For an overview of the options for locating the various Smith County censuses, see the Census section of the Bibliography of Smith County. 

The UT Tyler Library maintains a subscription to Heritage Quest database that includes both basic and advanced search capabilities for the 1790 through 1940 censuses.  However, it does not include 1890 for Texas, but that is because most of the 1890 census burned before microfilm technology was developed.  Smith County, Texas, first appears in the census in 1850.  Recently the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules, the mortality schedules, the agricultural and industrial schedules, and the 1890 (federal) veterans schedules were added (only 42 were listed for Smith County).  Heritage Quest is available through the UT Tyler proxy server and through nearly all Texas public and college libraries.

The Smith County Genweb page, however, does include transcriptions and images for the population census for 1850 through 1930, as well as the 1850 and 1860 slave census.  You may have to look at an index first, and then to the page of images.  The East Texas Genealogical Society has also published the 1850, 1860, and 1870 census in book form, with surname index.

The Social Statistics schedule will list churches and their capacities, schools, and libraries, and this remains as the only census schedule not digitized through Heritage Quest, probably because is is not directly useful to genealogists since no individual names are attached to the churches, schools, or libraries.

Tax Records

Since the census is taken only every ten years, use tax records to determine when an individual arrived and departed the county in between those dates.  The Local History Room of Tyler Public Library has tax records on microfilm for 1846-1910.  Each year is recorded individually, with each initial letter of the last name listed together (all A's together, etc.).  Land is listed by survey name, number, and a number of acres.  Other property may also be taxed, including slaves, horses, cash, etc.  Even non property-owning males were charged a poll tax, although it was not required for voting in the 19th century.  The two most important tax rolls are probably the first one, in 1846, which was published in Chronicles of Smith County, Texas, and the 1890 tax roll, which can partially replace the lost 1890 census.  Check the Tax Records section of the Bibliography of Smith County for more information. 

Tyler Public Library also has an in-house subscription to which includes US IRS Tax Assessment Lists, 1862-1918.


Deed records show the conveyance of land and sometimes slaves from one person to another, and is the main tool used to pinpoint someone's location in the county, if they owned land.  If no other records exist they may also indicate a date of death because the land is then divided among listed heirs.  Original deed records and indexes are in the County Clerk's Office, Smith County Annex, at the corner of Ferguson and Spring, northeast corner of the square.  The grantors index lists transactions by the seller or giver; the grantee index lists transactions by the buyer or recipient.  The index then refers to a book and page for a transcription of the actual deed which will describe the land as a particular portion of a town lot or as acreage in metes and bounds on a particular survey, possibly mentioning creeks or railroads.  The best way to locate the land is to use Gregory Boyd's Texas Land Survey Maps for Smith County (2008), although there are some misspelled names.  For additional information on deeds see that section of the Bibliography of Smith County, Texas. 

Probate Records

While you are at the Courthouse Annex, you will want to check for Probate Records, also in the County Clerk's Office.  Probate records include wills and estate inventories, sales, and settlements.  The index will send you to probate volumes with recorded details, probably in multiple volumes as the estate is settled.  If you are fortunate, it will also send you to a tall narrow envelope full of final bills (originals!) from doctors, merchants, and undertakers.  If minor children survived, it may also include bills filed with the court for all aspects of their support until they became adults.  Andrew L. Leath has abstracted the probate records for Smith County for 1846-1880, listing heirs and other interesting details as well as all pages in the minute books, in his Abstracts of the Smith County Probate Records, Smith County, Texas, 1846-1880.  For more information on Probate Records see that section of the Bibliography of Smith County. 

Birth, Marriage, and Death Records

Birth records are closed to the public for 75 years.  The Smith County Clerk's office in the courthouse annex has records for births that occurred outside the city limits of Tyler in Smith County back to 1903.  The Northeast Texas Public Health District on N. Broadway has birth records for Tyler back to 1910 and a few prior to that.  Tyler Public Library also has an in-house subscription to which includes the Texas Birth Index, 1903-1997.

Marriage records are maintained by the Smith County Clerk's office, indexed by bride and groom.  The books also include date, date filed, and the person officiating.  This information has also been published by the East Texas Genealogical Society as Marriage Records of Smith County, Texas, 1846-1899.  For more information see that section of Bibliography of Smith County, Texas. 

Death records are closed to the public for 25 years.  The Smith County Clerk's office has records for deaths (including perceived cause of death) that occurred outside the city limits of Tyler in Smith County back to 1903.  The Northeast Texas Public Health District has death records for Tyler back to 1910.  Prior to that, rely on probate, obituary, and cemetery records, and on Cecil Cammack's series on "Affidavits of Death and Heirship, 1846-1901" published in East Texas Family Records.  These issues are digitized in Portal to Texas History.  For more information on Death Records, see that section of the Bibliography of Smith County, Texas.  Tyler Public Library also has an in-house subscription to which includes the Social Security Death Index.  The person MUST have had a social security number to be included and the death must have been reported back to the Social Security Administration.

Other Court Records

The District Courts handle various civil and criminal matters, including divorces, suits over debts, and various criminal charges both minor (gambling) and severe (murder).  All indexes prior to about 1988 are in the Smith County Records Archives in the basement of the old Cotton Belt Building, corner of Front and Glenwood. As soon as a case is closed the paperwork is sent from the Courthouse to the Archives.

During the early years road maintenance was handled by local crews drawn from those living along sections of that road.  A similar process was used to create slave patrols.  These were all listed in the Minutes of the County Commissioners Court, along with items dealing with building and maintaining county buildings.  Early years of Commissioners Court Minutes have been published in Chronicles of Smith County, Texas

For citations to articles listing elected county and precinct officials, see the secton on County Records

During Reconstruction, which was a time of mobility for both blacks and whites, voter registrations lists are valuable. 

Military Records

Information on the military service of Smith County citizens is available from many sources.  In the Bibliography of Smith County, Texas see sections on Military--General, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War for books, articles, and files dealing with particular wars.  The Civil War section includes a link to the Texas State Archives' list of Confederate pension applications.

The Local History/Genealogy room of Tyler Public Library has an in-house subscription to  It includes Civil War military service records (Union, USCT, and Confederate), Union pension records, some POW records, Confederate applications for pardons, World War I draft registration cards, casualty listings, World War I mothers' pilgrimage lists, World War II draft registration cards, MIAs, WWII enlistment records, the European edition of Stars and Stripes, WWII prisoners of the Japanese, army register of enlistments 1798-1914, Marine Core muster rolls 1798-1940, war of 1812 service records, Korean War casualties, Vietnam War casualties.

Those working on advanced projects such as theses may want to subscribe at least temporarily to, the military records side of

Cemetery Records


Tombstones are often embellished with symbols of fraternal organizations.  For an explanation of tombstone symbolism, including emblems of fraternal organizations, see Grave Addiction.  For an explanation of ethnic Texas tombstones and cemeteries, see Terry G. Jordan's Texas Graveyards:  A Cultural Legacy, at GT3210.T4 J67 1982.

Another good source is  On the main page look under Find Graves and click on Search 116 million grave records.  You can then search by name, date, and state, which drops down to a county search.  The results will give you the cemetery, the full name, birth and death dates, and usuallly a photo and perhaps an obituary and other family members, depending on what has been contributed.

City Directories

The oldest Tyler city directory dates back to 1882.  It includes state and county courts and offices, advertisements, amusements, banks, colleges, churches, "colored churches," inhabitants, newspapers, railroads, societies, and "colored societies."  Information on inhabitants includes head of household, profession, and general location of home or boarding house.  African-American residents have "col." after their names.  This first directory has been transcribed online.  From the main page you may choose other sections, such as Inhabitants, to look at.  

The next surviving year is 1893, and there are scattered volumes after that until the mid 1920s after which most years have been saved and are held by the Tyler Public Library.  

Organizations, Schools, and Churches

Smith Countians have always been joiners, whether it was an early Masonic lodge or the much later Habitat for Humanity.  Some groups have kept records and some have not.  In the Bibliography of Smith County, Texas, see Organizations--Masonic, Organizations--Odd Fellows, and Organizations--Other.

Schools have also been important. See the subheadings under Education in the Bibliography of Smith County, Texas.  Tyler Public Library has a selection of annuals from Tyler High School (the Alcalde, going back to 1909), Robert E. Lee High School (the Legend, going back to 1959), and Tyler Junior College (the Apache, going back to 1963).

Churches vary as to what types of records they keep and perhaps eventually publish when it comes to individuals.  Church leaders, however, whether ministers, Sunday School superintendents, or members of boards of trustees, often appear associated with their churches in newspapers.  See also the Religion section (both general and specific denominations) of the Bibliography of Smith County, Texas. 


Newspapers are a community's most thorough source of day to day local history.  Unfortunately, the Tyler newspaper office burned in 1910 leaving only scattered issues prior to that date, plus quoted articles published in other newspapers.  For transcribed searchable newspaper articles from surviving Tyler papers, plus articles about Tyler and Smith County in other papers, see the Tyler and Smith County, Texas newspapers section of this webpage.

The Portal to Texas History includes searchable scans of:
The Tyler Reporter (November 17, 1855; February 9, 1859; April 11, 1861; August 1, 1861; June 19, 1862; June 26, 1862; July 24, 1862; August 21, 1862; August 28, 1862; October 30, 1862; November 13, 1862; March 31, 1864; and November 10, 1864.
The Old Flag, [a handwritten newspaper at Camp Ford], February 17, March 1, and March 15, 1864.
The Tyler Daily Courier-Times for November 9, 1918
The Tyler Morning Tribune for November 10, 1918
The Tyler Daily Courier-Times for November 11, 1918; November 12, 1918; November 15, 1918; November 27, 1918, November 29, 1918; November 30, 1918; December 21, 1918; August 4, 1920; and May 9, 1926. 
The Weekly Record for July 20, 1889. 
The Weekly Courier-Times for December 23, 1910; December 30, 1910. 
The Evening Times for January 20, 1907. 
The Semi-Weekly Courier-Times for October 6, 1909; October 13, 1909; October 20, 1909; October 23, 1909; October 27, 1909; October 30, 1909; November 3, 1909; November 6, 1909; November 10, 1909; November 13, 1909; November 17, 1909; November 20, 1909; November 24, 1909; December 1, 1909; December 8, 1909; December 11, 1909; December 18, 1909; December 22, 1909; November 27, 1909; December 4, 1909; December 15, 1909; December 25, 1909; January 1, 1910; January 5, 1910; January 8, 1910; January 12, 1910; January 15, 1910; January 19, 1910; January 22, 1910; January 26, 1910; February 5, 1910; February 9, 1910; February 12, 1910; February 16, 1910; February 19, 1910; February 23, 1910; February 26, 1910; March 2, 1910; March 5, 1910; March 9, 1910; March 12, 1910; March 16, 1910; March 19, 1910; March 23, 1910; March 26, 1910; March 30, 1910; April 2, 1910; April 6, 1910; April 9, 1910; April 13, 1910; April 16, 1910; April 20, 1910; April 27, 1910; April 30, 1910; May 4, 1910; May 7, 1910; May 11, 1910; May 14, 1910; May 18, 1910; May 21, 1910; May 25, 1910; May 28, 1910; June 1, 1910; June 4, 1910; June 8, 1910; June 11, 1910; June 15, 1910; June 18, 1910; June 22, 1910;  June 25, 1910; June 20, 1910; July 2, 1910; July 6, 1910; July 9, 1910; July 13, 1910; July 16, 1910;  July 20, 1910; July 23, 1910; July 27, 1910; July 30, 1910; August 3, 1910; August 6, 1910; August 10, 1910; August 13, 1910; August 17, 1910; August 20, 1910; August 24, 1910; August 27, 1910; August 31, 1910; September 3, 1910; September 10, 1910; September 14, 1910; September 17, 1910; September 21, 1910; September 24, 1910; September 28, 1910; October 1, 1910; October 5, 1910; October 8, 1910; October 12, 1910; October 15, 1910; October 19, 1910; Octo ber 26, 1910; October 27, 1910; October 29, 1910;  November 2, 1910; November 5, 1910; November 12, 1910; November 26, 1910; November 29, 1910; December 3, 1910; December 10, 1910; December 14, 1910; December 17, 1910
Tyler Journal (weekly), May 8, 1925-December 30, 1938

Another substitute index for the Tyler paper is UT Tyler's online subscription database Texas Historical Newspapers which covers the Dallas Herald (1855-1885) and the Dallas Morning News (1885-1977), among others.  Anything significant that happened in Tyler would usually be reported in the Dallas newspaper.

For a list of surviving issues of Smith County newspapers, mostly on microfilm, see the Newspapers section of the Bibliography of Smith County, Texas.  These will be divided between the Smith County Historical Society Archives, Tyler Public Library, and the fourth floor of the UT Tyler Library.

Remember that the University of Texas at Tyler Library has the capability of taking an image straight from microfilm to flash drive, at no cost.  This is a great way to save images for future use for presentations and publication.  Tyler Public Library is i the process of installing equipment to be able to do the same, so take a flash drive there, too.  If you want photocopies from microfilm they charge 25 cents per page, whatever the paper size.

Other Internet Sources

The Portal to Texas History at the University of North Texas Libraries is digitizing a broad array of collections from Texas libraries, museums, archives, historical societies, genealogical societies, and private family collections.  It includes books, maps, photographs, and some newspapers.  Of special interest are early 20th century county soil survey maps, many years of East Texas Family Records, the journal of the East Texas Genealogical Association, plus early Palestine newspapers and early issues of The Jewish Herald published in Houston.  The advanced search is here.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) sponsors FamilySearch, "the largest genealogy organization in the world."  If you are trying to track either the ancestors or the descendants of the person you are researching, or just trying to find the person after he or she left Smith County, you might want to give the free online resources at FamilySearch a try.

The USGenWeb project provides free genealogical resources on a county by county basis.  I have already noted the wonderful site for Smith County filled with documents, transcriptions and photographs.  Other counties also have genweb sites of varying quality--see the national site and search for other locations as needed. offers GenForum.  It's a surname based forum where researchers can connect.  It is so large that it's better to use the surname, a state, and possibly an unusual first name to limit results.

Finally, just do a series of Google searches for the name as a phrase, such as "George W. Chilton," "G. W. Chilton," "George Washington Chilton," and "George Chilton," and then flip the name order--"Chilton, George W.," etc.  If there are thousands of hits, add Texas, or Tex. or TX, or some other key word, such as a wife's name.  You are fishing for family webpages which at the least will perhaps provide birth and death dates, plus family names.  At best they may include photographs and transcribed letters or diaries.  If you think that your person has some claim to fame, also try a Google Books search or a Google Images search.

Oral History

If the person you are researching is still alive, or there are people still living who knew him or her, you might want to consider conducting an oral history interview.  The interview should be one of the LATER parts of your project. Conduct as much of your research as you can in advance in order to be able to ask more detailed questions.

The UT Tyler Library has several oral history manuals:

Sommer, Barbara W.  The Oral History Manual.  Lanham, Md.:  AltaMira Press, 2009.  D16.14 .S69 2009.

Ritchie, Donald A.  Doing Oral History:  A Practical Guide.  2nd ed.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2003.  D16.14 .R57 2003.

Baum, Willa K.  Oral History for the Local Historical Society.  3rd ed.  Walnut Creek, Cal.:  AltaMira Press, 1995.  D16.14 .B37 1995.

Baum, Willa K.  Transcribing and Editing Oral History.  Nashville:  American Association for State and Local History, 1991.  D16.14 .B38 1991.

Charlton, Thomas L.  Oral History for Texans.  2d ed.  Austin:  Texas Historical Commission, 1985.  F386 .C47 1985.

Making Contacts

Finally, one of the best ways to conduct local history is to find the Right Person.  There is almost always someone who has already done a little research on your topic, or who knows the family, or who worked for them, or who has heard stories.  Ask around.  Ask people attending a meeting of the Smith County Historical Society.  Ask me--I know people who have specialized in certain areas, and I may be able to make referrals.

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