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

Truly Personal Obituaries from the Recent Obituary Archives

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over nine years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” In this blog post, Duncan searches GenealogyBank’s recent obituaries collection and discoveries some truly interesting – and sometimes funny – passages in some of these obituaries.

Writing an obituary can be a painful and unexpected event. It can also be a healing one. More and more families are rejecting a dry, formulated writing style for their loved one’s obituary, taking instead a more personalized approach. It is challenging to compact a person’s life into a few lines. It is even more difficult to try to convey that person’s unique sense of being onto the printed page. Here are some marvelous examples of more personalized obituaries; I found these while browsing in GenealogyBank’s Recent Obituary Archives.

passage from Donna Smith's obituary urging people to be kind to one another

Humorous Life Philosophy

Sometimes an obituary shares a person’s philosophy.

Donna Smith’s obituary passed on this humorous life philosophy:

Do what’s right and do what’s good. Be kind and help others. The world can always use one more kind person. And if you can take it one step further, please do it for people grandpa’s age.

Donna Smith

obituary for Donna Smith, Salt Lake Tribune newspaper article 18 December 2014

Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah), 18 December 2014

Jokes Help

The family, or even the person themselves, may try to lighten up the situation by making a joke.

In his obituary, Aaron Joseph Purmorts’s family stated that he:

died peacefully at home on November 25 after complications from a radioactive spider bite that led to years of crime-fighting and a years long battle with a nefarious criminal named Cancer, who has plagued our society for far too long. Civilians will recognize him best as Spider-Man, and thank him for his many years of service protecting our city. His family knew him only as a kind and mild-mannered Art Director, a designer of websites and t-shirts, and concert posters who always had the right cardigan and the right thing to say (even if it was wildly inappropriate).

Aaron Joseph Purmort

obituary for Aaron Joseph Purmort, Star Tribune newspaper article 30 November 2014

Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 30 November 2014

Unusual Final Requests

Others leave behind unusual requests in their obituaries.

B. H. Spratt’s family suggested:

In lieu of flowers, tune-up your car and check the air pressure in your tires – he would have wanted that.

B. H. Spratt

obituary for B. H. Spratt, Florida Times-Union newspaper article 23 October 2011

Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Florida), 23 October 2011

Lisa Schomburger Steven’s family asked:

that you spend time with your children, take a walk on the beach with your loved ones and make a toast to enduring friendships lifelong and beyond. That is what Lisa would wish for you.

Lisa Schomburger Stevens

obituary for Lisa Schomburger Stevens, Charlotte Observer newspaper article 19 December 2005

Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina), 19 December 2005

Tom Taylor Jr.’s family stated:

One of his last requests to his good friend Scott, was to contact the Cremation Society to ask for a refund because he knew he weighed at least 20 percent less than when he paid for his arrangements.

Thomas J. Taylor Jr.

obituary for Thomas J. Taylor Jr., Sun News newspaper article 27 August 2008

Sun News (Myrtle Beach, South Carolina), 27 August 2008

Tom Brady Fan

To make an obituary more personal, family members sometimes add a line about a person’s passions or strongly held beliefs.

Enter Last Name

Patricia M. Shong was a fervent New England Patriots fan. Her family stated this wish in her obituary:

She would also like us to set the record straight for her; Brady is innocent!

Patricia M. Shong

obituary for Patricia M. Shong, Worcester Telegram & Gazette newspaper article 24 May 2015

Worcester Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Massachusetts), 24 May 2015

Patricia’s defense of Tom Brady put a smile on everyone’s face, as reported at the end of her obituary.

obituary for Patricia M. Shong, Worcester Telegram & Gazette newspaper article 24 May 2015

Worcester Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Massachusetts), 24 May 2015

Another Football Fan

Michael Sven Vedvik’s family did their best to lighten things up by saying in his obituary:

We blame the Seahawks lousy play call for Mike’s untimely demise. Mike was greatly loved and will be dearly missed.

Michael Sven Vedvik

obituary for Michael Sven Vedvik, Spokesman-Review newspaper article 5 February 2015

Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington), 5 February 2015

The Dog Ate It

Norma Brewer’s obituary contained this humorous remark:

Norma Rae Flicker Brewer, a resident of Fairfield, passed away while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. She never realized her life goal of reaching the summit, but made it to the base camp. Her daughter, Donna, her dog, Mia, and her cats, came along at the last minute. There is suspicion that Mrs. Brewer died from hypothermia, after Mia ate Mrs. Brewer’s warm winter boots and socks.

Norma Brewer

obituary for Norma Brewer, Connecticut Post newspaper article 31 January 2015

Connecticut Post (Bridgeport, Connecticut), 31 January 2015

Losing a loved one is never easy. Helping others to see that person the way you did can help ease your sorrow at their passing. You may even consider helping your family out by writing your own obituary!

Do you have a touching or funny obituary you’ve come across in your genealogy research? If so please share your obituary finds with us in the comments.

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True Love Stories: 3 Married Couples with Lasting Bonds

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over nine years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” In this blog post, Duncan searches GenealogyBank’s recent obituaries collection and uncovers three heartwarming stories of couples who were married a very long time together – and died within hours of one another.

Being married for decades is a marvelously romantic experience. Few things are as adorable as seeing an elderly couple shuffling hand-in-hand down the sidewalk. Many elderly couples have been together longer than they were single. They form an inseparable bond and friends can’t think of one without the other. The death of one of them is devastating to the other.

For an astonishing percentage of long-married couples, the loss of one spouse means the other is soon to follow. Sometimes this even occurs when the second is unaware of the passing of the first. Here are three of these beautiful love stories that I found while looking through GenealogyBank’s online collection of Recent Newspaper Obituaries.

John and Marilyn Jenkins

John Jenkins served in the Navy during World War II. After returning home at the age of 19, he asked his mother to give legal permission for him to marry his high school sweetheart, Marilyn. The young couple worked at her parents’ grocery store for a time. John then got a job working at the post office. The work did not suit him and he quit without informing his wife. As many spouses can understand, this did not go over well with Marilyn when she later found out, and the couple argued. But eventually they worked things out and John found work in the insurance industry, while Marilyn worked as an elementary school teacher. John returned to the Navy for the Korean War.

obituary quote about an elderly couple who had their chairs moved together so that they could hold hands

The couple was quite social and loved to play games, square dance, and go camping. Even into their 70s, they were pulling a camper to Clearwater, Florida, to enjoy the outdoors. They also attended the Centenary Methodist Church and it played a big role in their lives. They had three children together.

However, their health eventually declined and they needed 24-hour care. John remained upbeat and optimistic, but Marilyn was in terrible pain.

According to their joint obituary:

Despite poor health and advancing years, [daughter Sue] Thomure believed her parents’ relationship remained an “epic” love story. “They were both very affectionate people,” she said. “They always loved hugs and kisses. They were outwardly affectionate with each other and with us. In fact, when they first started getting ill and elderly, their chairs were apart. We had to move their chairs next to each other so they could hold hands.”

obituary for John and Marilyn Jenkins, Daily Journal newspaper article 14 March 2015

Daily Journal (Park Hills, Missouri), 14 March 2015

After 67 years together, Marilyn died on 26 February 2015. Upon hearing the news, John replied: “Well, we done good and I’ll be along shortly.” By the next morning, he had indeed joined her in death.

Enrique and Emma Flores

Enrique and Emma dated for six years and were engaged for six years before finally marrying in 1953. Before marrying, they were able to save up for and completely furnish a home. Enrique served in the Army during the Korean War and made a career in the military, retiring in 1983. Emma spent most of her time raising their three children, but was also a substitute teacher. Although neither attended college, they valued education. Enrique even served as PTA president for their children’s school.

quote from an obituary about a loving couple that died within hours of each other

Religion played a major role in their lives. They said the rosary daily and it was one of the few things that Enrique could recall after dementia set it. Emma tried to care for Enrique but she struggled to care for his needs while battling through a second round of cancer, and he had to go into a nursing home. Her daughter took Emma to visit Enrique as often as she could.

According to their joint obituary, Enrique loved Emma’s visits:

[Enrique] would get so excited to see her and would always clap his hands. And he would repeatedly tell her, “I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you.”

These two long-time lovers were married for 69 years.

obituary for Enrique and Emma Flores, Corpus Christi Caller-Times newspaper article 2 March 2015

Corpus Christi Caller-Times (Corpus Christi, Texas), 2 March 2015

Sadly, it was Emma who died first on 1 March 2015. But within an hour of her death, the family was informed that Enrique had died at the nursing home without having received the news of his wife’s passing.

Enter Last Name

Marcus and Madelyn Yensen

I found a similarly touching love story in yet another joint obituary, this one for Marcus and Madelyn Yensen, a Salt Lake City couple that had been married for more than 74 years:

The pair met each other in 1940 at a dance studio when Marcus took a dance lesson from Madelyn. Just one month later, after a “whirlwind of romance’ – which included a date that ran past curfew and infuriated Madelyn’s mother – they were married, said their youngest son, Byron Yensen. “They were always together, and they were always very happy with each other,” [their daughter Carol] Bradford said.

obituary for Marcus and Madelyn Yensen, Deseret News newspaper article 25 April 2015

Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), 25 April 2015

Marcus served in the Navy during WWII and then built a career as an engineer on the railroad. They had three children together. Madelyn was the social one while the more-quiet Marcus usually kept his thoughts to himself.

quote from an obituary about a loving couple that died within hours of each other

According to their obituary:

In his last months, Marcus had been fighting heart failure. Nurses told him he would die in March, but he clung to life, determined to at least live until April 1 so he could collect pension money for his wife, their youngest son said.

Marcus made it to April, clinging to life in a nursing home, but Madelyn died at home on April 7. Bradford went to the nursing home to tell her dad the sad news:

“I leaned over and whispered in his ear, ‘Mom has passed, and she’s waiting for you in heaven.’ I think after that, he knew he had accomplished what he needed, and he felt that he could let go.”

Marcus Yensen died at 9:30 that night.

“Being the gentlemen he always was, and showing the eternal love they had together, Marcus held the gates of heaven open so Madelyn could walk in first, then followed her.”

What is the longest marriage in your family tree? Do you have any heartwarming romantic stories to share? Tell us in the comments.

Note: FamilySearch International (FamilySearch.org) and GenealogyBank are partnering to make over a billion records from recent and historical obituaries searchable online. The tremendous undertaking will make a billion records from over 100 million U.S. newspaper obituaries readily searchable online. The newspapers are from all 50 states and cover the period 1730 to the present.  Find out more at: http://www.genealogybank.com/family-search/

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Anna Jarvis Worked Hard to Make Mother’s Day a National Holiday

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over nine 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 GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives to learn more about Anna Jarvis and her hard work getting Mother’s Day established as a national holiday.

Mother’s Day is this Sunday. It is time to get the shopping for mom’s gifts done. Buy a sweet card, get some flowers, maybe some nice jewelry or other token of your appreciation. You will probably call home or drive over for a visit with your mother. It is a day to celebrate mom. The fact that Mother’s Day is a National Holiday is thanks largely to the efforts of Anna Jarvis, whose story can be found in the pages of GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

photo of Anna Jarvis

Photo: Anna Jarvis. Credit: Olairian; Wikimedia Commons.

Anna M. Jarvis spent seven years pushing for a national holiday to celebrate mothers, after her own mother died. Congress finally passed the requisite law on 8 May 1914, and President Woodrow Wilson issued the official proclamation the next day. Anna began her efforts in 1907, and had successfully convinced 5-6 million people to join in the feel-good festival honoring mothers as early as 1908. They wore a simple white carnation as a token of appreciation for mothers.

article about Anna Jarvis and the first celebration of Mother's Day in the U.S., Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 20 May 1908

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 20 May 1908, page 8

Anna desired the holiday to celebrate her own mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis. Ann was also a social activist and had been the founder of a “Mother’s Friendly Day to weld families split by the Civil War.” Ann gave birth to 13 children, many of whom died very young. Ann and Anna were very close and when Ann died 9 May 1905, Anna mourned deeply.

Three years later she made her initial push for a larger memorial service to honor all mothers. The idea was a success and 5-6 million people were estimated to have participated in the celebration. They made a visual show of appreciation for their mothers by wearing a single white carnation.

Enter Last Name

Anna eventually quit her job in order to campaign for a national holiday. The idea caught like wildfire and just seven years after she began her campaign, the second Sunday in May was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson for the purpose. Nearly every country around the globe also began instituting its own version of a Mother’s Day celebration. Although not the first to champion the idea for Mother’s Day, Anna was probably more successful instituting it than she ever imagined.

article about Anna Jarvis and Mother's Day, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 27 November 1948

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 27 November 1948, page 4

Despite being successful in her efforts to bring attention to motherhood, Anna was never able to participate in that experience herself because she never had children of her own.  Her endless efforts also led to personal financial challenges, because her seven-year campaign turned into a life-long no-holds-barred battle against the commercialization of the new national holiday, which absolutely horrified her. Anna’s simple, heartfelt symbolic gesture of honoring mothers with a single white carnation was quickly overshadowed in the landslide of marketing campaigns around the new celebration.

Anna was disgusted by the commercialization of Mother’s Day, the pre-printed store-bought cards, and the impersonal gifts. She campaigned hard, with the same energy she had devoted to the first seven years of getting the day recognized, to push her ideas of forgoing the shallow tokens in favor of making a heartfelt connection with one’s mother. It was a battle she did not win. Mother’s Day is one of the most lucrative holidays for phone companies, the travel industry, card makers, florists, spas, and more.

Anna “once threatened to sue Governor Al Smith of New York over plans for a gigantic Mother’s Day meeting in 1923.” She even “tangled with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt over a rival Mother’s Day committee.”

Sadly, Anna died a “lonely spinster…partially deaf, blind and penniless” at the age of 84.

obituary for Anna Jarvis, Plain Dealer newspaper article 25 November 1948

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 November 1948, page 37

Perhaps this year a homemade card, a single white carnation, and some quality time together with mom might be the better way to celebrate mom and Anna Jarvis.

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The Almost-Immortal 122-Year-Old Jeanne Calment

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over nine 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 GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives to uncover the astonishing story of Jeanne Louise Calment – the only human in history verified to have lived 120 or more years!

Jeanne Louise Calment was born 21 February 1875 in Arles, France. She lived a remarkably full life and remained vibrant to the end, passing away on 4 August 1997 at the incredible age of 122 years, 164 days! Her entire lifespan is well documented with census and other records, and she is the only human in history verified to have lived 120 or more years.

article of Jeanne Calment celebrating her 122nd birthday, Register Star newspaper article 5 August 1997

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 5 August 1997, page 6

Jeanne was treasured in her hometown of Arles, where she lived her entire life. After the oldest woman on earth died the deputy mayor of Arles, Michel Vauzelle, commented in her obituary:

She was the living memory of our city. Her birthdays were a sort of family holiday, where all the people of Arles gathered around their big sister.

obituary for Jeanne Calment, Register Star newspaper article 5 August 1997

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 5 August 1997, page 6

As recounted in her obituary, Jeanne met Vincent van Gogh when selling art supplies to him at her father’s shop in 1888. She described him as “dirty, badly dressed, and disagreeable.” More than a century later, she made a brief appearance in the 1990 film Vincent and Me – becoming, at the age of 114, the oldest person to ever appear in a movie.

Enter Last Name

Jeanne didn’t have to change her last named when she married Fernand Nicolas Calment, her double cousin. According to Wikipedia, this situation occurred because their paternal grandfathers were brothers and their paternal grandmothers were also sisters, making them cousins on both sides.

Longevity ran in Jeanne’s family. Her father, Nicolas Calment (1838-1931) died just six day shy of 93; her mother, Marguerite Gilles (1838-1924) lived to be 86; and her brother, Francois Calment (1865-1962) lived to be 97.

However, the longevity line ended with Jeanne. She and her husband Fernand had one daughter, Yvonne, who died at the age of 35 of pneumonia leaving behind a young son, Frederic. Jeanne raised the little boy and he became a doctor before dying at age 36 in a car accident in 1963. Her husband had died back in 1942, so Frederic’s death left Jeanne entirely without family.

In 1965, at the ripe old age of 90, Jeanne sold her apartment. The buyer, Andre-Francois Raffray, must have thought he was making a great deal by purchasing it on contingency. Instead of paying the full amount upfront, he agreed to pay the elderly woman 2,500 francs per month until she died. But it was more of a gamble than he anticipated! After paying her faithfully for 30 years he died first, in 1995, and then his widow continued making the payments until Jeanne died in 1997.

Throughout Jeanne’s life, she remained positive. On the occasion of her 116th birthday, she stated:

I think I’ll probably die laughing.

article about Jeanne Calment celebrating her 116th birthday, Boston Herald newspaper article 22 February 1991

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 22 February 1991, page 12

Two years later, on her 118th birthday, this headline writer dryly noted “She’s in her very, very late teens.” The article reports:

Her doctors say her memory and sense of humor remain keen.

article about Jeanne Calment celebrating her 118th birthday, Register Star newspaper article 22 February 1993

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 22 February 1993, page 3

As Calment continued aging, reporters kept asking her about her remarkable longevity. As her obituary reports:

Every year on her birthday, Feb. 21, she regaled reporters with quips about her secret of longevity – the list changed every year and included laughter, activity and “a stomach like an ostrich’s.” Her most memorable explanation was that “God must have forgotten me.”

When she died, the town of Arles mourned. As Jeanne’s obituary reports:

In Arles, the flag at city hall was at half-staff Monday. Groups of people lingered in the streets to chat about Calment’s life and death.

“We ended up believing she was immortal,” said Felix Ramadier, a retired worker.

“It’s a bit of our heritage that went away today,” baker Andre Pons said.

What must it have been like to live to be the oldest person ever? Without a doubt, Jeanne had some interesting stories to share. What are you doing today to keep your recollections of the past alive for future generations? Please tell us in the comments section.

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FamilySearch’s Discovery Center: My Family’s Fun with Family History

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 describes a recent visit she made with her three children to FamilySearch’s new Discovery Center.

I’m a single mom of three kids: a 16-year-old boy, a 13-year-old girl, and an 11-year-old boy. As the children of a genealogist, they are what is affectionately termed “genealogy orphans.” This means that I get so excited about my research that the kids have to drag me down to dinner instead of the other way around. It also means that family vacations often involve an archive – and my idea of a fun family activity is walking around a cemetery. Needless to say, they aren’t as fond of these genealogy activities as I am. In fact, I’m likely to get three simultaneous eye-rolls when I start a conversation with, “You will never guess what I just found!”

FamilySearch’s New Discovery Center

Recently a friend of mine, Randy Hoffman, told me about FamilySearch’s new Discovery Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. I was super excited! Randy is involved in the operation of the center and he described it as “a way to bring the fun back into family history” and a “great family activity.” I immediately signed up to go and happened to be one of the first groups to visit.

Strategically, I didn’t tell the offspring where we were going until just before we got there. Then I stated that we needed to do my friend a favor and find out if his recent project was any good. Being naturally helpful people, they were willing to go along with this as long as we didn’t spend too much time there.

Upon entering the brand new Discovery Center they were presented with their very own iPad to use during the tour. That won them over. My kids, like most, are suckers for technology. They were instructed to take a selfie, which they all managed easily. However, they had to help me get one that looked decent. Apparently, there is an art to taking a self-portrait. My daughter, as you can see below, had no trouble.

photo of Duncan Kuehn's daughter

Credit: FamilySearch.org

Discover My Story

Once we signed into our FamilySearch accounts, we snapped the iPads into the first docking station: “Discover My Story.” Our iPads projected information about our names onto a large screen. This elicited excitement. “Hey, look at this!” the youngest called out. He found that in the 2010 census there were only 16 other people named Jasher in the entire United States. He declared that all the Jashers of the country should get together and swap stories about having such a unique name.

map showing where people named "Jasher" live in the U.S.

Credit: FamilySearch.org

My oldest child, a newly licensed driver, was enamored by the price of gasoline over the years. He declared that he wouldn’t mind paying the five-cent price for a gallon back in Great-Grandpa’s day. There may even have been a hint of amazement in his voice that Great-Grandpa had, indeed, been telling the truth when he said, “Back in my day…”

graphic showing the price of various commodities in 1998

Credit: FamilySearch.org

Explore My Story

At another docking station was a mapping tool called “Explore My Story.” When you plugged in here, pins dropped all over the world map to indicate where each of your ancestors was from. Unfortunately, my map was fairly bland since my ancestors have been in the United States for many, many generations – and then my ancestry hops back to the United Kingdom. My kids on the other hand are half German from a fairly recent migration, so their maps had more variation. What was most interesting to me was the ability to click on a pin and get information about that ancestor. And guess what I found! Many of my ancestors had multiple stories attached to them – long, interesting stories. And photos! No way! How did I not know this? Probably because I am so busy researching other people’s trees. But I was sure excited to do some poking around in my own tree that weekend.

Experience My Story

I really enjoyed the time machine, or what they officially called “Experience My Story.” This room had a giant screen showing the interior of a house, and documented the changes in furniture and amenities over the years. I spent quite a bit of time in there going backward and forward in time to watch the changes.

Enter Last Name

Picture My Story

My kids, on the other hand, filtered in and out of that room. They had discovered the photo booth called “Picture My Story” and were capturing images of themselves in traditional dress from around the world. I was grateful the Discovery Center was an enclosed area (and we were the only ones there) because of their shrieks of laughter as each new photo got a bit more out of control, particularly from my selfie-obsessed daughter. Here’s a picture of me in an Armenian dress.

photo of Duncan Kuehn in an Armenian dress

Credit: FamilySearch.org

Record My Story

Our favorite station, and the one we spent the most time in, was “Record My Story.” We plopped down together on a couch in front of a large screen. On the screen were various topics to discuss. Our first choice was: “Embarrassing moments.” I related the experience I had in 6th grade when my long-time crush finally noticed me. He was just saying hello for the first time as we walked across the playground when I slipped on some ice. I had, unfortunately, chosen a skirt to wear that day in an effort to impress him. Skirts and ice don’t go well together and you can imagine the outcome. I lay there horrified as everyone laughed. It was a horrible happening then; great story now. And now my memorable life event is recorded for all time and eternity in audiovisual format.

We stayed at that station for at least half an hour, having a great time together recording our personal stories. My kids and I were laughing and trying to outdo each other for the funniest story. Finally, the friendly couple in charge of the center had to gently inform us that our time was up. And for the first time ever, my kids were sad to leave a genealogy-related activity. They asked if we could get the cousins and come back. According to Randy Hoffman, that has been a common response. One little girl even asked if she could have her eighth birthday party there! Since the goal was to put the family fun into genealogy, I would say the center is a raging success.

On the way out, we paused to take this family photo. The picture immortalizes the day we all had fun at a family history experience.

photo of Duncan Kuehn and her three children

Credit: FamilySearch.org

If you haven’t checked out the new Discover Center it’s worth a trip. The address is:

Joseph Memorial Building
Main Floor
15 East South Temple Street
Salt Lake City, UT

You can also schedule a visit here: http://www.scheduleonce.com/FamilySearchDiscoveryCenter

Have you had a recent family history experience that was fun for the whole family? Please tell us about it in the comments section!

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Pearls of Life Wisdom from Pink Mullaney’s Obituary

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 shares some of the funny and at times insightful comments from the obituary of Mary “Pink” Mullaney about a life well-lived.

Sometimes you read an obituary and mourn that you didn’t get a chance to know the person who died. Such is the case with Mary “Pink” Mullaney. Her well-written obituary helps the reader come to know her – and she sounds like a fantastic person to know!

The quirky opening line of her obituary sets the stage: “If you’re about to throw away an old pair of pantyhose, stop.” You immediately know that this isn’t going to be an ordinary obituary, which is good because Pink Mullaney was no ordinary person.

Never throw away old pantyhose. Use the old ones to tie gutters, childproof cabinets, tie toilet flappers, or hang Christmas ornaments.

The obituary for Mrs. Mullaney ran in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Her six children must miss her terribly. Surely there was rarely a dull moment growing up with her as a mother!

obituary for Mary "Pink" Mullaney, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper article 4 September 2013

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 4 September 2013, page 5

Put picky-eating children in the box at the bottom of the laundry chute, tell them they are hungry lions in a cage, and feed them veggies through the slats.

Pink lived for 85 years. She outlived her husband, Dr. Gerald L. Mullaney, and six of her nine siblings.

Keep the car keys under the front seat so they don’t get lost. Make the car dance by lightly tapping the brakes to the beat of songs on the radio. Offer rides to people carrying a big load or caught in the rain or summer heat. Believe the hitchhiker you pick up who says he is a landscaper and his name is “Peat Moss.”

She had 17 grandchildren at the time of her death. If other descendants have been born since, they truly missed out on knowing such a lovely person.

Let a dog (or two or three) share your bed. Say the rosary while you walk them. Go to church with a chicken sandwich in your purse. Cry at the consecration, every time. Give the chicken sandwich to your homeless friend after mass. Go to a nursing home and kiss everyone.

obituary for Mary "Pink" Mullaney, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper article 4 September 2013

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 4 September 2013, page 5

Pink trusted everyone in ways that many of us would find shocking in today’s society. However, her old-fashioned ways seemed to have served her well in life, and she must have been well-loved by all who knew her.

Give to every charity that asks. Choose to believe the best about what they do with your money, no matter what your children say they discovered online. Allow the homeless to keep warm in your car while you are at Mass.

Take magazines you’ve already read to your doctor’s office for others to enjoy. Do not tear off the mailing label, “Because if someone wants to contact me, that would be nice.”

obituary for Mary "Pink" Mullaney, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper article 4 September 2013

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 4 September 2013, page 5

Friends (and strangers she would love to have met) can visit with Pink’s family at the Feerick Funeral Home on Thursday.

When Pink died, her family asked that donations in her honor be made to the Dominican High School or Saint Monica Parish, or “any charity that seeks to spread the Good News of Pink’s friend, Jesus.”

Truly the world lost a bright light on 1 September 2013, when Pink passed away.  But how good it was that a bit of her personality was captured by her family and shared in this funny and thought-provoking obituary. At first, we laugh at some of Pink’s odd behaviors and insights. And then we realize just how right she was. Thank you, Pink.

Note: FamilySearch International (FamilySearch.org) and GenealogyBank are partnering to make over a billion records from recent and historical obituaries searchable online. The tremendous undertaking will make a billion records from over 100 million U.S. newspaper obituaries readily searchable online. The newspapers are from all 50 states and cover the period 1730 to the present.  Find out more at: http://www.genealogybank.com/family-search/

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The Nelson Shipwreck & Captain Hagney: Name Research Tips

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 Captain Hagney and the sinking of the schooner “Nelson” on Lake Superior in 1899, using various search tips to get good results.

Searching newspapers for an ancestor’s name that doesn’t seem to have a standard spelling can be a challenge for family historians. Here is an interesting case study about the captain of a sunken ship that may help you research those difficult ancestor names. Recently this ship, the schooner Nelson, was found under more than 200 feet of water in Lake Superior. There were several newspaper articles about the shipwreck discovery, but they had various spellings of the captain’s name – including “Haganey” and “Hagginey.”

The Story of the Sinking of the Nelson

The shipwreck story goes like this. On 15 May 1899, the schooner Nelson was overloaded with coal, in addition to the 10 people on board. There was a terrific storm on Lake Superior and ice accumulated on the ship, causing it to sit even lower in the water. The waves began to crash over the edges of the ship. The Nelson was being towed by the steamer A Folsom along with the Mary B Mitchell. At some point the towing line either broke or was cut. Shortly after, the Nelson tilted and the stern popped up out of the water as the entire vessel almost immediately went under. The captain placed his crew, his wife, and his toddler son into the lifeboat. Then he dove into the water to join them. Unfortunately, the lifeboat was still tethered to the Nelson and it was dragged down to the bottom of the lake by the sinking ship. The captain, who never reached the lifeboat, watched helplessly as his ship and family were lost. He clung to a piece of the wreckage and was found unconscious along the shore. The storm’s violent 50 mile-per-hour winds prevented any rescue efforts by the other two ships. Nine lives were lost; only the captain survived.

My Search for the Captain

This is a compelling story of a heroic effort by the captain of the Nelson that just wasn’t enough to save his family or crew, and I wanted to learn more details.

As always, I searched for contemporary records to find out more. I started by looking into GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. I ran this search:

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box showing a search for the schooner "Nelson"

I entered the name of the ship in quotation marks as a keyword. You do not necessarily need to use a person’s name to search on GenealogyBank – a keyword search is often effective. I also entered a date range from the date of the accident to several months after the event. When the search results came back I sorted the results with the oldest article first, as I prefer to read articles in chronological order.

I found many newspaper articles from all over the United States telling the story of the accident. Here are three of those articles.

This article refers to Captain “Haganney.”

article about the shipwreck of the schooner "Nelson," Elkhart Weekly Review newspaper article 17 May 1899

Elkhart Weekly Review (Elkhart, Indiana), 17 May 1899, page 1

This historical newspaper article refers to Captain “Hagney.”

article about the shipwreck of the schooner "Nelson," Anaconda Standard newspaper article 15 May 1899

Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), 15 May 1899, page 1

This old news article also refers to Captain “Hagney.”

article about the shipwreck of the schooner "Nelson," Bay City Times newspaper article 15 May 1899

Bay City Times (Bay City, Michigan), 15 May 1899, page 3

Using these old newspaper articles, I discovered that much of the information in the present-day articles about the discovery of the shipwreck reflected the information given in those 1899 articles. However, I found some inconsistencies as well. Perhaps most importantly, the old articles make no mention of the captain’s heroic effort to save his family and crew. A typical comment from those 1899 articles is that “The Nelson disappeared as suddenly as one could snuff a candle,” suggesting that the captain did not have time to do anything. I also find that Captain Haganey/Hagginey (as spelled in the modern newspaper articles) is spelled differently in the 1899 articles:  “Haganney” and “Hagney.”

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After learning about the shipwreck, I now wanted to know more about the captain himself – but there were so many spellings of his name I wasn’t sure which was correct. A quick search of census records on FamilySearch.org told me that he was the son of John and Mary Hagney from Oswego, New York. He also had siblings: Ellen, Thomas, William, and Mary.

Going back to GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, I narrowed my search using the name as it appeared in the census: “Hagney.” This search turned up several articles that told me a great deal about the captain.

One of the first I found was this very sad newspaper article. It appears that on the same day the Nelson when down with Captain Hagney’s entire family, his friends from New York were frantically trying to reach him with the sad news that his mother had just died. The unfortunate man lost his one remaining parent and his wife and child.

article about the shipwreck of the schooner "Nelson," Saginaw News newspaper article 15 May 1899

Saginaw News (Saginaw, Michigan), 15 May 1899, page 6

The Captain Searches for His Family

Immediately after the Nelson accident, Captain Hagney refused to give up hope. As this old news article explains, he wasn’t willing to give up on his family – and spent hours and days combing the beach for any sign of his loved ones:

Capt. Hagney is now engaged in patrolling the beach with the help of the crews of life saving stations here and at Deer Park. The broken yawl, some parts of the cabin, a lady’s hat, a man’s cap and a mattress are all that have yet been found.

article about the shipwreck of the schooner "Nelson," Plain Dealer newspaper article 19 May 1899

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 19 May 1899, page 10

Hagney was understandably distraught, as reported in these next two newspaper articles. This Ohio newspaper article’s headline, “Capt. Hagney in Bad Shape,” says it all, and reports that he had been hospitalized:

The doctors class his trouble as nervousness and insomnia.

article about Captain Hagney's trauma after the shipwreck of the schooner "Nelson," Plain Dealer newspaper article 24 May 1899

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 24 May 1899, page 8

This Michigan newspaper article reports that Hagney’s condition is serious.

article about Captain Hagney's trauma after the shipwreck of the schooner "Nelson," Saginaw News newspaper article 24 May 1899

Saginaw News (Saginaw, Michigan), 24 May 1899, page 2

The Previous Life of Captain Hagney

The 1900 census shows him safely ensconced at the home of a family member in Toledo, Ohio, where he was working as an agent for the seamen’s union.* As tragic as all of this was, I still wanted to know more about Hagney. He had a life before the shipwreck of the Nelson and one after, so I ran some more searches. I started with changing the spelling from Hagney to Hageny. I figured this would be a common misspelling even though I hadn’t seen it in any of the records so far. This search did produce results, and I found a series of articles about his life back in New York a decade before the accident.

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Ten years previously, in 1889, Andrew got into some difficulty with the law. As this New York newspaper reports, there was a trial after some union trouble involving strikes, “scabs” and violence:

Andrew Hageny, William Putman, and Michael Donovan were charged with a murderous assault upon Jesse Josephs, mate of the schooner John Scheutte of Toledo, at the dock in this port…Josephs was dragged a mile into the suburbs, pounded with belaying pins and thrown into the cellar of a burned house; he managed to crawl to an adjoin house.

They were all found guilty of assault in the second degree, with a second, upcoming trial for coercion and conspiracy in forcing some “scabs” to leave another ship.

article about Andrew Hagney being convicted for assault, Watertown Daily Times newspaper article 20 July 1889

Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, New York), 20 July 1889, page 5

This “Andrew Hageny” seems to be the same man as the later Captain Andrew Hagney of the Nelson, based on location, occupation, and name, but more evidence is always wanted – so I kept searching the archives. I found this earlier newspaper article about the assault on sailor Jesse Josephs, and learned that Andrew Hageny’s brother Thomas was also involved. This lends credence to the belief that this Andrew Hageny is the same as the later Captain Andrew Hagney, since I knew from my earlier research on the census that Andrew Hagney had a brother named Thomas.

article about Thomas Hagney being charged for assault, Watertown Daily Times newspaper article 17 May 1889

Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, New York), 17 May 1889, page 3

But how did Andrew become a ship’s captain with this background of conviction for assault, especially when we find that he had been sentenced to four years in prison?

Intrigued, I kept searching for answers – and found this newspaper article two years into Andrew’s prison sentence, indicating that Governor Hill had promised to pardon him.

article about Andrew Hagney being pardoned by Governor Hill, Watertown Daily Times newspaper article 25 November 1891

Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, New York), 25 November 1891, page 8

And that was indeed what happened – Governor Hill pardoned him. So that was how he got out of prison early, and presumably set about setting his affairs in order. I was unable to find any newspaper articles reporting Andrew getting in trouble with the law again. He must have worked hard and stayed out of trouble, because in a few years he was entrusted as a ship’s captain.

The Post-Shipwreck Life of Captain Hagney

But what happened to Captain Andrew Hagney after the shipwreck of the Nelson? Was he able to recover from the trauma? It took some searching to find a newspaper article to answer this question. I had to go back to the other spellings of his name, and eventually found his obituary by searching under the spelling “Haganey.”

obituary for Andrew Hagney, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 23 February 1912

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 23 February 1912, page 10

Captain Andrew Hagney appears to have remained in Toledo for the rest of his short life. He remarried and fathered three more children. He died at age 52 in 1912, while visiting his in-laws in New Mexico.

Captain Hagney’s life was full of tragic and challenging experiences. While it must have been difficult to live, searching for his life story provides an opportunity for us to learn about ancestor name search tips, and demonstrates how much we can learn about the lives of our ancestors simply by continuing to dig in the archives..

Genealogy Tips:

Many of us have ancestors with unusual names, or names that appear in records with different spellings. When searching on GenealogyBank, the search engine will look for exactly what you type. Therefore, if you know of an alternative spelling of your ancestor’s name – or if you can guess at one – you may end up finding even more articles. And if you stumble across an article that seems to be about your ancestor, but the name was spelled differently than you thought, it could still be them. Keep searching for additional information to help you determine if that record or article is the right person.

Another thing you might notice is the location of these articles. They appear from places all over the United States: Cleveland, Ohio; Saginaw, Michigan; Watertown, New York; Elkhart, Indiana; Anaconda, Montana; and Bay City, Michigan. While some of these locations make sense because Andrew had a connection with them, some do not – such as Montana and Indiana. Keep in mind that news travels, and reports about the ancestor you are looking for could be in any newspaper in the country. If you don’t find what you are looking for in your ancestor’s local area, don’t hesitate to search nationwide. This is always a good approach to take, even if your initial searches do find articles in your ancestor’s hometown, because many more articles might be out there. Best of luck in your family history searches!

—————-

* “United States Census, 1900,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/MMD2-KFQ: accessed Dec. 2014), Andrew Hagney in household of Robert V. French, Port Lawrence Township, Precinct F Toledo city Ward 10, Lucas, Ohio, United States; citing sheet 8A, family 159, NARA microfilm publication T623, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; FHL microfilm 1241298.

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John Adams & Thomas Jefferson: Intertwined in Life – and Death

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 the remarkable coincidence of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – friends and ex-presidents – both dying on 4 July 1826, the nation’s 50th anniversary.

John Adams, the nation’s 2nd president, and Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd president, were a large presence in one another’s life – a lifelong personal connection that continued to the day they both died: 4 July 1826, the 50th anniversary of the young country they were instrumental in creating and leading.

portrait of John Adams, 2nd president of the United States, by Asher B. Durand

Portrait: John Adams, 2nd president of the United States, by Asher B. Durand. Credit: U.S. Naval Historical Center; Wikimedia Commons.

John Adams (1735-1826) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), were friends and companions as they fought for independence from the British government. Although Jefferson was ultimately the author of the Declaration of Independence, Adams was initially favored to draft it and was on the writing committee – from which position he convinced the other members that Jefferson was the right man for the job. After the Declaration was written, Adams was perhaps the loudest and most assertive of its supporters and was hailed as a champion to the cause – which only increased the goodwill between the two men.

portrait of Thomas Jefferson, 3rd president of the United States, by Rembrandt Peale

Portrait: Thomas Jefferson, 3rd president of the United States, by Rembrandt Peale. Credit: New York Historical Society; Wikimedia Commons.

Their individual personalities and political opinions about how the new government should function, however, proved to be radically different. John Adams was aggressively in favor of a strong federal government and his bold, pushy demeanor alienated many. Thomas Jefferson was refined and gentile. He strongly defended the rights of the individual states over the rights of the federal government. The two men clashed constantly on political issues.

Both ran for the office of president of the United States after George Washington. Adams won the office in 1796 with the most votes and, as was customary at the time, Jefferson was made vice-president after receiving the second-highest number of votes. It was a political role Jefferson despised. He ended up beating Adams for the presidential office in the 1800 election and set to work undoing as much of Adams’s work as he could. He called it the “Revolution of 1800.”

In their latter years, they were able to set aside their differences and repair the relationship, maintaining a strong, steady correspondence for the last 14 years of their lives. On 4 July 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, they both lay in their sick beds. Jefferson died first, but Adams didn’t know that when he said his last words: “Jefferson survives.” Adams, being older, was one of the longest-living presidents. He died just months shy of his 91st birthday. Of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, only Charles Carroll was still living after Adams and Jefferson died.

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In the midst of celebrating the nation’s 50th anniversary, Americans marveled that these two great leaders and friends died together on such an important day – the only time in U.S. history two presidents have died on the same day.

As the following newspaper obituary noted:

The coincidence is a remarkable one. It seems as though Divine Providence had determined that the spirits of these great men…should be united in death, and travel into the unknown regions of eternity together!

Death of Thomas Jefferson, Hampshire Gazette newspaper article 12 July 1826

Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, Massachusetts), 12 July 1826, page 2

The importance of the 4th of July was also emphasized in this obituary.

Death of John Adams, Salem Observer newspaper article 8 July 1826

Salem Observer (Salem, Massachusetts), 8 July 1826, page 2

Obituaries – of ordinary citizens as well as famous people – help provide the details of our ancestors’ lives. GenealogyBank’s deep newspaper archive of over 1.7 billion records holds story after story about the people who built this nation, along with their births, marriages, and deaths. Find your ancestors’ stories today and see what they’ve done.

Note: FamilySearch International (FamilySearch.org) and GenealogyBank are partnering to make over a billion records from historical obituaries searchable online. The tremendous undertaking will make a billion records from over 100 million U.S. newspaper obituaries readily searchable online. The newspapers are from all 50 states and cover the period 1730 to the present.  Find out more at: http://www.genealogybank.com/family-search/

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Snow & Ice: Winter’s Frosty Fun

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. With the East Coast (especially Boston) digging out from yesterday’s blizzard, this seems like a good time for an article about winter. In this blog post, Duncan searches old newspapers to find poems and photos about our ancestors enjoying winter activities.

Some people love winter and the frosty fun that comes with it. They love wrapping up in blankets and sipping hot chocolate after a long day frolicking in the snow or skating on the ice.

photo of some boys making a giant snowball

Photo: making a giant snowball. Credit: Kamyar Adl; Wikimedia Commons.

Children Play

The cold weather keeps some people indoors, where snuggling up with a loved one by the fire is the highest priority. For many children, however, winter is a wonderland to be explored. If this describes you, this poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, presenting a child’s perspective on winter, may bring you joy.

Winter Time

Late lies the wintry sun a-bed,

A frosty, fiery sleepy-head;

Blinks but an hour or two; and then

A blood-red orange, sets again.

Before the stars have left the skies,

At morning in the dark I rise;

And shivering in my nakedness,

By the cold candle, bathe and dress.

Close by the jolly fire I sit,

To warm my frozen bones a bit;

Or, with a reindeer sled, explore

The colder countries round the door.

When to go out, my nurse doth wrap

Me in my comforter and cap;

The cold wind burns my face, and blows

Its frosty pepper up my nose.

Black are my steps on silver sod;

Thick blows my frosty breath abroad;

And tree and house, and hill and lake,

Are frosted like a wedding cake.

“Winter Time” was published in Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885) and was reprinted in this 1903 Minnesota newspaper.

the poem "Winter Time" by Robert Louis Stevenson, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 14 January 1903

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 14 January 1903, page 4

Adults Worry

Unlike children, many adults find that the harshness of winter reminds them of some of the difficulties of life. The hassle of slippery roads, buried cars, and treacherous walkways takes its toll.

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This poem brings these sentiments to mind. It was published in a 1917 Pennsylvania newspaper and attributed to “Uncle Walt the Poet Philosopher.”

the poem "Snow," Patriot newspaper article 8 January 1917

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 8 January 1917, page 6

Remember the Joy

It seems that children are naturally drawn to the slippery stuff in nature’s playground. Perhaps Uncle Walt needs to spend more time watching the pure joy of children playing in the snow to perk up his mood. Or watch lovers holding hands as they ice skate, round and round the pond. Or take a moment to really see the snow as it flutters to the ground. We get so focused on what we have to do and how the snow hinders us, we miss out on its wonder. The infuriating white stuff seems to be there just to make life hard. But maybe this is nature’s way of reminding us to slow down and remember what is most important. Perhaps it is time to wrap up in a warm, fuzzy blanket and read the newspaper by the glow of a crackling fire. Or maybe we need to dust off the sled and get some invigorating exercise as we pull the kids around the yard. It is hard to retain our crusty mood as we watch children, wrapped in snow clothes to the point of near immobility, waddle around the uneven surface of a snowy field, laughing as they tumble to the ground in a frosty heap. And taking a moment to laugh with them can heal our soul.

Photos Capture the Fun

Here are pictures from four old newspapers to remind us of winter’s joy.

These photos were published in a 1916 Oregon newspaper, entitled “Portland Children Reveling in the Snow with Christmas Sleds as Agents of Joy.”

photos of children sledding on the snow, Oregonian newspaper article 28 December 1916

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 28 December 1916, page 14

These photos were published in a 1939 Pennsylvania newspaper. They show adults “joining the ‘keep fit’ movement sweeping the nation” – but one look at their faces, and you realize what’s really happening: these adults are remembering how much fun it is to play in the snow.

photos of people playing in the snow, National Labor Tribune newspaper article 14 January 1939

National Labor Tribune (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), 14 January 1939, page 8

This photo, published in a 1912 North Dakota newspaper, shows U.S. Secretary of the Navy George von L. Meyer skating on the frozen Potomac River with his daughter Alice. The photo caption says “Washington Society” is excited about ice skating; Meyer is identified as “a leader in the movement.”

photo of U.S. Secretary of the Navy George von L. Meyer skating on the frozen Potomac River with his daughter Alice, Evening Times newspaper article 24 December 1912

Evening Times (Grand Forks, North Dakota), 24 December 1912, page 5

This photo, published in a 1910 Maryland newspaper, shows people enjoying ice skating on the boat lake in Baltimore’s Patterson Park. The caption says:

This is practically the only place for ice skating which is convenient to East Baltimore folk, and it is thronged morning, afternoon and evening when the park officials consider the ice thick enough for the sport.

photo of people ice skating, Baltimore American newspaper article 13 December 1910

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 13 December 1910, page 15

If you live along the East Coast, have you dug out from yesterday’s major blizzard? How much snow did Winter Storm Juno dump in your area? No matter where you live, we hope you have found some time this winter to get out and enjoy the snow and ice – winter’s frosty fun.

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America’s First Newspaper: Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, 1690

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 writes about the short-lived history of the first newspaper published in North America – which was shut down by the authorities after printing its first and only issue.

Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick was the first newspaper published in the Americas. Previously a few broadsides had been published in the colonies, but these were single-sided sheets of news or announcements meant to be posted in a public place. Publick Occurrences was the first real newspaper, consisting of three pages of news intended for individual consumption. This newspaper is a fascinating study of early North American life and times.

front page for the newspaper Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 September 1690

Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 September 1690, page 1

The History of the First American Newspaper

The editor, Benjamin Harris, had published a newspaper and other material in London, but ran afoul of the authorities and was twice jailed for his “seditious” pamphlets – so in 1686 he immigrated to the American colonies. He enlisted the help of a local printer, Richard Pierce, and together they produced their four-page newspaper on 25 September 1690 in Boston. It was about six inches by ten inches and the last page was blank.

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Harris and Pierce used the first few column inches of the new paper to explain their reasons and hopes for creating it. They intended to provide “an Account of such considerable things as have arrived unto our Notice” for three reasons:

    • “That Memorable Occurrences of Divine Providence may not be neglected or forgotten, as they too often are.”
    • “That people every where may better understand the Circumstances of Publique Affairs, both abroad and at home; which may not only direct their Thoughts at all times, but at some times also to assist their Businesses and Negotiations.”
    • “That some thing may be done towards the Curing, or at least the Charming of that Spirit of Lying, which prevails amongst us, wherefore nothing shall be entered, but what we have reason to believe is true, repairing to the best fountains for our Information.”
article explaining why the first newspaper in North America was being printed, Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick newspaper article 25 September 1690

Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 September 1690, page 1

A Day of Thanksgiving

The first article was about the “Christianized Indians in some parts of Plimouth” having “newly appointed a day of Thanksgiving to God for his Mercy in supplying their extream and pinching Necessities.” It went on to opine that: “Their Example may be worth Mentioning.”

This was an excellent beginning article for the new paper, a nice human interest story which caused no controversy. It will be remembered that in 1690, there was no independent nation and no national Thanksgiving holiday in North America. However, the colonists and their Christianized Indian allies observed periodic days of thanksgiving.

article about Indians celebrating Thanksgiving, Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick newspaper article 25 September 1690

Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 September 1690, page 1

Suicide after Wife’s Death

For the genealogist, this paper is full of stories of importance. For example, one front page article relates the story of an older resident of Watertown who committed suicide after the death of his wife. This man “had long Enjoyed the reputation of a Sober and a Pious Man; having newly buried his Wife, The Devil took advantage of the Melancholy which he thereupon fell into.” Despite the efforts of his friends to protect him, he slipped away one night and hanged himself. His name was not mentioned, but it might be possible to discover his identity using the clues given in the old newspaper article.

Small Pox Ravages Boston

There are stories about illness, including one about small-pox that had recently ravaged Boston:

The Small-pox which has been raging in Boston, after a manner very Extraordinary, is now very much abated. It is thought that far more have been sick of it than were visited with it, when it raged so much twelve years ago, nevertheless it has not been so Mortal. The number of them that have dyed in Boston by this last Visitation is about three hundred and twenty, which is not perhaps half so many as fell by the former [visitation].

Again, no names are mentioned, but it may provide clues on ancestors affected by this calamity.

Inferno Engulfs Town

Another story tells of a fire that took the life of one boy and destroyed five or six homes and a rare and valuable printing press: “…[one] of those few that we know of in America, was lost; a loss not presently to be repaired.”

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Children Taken as Indian Captives

Another story is about two Chelmsford children, ages 11 and 9, kidnapped by the hostile Indians. While these stories don’t mention the individuals by name, they can provide clues for identifying individuals you may already know something about from other records. In addition, these stories can provide an incredible look into the life and times of the residents of Boston. What were they most concerned with? What was life like? How did they adapt to their circumstances? And so on.

French vs. English

There is another story about an English ship that put in at the wrong port and was attacked by the French and their Indian allies, with one member of the crew escaping. Although the French and Indian War did not officially begin until 1754, we see in these 1690 reports that clashes between the French and English – and their respective Indian allies – were common.

In fact, the majority of this inaugural (and, as it turned out, only) issue of Publick Occurrences’s articles address the ongoing fighting. They graphically describe the various conflicts with a remarkable nonpartisanship, with blame assigned to both the French and English, as well as their Indian allies. As a British citizen, Harris could justify a printed attack on the French and their Indian allies. He reports how the French Canadians even annihilated some loyal Indian allies after a misunderstanding.  He grows bold in reprinting a letter which gave news from the Caribbean and accuses the French king of an incestuous relationship with his daughter-in-law.

Somewhat surprisingly, Harris also uses his newspaper to criticize the English – both for their own actions, and for not better restraining their Indian allies. He reports how some of the British forces’ Indian allies “returned with some Success, having slain several of the French, and brought home several Prisoners, whom they used in a manner too barbarous for any English to approve.” Harris also reports a story about the English Captain Mason, who “cut the faces, and ript the bellies of two Indians, and threw a third Over board in the sight of the French.”

article about a fight between French and British forces, Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick newspaper article 25 September 1690

Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 September 1690, page 3

Only One Issue Ever Printed

Although Harris and Pierce stated that their intent was to publish their new newspaper once a month “or if any Glut of Occurrences happen, oftener,” the inaugural issue of Publick Occurrences was also the last. The British authorities discovered the paper and moved quickly to suppress it.

And so the very first newspaper in American ran right into issues of press censorship and freedom of speech. Just four days after Publick Occurrences was published, the “Governour & Council” issued an order in which they “do hereby manifest and declare their high Resentment and Disallowance of said Pamphlet [i.e., newspaper], and Order that the same be Suppress’d and called in.” The official reasoning was that Harris had not applied for and obtained the proper licenses. However, the authorities were most likely unhappy with Harris’s opinions and criticisms, as mild as they may seem to the modern reader.

While not mentioning very many names, this first North American newspaper is fascinating to read. It provides a colorful description of what Bostonians and people in the original colonies were experiencing, what they cared about, and what trials they faced. It gives tantalizing clues about the early colonists and their lives, and is a good resource for anyone researching their ancestors during the early colonial period in American history.

Publick Occurrences is just one of the rare early colonial newspapers available in GenealogyBank’s  Historical Newspaper Archives, which houses more than 6,500 newspaper titles online. GenealogyBank can help you learn more about your ancestors in early America; see what’s inside the archives on your ancestors’ stories. Start your 30-day trial now!

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