Our experience has been that using available gazetteers to get a comprehensive overview of a county or a community is a great way to get started finding out about a new area.
Nearly always they have lists of inhabitants (usually heads of households) at a point in time about a year before the publication date of the gazetteer in question. That’s almost enough to justify using these sources all by itself!
However, they — particularly those originally published by Hamilton Child in the 1870s and 1880s in New York State and Vermont — have a wealth of additional valuable information. (We republish other gazetteers too, but let’s concentrate on this set for a moment.)
For example, often there is a county map. There are capsule histories of each township in the county, which usually include population statistics. Generally there’s short description of the educational system, some details about each community in the county, and a list of the houses of worship in the township with some statistics here as well.
We always find the advertisements — and the economics of gazetteer publishing dictated that there would be lots and lots of them — fascinating vignettes of rural life in that time period.
Gazetteers are also (justifiably) criticized as containing a fair number of pages of what can best be described as boilerplate, which appear in virtually all editions of that publisher’s gazetteers. Examples include short descriptions of the states and territories, stamp duties, postal rates and regulations, popular nostrums of the time, and the like. But this material (which actually is worth reading once, anyway) is not what you buy a gazetteer for: you buy one to learn about a county and what was in it.
We’re happy to publish no less than three of Child’s gazetteers of various counties in New York State. If one of these counties circa 1873 is of interest to you, by all means have a look!
Maybe, just maybe, one of these will be as useful to you as we have found it!