Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Read All About It - In The Newspapers

It is the wise Family Historian, who understands that we
can no more take credit for the accomplishments of our
then we can take blame for their failures.

Our knowledge of them is merely insight into ourselves.


It was once commonly quoted that today's news was tomorrow's birdcage liner. Today, yesterday's news is on microfilm or digitally scanned and online ready to break down a brick wall, fill a gap, or be an entire story. Local and national newspapers are full of fascinating and useful information for our family history research.

The increase in newspapers had a direct correlation to the percentage of the population that could read. As our ancestors became literate they took great pride in seeing their names in the local press.

Small local newspapers ran ads for businesses. My Great Great Grandfather Campbell ran the local mercantile and information concerning his store was contained in the advertisements in the Carrollton, Missouri newspapers. His son-in-law, John Mirick, was an attorney in the same town and the paper ran ads for his practice.

From those advertisements I was provided with addresses and time periods. Information concerning the types of goods sold added to the story of his life. I learned from the newspaper that he was the postmaster and was able to find information concerning his appointment at the National Archives.

Political information such as election results were carried in local newspapers. It was here I discovered that my Great Great Grandfather was elected Sheriff of Carroll County, Missouri, after the Civil War. He ran as a Democrat in a highly Republican county and won, receiving more votes than the two presidential candidates combined. All this information contained in the newspapers.

One of the key sections of the local newspapers are the obituaries. Carrollton had two newspapers; one Democrat and one Republican. Both carried my Great Great Grandfather's obituary. The obituary in the Democratic newspaper carried a warm, personal and very laudatory account of my Great Great Grandfather's life. He was a Democrat after all. It was in this obituary that I learned he had been called "Uncle John" by almost everyone in town. The Republican newspaper's obituary was direct and to the point containing facts but little truly personal information. Had I relied on the first newspaper I found, the Republican, I would have missed so much personal information.

I suggest you check your ancestor's hometown to see if there was more than one newspaper published. If there was, read both, as bias had a way of creeping into any article. Even an obituary. I used both obituaries of John Campbell and several of people I didn't know to write John Campbell Is Dead.

I love having digital editions of newspapers for their indexing capabilities and ease of use. But don't ignore newspapers on microfilm because you have to read every page of a daily or weekly. My first experience with newspapers was on microfilm. I spent two eight hour days reading the Carrollton weekly and I was not disappointed.

I found articles about what was going on in my ancestor's churches, whether they had done well in school or received an honor. I found the source for my Grandfather's unusual first name, Otey. It was family lore that it had been the last name of my Great Grandfather's best friend. I found the Otey family in Carrollton through the newspaper. Mrs. Otey was a milliner who worked in my Great Great Grandfather's mercantile.

Local newspapers are also filled with local society information. When I was in college I cringed when our local newspaper wrote I was home from college to visit my family. I think our local society columnist listened in on the "party line." Today I am so grateful for that information. I was able to trace my Great Grandfather's sister when she returned from her honeymoon and settled into her first home, address and all.

The newspaper also carried all the local picnics and dances held by the schools and churches. While reading page after page on microfilm I found my Great Grandfather's two younger sisters dancing the night away at an all night chaperoned church social. It felt good to know that their life had not been all hardship; that they were two very normal teen aged girls.

The local newspaper will give you the weather, the crops grown, and more. All can be used in telling the complete family history story. I used newspaper accounts of flooding in Carrollton to write The Great Missouri River Flood.

National newspapers have been one of the biggest sources of family history information in my research. I am very fortunate that some members of my family were prominent and their comings and goings were recorded in the New York Times. I have found obituaries, wedding notices, and speeches given by my New York ancestors. Newspapers used in writing a wedding story can be read at Wedding In Nirvana.

But don't harbor the impression your ancestor had to be famous to be in the New York Times or the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Readers of The Virtual Dime Museum, by L.H. Crawley, are treated to a daily feast of the many things available in newspapers for use by the family historian. Read these articles and see how expertly Crawley marries the facts to the story.

But more than just the comings and goings of family members, my family history is entwined with New York City and Carnegie Hall. Both appearing in the historical New York Times on a daily basis.

This paragraph discussing Carnegie Hall, a part of my family history, was compiled from five separate newspaper articles:

The first concert turned out to be a highly successful five-day opening festival held in 1891 attended by the cream of New York society. New York had never beheld such opulence — no American city had — exquisite dresses sparkling with jewels vied with the thousands of electric lights for attention, there were women of uncompromising beauty, sixty-two boxes filled with prominent people from every walk of life in all their finery; the time and money devoted by the audience of the first concert to themselves was staggering. The consensus was that for purposes of the fashionable display of New York society, the Music Hall was unsurpassed, the boxes having been constructed so that the light fell upon every tier. All the better for New York society to see and be seen.

The following information was taken from two national newspapers:

In 1926, Louis Salter retired from Carnegie Hall to become the General Representative of the Philharmonic Society of New York, but he never left the building. The Philharmonic Society of New York maintained offices in Carnegie Hall until its move to Lincoln Center in 19??. He worked in Carnegie Hall from 1893 until his death in 1939. John Totten had been Salter’s assistant and assumed the position of Superintendent upon Salter’s retirement. John Totten was the Godfather of Juliana Ernestine Greene, my Aunt and my Godmother. The ties of my family to Carnegie Hall are very strong.

Salter was also the financial manager of the Philharmonic Orchestra when Toscanini took the Orchestra on its first European tour. Toscanini and Salter had forged a professional and personal friendship. Toscanini had become dependent on Salter for his professional expertise and wanted the European tour to be one of his greatest successes. He knew it would be if Louis Salter were in charge of all the arrangements.

As more newspapers are digitized more relevant family history information becomes available. Check back often, family history may be waiting for you on the pages of the newspaper.

Newspaper Sources Online - Free:

Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Chronicling America, Early American Newspapers 1900-1910 (Currently covering selected newspapers from Florida, Kentucky, New York, Utah, Virginia, and Washington D.C.).

Paper of Record Free Internet site (registration required providing searchable full text versions of hundreds of historical newspapers from around the world.

An excellent compiled list of historic newspapers available online through Penn Libraries

Chicago Daily News Over 50,000 images taken by the newspaper's reporters between 1902-1933

Cyndi's List - Newspapers.


Blogger Lidian said...

Oh, thank you, fM, for the kind words!

Having rambunctious family members who lived in an area with easily-found newspapers, is pure serendipity, though. I'm always so grateful to the Brooklyn Public Library (I was lucky enough to visit there this summer and it is a fantastic place) for digitizing the BDE.

This is a terrific overview of the uses of newspapers in family history - and I agree about the papers that are not indexed. Sometimes they are the best of all, partly because they force us to slow down and go through them bit by bit.

October 1, 2008 at 7:51 PM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...


In the hands of a lesser person your information would not look as clean, clear, well written or fascinating!

You really understand the wonders that are contained in historical newspapers. I love reading your work. It is a lesson in what can be accomplished.

Here's to more newspapers becoming available!



October 1, 2008 at 9:22 PM  
Blogger Judith Richards Shubert said...

Yes, newspapers hold so many clues and facts that we may have been searching for for a long time. For years I tried to find information on my grandmother's sister who died in 1918 from the Influenza Epidemic of that time. A kind stranger in Sandpoint, Idaho, saw my posting on RootsWeb about Lucy and offered to go to the local library and search through the papers for news of her death. He found a wonderful write-up about her death and the death of others with her group. It also gave me a lot of information I had not known. I invite you to read about Lucy Puckett Rhoten and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic on my blog.

Thank you for your continued encouragement, shared knowledge and beautiful photographs!

October 2, 2008 at 10:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your Modjeska article! I am a Modjeska docent and you did a fine job of paying her tribute.

March 1, 2010 at 8:14 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home