In praise of dissertations

Harvard's Widener Library. Courtesy of Harvard Magazine

In a previous Vita Brevis post, I sang the praises of tax lists as useful sources of information for family history research. Today’s post focuses attention on another valuable but underutilized research resource: unpublished doctoral dissertations.

Since the 1960s, Ph.D. candidates at U.S. universities have written a surprisingly large number of dissertations on the histories of individual American towns, ranging from the early settlements of colonial New England and other regions to nineteenth-century midwestern farming communities. Invariably based on exhaustive research in primary historical records, these in-depth “community studies” usually include large quantities of detailed statistical and descriptive information about the local inhabitants – their economic activities, landholding patterns, ethnic and religious compositions, social structures, and more. Some include a biographical list of early town residents, with male residents identified by occupation. In addition, every dissertation has an extensive bibliography listing additional sources of historical scholarship about the community.

[These] in-depth “community studies” usually include large quantities of detailed statistical and descriptive information about the local inhabitants...

In researching the lives of the first two generations of my family in America for a recent family-history book project, I drew heavily from unpublished dissertations on the early Massachusetts Bay towns of Ipswich and Andover.[1] The massive amounts of quantitative and descriptive data contained within them enabled me to place my ancestors in a social and economic context – as artisans, as “commoners,” as landowners, as members of extended “middling”-level family networks, etc. – that proved to be much more detailed and historically nuanced than would have been possible using only published sources. In the end, the dissertations were so valuable to my research that in one chapter alone I cited them in nearly half of the 107 endnotes.

A keyword search of town names in the “ProQuest Theses & Dissertations” database ( – the most comprehensive online catalog of U.S. doctoral dissertations – may prove equally worthwhile for other family history projects. Full-text electronic copies of most dissertations can be obtained directly from ProQuest or through a nearby university research library.


[1] Edward Perzel, “The First Generation of Settlement in Colonial Ipswich, Massachusetts, 1633-1660” (Ph.D. dissertation, Rutgers University, 1967); Alison Vannah, “‘Crochets of Division’: Ipswich in New England, 1633-1679” (Ph.D. dissertation, Brandeis University, 1999); Philip J. Greven, Jr., “Four Generations: A Study of Family Structure, Inheritance, and Mobility in Andover, Massachusetts, 1630-1750” (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1964).

A small percentage of dissertations – including the Greven dissertation cited above -- have been published as monographs. Almost inevitably, however, substantial portions of their quantitative data fell victim to the editor’s red pencil, so that the original dissertation version remains well worth reading.

Michael Grow

About Michael Grow

Michael Grow, a retired history professor at Ohio University and a longtime NEHGS member, is the author of John Grow of Ipswich, Massachusetts and Some of His Descendants: A Middle-Class Family in Social and Economic Context From the 17th Century to the Present (Amherst, Mass.: Genealogy House, 2020).View all posts by Michael Grow