3 Websites for Finding Local History


In last week’s article, we examined the importance of understanding an area’s local history as part of efforts to fill in a family tree.

“If we’re going to understand the ancestors, we have to understand their location,” said professional genealogist Amy Johnson Crow, in her 2016 RootsTech presentation. “I hope that when it comes time to do research you really think about exploring your ancestors’ local history because where they lived is going to have a tremendous impact on how they lived.”

While many tools and resources can help you find information on an area’s history, this article describes three of the most helpful online resources.


Historypin.org is a useful website that gives users a place to come together to share photos and stories to celebrate an area’s local history.

“Historypin is a website devoted to photos, documents, and other digitized items that have been pinned onto a map,” said Crow. “What I like about Historypin is that some of the organizations and individuals who have contributed to Historypin have taken their pins and put them together in collections, either based on a theme or based on a location.”

The easy-to-use interface of Historypin.org makes the website simple and comfortable to use. That being said, remember that using Historypin.org requires a different mindset than the typical one for researching ancestors. Rather than typing a family name into the search bar, start by typing in a location.

“Search for all of the locations where your ancestor lived,” instructed Crow. “All of those locations could have an impact on some of the decisions that the ancestor made and some of the behaviors they had.”

The website integrates with Google Maps, which makes it easy to begin your search by entering the name of a specific town.

“I wanted to look for Lancaster, Pennsylvania,” says Crow as she demonstrated Historypin.org to the RootsTech audience. “When I search for Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I see clusters of pins on the map. Also, on the right side of the page, I see collections that have been built around Lancaster, either because of that location or because of a certain theme. I can click on certain collections and then see the individual pins.”

Historypin.org isn’t just for American ancestors either! In fact, the website covers much of Europe, especially England. If you have ancestors hailing from northern France, Ireland, or Scotland, check out Historypin and see what you can learn about each area.


Another website you can use to find information on an area’s local history is WhatWasThere.com.

“Like Historypin, WhatWasThere is very centered on digitized photos and pinning them to Google Maps,” said Crow. “But WhatWasThere is even more heavily integrated with Google Street View.”

Again, to get started on WhatWasThere, remember to think in terms of an ancestor’s location, not a name. After typing in the name of the town you’re searching, you’ll see a map that displays clusters of photos that have been uploaded for that specific area. Thumbnails of the images will appear on the left, with the map on the right.

“I wanted to learn more about the Old St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Cincinnati, Ohio,” said Crow, clicking on a photo of the church. “I like to start by reading the photo details. Sometimes the descriptions are short; sometimes they’re very long.”

After reading the photo’s details, you can click the Google Street View button to see the historic photo placed on top a modern Google street view. By adjusting the fade slider at the top of the page, you can see what the area looks like today versus what it looked like when the photo was taken.

“Be prepared to be sad a little bit when you go and do the fade,” said Crow, “because not all the buildings that we have photos of are still there. But it’s a very handy way for us to explore that neighborhood. We can see these neighborhoods and how they have changed from then until now.”


Theclio.com is both a website and an app that can help you deepen your understanding of an area’s history. Though it is geographically based—as are Historypin and WhatWasThere—Clio isn’t as heavily integrated with Google Maps.

“You may not have the ability to fade between a historical photo and Google street view on theclio.com,” said Crow, “but what you are going to have is more text. You’re going to have more additional resources to go explore. And the submissions are reviewed before they’re published on the website.”

Just like you would with Historypin and WhatWasThere, use Clio to search by location. After typing the name of the area you’re interested in, you’ll see a list of submissions in or near the area. Click the place you’re interested in, and you’ll see a map of where it is, additional photos, a description, and links to additional resources to explore.

“What’s better than finding a history of something?” asked Crow to the RootsTech audience. “Finding a history that has some more sources that we can go explore!”

What other websites do you turn to for information on local histories? Tweet us @RootsTechConf.

Read parts one and three:



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