Hometown newspapers are often the only place where the lives of so many are so closely detailed. In the years before international and national news filled big city papers, even they had room to tell about the local heroes, creditor’s claim to an estate, stories of local businesses, visitors in town, a duel, a stolen watch, a broken leg, and other surprising stories about our ancestors. There simply isn’t a better place to see what was going on in the lives of individuals and families than in old newspapers. The following examples represent the kinds of items that can be found in local papers.
It was customary for individuals setting up business in a new community to announce the fact in the local paper. In the 1760s, the South Carolina Gazette was filled with such notices. Robert Catherwood, “surgeon to the hospitals and garrisons in East Florida” (16 February 1767), opened a practice with an announcement, and a Mrs. Grant proposed “to practice midwifery having studied that art regularly and practiced it afterwards at Edinburgh: Certificates of which she can produce from the Gentlemen whose lectures she attended, and likewise from the professors of Anatomy and Practice of Physick in that city. . . .” (29 December 1768).
A few interesting examples culled from the Newport Mercury (26 August 1809) provide insights into the bustling Rhode Island city. Typical of newspapers of its time, the front page notified readers about items of local interest, including a meeting called by Ephraim Bowen, Grand Master of the Rhode Island Grand Lodge of Masons. Although the meeting announcement doesn’t provide many biographical details, it does place Bowen in a place and time and links him with an organization where other records may be available.
Most of the Mercury was devoted to national and international news. A lengthy article described the French Code of Conscription. The news that all Frenchmen between the age of twenty and twenty-five complete were subject to conscription had implications not only for the French, but for Americans as well.
While the majority of the stories in the Newport paper do not relate to a specific family or individual, they do provide an overview of what was going on in that particular time and place. They also give us a pretty good idea of what was important to readers at that time. Newspapers are great for providing snapshots of the world our ancestors knew.
Though obituaries and other biographical details that family historians hope to find were usually absent in newspapers of that era, the 1809 Newport Mercury did provide a few useful details. For example, a notice was given to the creditors of the estate of Sarah Mumford, late of Newport. Readers were allowed to “exhibit their claims” to her unsolvent estate in the newspaper for a period of six months. The notice posted by Henry Mumford, executor, on 7 August 1809 might lead to court and other records surrounding her death, as well as any other records of financial problems of the deceased.
Even a business notice can be enlightening for those who want to know more about an ancestor. The following announcement appeared on the back page of the same Newport newspaper: “Albert V. Gardiner informs his friends and the public that he has removed his store of goods to 102 Thames Street, lately occupied by Sally M. Smith & Co. where he has constantly on hand and for sale a large and valuable assortment of English, India, French, Dutch, Scotch and American manufactured goods. Including an elegant assortment of ladies hats and bonnets. Every article for mourning is constantly at hand.” This article tells us something about Albert V. Gardiner and his interests as well as giving us a closer look at a small Newport business and the merchandise available in those days.
The Atlanta Constitution of 16 January 1875 includes a typical mix of information that could be found in a big city paper of that era. The headlines provide the reader with a sense of the general population’s viewpoint, and what citizens were going through just ten years after the close of the Civil War. Quite predictably, there was a great deal of grumbling and irreverence concerning the federal government of the United States. The fact that the people of Atlanta were still struggling was evident in the unusually large number of bankruptcy and other legal notices in that issue.
There were also notices of meetings of Confederate soldiers, and the obituaries of two former Confederate heroes.
Other items of note in the Atlanta paper were the shipping news (listing arrivals of ships), a railroad schedule, and even lists of guests who were staying at the Atlanta hotels that week. It provided the names of the guests and their home residences—most of which were southern cities, but there were some visitors from New York and other northern spots.
There were several articles complaining about the deplorable condition of the streets and the mud that Atlanta citizens and wagons had to pull themselves through to get from one place to another.
As with other old newspapers, ads in the Atlanta paper make for fascinating reading in themselves. Under the subheading of “Drugs, Oils, etc.,” the newspaper advised the people that opium could be bought for $11 a pound, bicarbonate of soda $7 a pound, and Epson salts was priced at $6 a pound.
In another ad, Dr. S. B. Collins announced his painless opium antidote, noting the destructive nature of this popular drug.
The weekly editions of community newspapers give a personal glimpse of people found nowhere else. Country papers would allow plenty of space for a column prepared by a local resident to tell of recent births, upcoming or recent marriages, illnesses, visitors to the community, former residents vacationing with relatives in their old home, and news of a more personal nature. A common example of the kind of clues to be found is one which reads, “Miss Marjorie Dyer of our town is visiting her cousin Miss Margaret Howley in Fort Wayne.” This example gives another location of family members and possibly a surname previously unknown. These columns also note anniversaries, parties, reunions, and achievements such as a promotion or a school award. Newcomers to a community often received the attention of the columnist, and former residents were naturally included.
The “local brevities” sections in some newspapers are quick updates on residents of the community and they can be rich sources of unique information not found elsewhere. Three notices in the Brooklyn Union Argus of 13 June 1879 are good examples of what can be found.
- A gold watch valued at $200 stolen on the 4th instant from the residence of Mrs. Mary Richardson, 41 Pierrepont Street, was yesterday recovered by Detective Lowery from a pawnshop in the Bowery.
- Edward Lamb, twenty-eight years of age, of 172 High Street, had a leg broken yesterday by the scales of the ice cart he was driving falling on him.
- Michael Gallagher seventeen years of age, of 189 John Street, lost a finger yesterday by the machinery in the tin factory corner of York and Adams Street.
School news might include awards won and detailed coverage of a graduation, complete with a class picture or even individual photographs of the graduates. School board minutes, lists of teachers and pupils, and other school events are also frequently recorded. An example of a social event for which the guest list was printed appeared in the 12 May 1858 issue of the Central Illinois Gazette. The article described the costumes worn by named guests at a masquerade party held at Mr. R. H. Carter’s. The names of the invited puts them in West Urbana, Illinois, and it gives us an idea of how people entertained themselves in 1858.
Local news columns are one of the most important sources for data on women and children—two groups of people who rarely appear in other records in their own right. Local columns also provide clues leading to other records. If you find that your great-grandmother belonged to a Methodist charitable organization or a sewing circle sponsored by a church, it is a clear indication of church membership. If the religious affiliation was previously unknown, the researcher has a valuable lead.