About Duncan Kuehn

Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as Who Do You Think You Are? and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. She runs her own research company, “The Family Briar Patch,” and also works for GenealogyBank.com.

History of American Mail: Letters of Our Ancestors & the News

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan explores the history of American mail and shows how the mail system and newspapers have been closely connected—with the postal system delivering newspapers, and newspapers doing the work of the post office by alerting readers to unclaimed mail. These “uncollected mail” lists in old newspapers are a valuable genealogy resource for family history researchers.

The postal system and newspapers—especially lists of uncollected mail—have long been connected in American history, and provide another avenue of research for family history researchers.

Mail in Colonial America

The first organized mail service in colonial America began in 1692, mostly to get mail to and from Europe. The first postmaster was Andrew Hamilton, the governor of New Jersey. Then England purchased the project in 1707 and appointed Andrew’s son John as the Crown’s official postmaster.

England had a long history of interfering in colonial American communications. For example, there was the Stamp Act, the closure of colonial newspapers that seemed to criticize the Crown, and the search and seizure of private papers.

Ever the innovator, Benjamin Franklin instituted the penny post concept. Mail was delivered to the post office and the recipient was to pick it up there. However, for a penny, Franklin would have it delivered to the person’s home or office. However, Franklin was removed from his position as postmaster due to his revolutionary leanings.

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Franklin was also a newspaper man. At that time newspapers were produced as a way for printers to make a little on the side when the press didn’t have any other work. These newspapers were often sent by post to distant locations. Franklin was an advocate of getting the mail (and the news) out on time, and with the best business practices he knew.

Genealogy Tip: Newspapers published lists of people who had letters waiting for them in the post office. Checking these lists can help you pin down your ancestor to a place and time.

Letters in the Post-Office at Newport, Newport Mercury newspaper article 15 July 1765

Newport Mercury (Newport, Rhode Island), 15 July 1765, page 3

History of the American Postal Service

As things heated up between England and the American colonies, mail services became even more challenging. One way to subdue an enemy is to prevent communications between those in charge and the troops on the ground. Since the Crown owned the mail system, they held the advantage in communications.

The Battle of Concord was in April of 1775. The following month the primary business for the Continental Congress was to establish a mail system. Benjamin Franklin was the obvious choice for the first postmaster. Originally, the main purpose of the postal service was to get news and information out for military purposes.

Newspapers of the time, which focused on business and politics, were anxious to get information from other states. Many newspapers lacked much actual news reporting and simply parroted months-old news from other papers. They would subscribe to distant newspapers and would copy the articles word for word into their own paper. The lack of any copyrights allowed this to occur without even an attribution of the original writer or publishing newspaper. In fact, there was rarely an acknowledgement of the author in the original paper. News was published anonymously. (It wasn’t until World War I that the author of each article was regularly listed. This was a military move to ensure that the author was held accountable for the information he or she disseminated that might go against the censorship laws.)

During this time the paper’s printer was also the publisher, editor, and news collector all wrapped into one. Using other newspapers’ articles allowed them to publish more information with limited investment. This early newspaper practice means that you may find information about your ancestor in distant newspapers.

Genealogy Tip: Begin your searches in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives nationwide rather than just selecting one state’s papers to view, since news was published far away in places you wouldn’t expect.

Newspapers not only used the mail service to gather information, but also to disseminate it. Readers could subscribe to a newspaper regardless of where they lived and have it delivered via the postal service. This increased the number of potential readers for a paper, thereby increasing the print load and profits of a newspaper service. This eventually led to the need to hire more staff and to increase the speed of the printing process. The news could become a business in its own right instead of a side job to keep the printing press busy.

This map shows an old trail that was used for “mail and express service” in Missouri.

trail map of Howard County, Missouri, Kansas City Star newspaper article 11 November 1915

Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri), 11 November 1915, page 4

Uncollected Mail

Originally, mail was delivered to the post office and recipients stopped by to collect it. In the city, large companies hired clerks to make the mail run, carting mail to and from the post office multiple times a day. In rural areas, the post office became a place to gather, especially in more isolated areas. Going to get the mail was a big deal. Families dressed up to go to town to collect the mail and spend time socializing with their neighbors. However, not everyone could make it out every month to check for mail. When an item of mail remained uncollected at the post office, an advertisement was run in the local paper to alert the intended recipient. This is a valuable resource for modern-day genealogists.

uncollected mail list, Illinois Weekly State Journal newspaper article 11 March 1842

Illinois Weekly State Journal (Springfield, Illinois), 11 March 1842, page 1

Genealogy Tip: These lists show the names of people (women and men) who lived in the area. This can help a family history researcher establish the location of an ancestor.

This resource is especially beneficial in instances where two or more people who initially appear to be one and the same can now be separated, thanks to these mail lists.  In addition, the appearance of a name over several months can indicate that the person in question may have moved, was ill, was temporarily out of the area, or possibly even dead. This is an alert for the genealogist to do more investigation into their ancestor’s life during the time the name appears. Because women also received mail, their name may be listed. They may even be listed by their own name and not by the more commonly used feminized version of their husband’s name: Mariah Johnson rather than Mrs. Simon Johnson.

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It would be especially helpful to find the name of an ancestor in a list of letters remaining at the post office in the place they had just moved from. For example, if you know Simon Johnson was living in Crawford County, Indiana, after 1845—but you weren’t sure where he moved from—you could search for Simon Johnson’s name in the postal lists. Finding his name in a Randolph County, North Carolina, mail list prior to 1845 would not prove that he came from there. However, it does provide a clue to begin searching for him in the records in that area.

One thing to keep in mind is that the lists were often alphabetized by the last name. This means the name will appear last name first: “Johnson, Mariah.”

Genealogy Tip: Entering a first and last name into GenealogyBank’s search engine will allow for the name to appear in reverse order, so no special search techniques are needed. However, you can narrow the results by entering a keyword such as “letters,” “post office,” or “mail.” Use only one keyword at a time and remember that the word must appear in the article exactly as you typed it.

unclaimed mail list, Salt Lake Daily Telegraph newspaper article 17 May 1866

Salt Lake Daily Telegraph (Salt Lake City, Utah), 17 May 1866, page 3

Unfortunately for us, the actual “unclaimed” letters did not appear in the newspapers. Although many letters were republished in newspapers because of their informative nature, that was done by consent and not because they were unclaimed. The unclaimed letters lists were simply lists of people’s names.

Expanding the American Mail Service

The goal of the postal system has always been to reach every person. As the population spread across the newly created country, the mail system improved roads to reach them. As the postal roads became safer and more passable, more people moved to outlying areas. And so a chicken and egg situation was created. Did migration expand the postal system or did the postal system increase migration? The answer is: “yes.”

Newspapers were certainly not the only pieces of mail that went through the postal system. But to give an idea of how many newspapers were being delivered around the country, Richard R. John in Spreading the News claims that the post office delivered 2.7 newspapers per person in 1840!* Outside of the largest urban areas, the news was still delivered weekly at this point. But that is still a lot of mail!

By 1847, stamps were minted and the sender now paid the postage. Building on Franklin’s penny post delivery system, the postal service delivered the mail for two cents. In 1863, urban mail was delivered for free—if the city had adequate sidewalks and street lighting in addition to named streets and house numbers. Sixty-five percent of the American population lived outside of these metropolises in the 1890s when rural mail delivery finally became free.** Mail boxes began in 1912 and were required by 1923.

Here’s subscription information for the Idaho Statesman in 1898, giving terms for delivery by mail or carrier.

subscription rates for the Idaho Statesman, Idaho Statesman newspaper advertisement 10 August 1898

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 10 August 1898, page 2

Lost Mail a.k.a. Dead Letters

Sometimes, mail was lost or became undeliverable. The “dead letter office” began in 1825 to gather all of these documents. The local post office was required to advertise the existence of the mail in the newspaper before forwarding it on to the dead letter office. Once there, any valuables were removed and the rest of the letter was burned. This office has a long and interesting history that can be found in the newspaper archives.

Genealogy Tip: Enter the phrase “dead letter office” into the “Include Keywords” field in the search box to find articles.

Here is a sampling of dead letter office articles.

In 1925 in just one post office, 200 letters had been sent in “absolutely blank envelopes,” 600 parcels had been mislabeled, and an astonishing 20,000 letters in one year had been forwarded to the dead letter office!

article about the post office's "dead letter office," Repository newspaper article 31 May 1925

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 31 May 1925, page 8

Here is an excellent and informative article from 1846.

article about the post office's "dead letter office," St. Albans Messenger newspaper article 29 April 1846

St. Albans Messenger (St. Albans, Vermont), 29 April 1846, page 1

Here is a picture of a dead letter office from 1985.

article about the post office's "dead letter office," Advocate newspaper article 1 November 1985

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 1 November 1985, page 30

So don’t forget to include mail lists in your searches. These informative lists are another example of how valuable newspapers are to family history research.

——————

* Richard R John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 4.
** The United States Postal Service, An American History 1775-2006 (Washington DC: Government Relations, 2012), p. 22.

Related Articles about Researching Old Letters & Mailings:

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100th Anniversary of the Panama Canal: History in the News

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan searches old newspapers to learn more about one of humankind’s greatest engineering feats: the building of the Panama Canal.

The Panama Canal recently turned 100 years old. This prompted me to learn more about the history of this important waterway.

photo of the SS Ancon passing through the Panama Canal on 15 August 1914, the first ship to use the canal

Photo: SS Ancon passing through the Panama Canal on 15 August 1914, the first ship to use the canal. Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Early Transportation History

The only way for ships in the Atlantic Ocean to access the western coast of the Americas was to go the long way round—either around the southern tip of South America, or an even longer distance around the horn of Africa. Either route was fraught with danger and took an exceptionally long time. The narrow neck of land connecting North and South America was quickly targeted as a possible transportation alternative.

In the 1500s, Spain was particularly interested in reducing the amount of time it took to transport silver mined in Peru to Atlantic fleets. This would give them an economic and militaristic advantage over their enemies and rivals. To accomplish this, they created a trail system across the Isthmus of Panama—Spanish fleets shipped the silver from Peru to the west coast of Panama, and mule trains followed the trails to the east coast, bringing the silver to waiting ships. It wasn’t fast and it wasn’t easy, but it was better than nothing.

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The Darien Disaster

Later, Scotland launched an early attempt to gain economic advantage by creating a shortcut for goods across the Isthmus of Panama. They wagered an absurd amount of money on the project termed the “Darien Scheme” (and later renamed the “Darien Disaster”). They set up an outpost in 1698 in the hopes of creating an overland route to transport goods and shorten the amount of time it took to carry items from Europe to the western coast. Conditions in the area were vastly different from what they were prepared for and horribly inhospitable. They slugged it out for less than two years before abandoning the project.

Meanwhile, the Spanish continued their efforts to make an even better route across Panama to maintain their economic success—and their enemies took notice. This 1762 newspaper article foretold “our” (British) troops’ plans to attack the Isthmus of Darien (Panama) and thwart the Spanish advantage.

article about a planned British attack on the Spanish outpost in Panama, Boston Evening-Post newspaper article 6 December 1762

Boston Evening-Post (Boston, Massachusetts), 6 December 1762, page 2

The Spanish were persistent in their efforts and, as this article reported, they had established a new colony in the Isthmus of Panama by 1777.

article about the Spanish estabishing an outpost in Panama, Virginia Gazette newspaper article 12 December 1777

Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg, Virginia), 12 December 1777, page 1

The Panama Railroad

By the time gold was discovered in California in 1848, the railroad was a significant technological advancement. Naturally, this idea was applied in Panama: build a railroad across this challenging terrain to quickly transport goods and prospectors from the East coast and Europe and deposit them on the Pacific coast, to complete their journey by ship. They used old Spanish trails that had been in use for over three centuries.

Actually, the idea of a railroad across Panama had been in existence for many years before the California Gold Rush. The Columbian and French governments had both shown interest. The U.S. had made some effort under Andrew Jackson in the 1830s, but it wasn’t until 1855 that a cross-Panama railroad came to fruition. It is amazing that they were able to accomplish this feat. The heavens dump around 150 inches of rain each year on the landscape. Laying track in such hot, wet conditions must have been a miserable experience. But the real threat came from disease, especially malaria and yellow fever. Workers dropped like flies. Completing the Panama Railway was certainly a cause for celebration.

article about the completion of the Panama Railway, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 31 January 1855

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 31 January 1855, page 2

However, traversing the troublesome landmass necessitated loading and unloading cargo, a painfully labor- and time-intensive undertaking for the railroad. There were calls for a canal through the isthmus to allow large cargo ships to alleviate this difficulty. The French rose to the occasion and dispatched the famous Ferdinand de Lesseps—designer of the newly completed Suez Canal—to lead their nation to triumph. They rushed to start the project in 1881, without sufficient understanding of the geology or hydrology of the area.

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At first the idea was simply to cut away the land leaving a sea level passageway. Attempts at this seemingly simple idea soon showed that the copious rainfall quickly filled these efforts of the exhausted laborers, with mud and large landslides causing problems. The wedge of land to be removed changed from a narrow slip, just wide enough to allow a ship’s passage, to an impossibly large width to prevent the frequent landslides. This was all being attempted with primitive steam shovels that quickly rusted to uselessness in the persistent rain. If that wasn’t disheartening enough, the swampy conditions were ripe for mosquitoes and therefore deadly malaria and yellow fever. Thousands of workers died and the project went bankrupt. Meanwhile, the American media had a heyday over the “Panama Canal Fiasco” or the “Panama Affair.”

The Panama Canal Fiasco, Springfield Republican newspaper article 13 January 1889

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 13 January 1889, page 2

Despite a later attempt to revive the project, the weary French eventually sold out to America for a bargain basement price.

article about the French selling their Panama Canal project to the U.S., Forth Worth Morning Register newspaper article 8 January 1902

Forth Worth Morning Register (Fort Worth, Texas), 8 January 1902, page 2

After the smoke had cleared from the expected congressional infighting over the viability of the project and the wisdom of purchasing the project from the French, there remained the matter of obtaining Colombian authorization (Panama was Columbian territory at the time).

When Columbia refused to ratify a treaty granting such permission, President Theodore Roosevelt and the U.S. got around this obstacle by promising support to Panamanian rebels seeking independence from Columbia. U.S. warships moved into position off the Panamanian coast on 2 November 1903, and Panama declared independence the next day. Three days later, on 6 November 1903, the newly-recognized nation of Panama signed a treaty granting the U.S. the right to build and administer a canal.

With that, the U.S. got to work. Fortunately, by that time technology had advanced and we were able to complete the project by building a lock system—but not before even more people died of illness and accident. (As a side note, it is good to know that the Panama Affair did contribute to a better understanding of mosquito-borne illnesses and their prevention.)

Panama Canal Opens

After much labor, the Herculean task of building the Panama Canal was completed, and it was officially opened on 15 August 1914.

Great Panama Canal Open for Commerce, State newspaper article 16 August 1914

State (Columbia, South Carolina), 16 August 1914, page 1

Of course, this is a simplified and selective account of the scandal-soaked history of the canal. It doesn’t mention that the treaty we signed with Columbia (which was refused by that country) was actually with a French representative. It doesn’t detail the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that the U.S. was involved in with the rebellion that created the country of Panama—all in order to accomplish our goal of building the canal. It doesn’t mention the Panamanian protests after WWII and international pressure which led—eventually—to the release of the canal to Panama beginning in 2000. Nor does it go in depth into the scandals, illnesses, and accidents that make a study of the canal so interesting.

Hopefully, this article gives a little insight into the history of the Panama Canal and whets your appetite for your own research. The significance of the Panama Canal cannot be overstated. World commerce depends on fast, dependable transportation, which the canal provides.

Also, it is hoped that this article offers insights into what can be found in and learned from the old newspapers contained in GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives.

Related Articles about Early Transportation:

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Old Newspapers Tell the History of Two Manhattan Taverns

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan searches old newspapers to find the history of two taverns in Manhattan that archaeologists recently excavated.

I recently read an article on the website Archaeology about an archaeological dig in Lower Manhattan at 50 Bowery.* They have unearthed the remains of two historic taverns built on the same location.  The older of the two, the “Bull’s Head,” was from the colonial-era. It was “built in the 1740s by a butcher near New York City’s first slaughterhouse.” The second tavern, the “Atlantic Garden” which opened in 1858, was “a tourist destination in its day—it was known for its German food and beer, and as a place for music and parties.”

I wanted to know more about the history of the two taverns, so I turned to GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to learn more.

Genealogy Tip: When searching through the newspaper archives, I entered phrases (enclosed in quotation marks) into the Include Keywords field to find the exact phrase in the newspaper articles. In this case I ran two searches, one with “Bull’s Head” and one with “Atlantic Garden.”

Interesting Tavern Tidbits

I found an article in a German American newspaper that discussed the origins of the area.

article about Manhattan's Bull's Head Tavern, New Yorker Volkszeitung newspaper article 23 November 1919

New Yorker Volkszeitung (New York, New York), 23 November 1919, page 14

I only have an elementary understanding of the language, so I went to Google Translate and typed in the German paragraph that I was interested in. A loose translation told me that the tavern was opened in 1760.

I also learned that:

Most of the guests were cattle drivers because of the proximity to the slaughter houses. However, Washington had rested there after the British troops marched along the Bowery Road to exit the city.

The abundance of cattle drivers explains all the newspaper notices I found announcing cattle and horse auctions taking place at the tavern, such as this ad from a 1780 newspaper.

ad for a livestock auction, Royal American Gazette newspaper advertisement 8 August 1780

Royal American Gazette (New York, New York), 8 August 1780, page 2

I also found an interesting reference to the story about George Washington, in another newspaper. This article explained that Washington had used the tavern as one of his headquarters during the Revolutionary War.

Atlantic Garden Changes Hands, New York Herald newspaper article 3 January 1895

New York Herald (New York, New York), 3 January 1895, page 10

Land History

Note that this article also reports: “It is said that $1,000,000 was offered for the property by the Third Avenue Railroad Company when the company was looking for ground for a new power house.” Assuming that the offer was made about 1880 and adjusting for inflation, the railroad was willing to pay about $17 million for the premium Manhattan location!

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Then I found this well-written newspaper article, telling about the history of this plot of land in New York City.

Famous Old Tavern on Astor House Site, Worcester Daily Spy newspaper article 28 January 1902

Worcester Daily Spy (Worcester, Massachusetts), 28 January 1902, page 3

I learned that originally the land was owned by the Trinity Church. It was covered in trees and was a beautiful spot to build a gathering place for the local drovers (people who drive sheep or cattle to the market) as they came into town.

The old newspaper article provided this description:

The Bull’s Head [Tavern] was built in the old Dutch style, with plenty of solid bricks and gables; and it had a number of trees around it, under the shade of which, in fine weather, the worthy burghers and butchers smoked their pipes and swallowed their schnapps. The land on which the tavern stood belonged to Trinity church, then as now a wealthy corporation, and the tavern itself had for a time been a farm-house on the Trinity farm. But the trustees of the Church accepted Van der Burgh’s proposition to lease the farm-house for tavern purposes, and so the first prominent inn of the city was started—indirectly, at least—under the auspices of a church.

A church would seem to be an odd landlord for such a raucous establishment! The article says this of Adam Van der Burgh:

His voice was loud, but pleasant; his laugh contagious; his appearance emblematic of good cheer, and he knew almost everybody, especially the butchers and politicians—the two most needful classes for him to know.

As Van der Burgh’s tavern thrived, he soon attracted the ire of the local women “who went so far as to hold a meeting, and to protest against the alienating influences” of the place. He weathered that storm, but went too far when he built the first race track in New York immediately in front of his tavern. This drew the wrath of his landlord the Trinity Church. In response, Van der Burgh closed the race track “and, apparently from spite, abandoned the Bull’s Head tavern.”

The Tavern Keepers

This newspaper article explained that during the American Revolution, the tavern was owned by John Jacob Astor’s brother Henry.

The Astor Butcher Trust, Evening News newspaper article 19 October 1900

Evening News (San Jose, California), 19 October 1900, page 7

In addition to owning the Bull’s Head Tavern, Henry Astor was a butcher. A brilliant idea came to him: he beat the competing butchers by “riding far out along the Bowery land, meeting the drovers as they brought their cattle to town and buying their stock, which he sold to the other butchers at his own price.”

I found this illustration, showing what the Bull’s Head Tavern looked like in 1820.

illustration of Manhattan's Bull's Head Tavern, New York Herald-Tribune newspaper article 11 October 1894

New York Herald-Tribune (New York, New York), 11 October 1894, page 2

In 1825, the tavern was moved from the Bowery to Twenty-Fourth Street and Third Avenue. I learned this from the following newspaper article announcing the closing of the Bull’s Head Tavern. After 80 years in its second location, the tavern was closed down completely and the furnishings and fixtures were auctioned off.

Passing of Bull's Head Tavern, Springfield Republican newspaper article 24 May 1905

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 24 May 1905, page 11

In the meantime, back at 50 Bowery, the spot was used as a stove factory before the Atlantic Garden was opened in 1858.

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As the next newspaper article reported, soon after William Kramer opened the Atlantic Garden it became the recruiting station for the German regiments during the Civil War. Next door was the Thalia Theater where German language operas were sung. A passageway was built between the theater and the Garden to facilitate the opera patrons running over “for a bite and a sip between the acts.”

Atlantic Garden to Pass, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 20 June 1909

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 20 June 1909, page 13

According to another newspaper article, Atlantic Garden became the center of German life in the city and was “a resort modeled after the amusement gardens of German cities.”

This old newspaper article also reported that the Atlantic Garden was about to be closed in 1911—slated to be torn down in preparation for a modern theatre and eight-story office building.

article about Manhattan's Atlantic Garden tavern, Grand Forks Daily Herald newspaper article 20 August 1911

Grand Forks Daily Herald (Grand Forks, North Dakota), 20 August 1911, page 7

Historical Professional Parallels

And that brings us back to the archaeology article I read recently, that spurred me to do this research. Just as the archaeologists dug through the earth to find “liquor bottles, plates, and mugs,” we dug through a few hundred years’ worth of newspaper articles to learn more about the people and buildings. Long-dead Van der Burgh, Astor, and Kramer left their mark in more ways than one. Their objects will fascinate those on-site. And a brief glimpse into their lives fascinates us. Well done, men!

Most genealogists know that newspapers help tell the stories of our ancestors’ lives—but, as this article has shown, newspapers also tell us about the times and places our ancestors lived in.

Genealogy Tip: Even though this research was about taverns in New York City, note the variety of states where relevant newspaper articles were found, including: California, Massachusetts, Minnesota and North Dakota. This is a reminder that you should begin your search with a broad geographical scope; you never know where a newspaper article was published that might be about your ancestor or area of interest.

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* “Historic Taverns Unearthed in New York City.” Archaeology.com. May 5, 2014. Accessed June 1, 2014. http://archaeology.org/news/2083-140505-bowery-tavern-beer.

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How to Research Land Records for Genealogy Clues

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan discusses a genealogy resource that will help family historians trace their family tree: land records.

Prior to the Civil War, more than 85% of American males owned property! This astonishing statistic shows the importance of using and understanding land records when researching our ancestors. Many genealogists are unaware of the value of these historical documents and the family relationship information that can be gathered from them. Some genealogists are intimidated by these old property records. However, it has been said that land records are the bread and butter of American genealogy research, particularly in the Southern states.

During the Civil War, records were destroyed across many areas in the South—some accidentally by fire, others deliberately by Union troops. Southerners had begun classifying slaves as property similar to land. This was a political move to prevent the North from encroaching on their property rights. When Northern troops attacked Southern towns and cities, they often targeted courthouses to destroy documents recording property—and therefore records of slave ownership.

After the war, Southerners were anxious to protect their property rights and quickly re-filed their land claims. Sometimes these reconstructed land deeds list previous owners and their relationships, providing valuable family history information and clues.

Brief History about Deeds

A deed is a document showing the transfer of land from one private entity (person, company, trust, organization, etc.) to another. These documents record the seller, buyer, and property details. They are usually indexed in two ways: under the name of the grantor (seller), and under the name of the grantee (buyer). The index will list the book and page number to search for the actual recording of the deed.

photo of Aroostook County, Maine, deed books 1865-1900

“Maine, Aroostook County Deed Books, 1865-1900,” accessed Aug. 2014, Northern Registry > Deed books, 1868-1879, vol. 7 (p. 1-300) > image 6 of 303; citing Register of Deeds, Houlton. Source: FamilySearch.

See: https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1942-21740-26870-86?cc=1447693&wc=M6KC-X29:38808601,38833501

This deed is between an engaged couple. It goes on to give conditions and qualifications, including a nullification of the deed in the event that the marriage does not take place. Some of the information that we gather from these two paragraphs:

  • Anna Perkins Pingree of Salem, MA
  • Thomas P. Pingree of Wenham, MA
  • Joseph Peabody of Salem, MA
  • Joseph and Anna plan to marry
  • Anna owns an estate of which Thomas is the trustee
  • She received the estate from her father David Pingree, deceased, of Salem, MA
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When a married man sold land, his wife was often asked to give a dower release. This meant that after the seller died, his widow could not claim rights to a portion of the land he had previously sold. The dower release will usually list her name.

photo of Cattaraugus County, New York, land records, 1841-1845

“New York, Land Records, 1630-1975,” accessed Aug. 2014, Cattaraugus > Deeds 1841-1845, vol. 13-14 > image 122 of 1144; citing County Clerk. County Courthouse. Source: FamilySearch.

See: https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1942-32808-9067-66?cc=2078654&wc=M7C7-2ZZ:358137101,359440401

In this dower release we learn about the following individuals:

  • Ferdinand Suydam’s wife, who was named Eliza
  • James Boyd Jr’s wife, who was named Maria Ann

Genealogy Clues in Deeds

These land documents can help to distinguish between two individuals with similar names. They can provide the name of the wife. Sometimes they explicitly state other familial relationships such as receiving land from a father, mother, brother, uncle, grandfather, etc. I have even seen deeds which include the last will and testament of an individual. Plotting out the residences of all those with the same last name in an area can help to clarify family groupings. For example if there are two John Smiths in an area, and one owns land near or purchases several plots of land from Robert Smith and the other one is doing the same thing with Simeon Smith, you can build a case for which father belongs to which John Smith.

As you can see, these documents are an important part of a well-researched family history project. Unfortunately, there are some challenges. These documents can be hard to read as the hand writing is not always clear. There is a lot of legal terminology that you will want to become familiar with. Also, not very many of these documents are available online at this point. Fortunately, the sale of land was also recorded in newspapers, which in many cases are available online.

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Legal notices in newspapers about land transactions began very early. For example, here is one from 1716, 60 years before the USA became a country.

article about an estate sale for Jonathan Springer, Boston News-Letter newspaper article 2 April 1716

Boston News-Letter (Boston, Massachusetts), 2 April 1716, page 2

Genealogy Tip: When reading old newspapers, keep in mind that the letter “s” often appears as an “f.”

This article lists several individuals:

  • Doctor Jackson in Marblehead
  • Jonathan Springer, deceased, of Glocester (sic)
  • John Newman, Esquire, of Glocester (sic)
  • John Maule of Salem

All of this information is helpful for the genealogical researcher.

Some land records will list even more information. Here is an example of an 1857 land sale notice that mentions the grandchildren of an individual.

article about an estate sale for Samuel Randall, Barre Gazette newspaper article 13 February 1857

Barre Gazette (Barre, Massachusetts), 13 February 1857, page 3

This land sale mentions the following individuals:

  • Mary E. Marsh, minor child, daughter of Hiram Marsh, granddaughter of Samuel Randall
  • Ellen Marsh, minor child, daughter of Hiram Marsh, granddaughter of Samuel Randall
  • Hiram Marsh, minor child, son of Hiram Marsh, grandson of Samuel Randall
  • Hiram Marsh, probable son-in-law of Samuel Randall
  • Samuel Randall, original land purchaser
  • Artemas Bryant, guardian of minor children
  • P.W. Barr, owner of auction house in Petersham
  • Deacon Bassett, neighbor of Marsh children

Have you used land records in your family history research? What success have you had tracing your family tree with property records?

Related Articles about Property Records for Genealogy:

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News from Soccer’s Previous World Cups in Old Newspapers

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan shows some of soccer’s most famous and infamous moments from previous World Cups, as reported in newspapers.

To celebrate this year’s exciting World Cup, let’s relive some of the most talked-about moments in World Cup history, as shown in old newspaper articles.

Even though it is known worldwide as the “Beautiful Game,” soccer unfortunately sometimes makes headlines because of violent incidents, cheating and other unsavory elements that make news around the globe.

Unsportsmanlike Conduct

There will always be some dirty soccer playing, like this year when Uruguay’s Luis Suarez bit Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini during the World Cup in Brazil. Similar behavior was seen when France’s Zinedine Zidane headbutted Italian defender Marco Materazzi in his career-ending game during the final of the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

article about Italy winning soccer's 2006 World Cup, Register Star newspaper article 10 July 2006

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 10 July 2006, page 25

No Butts about It--Zidane Song Tops French Charts, Register Star newspaper article 3 August 2006

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 3 August 2006, page 18

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Occasionally there are fights between players, such as during the 1990 World Cup in Italy when the Netherlands’ Frank RijKaard spat at Germany’s Rudi Voeller and the two had an altercation.

article about the 1990 World Cup in Italy when the Netherlands’ Frank RijKaard spat at Germany’s Rudi Voeller, State Times Advocate newspaper article 27 June 1990

State Times Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 27 June 1990, page 45

Cheating

Lamentably, there is even cheating in soccer sometimes. What he later called the “hand of God” goal by Diego Maradona is one example. It happened during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, when the Argentine forward illegally used his hand to score an infamous goal against England.

Soccer Player (Maradona) Admits Cheating, Plain Dealer newspaper article 17 November 1986

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 17 November 1986, page 52

Injuries

Very rarely, there are horrific accidents like this year’s injury to Brazilian star Neymar da Silva Santos Jr., who was kneed in the back and suffered a broken vertebra—such incidents, of course, make it into the newspapers. Another accident happened during the 1982 World Cup in Spain, when Germany’s goalkeeper Toni Schumacher ran full speed into French defender Patrick Battiston, breaking his jaw, damaging vertebrae, and knocking out several teeth. The unfortunate Frenchman nearly died on the field due to “improper medical attention.”

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article about French defender Patrick Battiston being injured in soccer's 1982 World Cup, Oregonian newspaper article 25 June 1986

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 25 June 1986, page 87

Game Drama

There can be other drama with the players besides cheating or their hurting each other on the field. During the 1998 World Cup final in France, Brazil’s superstar Ronaldo was mysteriously missing from the team roster until just before the game with France. The rumor was that he had experienced a seizure in the locker room.

Reports--Ronaldo Did Not Have Convulsions, Register Star newspaper article 18 July 1998

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 18 July 1998, page 24

Soccer Winners & Losers

In addition to news about the soccer players, the World Cup results often make it into the headlines. For example, there are the shocking upsets—such as Brazil’s defeat to Uruguay during the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, and West Germany’s upset win over the powerful Hungarian team during the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland.

Uruguay Edges Brazil for Title, Oregonian newspaper article 17 July 1950

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 17 July 1950, page 23

West Germans (Reds, Too) Celebrate Soccer Triumph, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 6 July 1954

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 6 July 1954, page 13

Gunned Down by Gamblers?!

The most shocking event in World Cup history is of course the murder of Colombian defender Andres Escobar in 1994. He was gunned down by gamblers back home in Colombia just days after the Americans beat Colombia during the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. due to an accidental goal Escobar knocked into his own net.

article about Colombian defender Andres Escobar being killed after soccer's 1994 World Cup, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 3 July 1994

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 3 July 1994, page 7

Most of the time, the World Cup makes the news because of the exciting games, the fantastically athletic players, the cultural treats provided by the home country, and the rapturous reactions of the devoted fans. But occasionally, as this article has shown, there is a darker side to the World Cup—and that of course makes it into the newspapers.

Hope you enjoyed this year’s World Cup and that your team did well!

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DNA Needed to Solve One of the Oldest Missing Persons Cases

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this guest blog post, Duncan describes how DNA research may help solve a missing person case from 1926.

One of the oldest missing person cases may be solved.

Recently in the news, there was a report saying that one of the oldest missing persons cases may be solved using DNA. The details of the story were somewhat disjointed, but this is the basic story.

photo of Marvin A. Clark and an unidentified woman (probably his wife Mary)

Marvin A. Clark and an unidentified woman (probably his wife Mary), undated photo (1) [see notes at end of article]

In 1920, Marvin and Mary Clark were living in Tigard, Oregon. Marvin had been born in Iowa, but his parents were from New York. At 68 years old, he was a farmer with a mortgage. (2) They had lived in Oregon for quite some time, but they had previously lived in Nebraska where he had been a city marshal. (3) According to his granddaughter, Dorothy Willoughby, he had also worked as a marshal in the Portland area. (4)

Marvin was destined to become a “missing person” case.

Marvin and Mary Clark, 1920 Census, Tigard, Oregon

Marvin and Mary Clark, 1920 Census, Tigard, Oregon. Source: FamilySearch.

Marvin’s Family Background

Marvin’s mother Mary had at least two husbands following Marvin’s father George. She becomes a crucial part of this mystery. (See the footnote at the end of this article for further details.)

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Marvin and Mary Clark had many children, but two factor into our story. (6) Their daughter Sidney McDougal had been living 180+ miles away in Seattle, Washington. (7) By 1926, she had moved to Portland, not far from her brother Grover, where she was a hotel manager.  Grover C. Clark was already living in Portland, just 10 miles away from his parents Marvin and Mary. (8)

Sidney McDougal, 1920 Census, Seattle, Washington

Sidney McDougal, 1920 Census, Seattle, Washington. Source: FamilySearch.

Grover C. Clark, 1920 Census, Portland, Oregon

Grover C. Clark, 1920 Census, Portland, Oregon. Source: FamilySearch.

Disappearance the Night before Halloween

The details of the story are a little confusing, but it appears that Marvin left his home in Tigard to visit his daughter Sidney in Portland the night before Halloween in 1926. This was a ten-mile trip, but he did not inform his daughter that he would be visiting. Nor did he take a coat with him on what would likely have been a chilly fall day in the Northwest.

Marvin never made it to his daughter’s home that day—he simply disappeared.

This newspaper article reported his disappearance.

article about missing person Marvin Clark, Bellingham Herald newspaper article 9 November 1926

Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Washington), 9 November 1926, page 5

This 1900s newspaper article reported that Grover’s wife had received a letter from his 75-year-old father postmarked Bellingham, Washington. The letter disturbed the family because it was “disconnected.” According to the article:

The letter indicated that the aged man’s mind is wandering as it was badly jumbled despite the fact that Clark is highly educated, being a graduate of two universities.

The old newspaper article also reported that “so far as known Clark was practically without funds,” and that “he had stopped at hotels here [Bellingham] on November 2 and 3.”

The article provided a brief description of Marvin:

The missing man is described as weighing about 175 pounds and is about five feet seven inches tall. His right side is paralyzed and he drags his right foot when he walks.

photo of Marvin A. Clark

Marvin A. Clark, undated photo (9)

Searching for Marvin Clark

His family frantically searched for him. The police did their best to locate the man. The family even offered a reward of $100, which would be about $1,300 in today’s dollars. Because of Marvin’s previous profession as a marshal, the family feared the worst—knowing he had made enemies in his law enforcement career.

article about reward being offered for missing person Marvin Clark, Oregonian newspaper article 11 November 1926

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 11 November 1926, page 9

And so a generation passed away with no sight or sound of Marvin. His wife and children never knew what happened to him. But, in fact, Marvin was never far away.

Skeleton Tied to Old Missing Persons Case

In 1986 a body was found in the woods, as this newspaper article reported:

…loggers were clearing an isolated section of Portland when they discovered the remains of a mystery man who had been dead for at least half a century.

Skeleton Opens Old 'Missing Person' Case, Oregonian newspaper article 20 May 1986

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 20 May 1986, page 12

The skeleton had a single bullet hole through the temples and the gun was nearby. Police deemed the death a suicide from around the 1920s based on the clothing and personal items.

Enter Last Name










At the time of Marvin’s disappearance, the family had not considered suicide a possibility. Because of Marvin’s previous profession as a marshal, the family had feared an attack. Alternatively, they feared he had become disoriented and lost due to his seemingly diminished mental capacity as portrayed in the letter Grover’s wife received.

The skeleton was in such good shape that the medical examiner initially guessed the age as between 35 and 55. This cast doubt on Marvin’s granddaughter’s claim a few days later that the body might belong to her long-missing grandfather. Nothing was able to verify or disprove her claim, and she died in 1991 without closure and without leaving a DNA sample.

And so the case remained unsolved until 2011 when, according to the recent article in the Daily Mail by Dan Bloom (10):

Dr. Nici Vance, from the Oregon state medical examiner’s office, found the file on the suicide and began investigating.

Amazingly, 90 years after Marvin went missing, the remains were still in storage and DNA may yet solve the case. Several great grandchildren on Marvin’s paternal side have been found and DNA samples have been procured. Now they are looking for a maternal link in order to get a clearer profile. Perhaps you will be the one to find living descendants whose DNA will definitively solve the case of the missing Marvin A. Clark! Please let us know if you can help resolve this unsolved missing person mystery.

Notes

(1) Dan Bloom, “Could One of America’s Oldest Missing Person Cases Finally Be Solved? Investigators Hope DNA Will Unravel Mystery of Man Who Vanished in 1926,” Daily Mail, published 30 April 2014. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2616542/DNA-sought-close-1926-missing-person-case.html.
(2) “United States Census, 1920,” index and images, FamilySearch. https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/M48P-T8J. Accessed 11 June 2014. Marvin A. Clark, Tigard, Oregon, United States; citing sheet 4B, family 92, NARA microfilm publication T625, FHL microfilm 1821505.
(3) “United States Census, 1900,” index and images, FamilySearch. https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/M31Q-Y27. Accessed June 2014, Marvin Clark, Pender Precinct, Thurston, Nebraska, United States; citing sheet 13A, family 253, NARA microfilm publication T623, FHL microfilm 1240941.
(4) Associated Press, “Investigators Seek DNA to Close 1926 Oregon Missing Person Case,” Fox News. http://www.foxnews.com/us/2014/04/30/investigators-seek-dna-to-close-126-oregon-missing-person-case/. Accessed June 2014.
(5) Possible census returns for Marvin Clark and his mother Mary/Miranda.
“United States Census, 1880,” index and images, FamilySearch. https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/MDL3-LP2. Accessed June 2014, Marvin Clark in household of Nickolus Fritz, St. Marys, Mills, Iowa, United States; citing sheet 267D, NARA microfilm publication T9.
“United States Census, 1870,” index and images, FamilySearch. https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/MDVL-G3D. Accessed June 2014, Marvin Clark in household of William Fiedler, Iowa, United States; citing page 3, family 18, NARA microfilm publication M593, FHL microfilm 000545910.
“United States Census, 1860,” index, FamilySearch. https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/MXR1-CC7. Accessed June 2014, Marvin Clark in household of Geo Clark, Girard Tp, Erie, Pennsylvania, United States; citing “1860 U.S. Federal Census-Population,” Fold3.com; page 31, household ID 228, NARA microfilm publication M653; FHL microfilm 805107.
(6) “United States Census, 1910,” index and images, FamilySearch. https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/MLB7-GL7. Accessed June 2014, Marvin A. Clark, Holbrook, Multnomah, Oregon, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) 121, sheet 4A, family 80, NARA microfilm publication T624, FHL microfilm 1375301.
(7) “United States Census, 1920,” index and images, FamilySearch. https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/MHNT-NH8. Accessed June 2014, Sidney McDougal, Seattle, Washington, United States; citing sheet 4A, family 59, NARA microfilm publication T625, FHL microfilm 1821928.
(8) “United States Census, 1920,” index and images, FamilySearch. https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/M48N-8VP. Accessed June 2014, Grover C. Clark, Portland, Oregon, United States; citing sheet 14A, family 359, NARA microfilm publication T625, FHL microfilm 1821501.
(9) Bloom.
(10) Bloom.

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10 Tips to Find Your Living Family Members

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this guest blog post, Duncan provides 10 tips to help find your living relatives and record family history information from them—complementing the genealogy work you’re doing on your long-ago ancestors.

There are many different reasons to search for your living relatives. Some of these include organizing a family reunion, finding out-of-contact relatives, or locating family heirlooms, keepsakes, and photos. Doing this sort of research may seem challenging, but the 10 steps explained below will help you in your quest to find living family members.

photo of the painting “The Sense of Sight” by Philip Mercier, 1744-1747

Painting: “The Sense of Sight” by Philip Mercier, 1744-1747. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

1) Start with what you know and determine what you want to know

Genealogists like to collect the low-hanging fruit first. Start with yourself. Record what you know about your family history and what clues you might have. Determine exactly what you want to discover and outline a plan of action. Record all the information you find in one location.

Your next step will probably be to contact those who might have the information you are searching for. This could be family members, long-time family friends, or anyone who would know. Ask specific questions, but also ask leading questions that might jog their memory for any clues that may be helpful to you. If you are looking for an old family Bible you could ask questions such as:

  • Do you have it?
  • Have you ever seen it?
  • Who had it last?
  • If you had to guess, who do you think might have it now?
  • Was anyone interested in family history?
  • Who handled the estate of the person who last had it?

Even if they can only say that one of great grandpa’s daughters had an interest in family history, but they don’t remember the name, it is a clue that you should record.

Enter Last Name










2) Move back to extended family members

If you were able to find and speak with your parents and all your siblings, move back to your grandparents and find all their children and grandchildren. Again, your immediate family can assist you here. They may know that Cousin Jane lived in Milwaukee and Uncle Joe went to Texas. Reconstruct the family tree the best you can from all their hints. You will probably get some conflicting information; don’t worry about that now. But don’t disregard any conflicting information, even if you know it is wrong. You may find that the story about Aunt Sara never happened to her, but it did happen to Aunt Beth.

3) Gather family documents

While asking for stories and information from and about your extended family, also ask for a copy of any documents or pictures that they may have. Make copies; don’t take their original documents. Be sure to keep track of where each family document came from. You will want to know where the information came from as you move further into your research. You can also start collecting documentation from various family history websites, libraries and archives. Show these documents to other family members to see if they can help jog their memories.

So far the process we have followed has been similar to doing regular family history on long-gone ancestors. The following steps will diverge from that familiar path, as you research your living relatives. You can use all the traditional genealogy sources as you move forward in time, rather than backward. However, there are also some resources you may not have thought of—like yearbooks, voter lists, association memberships, old city directories, and so forth. My four favorite resources are: obituaries, Facebook, Google, and online directories. These will be discussed in more detail below.

4) Chart it out in a Descendancy Chart

Begin charting out the family structures in a descendancy chart. Mark family lines that die out, those you have found, and those that need more work. Unlike going backward where each generation only adds two people, going forward one generation can dramatically increase the number of people you are looking for.

family tree chart

Illustration: descendancy chart. Credit: GenealogyBank.

5) Move forward

Once you move back one generation, follow all the descendants forward in time until today. If your grandparents were having children before 1940, you can search for the family in the U.S. Federal Census to gather the names and ages of the children. If you have access to the birth certificates you can also look through the index to find your grandparents listed as parents. Newspaper databases like GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives have birth announcements as well. Keep in mind that not all birth announcements will mention the new baby’s name, so search for these notices using the father’s name, the date range, and a keyword like “birth” or “San Antonio” (or the city they were living in).

6) Find the obituary

Finding the death information for each generation is also helpful. Look for everyone’s obituary. Sometimes finding your aunt’s obituary can help you find your grandparents. You can use the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) on GenealogyBank’s website to quickly discover the date of death to help you in your search for obituaries. However if the person died within the last three years, the SSDI no longer has that death information available, and you will have to begin by searching directly for the obituary.

Obituaries are priceless documents as you move forward in time tracing your family tree. The obituary will often list the deceased’s children and grandchildren by name. In addition to their name, it will often mention their location. This is crucial information to help you locate their current contact information. Obituaries are some of the most valuable records you can find in your search. Other newspaper articles can be helpful in finding your living family members as well. They can give you information on the person’s location, family members, and other biographical information that can help you confirm that you have the correct person.

Enter Last Name










7) Look on Facebook

It always amazes me what people post on Facebook! There are all sorts of relationships, locations, and birth information on Facebook users’ profiles. Some statistics say that one half of the world’s population uses Facebook. It is a wonderful resource for genealogy research. If an individual’s profile is public, you can also view their list of friends. To find possible relatives, just type in the last name on their “friends” page. This can help you confirm that you have the right person and also help you find the other family members you are searching for.

8) Google Family Members’ Names

Google and other search engines are also important family-finding tools. Try Googling your own name. You may be surprised at what you can find out about yourself online! For example, a quick search for my name brings back my LinkedIn page, professional website, GenealogyBank blogs, my BYUi faculty profile, my RateMyProfessors page, my twitter account, and of course my Facebook page—as well as several images of me. I am a fairly private person, but there is plenty of information about me out there in cyberspace. If you are looking for living people, you will have a lot of information to search through. There are several books that can teach you how to use Google in the most effective way for investigative purposes. One of my favorites is Google Toolbox.

illustration of a magnifying glass

Illustration: magnifying glass. Credit: Equazcion; Wikimedia Commons.

9) Research online directories

When Googling the name of the person you are looking for, you will probably run into several directory pages as well. Some popular directory examples: WhitePages.com, Intelius.com, and PeopleFinder.com. These are great tools to use to locate family members, but they can be a bit tricky to make sure you have the right person. Use three or more items of information to confirm the correct name. For example, when searching for someone on Intelius.com, a list of names associated with that individual and a list of previous residents will appear. If you know from grandpa’s obituary that the person you’re searching for lived in San Antonio and was the son of Jacob—and you find a person with a previous address in San Antonio, an associate named Jacob, who is of the correct age—you may very well have the right person.

In today’s world, it is easier to find someone’s Facebook account, email address, and physical address than it is to find their phone number—although that is still possible.

10) If you get stuck on any one person, move on to the next

You will often find one person by searching for others.  Make sure to keep track of all the information you gather, even if it doesn’t seem relevant at the time.

These are a few tips to get you started in your hunt for living relatives on your family tree. To learn more you can visit the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy (CAFG) and read their past newsletters for additional tips and tricks to find family members.

Keep in mind that once you locate the relatives you are looking for, you need to be respectful and careful about contacting them. You were searching for them, but they may not know who you are and may be suspicious of what you want. A short friendly message of introduction and an offer to communicate further is helpful. You have done a lot of detective work to find them and may feel a strong familial connection with them, even though you have not yet met.  They may not feel the same. Your message may arrive out of the blue and completely catch them off guard. Keep this in mind as you make an effort to connect with them.

Best of luck in your family search!

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How to Research Historical Events for Genealogy with Newspapers

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this guest blog post, Duncan shows three real-life examples in which she helped genealogists find newspaper articles about their ancestors, explaining the tips and techniques that got her successful results.

Some of the best information we find in family history research is news that helps us learn the motivations behind our ancestors’ actions. After all, these family members are so much more than just names and dates on a family tree. Finding out what our ancestors did and the events they were involved in—and their possible motivation—helps us better understand them as real people, not just collections of data.

The best sources to look for these details of our ancestors’ lives are the journals and letters they wrote. The next best source is old newspapers. They were the Facebook of the day and the gossip rag too. Searching through newspapers using the names of our ancestors can bring back many valuable results. We can also search for news articles about events in our ancestors’ lives that don’t mention our ancestors by name.

I’ve included several examples here of how to find these valuable articles and stories that provide a window into our ancestors’ lives.

The Explosion That Killed Emanuel Urban

A GenealogyBank member was looking for an article about a nitroglycerin explosion that killed her relative Emanuel Urban in September 1904 in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. I ran a search for the name Emanuel Urban but got back no results. She is confident that the date and location of the event are correct, but I couldn’t find any relevant historical newspaper articles. Perhaps the name wasn’t mentioned in the old news articles about the explosion. How can we search on GenealogyBank without using a name?

Tips for Searching the Newspaper Archives

I ran the search like this:

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page for a search on nitroglycerin and explosion

Why did I formulate the newspaper archives search like this? I put nitroglycerin OR nitro-glycerin in the last name field and explosion in the first name field because I wanted the words to appear very close to each other in the news articles. Since I don’t know if the newspaper articles use nitroglycerin or nitro-glycerin, I can search for both using the word OR (both letters capitalized) between them (this is called a “Boolean Operator”).

Nitroglycerin has a tendency to explode! Without some keywords and a narrow date range, I would get too many search results. To avoid this, I narrowed the results by entering “Upper Sandusky” in the keyword field. Using quotation marks around the name Upper Sandusky will make sure it appears exactly as I typed it.  I also added the date range of September 1904 to October 1904 to further narrow the results.

Enter Last Name










Search News Nationwide

What I didn’t do is select just one state’s newspapers to look through. And it is a good thing I searched nationwide. Upper Sandusky is a city in Ohio, but only two of the six search results were published in Ohio newspapers. The others were published in Idaho, Illinois, Michigan and Washington, D.C., newspapers.

Your Ancestor’s Name Might Have Been Misspelled

Surprisingly, several of the historical news articles mention Emanuel Urban by name. So why didn’t I find his name when I ran the search the first time? Apparently the newspaper editors couldn’t get the spelling of the name correct. I found Emanuel Urban under the following names: Emanuel Urcan, Irban, Urican, Hurcan, and even Samuel Green. Who knows how the name Emanuel Urban became Samuel Green!

Explosion Is Fatal to Five, Daily Illinois State Journal newspaper article 5 September 1904

Daily Illinois State Journal (Springfield, Illinois), 5 September 1904, page 1

West Virginia Train Robbery

Another GenealogyBank member was searching for articles about an event she had personally been involved in as a young girl in the late 1940s. She was traveling by train with her grandmother when the train was robbed somewhere in West Virginia. She wanted to find some newspaper articles about it so that she could learn more about the event. Her name would not be mentioned in the newspaper articles and she wasn’t sure how to search for information about the incident.

I ran this search:

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page for a search on train robbery and West Virginia

This search found 35 articles, most of which were about the exact train robbery she remembered! Here is one article that has pictures of some of her fellow passengers:

photos of the victims of a West Virginia train robbery, Boston Traveler newspaper article 10 March 1949

Boston Traveler (Boston, Massachusetts), 10 March 1949, page 27

Try Using Different Keywords in Your Searches

Of course if I entered different keywords into the genealogy search engine, I might be able to find even more old news articles. For example now that I know the date of the train robbery, I could run an archive search like this:

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page for a search on train and Martinsburg

This search returned 78 newspaper results! There are certainly more details and stories that could be gathered from these articles.

Passenger Train Robbed; One Shot, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 10 March 1949

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 10 March 1949, page 1

You will notice that my previous record search used the keywords “West Virginia” and robbery. The above article has neither term, which is why it did not show up on that first search. It abbreviates West Virginia to W.Va., and uses the term robbed rather than robbery.

Enter Last Name










James Nealand & the Gunpowder Mill

A GenealogyBank member was looking for an ancestor named James Nealand who was killed in an explosion at a gunpowder mill in Hazardville, Connecticut, during the Civil War. He knew there were multiple spellings of the name Nealand, but hadn’t been able to find newspaper articles under any of the known spellings. I tried the following search:

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page for a search on powder mill and explosion

Search without a Surname

I was able to find six articles relating to the event. I even found James Nealand. His name had been misspelled as James Kneeland.

Explosion of a Powder Mill, Boston Evening Transcript newspaper article 24 July 1862

Boston Evening Transcript (Boston, Massachusetts), 24 July 1862, page 1

Even if your ancestors weren’t directly involved in any big events, they were affected by the major historical events around them. Researching more about how these important events affected your ancestors’ neighbors and community will help you learn more about the people you are interested in. For example, while researching a small community in South Dakota, I found that the neighbors of the person I was researching had their house destroyed in a devastating tornado. If I had only searched for the people I was directly interested in, I would have missed out on knowing about this tornado that surely affected them too.

Genealogy Tip: When searching newspapers to learn more about your ancestors, don’t forget to look for the events they were involved in—or at least affected by—as well. Genealogy is more fun and complete when you learn not just about your ancestors’ individual lives—but also the communities where they resided and the times in which they lived.

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Tips on How to Search for Your Ancestors’ Hometowns & Townships

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this guest blog post, Duncan shows how to find information about your ancestral hometown using GenealogyBank’s collections of historical documents and old newspapers, as well as a couple of other helpful websites.

GenealogyBank is not only a great resource to find information about your ancestors’ lives—you can learn about their hometowns as well.

For example, I am curious to see if I can find any information about a tiny township that my family is from, located in rural Indiana. This township has an unusual name that I have always found slightly amusing: Whiskey Run, Crawford County, Indiana.

How to Search for Hometowns with GenealogyBank

I begin my search by typing “Whiskey Run” in the last name field (see below). The quotation marks keep the words together as a phrase. GenealogyBank’s search engine allows you to enter names or words into the first and last name fields.

screenshot of a search on GenealogyBank for Whiskey Run, Indiana

This archive search brings back quite a few results: 714! I’m a bit surprised to see so many for such an unusual name. There are 30 results in the Historical Documents collection that I want to look through first.

screenshot of the search results page in GenealogyBank for a search on Whiskey Run, Indiana

How to Search the U.S. Congressional Serial Set

GenealogyBank’s Historical Documents collection largely consists of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, along with other government documents. The Serial Set was organized in 1817 as the official collection of reports and documents of the United States Congress. This large multivolume resource contains various congressional reports and documents from the beginning of the federal government right up to the present day. The collection is published in a “serial” fashion, hence its name. Containing a combination of legislative and executive publications, the Serial Set has tremendous value as a primary source for American history.

Normally, any mention of politics or Congress would be enough to put me to sleep, but these government documents have been some of my best finds. They contain all sorts of information relating to pensions, land disputes, military service, etc. I even found a firsthand account of a many-great grandfather’s experience in the Civil War. Where else, but a journal, could you find such outstanding information!

Let’s see what we can find in these 30 Historical Documents about Whiskey Run.

There are various pages relating to the functions of the township. A few are of particular interest. Here’s one: this page tells me the population of the various townships in Crawford County in 1880.

screenshot of a historical document from GenealogyBank showing the population of Whiskey Run, Indiana, in 1880

And here is another that tells me the public library had 350 books in 1886. Not bad for such a small township.

screenshot of a historical document from GenealogyBank showing the number of books in the town library of Whiskey Run, Indiana, in 1886

A quick tip for navigating through the pages of these historical documents: I can easily move forward or backward in the document by clicking on the page numbers along the left hand side of the page, as shown here:

screenshot of a historical document from GenealogyBank about Whiskey Run, Indiana

I can also move through the document sequentially by using the “Previous Page” and “Next Page’ tools along the top right side of the image, as shown here:

screenshot of some navigation tools from GenealogyBank

Searching the Newspaper Archives

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While I found some interesting tidbits about the township in these Historical Documents, I haven’t struck gold yet. I want to go back and search through the Newspaper Archives now. I click on “Search All Collections” in the upper left hand corner to return to the main search results page.

screenshot of navigation tools from a search results page in GenealogyBank

Now that I am back to the main results page, I can see that 680 of the 714 results for “Whiskey Run” were in the Newspaper Archives.

screenshot of the search results page in GenealogyBank for a search on Whiskey Run, Indiana

I click into the Newspaper Archives collection to narrow my results. After scrolling to the bottom of the search results page, I narrow my search by typing Indiana in the keyword field. (I did not select just the state of Indiana when I began my search because that would have restricted my results to newspapers published only in the state of Indiana.) Newspaper articles can get picked up by many newspapers and be published literally anywhere in the United States.

I want to find articles about Whiskey Run of Indiana—not articles about running to get some booze, or the similarly-named townships in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Entering the word Indiana in the Include Keywords field will search for articles that mention both Whiskey Run and Indiana. So now my newspaper archives search looks like this:

screenshot of a search in GenealogyBank for Whiskey Run and Indiana

Glancing through the new search results, I notice that there must have been a race horse in Indiana with the name Whiskey Run. To eliminate those articles from my search results, I add the term “race” in the Exclude Keywords field like this:

screenshot of a search in GenealogyBank for Whiskey Run and Indiana, excluding the word "race"

Now I have 20 articles left to explore about the township in my search results. I like to sort them with the oldest articles first so that I can read them chronologically. I arrange them by using the “Sort by” drop-down menu in the upper right hand corner of the results page, as shown here:

screenshot of a sorting feature provided by GenealogyBank for its search results

Now that I have everything sorted just the way I like, I can begin looking through the remaining results. Whiskey Run township was a sparsely populated township so it doesn’t take me long to look through these results. If the township were more popular there would have been many more articles written about it, in which case I could add, subtract, and adjust my keywords to get down to a reasonable number of results. I could also add a date range if I was only interested in a specific time period.

Once I pull up an article by clicking on its headline or image snippet, I can search for any word in the text. To change the word that is being highlighted in the article, I can type the new word into the find box and click on “Find,” like this:

screenshot of a find feature in GenealogyBank

My Ancestral Hometown Research Findings

I found a few news articles that list Whiskey Run as one of the strange place names in America. (I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks so.) I found articles talking about the inhabitants and happenings in Whiskey Run. But I really struck gold with this article about the history and name of the county and township.

article about Whiskey Run, Indiana, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 1 June 1924

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 1 June 1924, page 6

According to the old news article:

“The story goes that down on the stream one day an Indiana (sic) named ‘Whiskey’ killed a man named ‘Run’ who had a jug of whiskey with him. Then he ran away with Run’s whiskey. So the pioneers generally spoke of the stream as ‘Whiskey Run.’”

Since this newspaper article came out during the time of alcohol prohibition, I’m a little suspicious of this legend. A fast moving, low turbulence stream was called a “run” and several of my ancestors were arrested for making moonshine in the hills around the stream with the same name. I suspect that the township’s name probably had a different origin. But this makes for a fun story.

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I learned many important historical facts about the Indiana town from this long article. Of particular interest was that Liberty Township was carved out of Whiskey Run in 1842. This helps me to know that the branch of the family that appears in Liberty around this time may not have moved after all. The area they were living in simply got annexed into Liberty Township. Good to know!

The results of my search on GenealogyBank were a bit surprising since Whiskey Run is such a small, rural township, and I was glad to find so much good information. To flesh out my ancestral hometown research, I could use two additional resources.

FamilySearch

The first is the Family History Research Wiki from FamilySearch. This is a free resource that usually gives me great background information on an area and explains how to find and access relevant documents. Unfortunately, Whiskey Run is too small to appear in this resource, but I can still look up Crawford County. Here I can find where the land, tax, and vital records are stored. It has lots of valuable information for me as I research this area.

HistoryPin.com

Another great resource is a new find for me. This site, History Pin.com, is a place for users to submit their historical photos of an area. Nothing came up for Whiskey Run, but I did find some spectacular images from the nearby township of English and the town of Corydon.

GenealogyBank’s collection of newspapers and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set can be an excellent way to learn more about the area in which your ancestors lived, even if it was a tiny township in a rural area. Try an ancestral hometown search yourself and let us know what you find out!

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You Found That Article Where? Newspaper Search Tips for Genealogists

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this guest blog post, Duncan provides some newspaper search tips for genealogists, especially regarding locations.

Typically when we do genealogical research we go straight to the local jurisdiction, which is often at the county level. We get vital records, land deeds, and tax lists on a county level. Although the federal census is conducted nationwide, we can search it on a county or even city level. As genealogists, we tend to narrow our focus down to the smallest jurisdictional unit. This is typically a very effective strategy.

However, this local focus is not always the best approach when searching newspapers.

Search Nationwide First, Then Refine

If you took your local newspaper and organized all the articles in it by the location of the event being reported, you would find that the majority of the news comes from outside of the city, county or even state where the paper was published. This has been true throughout history. When searching for information in newspapers, I begin my searches by looking nationwide. But if I get too many search results, I then narrow my search by using date ranges and specific locations.

Here’s how I approach searching for family history information in newspapers.

  1. First, I begin my search with just the first and last name.
  2. Then I narrow the search by date range if I get too many results.
  3. Once I have searched with this criteria and I am still getting too many results, I narrow further by using the city or state name as a keyword.

It is important to keep in mind that GenealogyBank’s search engine is very specific and will only search for exactly what you type. This helpful feature prevents you from getting too many unrelated results back.

But it also means that you have to be creative in what you enter in the search box. This applies to the names and keywords fields. When I am searching nationwide for an article from San Francisco, California, there are a variety of keywords I could use: California, Calif, CA, San Francisco, San Fran, SF.

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Newspaper Search Tips

  • Use Quotations for Phrases: Whenever you enter a group of words that you want to find together, such as “San Francisco,” put the group in quotation marks.
  • Start Broad Then Refine: The default setting on GenealogyBank already searches nationwide for you. There is the option to select a state from the map at the bottom of the results page. However, doing so will often eliminate many of the newspaper articles you are looking for. Therefore, I recommend doing a nationwide search first and then, if necessary, using keywords such as the city or state name to narrow your results.
  • Explore Articles from Multiple States: Keep in mind as you look through the search results page that the location listed is the location of the newspaper and not the location of the article. Don’t hesitate to click on any newspaper article that looks like it might be relevant even if its listed location appears to be several states away from where your ancestor lived.
  • Use Keywords: You can add a series of keywords into the “Include Keywords” box. Keep in mind that adding too many keywords all at once may not be an effective research strategy. Add them one at a time until you get down to a reasonable number of results to search, around 100-200.
  • Exclude Keywords: You can also use the “Exclude Keywords” box to narrow results. Let’s say you were searching for a man named Eric Clapton, but you weren’t looking for the musician. Glance through the results and find words that often appear in articles about the musician. These may be things like: album, concert, or guitar. Enter those words into the “Exclude Keywords” box as follows: album OR concert OR guitar. This eliminates articles with those words.

Whom Will You Find?

Some genealogists may think that the person they are looking for was a poor farmer from a small town who would never have made the national news. You would be surprised what articles got picked up and how far away they went! I’ve included several examples in this Blog article to prove this point. Today it is less likely that small town news will travel nationwide, but the further back in history you go the more likely it is that local news could be published in distant newspapers.

Where’s My Ancestor in the News?

Keep in mind that local news articles can be published in any newspaper in the nation, in places where you might not logically think to look. Your ancestor may not have ever visited the area where the news was published. They may not have any friends or relatives residing in that location. Newspapers subscribed to other papers and published their articles if they thought the news would be interesting to their own readers. There were no copyright laws to stop them from republishing word for word—or even from embellishing—what was originally published elsewhere. Newspaper editors would also select news articles from other papers simply because they fit the space their paper had available.

Newspapers’ Historical Role in Daily Life

In the past, newspapers were the main form of mass communication, predating other social media like radio, TV, Facebook and Twitter. When families moved from one place to another, they would often keep their subscription to their hometown newspaper. If many people migrated from a certain location, the local paper in their new area would regularly run articles from their place of origin in order to cater to those readers.

Reading the newspaper and talking over the events was a highlight of a community’s week. Before TV, this was a common form of entertainment. Human nature is always looking for new and exciting experiences. This fact keep editors busy scouring other papers for information to republish. For genealogy researchers, this gives us multiple opportunities to find the articles we are searching for, even if the original newspaper’s archives no longer exist!

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Genealogical Gold in Republished Articles

Here is a great example of that. I once had a genealogist ask for help finding a photograph of one of her relatives that had appeared in the local newspaper in Allentown, Pennsylvania. She had looked through GenealogyBank’s collection of Pennsylvania newspapers and hadn’t been able to find the photo. I started by using just her ancestor’s last name because it was uncommon. I did not put any additional information in the search box. We found several copies of the photograph that had been published in newspapers all across the nation (Illinois, Massachusetts, Tennessee and North Carolina) and she was able to select the best copy for her records.

Here is a photo of her ancestor Mary Tauschman helping a pet duck cross the road, published in a Massachusetts newspaper.

photo of crossing guard Mary Tauschman, Springfield Union newspaper photograph 27 April 1969

Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 27 April 1969, page 2

Searching Articles across U.S. States

Another time, I helped a genealogist who was searching for a report of her relative’s car accident in Forth Worth, Texas. We were able to find the article all the way up in a Massachusetts newspaper!

Her ancestor’s accident was indeed horrible—thank goodness for the quick action by her husband!

Swift Kick by Husband Saves Lady Driver's (Idell Schults) Life, Boston Record American newspaper article 13 December 1961

Boston Record American (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 December 1961, page 16

Here is another example. A large Mississippi family is photographed and named individually, but the photo appears in a Louisiana newspaper.

photo of the large family of William and Catherine Smith, Times-Picayune newspaper photograph 12 March 1922

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 12 March 1922, page 39

There is also the example I gave in a previous GenealogyBank Blog post about the death notice of my ancestor Zachariah Nicholson (see: Genealogy Records: A History of Regional Coverage in the U.S.). There is no reason this farmer’s death in Indiana would appear in a Michigan newspaper—yet here it is.

death notice for Zachariah Nicholson, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 19 January 1895

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 19 January 1895, page 7

Here is one more example: an announcement for a marriage in Omaha City, Nebraska, that is appearing in a Georgia newspaper.

Spilman-Gaylord wedding announcement, Marietta Journal newspaper article 9 September 1880

Marietta Journal (Marietta, Georgia), 9 September 1880, page 3

Genealogy Search Tip: Start your newspaper search without a location, searching nationwide because you never know what paper published an article about your ancestor. If you get too many search results, start narrowing your search by using the state or city name as a keyword.

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