Old News

Old News

Stop the presses! Find all the news that fits your family tree with this five-step guide to using old newspapers to trace your roots and bring your past to life.

You already know that your greatgrandfather survived the Johnstown flood. But isn’t it time that you read the original tale of his miraculous escape? Or remember that old family business, the one you’ve only heard about? What if you could find a full-page ad for their first store?

Your family history can come alive in the pages of old newspapers — even if you don’t have any famous (or infamous) ancestors. From banner stories to period advertising to surprising discoveries from reading between the lines, newspaper archives can flesh out your family’s past. You might have the thrill of spotting an ancestor’s name in the antique typefaces of a bygone era. Or a news account describing your forefather’s Civil War regiment — even if he isn’t mentioned by name — can help you relive his experiences more immediately than any secondhand history book could. Just scanning the same printed pages that your great-grandparents once read, by gaslight at their kitchen tables long ago, can help you gain insights into their lives and times.

Part public diary and part gossip fence, newspapers functioned as the original (and only) mass media of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Clarence Brigham’s History and Bibliography of American Newspapers reports that more than 2,000 newspapers were published in the United States before 1820. And those numbers swelled many times as presses improved by mid-century. Published daily in the largest cities and the tiniest burgs, American newspapers recorded the ordinary and the extraordinary, from births to deaths and everything in between. Better preserved and documented than many other records, newspapers are often the only surviving written accounts of the events they describe.

Many fast, easy-to-use resources can help you search historic newspapers for information about your family’s past. Indexes, union catalogs and impressive repositories can all speed your print-based research. And burgeoning Internet resources can help you locate family news at the click of mouse.

Here are five steps to get you started delving into yesterday’s news:

1. CHART THE NEWS FROM YOUR PAST.

Begin your search by studying your genealogical records. List the newsworthy events in the lives of each ancestor you’ve traced. Begin with the obvious: birth, emigration, marriage, military service, death and so forth. Then start reading between the lines. For example, professions imply graduations and clergymen are usually ordained — both are common stories in the local press. If one of your ancestors witnessed Arizona’s statehood, lived in a logging camp or drove a Stanley Steamer, write it down — you may find related stories.

Next, consider the unusual. Did an ancestor live to be 100? Did they celebrate a 50th wedding anniversary? Did a relative survive a train wreck, run for office, go to jail, win a county fair or participate in a labor strike? In short, think like a newspaper reporter: If an event would have been news back then, there’s a chance someone covered the story.

Try to identify a date (even just “late 1840s”) for each event on your list. Also assign a place. Narrow a general area (“central Kansas”) by consulting a state map. A gazetteer in your local library, such as The Geography of the United States by Milbrey Zelley or Jedidiah Morse’s American Gazetteer, can help you locate a town or parish that may have disappeared from modern maps. (For more on map resources, see the August 2001 Family Tree Magazine.) Remember that news in one locale might be reported in neighboring towns as well. In rural settings, always identify the county seat, often a hub for news.

2. CONSULT THE CATALOG.

With your family timelines in hand, consult the directories and union catalogs of newspapers. Any well-stocked university library can provide you with the titles you need. Some directories chronicle particular periods (such as the 18th century), while others inventory specific collections (for example, the Library of Congress).

Virtually all catalogs are organized by state, and then list the region’s newspapers by county, town and date. Most important, each entry identifies (usually through abbreviations) one or more repositories where surviving copies of each newspaper can be found. Top repositories include state libraries, universities, historical/antiquarian societies and local libraries. A catalog entry will tell you specific dates of the newspapers that each archive holds. Virtually all archives store their newspapers on microfilm.

By scanning these reference volumes, it’s easy to begin matching newsworthy events in your past with newspapers that might have reported them.

3. CREATE A STRATEGY.

As you pore over the directories, remember that big-city papers are the easiest to find, often available in libraries beyond their own states. They’re also elaborately indexed; for example, The Personal Name Index to the New York Times Index cross-references every name in more than a century of the paper’s annual indexes. But these major dailies covered only big national and local stories — they’re not likely to have reported on the opening of Great-uncle Joe’s auto dealership.

Small-town dailies and weeklies are harder to find, and surviving records are often incomplete. But it’s far more likely that a 19th-century copy of the Centennial City Post contains information about your kin from that Wyoming town. Likewise, news about your Sicilian forebears in the town of Laurium, Mich., probably appeared in the Italiano. Immigrant, African-American and other specialty newspapers are even tougher to locate, but they often preserve history unknown in any other source.

Similarly, large repositories such as the Library of Congress or university libraries can offer you the greatest number of holdings for your search visit. But a branch library in Lincoln County, Mich., may have actually indexed its collection of the Alcona Herald, which you’re unlikely to find at the Library of Congress.

As part of your search strategy, assess the most time-effective way to access each title you’re after. Your research can include:

Site visits (the most time-consuming, but also most detailed)

Interlibrary loans (but you must know the approximate date)

Correspondence

For promising research that you can’t perform in person, a well-constructed inquiry (letter or e-mail) to a local library or historical society in or near an ancestor’s hometown may yield the data you need. For best results, be specific — exact names, specific dates, accurate place references. A brief request, focusing on one or two names or dates, stands the best chance of a generating a positive response. Don’t forget to include a stamped, addressed envelope for a reply to paper inquiries.

You’ll also want to prioritize your search, ranking each of your “targets” according to ease of access, likelihood of positive results and importance to your overall genealogy project.

4. FIND THE NON-FAMOUS.

Unfortunately, many family historians believe their ancestors “weren’t important enough” to be mentioned in the press. Think again! Your kin need not have been provincial governors or Revolutionary War heroes to make the news.

Take a look, for instance, at a turn-of-the-century issue of The New York Herald. From just one page here you could learn that Mr. Stephen Norris, of 129 Jefferson St., was involved in a traffic accident (banner headline, complete particulars); Mr. Rupert Bailey’s estate in Mineola was robbed of jewels and silverplate (map, particulars); and 14-year-old Dora Frees, of the Bronx, was hurt at a birthday party (addresses, ages, other attendees).

To find news of your non-famous relatives, it helps to know where to look. As you formulate your search strategy, keep in mind that your family’s news is most likely to turn up in these sections of old newspapers:

Marriages/betrothals — Well-documented even in the first 17th-century American papers, these joyous announcements can yield the wedding parish, the location of the ceremony, parents of the bride and groom, and other vitals for your family tree.

Obituaries — These “chronicles of passing” were an important staple in even the smallest press. Obituaries can yield age, address, house of worship, profession, survivors and sometimes a brief biography. Obits are also the most well-indexed section of most dailies. The New York Times Obituaries Index, 1858-1968 is a well-known library resource, but even early and small-town papers have often been cross-referenced by later chroniclers.

Local news — Imagine your own local newspaper, time-warped back to early America. In a small-town gazette of the 18th or 19th century, a local farmer, prominent merchant or rising businessman might make the news frequently. Look for stories ranging from building committees and political squabbles to temperance leagues and the doings of leading citizens.

Advertising — Don’t neglect this important, albeit usually unindexed source of ancestor info. In olden days, all kinds of businesses placed ads, ranging from the tiny box notices of antebellum days to the gloriously ornate tableaus of the late 19th century. Your ancestors either owned these establishments or worked for them.

Social and religious news — Clubs and fraternal organizations formed the social glue of early America, and their lists of officers, installations and events fill the pages of old newspapers. News also abounded from churches, synagogues, Masonic lodges and trade associations. Rosters of county fair prizes packed rural pages — was your great-grandmother a master jelly maker or blue-ribbon quilter? You might even discover one of your more athletic forebears listed in antique box scores for “base-ball” and other sporting contests popular in early days.

Steamship arrivals — City editions at ports of arrival (New York City or Galveston, for example) published page-long lists as immigration swelled.

Legal notices — Just as today, yesterday’s press carried reams of legal notices, bankruptcies, judgments and petitions. If your ancestors rented or owned residential or business properties, you might also find notices of sale or mortgage.

Police blotter — Many papers carried regular lists of burglaries, house fires, thefts and the like — an ideal way to substantiate family yarns of such events.

Military records — During wartime, many papers printed induction records, battle casualties, regimental compositions and other troop listings, indicating rank and other details.

Letters to the editor — Occasionally indexed by local antiquarians, letters to the editor might hold an opinionated ancestor’s own words.

5. GET THE STORY.

After a few minutes leafing through a union list of newspapers, let’s say you’ve discovered that your Grand Rapids, Wis., ancestors probably received their news through The Centralia Enterprise, published between 1879 and 1887, when it was absorbed by the Grand Rapids Tribune. You’ve also learned that the University of Wisconsin holds the newspapers covering the dates you want. But how will you actually find a write-up about the marriage of your great-great-grandparents, an obituary for your second cousin four times removed, or an item confirming that family legend about the triplet birth?

If an index is available, of course you should check that first. Otherwise, working from your date approximations, you’ll need to begin searching the microfilm. Scanning old newspapers page-for-page may sound daunting, but it’s really no harder than reading your morning paper. Microfilm is durable, easy to handle and moves quickly. Different lenses on modern reading machines let you magnify and focus to speed your search. When you find material you’d like to copy for your records, you can take a good “wet-print” of an entire page or of a detail, usually for just a quarter.

Soon you’ll begin finding treasures. A tattered front page from the The Texas Mercury announces the Great Land Bill that coaxed your Dublin-born O’Hara kin to leave Boston and set out for the West. Ornate fonts from the last century in The Tecumseh Chieftain recount a howling blizzard that your ancestors surely braved during that first winter in the Nebraska Territory. The 1773 marriage announcement of your earliest American kin quivers in the faded, Benjamin Franklin type of the Aurora Free Sentinel. A harness shop owned by a Mexican cousin many times removed offers its wares in an advertisement in the old San Marcos Daily Herald.

Careful copies and copious notes of each find will further bolster the picture you’re creating of your ancestral past. Don’t pinch pennies when it comes to making copies of newspaper pages — you’ll want to capture the information in context, and the pages make a fascinating addition to your family history files.

As with any of your research finds, you should always cross-check any evidence you gather. Keep in mind that the early press suffered from its share of hyperbole. Garbled facts were not uncommon, and just because it’s in print doesn’t make it true.

Still, for anyone searching out their roots, it is a strange feeling to scan these old pages. Like a time machine, you spin the wheels of the microfilm reader and the days roll by in a blur of years. As headlines zip past your eyes, storms rage, businesses open and close, longago people speak again. It’s all here, in the forgotten pages of The Sherburne Morning Star, The New Brunswick Genius of Liberty, The Grafton Minerva and thousands more — life, just as your ancestors lived it.

From the October 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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