About Gena Philibert-Ortega

Gena Philibert-Ortega holds a Master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies and a Master’s degree in Religion. Presenting on various subjects involving genealogy, women’s studies and social history, Gena has spoken to groups throughout the United States and virtually to audiences worldwide. Gena is the author of hundreds of articles published in genealogy newsletters and magazines including Internet Genealogy, Family Chronicle, GenWeekly, FGS Forum, APG Quarterly and the WorldVitalRecords newsletter. She is the author of the books, Putting the Pieces Together, Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra (Arcadia Publishing, 2007) and From the Family Kitchen (F + W Media, 2012). Gena is the editor of the Utah Genealogical Association’s journal Crossroads. An instructor for the National Institute for Genealogical Studies, Gena has written courses about social media and Google. She serves as Vice-President for the So. California Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists, board member of the Utah Genealogical Association and is a Director for the California State Genealogical Alliance. Her current research interests include social history, community, social history, community cookbooks, signature quilts and researching women’s lives.

Genealogy Search Engine Types & Tips: OCR vs. Indexed Databases

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena explains the difference between searching for genealogy content in indexed databases, as opposed to genealogy content (such as historical newspapers) that is searched using OCR (Optical Character Recognition).

What’s the biggest benefit of being a family history researcher in 2014? Well at the top of my list is the ability to access countless documents right from my home computer or mobile device. Modern-day genealogy researchers are lucky to have so many options at their fingertips—but just having access to information isn’t enough. One needs to be able to navigate various website search engines to find and sift through results.

The way you search for your ancestor online is going to differ depending on what type of information is hosted by the website. What’s one of the big differences between GenealogyBank’s content and some of the other websites you use to research your family history?

It’s all in the search.

photo of a magnifying glass

Photo: magnifying glass. Credit: Wikipedia.

Indexed Database vs. OCR

Both indexed databases and optical character recognition search engines are essential to your genealogy research, but you do need to know the difference in order to conduct a thorough search.

While the search engine on GenealogyBank looks similar to the search engine you’ll find on other familiar websites, there is one important difference. GenealogyBank’s newspapers, documents and books are searchable via Optical Character Recognition (OCR). In many cases, genealogists are accustomed to content that is indexed.

On websites that house such content as vital records or the census, volunteers or paid staff go through the documents and choose certain keywords and dates to index. Keywords could be words such as a first and last name, a location, an age or an occupation. Once these keywords are indexed and the data is made available online, those fields and keywords become “searchable” meaning that a person can insert those words into the search engine and get results based on those keywords. For example, if I enter the name “Oscar Philibert” in a census search on an indexed website, I would expect to see that name or perhaps versions of that name in my result’s list.

Caution: your ability to find results in indexed content can be hampered by such things as misspellings, name variations, the readability of the document, or an error on the part of the person indexing the document.

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OCR Makes Newspapers Searchable

Indexing newspapers is too time-consuming a process, so it’s not practical to make the content available to genealogy researchers that way. You’d have to hire a huge team to read every word of every article and index millions of keywords. So instead, GenealogyBank and other similar newspaper websites use Optical Character Recognition or OCR.

What is OCR? It’s an abbreviation for Optical Character Recognition. It’s a search technology that allows a scanned document to be “read” by the computer. Websites that provide digitized books or historical newspapers use this technology to make their content searchable. The computer is programmed to recognize shapes it “sees” as letters. So when you type in a name or a keyword, the system looks for articles that match those shapes you provided.

Caution: are there problems with OCR technology? Of course. The readability of a newspaper can cause the system to have difficulty matching characters. Original older newspapers and microfilmed copies can be prone to tears, ink blots and smudges. Newspapers contain various font types and sizes as well as pages that might be black type on white background or (in the case of an advertisement) white on black background. In some cases, letters can be mistaken for similar letters. These imperfections can cause you to receive false positive results in your search.

Knowing how a website’s content was made searchable can help you try different search strategies to get better results.

A Name Is a Name, or Is It?

When searching on websites that have indexed information, it’s important to mind how you enter a first and last name because you are telling the search a specific command, to find that exact name in the exact way you have entered it. With OCR technology, you are actually telling the search engine to find two keywords (in the case of a first name and surname) that occur within two words of each other. For the OCR technology, it doesn’t know it’s looking for a name; instead, it is looking for words that you have entered—more specifically, characters you have entered. (This is not true for all of the content on GenealogyBank: its SSDI collection and recent obituary archives are indexed collections not reliant on OCR technology.)

Your search strategy should take into consideration what type of data you are searching and what problems may exist. With a search on indexed data, you want to be concerned about data that was incorrectly transcribed. For example, the “Mc” in McDonald might have been indexed as a middle name leaving the “Donald” as the surname.

Making the Most of Your Search in GenealogyBank

Make sure to utilize all aspects of the GenealogyBank search tools. For your initial search, it’s usually best to start with a broad search using the basic search form.

screenshot of the Simple Search search box on GenealogyBank

If your initial search turned up too many results to make it practical to look through them all, then it’s a good strategy to limit your search by a place or time period; do that especially in cases where you know from other research the exact place or time you want. In the case of a letter that could be confused for another, like an “o” for an “e” or an “l” for an “I,” try varying your search terms to take that into consideration—or even use other search terms or additional words.

See the “Advanced Search” link on the basic search form? Clicking on that brings up a new search box with more options.

screenshot of the Advanced Search search box on GenealogyBank

Sometimes You Need to Set Search Limits

Consider limiting your search in some cases. For example: once you conduct a broad newspaper search and have your list of results, you can limit your research to a state or a city. You can even search just on a single newspaper title. If you are looking for a certain “type” of newspaper article like an obituary or advertisement, limit your search to that type of article.

screenshot of the Search Results page in GenealogyBank showing the different types of newspaper articles available

Utilize the advanced search’s features by adding keywords to include and/or exclude. For example: with a surname that is also a noun such as “Race,” you may want to type in keywords for the search engine to exclude such as “car” or “track.” In other cases you might want to include keywords. If your ancestor was a railroad worker and you’re hoping to find mentions of that, include the word “railroad” or their job title. Also consider limiting your search by a date or date range.

Need more hints about using GenealogyBank? Watch these helpful YouTube videos.

It’s all in the search. Knowing what type of data you are looking for and how a search engine works can mean the difference between family history research frustration and success.

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Tracing Female Ancestors: The Mother of All Genealogy Research

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, to help celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend, Gena provides genealogy search tips to find information about your female ancestors.

There’s no doubt that tracing female ancestors can be difficult and sometimes near impossible. Unlike men who were documented via different types of transactions throughout their lives, women can seemingly disappear just by marrying an unknown-to-you spouse or spouses.

Let’s face it, finding a certified Mother of the Year might be easier than finding most of our female ancestors, but consider the following genealogy search tips to help you find success as you embark on your family history research.

Mother of the Year (Mrs. Elias Compton), Boston Herald newspaper article 12 April 1939

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 12 April 1939, page 1

Finding Dear Old Mom in the News

First, consider the relationship your ancestress had to others. She may have been a wife or several men’s wife. Maybe she was a mother and a grandmother. Likely as a younger woman she was a student, perhaps a volunteer, and a church or organization member. Don’t forget that she was also somebody’s daughter and friend. She can be in all kinds of different newspaper articles based on her activities and relationships at the time.

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As you consider all this, remember that her name will “change” according to her relationship and time. A non-married woman will be listed by her given name and surname (a.k.a. maiden name), while a married woman might be listed as Mrs. [insert husband’s first name or initials and surname]. A widow may revert back to using her given name, so that Mrs. John Smith or Mrs. J. W. Smith becomes Mrs. Grace Smith after his death.

An example of this is the obituary for Mrs. Emily Ann Smith, a widow who was living with her daughter Mrs. W. E. Gilchrist when she died. Note she is not referred to as “Mrs. Sanford Smith.”

obituary for Emily Smith, Daily Register Gazette newspaper article 17 December 1921

Daily Register Gazette (Rockford, Illinois), 17 December 1921, page 6

Rarer is a news article such as this next one, in which the deceased is referred to by both her own name (Mary Smith Keenan) and her married name (Mrs. James Keenan). Because this is rare, make sure that you are searching all variations of a female ancestor’s name—because some articles will have her name one way, and some will have it another; very few will have both versions.

obituary for Mary Smith Keenan, St. Albans Daily Messenger newspaper article 5 February 1906

St. Albans Daily Messenger (St. Albans, Vermont), 5 February 1906, page 7

Start Research with the Basics

As you research, use a timeline of dates and places to help you find newspaper articles that you may miss just searching by a name, due to misspellings or name variations. Find the corresponding newspaper articles for your timeline that document the major events in her life: birth, engagement, wedding, children’s births, major anniversary milestones, and death.

This engagement notice from 1939 for the appropriately named Mary Love Jones gives great information—not only about her but other women in her life: her mother, sister, aunts, and other family and friends. Note that not all of the women are listed by their given names. Plus, this article provides a photograph of Mary as a young woman—what a great find if she’s one of your ancestors!

engagement notice for Mary Jones and Truett Bishop, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 29 October 1939

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 29 October 1939, section III, page 6

Avoid Making Assumptions about Your Female Ancestors

Stay away from making assumptions about your ancestor’s life. Don’t fall into the old “she was just a housewife” syndrome. You might be surprised to find what she was involved in during her lifetime.

For example, I love this front page montage of photos of teachers and women from the local PTA of Greensboro, North Carolina. What a great find for a descendent who may not be aware of their ancestor’s school involvement.

article about women in the local PTA, Greensboro Daily News newspaper article 15 May 1938

Greensboro Daily News (Greensboro, North Carolina), 15 May 1938, page 37

Another great example of “women’s work” making it into the newspaper is this article about  Red Cross volunteer Mrs. D. P. Beyea, who spoke to groups about her experience nursing soldieries overseas during World War I. Known as the “Little Mother of the First Division,” she is said to have been one of the first to volunteer. You get a sense of her accomplishments from the newspaper article and a reminder that a woman’s activities may have depended on the time period.

article about WWI nurse Mrs. D. P. Beyea, Lexington Herald newspaper article 9 November 1919

Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 9 November 1919, section 5, page 1

Again, the issue of name is important here. The old news article isn’t clear whether D. P. (later listed as D. Pirie) is her husband’s initials or her own. A newspaper search on just one version of her name might easily miss this informative article.

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Use Clues in Newspaper Articles to Find More Information

Continuing our genealogy search for Mrs. D. Pirie Beyea by searching Google, we can learn even more about her life. For example: click here to see a copy of her lecture brochure digitized and made available through the University of Iowa Libraries Digital Library. This is a great brochure complete with personal information, charming photos, and testimonials by those who heard her speak.

Genealogy Search Tip: Once you find your ancestor listed by a certain name or involved in an activity in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, make sure to continue your search in Google and Google Books for any other mentions of them.

Consider Your Ancestor’s Activities

It’s hard to know what activities your ancestor may have been a part of since some groups that would have been familiar in her time are all but unknown today. Consider that she may have been a member of a group that was an auxiliary to one her husband was a member of (The Daughters of Rebekah, Order of the Eastern Star, Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic), a religious benevolent group (Dorcas Society, Relief Society), a cause she believed in (Women’s Christian Temperance Union, National American Woman Suffrage Association), a heritage association (Daughters of the American Revolution, Colonial Dames, Daughters of the Confederacy), or just a local group that may have done anything from hold cultural events to provide a social outlet. These groups may have had articles published in the newspaper that listed members or officers, meetings, special events, or persuasive missals.

The following newspaper article reports on the Spinsters, a social group for young unmarried women.

Miss King to Head Thalian Spinsters, Greensboro Record newspaper article 12 September 1939

Greensboro Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 12 September 1939, page 7

The historical news article above is from this newspaper’s “Women’s Activities” page which has some great articles about women’s groups, wedding notices, and personals that list names of women and mentions of vacations and visits.

Women's Activities page, Greensboro Record newspaper 12 September 1939

Greensboro Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 12 September 1939, page 7

There’s So Much Genealogy to Explore

Having trouble finding genealogical information about your foremothers? Newspaper collections are an excellent place to start because newspapers recorded the happenings of a community. Can’t find anything about your female ancestors? Remember to search the archives for your ancestress with applicable name variations—and keep checking back: GenealogyBank adds more newspapers daily. Even though you may not find anything about your ancestry today, tomorrow could reveal your “aha” genealogy moment.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Related Articles about Tracing Your Female Ancestry:

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Celebrate Cinco de Mayo by Tracing Your Hispanic Genealogy

Versión en español

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena suggests celebrating Cinco de Mayo by tracing your Hispanic ancestry using GenealogyBank’s Hispanic American Newspapers collection—and provides tips how to do this.

Looking for ideas for tracing your Hispanic ancestry this Cinco de Mayo? Maybe the typical regional newspapers aren’t yielding many results in your family history searches? Have you considered narrowing your search to an ethnic newspaper? GenealogyBank’s Hispanic American Newspapers collection has many different U.S.-based newspapers that served the Hispanic community, beginning in the early nineteenth century. These Spanish-language newspapers (note: some are bilingual) might provide the ancestral answers you’re looking for.

Need some ideas to help you get started tracing your Hispanic genealogy? Consider the following:

1) Search for Different Types of Newspaper Articles

Sure, genealogy researchers should search for their ancestors’ obituaries—but don’t forget about other life events including marriages, births, military service, and graduations; these events were all reported in local newspapers. Remember that your ancestor was part of a community and participated in academic, religious, and organizational activities and events. Some articles may only provide a brief mention of your ancestor’s name, but even that helps to place them in a specific area and time—or maybe even give you an idea about when they left a place.

It’s difficult to list all the different type of newspaper articles you might find an ancestor listed in, but a thorough search will help you uncover articles you may not have otherwise considered. For example, finding an ancestor’s name in a newspaper’s unclaimed letters list might indicate that they had moved on, were moving to the area, passed away, or just didn’t pick up their mail often. Noting when and how often they appear on such a list could be an important clue to follow up on.

newspaper column listing the names of people who have unclaimed letters awaiting them at the local post office, Tucsonense newspaper article 2 June 1915

Tucsonense (Tucson, Arizona), 2 June 1915, page 3

As you search for your Hispanic or Latino ancestor in the newspaper, consider searching by surname or full name only and not including a place name or other keywords. Now this may be difficult if your ancestor’s surname is common but—as you can see in the article below—individuals can be found in articles outside of the place they lived in. Limiting your initial search with a location may filter out relevant articles that were published elsewhere.

The following is an article acknowledging donations to help journalist and political activist Juan Sarabia, who in 1910 was detained in a Mexican prison. This newspaper article shows that donations came from donors on both sides of the border. In some cases, the city of the donor was included as well as their donation amount.

article about donations made to support journalist and political activist Juan Sarabia, Regeneracion newspaper article 22 October 1910

Regeneracion (Los Angeles, California), 22 October 1910, page 2

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2) Read the Paper to Learn More about Your Ancestor’s Community

By learning more about your ancestor’s community, you can get a sense of their lives and even what records may be available. Don’t ignore news articles that don’t specifically mention your ancestor. Learning about their community can help you tell their story. For example, learning more about important industries where your ancestor lived can provide you with information about why they migrated or why they chose a particular industry for employment. In some cases an article might point to higher wages, safer working conditions, or even recruitment of migrants with specific skills.

This historical newspaper article, exploring the topic of pearl fishing in the Gulf of California, is one such example of learning more about a community. In the old news article we learn that the inhabitants of La Paz understand pearls—and it makes sense they would, since the article reports that the production value in 1908 was 3 million pesos and the annual export in pearl shells was 2 million pesos!

article about pearl fishing in the Gulf of California, Tucsonense newspaper article 1 October 1921

Tucsonense (Tucson, Arizona), 1 October 1921, page 5

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3) Don’t Assume These Newspaper Are Spanish Only: Bilingual Newspapers

It’s easy to assume that a newspaper targeting a Spanish-speaking community would be printed in Spanish. While this is for the most part true, one thing a researcher quickly learns is not to make assumptions.

Not all of the newspapers in GenealogyBank’s Hispanic American Newspapers archives are printed solely in Spanish. For example the Ideal, described as a national bilingual and bi-monthly newspaper, includes articles written in both English and Spanish. Looking at this issue from 1970 for Coachella, California, you can see that articles are printed in both languages side by side.

front page of the newspaper Ideal 15 December 1970

Ideal (Coachella, California), 15 December 1970, page 1

This small newspaper includes community events, local interest articles and advertisements that provide the researcher with a better sense of their family’s community.

Click here to see a list of GenealogyBank’s Hispanic American Newspapers published from 1808-1978. Here you will find a table (sorted by states) that includes a link to each newspaper’s search page, and lists the dates of available coverage for each newspaper.

Related Article:

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6 Tips for Name Research with Obituaries: Who Are the Survivors?

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena takes a close look at obituaries and funeral notices and shows how the other names mentioned—survivors of the deceased, pall bearers, those sending flowers, etc., provide important clues that can steer your family history research in new, and sometimes unexpected, directions.

What information are you looking for when you search newspapers for an obituary? That’s a hard question: you might be looking for an obituary to reveal a death date, or the name of the cemetery where the deceased is buried. Maybe you are just trying to find out more about the person’s life, or perhaps you are hoping for some confirmation of something you already suspect.

While all parts of an obituary are genealogy gold, the names found in an obituary—especially the list of those that survived the recently departed—can yield valuable clues for your genealogy research.

1) Research the Lists of the Living

A survivors list in an obituary or death notice is helpful because it verifies who was still alive at the time the obituary was published. If you are trying to determine the identity of two similarly-named individuals, or need to learn who was still alive at the time of your ancestor’s death, an obituary’s survivors list can be invaluable.

The following obituary for Mrs. F. J. Frost (notice her first name is not revealed, a good reminder that women may be simply listed as a “Mrs.”) provides a wonderful listing of her children and grandchildren, and their residences. These are fantastic family history clues for your further genealogy research.

obituary for Mrs. F. J. Frost, Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper article 11 January 1939

Heraldo de Brownsville (Brownsville, Texas), 11 January 1939, page 7

Remember that obituaries for an individual may be published in newspapers from states other than where the deceased resided, so make your initial search a wide one. In this case, for example, the deceased is from California but her son is a resident of Brownsville, Texas, where the obituary was printed. Interestingly, the last paragraph is all about the son and not the mother, even though it’s her obituary.

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2) Note the Names of Other Departed

In some cases the other name/s included in a death notice or obituary may be that of a family member but not an actual survivor. In the following example reporting the death of Herbert T. Tait, it identifies him as the husband of the late Arabella—although her name appears in his obituary, she is clearly not a survivor.

death notice for Herbert Tait, Plain Dealer newspaper article 11 March 1911

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 March 1911, page 13

3) Remember Survivors Are Everywhere

Sure the list of survivors (typically a spouse, children, grandchildren, parents and siblings) can be found in most obituaries—but don’t forget to scan for the names of pall bearers or those sending flowers, especially in notices printed after the funeral. These names might be family members but may be more difficult to pick out due to unfamiliar surnames.

In this death notice for Mr. Isadore C. Block we find names for his wife, sisters and brother. Pall bearers are also listed—and while none of their surnames match the listed family members, it would be important to research each one because they might represent a cousin, nephew, or in-law.

death notice for Isadore C. Block, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 2 March 1935

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 2 March 1935, section II, page 10

4) Tracing Women’s Names in Obits

Verifying relationships can be challenging in cases where all the women are listed by married surnames or entirely by their husband’s name. One of the difficulties in tracing female ancestors is finding those who married several times when you are unaware of each husband’s surname.

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In this very brief notice we learn of Mrs. Hattie J. Miller’s death and her survivors, including her sisters Mrs. Frances J. Cohn, Mrs. Erma B. Miller, and Mrs. Selma B. Rothschild. No spouse or children are listed for Mrs. Miller. Luckily her brothers are also listed, providing us with a possible maiden name for Hattie and her sisters: Beirsdorf.

death notice for Hattie J. Miller, Hyde Park Herald newspaper article 14 December 1928

Hyde Park Herald (Chicago, Illinois), 14 December 1928, page 30

5) Not All Survivors Are Family

As you look for names in an obituary don’t forget to note any mentions of membership organizations. Those groups might include very good friends that could have honored the deceased in their own way through a special meeting, donation to the family, or some kind of memorial in their records.

In this notice of the death of Alfred R. Huddy, he is listed as being a member of the O.U.A.M. and the V. of F. W. of the U.S., possibly meaning the Order of United American Mechanics and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, respectively. With this information, additional ancestor research should be conducted in the newspapers (look for article about the person and their group’s activities) and in archival collections for membership lists, records, and images.

obituary for Alfred R. Huddy, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 19 April 1918

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 19 April 1918, page 11

6) But What’s Their Name???? Finding Unlisted Relatives

There’s probably nothing more frustrating than seeing vague references in obituaries to survivors like “he leaves 5 children and 10 grandchildren…” Or this obituary for William E. Rivers, which tells more about his medical history than the names of those he left behind. His obituary and a subsequent notice don’t provide his wife’s name, although she survived him. Further research into his family tree would include a search for Mrs. William E. Rivers, Mrs. W. E. Rivers, and other variations of his name prior to and after his death in 1917. In addition to newspaper research, a genealogist could check the census and city directories for this family.

obituary for William E. Rivers, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 21 July 1917

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 21 July 1917, page 5

Genealogy Tip: It can be tempting to focus solely on information about the deceased in an obituary, death or funeral notice. However, take time to analyze everything about that article including all of the names mentioned. Those other people’s names can uncover important familial relationship connections that will assist you in your family history searches, and ultimately help you get to know your ancestor better.

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5 Fave Genealogy Articles: ‘Titanic,’ Women, Ads, Ephemera & Food

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena reflects on some of her favorite genealogy topics that she’s researched for the GenealogyBank Blog.

One great thing about working as a writer is that you have the opportunity to research and learn about a variety of subjects. Through my work on the GenealogyBank Blog I’ve had the opportunity to write about some of my favorite genealogy topics and expand my knowledge of records and history in the process. What are my favorite GenealogyBank Blog articles? Check out the following personally-chosen list.

Titanic

photo of the Titanic departing Southampton, England, on 10 April 1912

Photo: the Titanic departing Southampton, England, on 10 April 1912. Credit: F. G. O. Stuart; Wikipedia.

One of my interests is the sinking of the Titanic. I probably share that interest with many of my fellow genealogists, who find the study of Titanic history fascinating. Probably no surprise to regular readers of this blog, the two aspects that I am particularly interested in are: the food that was served on the Titanic; and the women, passengers and staff who were aboard that fateful voyage. Luckily for me I was able to write some articles about this, including Tracing Titanic Genealogy: Survivor Passenger Lists & More which looks at some of the Titanic passenger lists with names that you can find in historical newspapers in the days and weeks after the tragedy. The subject of food on the Titanic could fill a whole book, and it has, but I took a brief look at what passengers ate in the article Eating on the Titanic: Massive Quantities of Food on the Menu.

photo of the First Class Reception Room on the Titanic

Photo: First Class Reception Room on the Titanic. Credit: National Maritime Museum, Flickr: The Commons.

Women: Tracing Your Female Ancestry

photo of the family of B. F. Clark

Photo: “Family of B. F. Clark, 219 N. 4th Street.” Credit: Library of Congress.

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I’ve had the opportunity to write about female ancestors quite a bit, including how to trace them, and unique sources to use. One of my favorite articles about female ancestors on the GenealogyBank Blog is one that I didn’t write. A must-read for every genealogist is Mary Harrell-Sesniak’s 8 Genealogy Tips for Tracing Female Ancestry. Do yourself a favor and read and re-read this important post to better understand how to find your female ancestors. If you want to learn more about name variations, another one of Mary’s articles, Ancestral Name Searches: 4 Tips for Tracing Surname Spellings, is very helpful. Sometimes it’s the way we search that makes it difficult to find our ancestors in the newspaper.

Researching Old Newspaper Advertisements

personal ads for missing husbands, Dallas Morning News newspaper advertisements 12 September 1907

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 12 September 1907, page 8

I have to admit that the one aspect of newspaper research I would have never guessed that I would enjoy is the advertisements. It’s here that you can learn everything, from what your ancestor valued by perusing the Lost and Found advertisements, to the heartbreaking advertisements women placed looking for missing (or perhaps purposely absent) husbands. Think old newspaper advertisements have nothing to do with “real” genealogy? Take a look at some of the rich content newspaper ads provide in my articles How to Use Newspaper Lost & Found Ads for Genealogy Research and Missing Men: Lost Husband Ads in Newspapers for Genealogy.

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Ephemera

photo of an old letter

Photo credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega

I love ephemera. It’s such an important part of genealogy but it’s something not many family historians are familiar with. Ephemera are loosely defined as items that were not meant for long-term archiving. Such items might be letters, postcards, images, maps, posters, even newspapers. Ephemera tend to be things that are thrown away. Not only are newspapers an important source for genealogy researchers, they even give us a look at our ancestors’ ephemera. For example, letters of all kinds are published in the newspaper. You can learn more about researching correspondence in the newspaper from the article Genealogy Tips for Researching Letters in Newspapers. Another helpful article, Dear Mother: Family Letters and Your Genealogy, points out that not all family letters remain private between the writer and recipient. In some cases, letters were printed in the newspaper giving us a glimpse into our ancestors’ lives. Probably one of my favorite projects was researching the article Finding Ancestors’ Names Can Be Child’s Play: Paper Doll Comics. I was very surprised to learn that children (and in some cases adults) were encouraged to send in paper doll fashion designs. These were published along with the name and address of the creator. Just one more way kids were documented in the newspaper.

Food History

photo of a book filled with newspaper recipe clippings

Photo credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega

A question I’m often asked at genealogy presentations is: why should a family historian care about food history? The answer is quite simple: food history helps us better understand our ancestors, and brings interest to the stories of their lives. When I ask family historians to think about a Thanksgiving from the past, it’s the people who were there, the stories, and the memories of what was served that flood their memories. Those stories deserve to be written down to be enjoyed by our descendants. Want to know more about food history? Check out these articles: Rationing Thanksgiving Dinner during World War I; The First Foodie: Clementine Paddleford; and Find Grandma’s Recipes in Old Newspaper Food Columns. Take some time to peruse recipe columns in the newspaper from your grandma’s and great-grandma’s hometown to see if she submitted her favorite recipe to the newspaper, and if you happen across one join GenealogyBank’s Old Fashioned Family Recipes board and share it with the Pinterest community.

Why read the GenealogyBank Blog? Because it is where you will learn more about genealogy, history, and newspaper research. Whether it’s tips, new ideas, new content or personal research examples, you’ll find them here (check out this one written by Scott Phillips about a GenealogyBank member’s discovery: A Fascinating Genealogy Success Story: Mystery of Missing Ancestors Solved). The GenealogyBank Blog provides you with continuing education for your newspaper research and genealogy in general.

Have a favorite GenealogyBank Blog post? Let me know what it is in the comments section below.

Happy reading!

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Our Ancestors’ Easter Parades & Spring Fashions

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena searches old newspapers to learn about our ancestors’ spring fashions—and the popular Easter parades they strolled in to show off those fine new clothes.

What are your memories of Easter? Egg hunts, baskets overflowing with chocolate bunnies, posing for a photograph with an oversized rabbit, or maybe waking up early for church services? My Easter holiday memories revolve around food (probably not a surprise there): dyeing eggs, eating ham and of course chocolate. Judging from my Twitter and Facebook friends it would seem that one shared fond memory of Easter, especially for the women, is the new clothes they would receive for Easter.

The Easter Wardrobe

Easter is one of the ways we mark spring, which in turn marks the changing of the wardrobe from those heavy, bulky winter outfits to much lighter and more colorful spring ensembles. Easter was also a good time to pick out a nice dress that included all of the accessories like gloves and hats, as discussed in this 1891 New Jersey newspaper article.

Easter Dress Parade, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 29 March 1891

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 29 March 1891, page 2

There’s no doubt that our ancestors could have perused the newspaper for ideas about what they wanted in a new Easter outfit. In this full-page article from a Minnesota newspaper, we see some examples of 1921 Easter fashion.

The New Easter Dresses, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 13 March 1921

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 13 March 1921, page 3

Here are more Easter historical fashions, from 1938. New Easter clothes weren’t just reserved for the women—children and even men used that time as a good excuse to invest in a new suit of clothing.

ad for Easter dresses, Omaha World Herald newspaper advertisement 15 April 1938

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 15 April 1938, page 2

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Everyone Loves an Easter Parade

Once you had your new Easter outfits, it was time to show them off—and what better way than a celebratory holiday parade? The tradition of Easter parades in the United States dates back to at least 1870, when the first New York City parade on Fifth Avenue began. This illustration from an 1892 New York newspaper article sums up the yearly New York event: “Beauty and Fashion Out in All the Glories of Fine Raiment to Celebrate the End of the Penitential Season.”

illustration of New York's Fifth Avenue Easter Parade, New York Herald newspaper article 18 April 1892

New York Herald (New York, New York), 18 April 1892, page 3

There’s no doubt that New York City’s Fifth Avenue parade was synonymous with an Easter parade. It is even immortalized in a 1933 Irving Berlin song and 1948 movie with the same title.

Easter Parade

In your Easter bonnet,

With all the frills upon it,

You’ll be the grandest lady

In the Easter Parade.

I’ll be all in clover,

And when they look you over,

I’ll be the proudest fella

In the Easter Parade.

On the avenue, Fifth Avenue,

The photographers will snap us,

And you’ll find that you’re

In the rotogravure.

Oh, I could write a sonnet,

About your Easter bonnet,

And of the girl I’m taking

To the Easter Parade.*

(The mention of a “rotogravure” in the above lyric refers to a printing process used by newspapers to print images.)

photo of the Fifth Avenue Easter Parade, New York City, 1900

Photo: Fifth Avenue Easter Parade, New York City, 1900. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Bureau of Public Roads.

The whole idea behind an Easter parade is to see and be seen. Other cities also hosted Easter parades both as official events as well as impromptu group walks. Consider this 1915 Pennsylvania newspaper article from Wilkes-Barre, recalling the previous day’s parade. It starts by noting:

Were you in the Easter parade yesterday? If not, why not? The day was almost ideal, cool and breezy, but you could have worn your winter outfit with discretion and joined right in the procession.

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The old newspaper article goes on to comment on the women’s and men’s outfits.

Streets Crowded by Easter Parade in Wilkes-Barre, Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader newspaper article 5 April 1915

Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), 5 April 1915, page 1

This description of the Atlantic City Easter Fashion Parade, from a 1922 Oregon newspaper article, is wonderful:

Under skies of azure blue with a bright sun beaming down 200,000 men, women and children decked out in all the glory of their spring finery strolled along Atlantic City’s famous board walk today…

This post-World War I parade even included a dignitary in the audience: General John J. Pershing, who led the American forces during the war.

200,000 in Parade of Easter Finery, Oregonian newspaper article 17 April 1922

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 17 April 1922, page 1

Share Your Easter Memories

Did your city have an Easter parade? Did you celebrate your new Easter outfits by strolling downtown for all to see? What are your Easter memories? Share them with us in the comments section below. Happy Easter to you and yours!

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* SongLyrics. Irving Berlin Always –Easter Parade Lyrics. Accessed 14 April 2014. http://www.songlyrics.com/irving-berlin-always/easter-parade-lyrics/.

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Tracing ‘Titanic’ Genealogy: Survivor Passenger Lists & More

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena searches old newspapers to find out more about the tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic—and shows how helpful those articles can be with your own family history research.

The Titanic was fast sinking. After she went down the cries were horrible. This was at 2:20 a.m. by a man’s watch who stood next to me. At this time three other boats and ours kept together by being tied to each other. The cries continued to come over the water. Some of the women implored Officer Lowe, of No.14, to divide his passengers among the three other boats and go back to rescue. His first answer to those requests was, “You ought to be damn glad you are here and have got your own life.” —Affidavit of Titanic first-class passenger Daisy Minahan*

photo of the Titanic departing Southampton, England, on 10 April 1912

Photo: the Titanic departing Southampton, England, on 10 April 1912. Credit: F. G. O. Stuart; Wikipedia.

Quite often, in the frantic rush to get the story of a disaster out to the public, the initial news reports are not correct. Today we know only too well what happened on that frigidly cold night in April 1912 when the Titanic hit an iceberg and subsequently sank. At the beginning of its doomed voyage on April 10th there were 2,224 passengers and crew aboard the Titanic when it sailed from England, but in the earliest hours of April 15th there were only 700 survivors.**

Few details about the Titanic sinking existed for the newspapers to report on the morning of April 15th. In an era before more modern technologies, the wireless and its brief messages via Morse code were all that the newspapers had to go on. In this example from a South Carolina newspaper, the first paragraph reports that the Titanic sent out a distress call reporting they were sinking and “women were being put off in the life boats.”

Readers may notice that this news article reports the distress call Titanic sent out was “CQD,” not the more familiar “SOS.” CQD was a distress call used prior to SOS that indicated “All Stations Distress.” Although this newspaper article indicated CQD was sent out by the Titanic wireless operators, they actually used both distress signals in their radio pleas for help.***

Queen of Ocean (Titanic) May Be Sinking, State newspaper article 15 April 1912

State (Columbia, South Carolina), 15 April 1912, page 1

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Some of these very early newspaper reports about the sinking of the Titanic had few correct facts. In this example from a California newspaper, not only does the article report that all Titanic passengers are safe—it says that the “Disabled Ship Is Proceeding under Own Steam.”

All People on the Steamship Titanic Are Safe, Evening News newspaper article 15 April 1912

Evening News (San Jose, California), 15 April 1912, page 1

As time went on, first-hand accounts of Titanic survivors who were rescued by the steamship Carpathia began to appear in the newspapers. These published Titanic survivor stories were important in helping the public on both sides of the ocean better understand the tragedy. For example, in this article from a Pennsylvania newspaper, an unnamed Carpathia passenger tells of witnessing the Titanic lifeboats approach the Carpathia. Describing the survivors as they came aboard the rescue ship, this witness stated:

There were husbands without wives, wives without husbands, parents without children and children without parents. But there was no demonstration. No sobs, scarcely a spoken word. They seemed to be stunned.

Lifeboats Leave Titanic as the Ship's Band Plays, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 19 April 1912

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 19 April 1912, page 4

Little by little, lists of names of those rescued Titanic passengers and those who had perished were printed in the newspapers. This list from a North Dakota newspaper shows the third-class passengers rescued and taken aboard the Carpathia.

List of Third Class Passengers Taken from Titanic, Grand Forks Daily Herald newspaper article 18 April 1912

Grand Forks Daily Herald (Grand Forks, North Dakota), 18 April 1912, page 2

For those awaiting news of loved ones, these piecemeal Titanic survivor lists that appeared must have made the pain unbearable—unless your family member or friend’s name appeared on one of the early lists, in which case the relief was surely overwhelming.

List of Titanic Survivors Rescued from the Sea, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 18 April 1912

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 18 April 1912, page 2

Because these lists of names from the Titanic were printed as soon as they were acquired, mistakes were made and later corrections had to be published. In this Titanic victims list from the ship MacKay Bennett, names of shipwreck victims according to their “class” are accounted. Those deceased passengers whose names were previously misspelled are now corrected.

Titanic Dead List Revised, Belleville News Democrat newspaper article 24 April 1912

Belleville News Democrat (Belleville, Illinois), 24 April 1912, page 2

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This California newspaper article names 27 bodies that were recovered from the icy waters of the North Atlantic. In some cases the names didn’t appear on the passenger list, so it was assumed they were the bodies of Titanic crew members. Obviously, identifying all of the shipwreck victims was not easy since many of them were “clad only in sleeping garments.”

Cable Ship Sends List of Bodies Identified (from the Titanic), San Diego Union newspaper article 23 April 1912

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 23 April 1912, page 1

What happened to the victims of the Titanic? The steamship MacKay Bennett, charted by the White Star Line, recovered over 300 bodies. Some bodies were placed in coffins and transported back to Halifax where they were either released to family for burial, or buried in three Titanic cemeteries in Halifax. Those that were too damaged or decomposed were reburied at sea.****

For a list of victims and their burial sites, including lists for each Titanic cemetery, see the Encyclopedia Titanica, http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-victims-list/.

While some may believe that the Titanic’s 700 survivors were lucky, not all went on to live happily ever after. Daisy Minahan, whose testimony was shared above, was admitted to a sanitarium for pneumonia shortly after the disaster and then died of tuberculosis seven years later at the young age of 40.*****

Eight former Titanic passengers committed suicide later in their lives. One of the Titanic crew, Violet Jessop, survived the Titanic sinking and then survived the sinking of her sister ship, the HMHS Britannic, four years later.

Thankfully, after the sinking of the Titanic inquiries in England and the United States resulted in additional passenger ship safety measures such as lifeboat drills and the inclusion of enough lifeboats for all passengers, iceberg monitoring, and changes to ship design. While too late for those who lost their lives on the once-deemed unsinkable ship, it did help prevent tragedies of the same magnitude.

Please share in the comments section any Titanic stories you’ve run across in your own family history research.

Related Titanic articles:

_____________________

* United States Inquiry Day 16. Affidavit of Daisy Minahan. Titanic Inquiry Project. Accessed 4 April 2014 http://www.titanicinquiry.org/USInq/AmInq16Minahan01.php.
** About RMS Titanic. Encyclopedia Titanica. Accessed 4 April 2014 http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/.
*** Rescue at Sea. CQD and SOS. American Experience. Accessed 4 April 2014 http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/rescue/peopleevents/pandeAMEX88.html.
**** Titanic victims buried at sea shown in unique photograph by Philip Hind. Encyclopedia Titanic. Accessed 4 April 2014 http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-news/titanic-victims-buried-at-sea-shown-in-unique-photograph.html.
***** Miss Daisy E. Minahan. Encyclopedia Titanica. Accessed 4 April 2014 http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-survivor/daisy-minahan.html.

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How to Use Newspaper Lost & Found Ads for Genealogy Research

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena shows how lost and found ads in old newspapers can turn up a surprising amount of information about your ancestors—and provide a glimpse into their lives that you won’t find in government records and vital statistics.

Lost anything lately? While in today’s world we have multiple options for asking strangers for help in recovering or returning property, our ancestors used newspaper lost and found ads.

These old newspaper advertisements can be a surprisingly rich resource for your family history searches—sometimes providing an ancestor’s full name, current address, and some details about their life. Some of the more unusual lost and found ads also add interest to your genealogy research.

What Went Missing? People, Pets, Possessions…

What can be discovered about your ancestry in a lost and found ad? Depending on the time period, these newspaper advertisements may notify a community about missing people such as a runaway slave—or even a missing husband, as I wrote about previously (see Missing Men: Lost Husband Ads in Newspapers for Genealogy). One would expect to see pleas for the return of jewelry or wallets, but classified ads can run the gamut from the valuable to the ordinary, from cash to umbrellas.

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The topic of what can be discovered in lost and found ads was addressed in this 1855 Virginia newspaper article. It remarks that:

Lost dogs and runaway apprentices, however, are the most frequent subjects of advertisements.

Curiosities of Advertising, Alexandria Gazette newspaper article 15 October 1855

Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia), 15 October 1855, page 4

Newspaper Ads for Lost Pets

Lost dogs are a popular subject of lost and found ads. What is listed in a lost and found column can change depending on the time period and the type of community the newspaper serves. Rural area advertisements may differ from that of more populated, urban places.

Take for instance this “Lost, Found, Strayed” column from a 1927 Virginia newspaper, where you can see a typical lost dog advertisement—but there is also one for a stray cow! Look for these advertisements to have all kinds of animals including lost dogs, cats, birds, horses, cows, pigs—basically all manner of livestock and pets.

Have You Seen My Glasses?

I also like that one of these lost and found ads proves that people don’t really change; as long as there have been reading glasses, people have been losing them.

newspaper lost and found ads, Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper advertisements 18 October 1927

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 18 October 1927, page 16

Remember that a “lost” item might actually be a stolen item. If you know that an ancestor had an animal or valuable object taken, you may want to see if they placed an advertisement seeking its return.

Found It!

Found ads can be interesting as well. Consider these two similarly worded, deliberately vague ads from a 1919 Washington newspaper. In order to claim their property, the owner of the missing item was required to pay the cost of the advertisement.

newspaper lost and found ads, Morning Olympian newspaper advertisements 12 February 1919

Morning Olympian (Olympia, Washington), 12 February 1919, page 4

Unfortunate Losses

Some of the lost and found notices in newspapers are heartbreaking. You can sympathize with the despair of a loss such as the one reported in this ad, placed by a widow. Imagine the heartbreak of losing a great amount of much-needed money and realizing that it was unlikely to ever be returned! The address and phone number of this woman is listed, making it easier for descendants to identify her.

newspaper lost and found ads, San Diego Union newspaper advertisements 22 September 1930

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 22 September 1930, page 14

Lost Item Lists from Railway Cars

While we assume a single individual is responsible for placing a lost or found newspaper ad, it makes sense that occasionally a public transportation company placed an advertisement listing items found. This advertisement lists everything found on the cars of the United Railways and Electric Company.

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Reading this lost and found ad, one gets a sense of the diversity of items brought onto these railway cars. This type of ad serves a social history function, giving us a glimpse at life in a different time. This particular advertisement lists a wide range of items—from what you would expect someone losing on public transportation (like an umbrella or a rain coat) to items you wouldn’t expect (a hatchet and a saucepan).

newspaper lost and found ad, Baltimore American newspaper advertisement 5 August 1911

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 5 August 1911, page 1

Lost and Found Ads Are a Valuable Genealogy Resource

Searching newspaper lost and found ads can provide important information for your family history. Like some of the other resources that we rely on for our genealogy research today, these ads won’t be a resource for future genealogists since they’re no longer in use. When I recently searched my local newspapers for the lost and found column, they were nonexistent. Luckily for us, they are abundant in old newspapers like the online collection of GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives—and lost and found ads are just one example of the many types of newspaper classifieds that can aid our search for our family’s story.

Newspaper Search Tip: Initials matter! In my searches through lost and found ads I saw names, addresses, and phone numbers. However, because an ancestor may have had to be brief when placing an ad, depending on what they had to pay per word or letter, it’s likely they may have abbreviated as much as possible—including their name. That’s why searching for your ancestor by different name variations is so important, including their initials.

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The First Foodie: Clementine Paddleford

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena searches old newspapers to learn about the first “foodie” writer: Clementine Paddleford.

Do you enjoy reading about food or watching food TV programs? Sure, there are recipe columns that you may save for new ideas about what to cook for dinner, but do you ever just read about food for the pure enjoyment of it? Maybe you are one of those that read a cookbook like a novel, savoring every description and image. Maybe like me you love food boards on Pinterest and peruse them for the beautiful photos depicting possible menus you could replicate. In a digital era when everyone posts photos of their food, beverages and recipes, it may seem odd to think that it wasn’t too long ago that finding tantalizing food information was a little more difficult—and that the idea of “food writing,” other than a recipe column or cookbook, was nonexistent.

We’ve talked about newspapers’ food recipe columns and related articles in this blog previously (see list below). These types of recipe columns and articles provided women with the answer to that eternal question: what’s for dinner? While recipe columns were popular, other types of food columns debuted in newspapers as the 20th century marched on.

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The First Foodie Writer

Before it was trendy to be a food writer, there was a woman who not only wrote about food under her own name, which was not traditionally done—she traveled around the country to do so, and even learned to fly a plane to make that travel easier. She estimated that the short trips she took via her own plane accounted for 40,000 miles each year. In an era before food television shows, when cuisine was much more regionalized, she provided recipes that introduced her nationwide audience to foods that they were unfamiliar with and may have seemed “exotic.”

Her name was Clementine Paddleford.

Vast Drive and Courage Spark Career of Famed Food Editor (Clementine Paddleford), San Diego Union newspaper article 1 February 1959

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 1 February 1959, page 64

A Brief History of Clementine Paddleford

Paddleford was born in Kansas in 1898 and, after graduating with a journalism degree, went on to write about food for such newspapers as the New York Herald Tribune, New York Sun, New York Telegram and the newspaper magazine This Week. While she may seem to have had a glamorous life, she encountered her share of difficulties including a throat surgery that initially left her speechless for a year and then with a lifelong “husky whisper.” She was the ultimate career woman, in a time when most women were relegated to the home. She wrote, published, traveled, and shared her expertise with her readers.

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Clementine’s Foodie Newspaper Column

Clementine’s syndicated column for the New York Herald Tribune chronicled her food travels and the recipes she picked up for readers. Her foodie columns were newsy and provided details about what she ate and whom she dined with.

For example, in this 1960 newspaper column she talks about a trip to Chicago where she dined with her friend Katherine Belle Niles, a home economics director for the Poultry and Egg National Board who, appropriately enough, fried eggs for her. She then went to have a turkey dinner during a meeting with the National Youth-power Congress. She quotes Ezra Taft Benson, a speaker at the meeting, who was encouraged by the sight of the teenagers eating cranberries served at the meal. At the time, Benson was the Secretary of Agriculture; later he became the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Paddleford tried to describe the experience of the meal for her readers. Consider the end of this column, where she describes:

…filet mignon, hot, juicy, tender. There was a stuffed baked potato and green peas combined with sautéed fresh mushrooms. The dinner rolls were soft and warm.

article about cooking eggs by Clementine Paddleford, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 24 March 1960

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 24 March 1960, section 5, page 13

Clementine’s Career as an Author

While Clementine had a long career as a food writer, she also wrote other articles and a book about her mother. In this 1958 newspaper article, Paddleford (who was the paper’s food editor), wrote a feature entitled “How America Eats,” also the name of one of her books. Here she reminisces about her childhood and her mother’s saying “Never grow a wishbone where your backbone ought to be.”

an article by Clementine Paddleford, Times-Picayune newspaper article 18 May 1958

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 18 May 1958, page 180

Clementine’s Death

Clementine died in 1967 in New York and was buried in Riley, Kansas. Her life is well chronicled in her numerous newspaper articles, books and in a collection of her papers, including menus from her many food travels, available at the Kansas State University Library.

To read more about Paddleford, check out her articles found in GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives. Also, read the books Hometown Appetites: The Story of Clementine Paddleford, the Forgotten Food Writer Who Chronicled How America Ate by Kelly Alexander, and the re-release of Paddleford’s The Great American Cookbook: 500 Time-Tested Recipes: Favorite Food from Every State.

Related food articles:

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How to Research Your Ancestor’s Part in Major Historical Events

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena shows how researching the major historical events that happened in your ancestors’ lifetimes provides another way of better understanding them, their experiences, and the lives they led.

Think of an ancestor you are researching. What major historical events did they live through? Did they go west for the California Gold Rush? Maybe they were sick during the 1918 Flu Epidemic. Did your ancestor fight in World War I? One of the things that makes doing genealogy research fascinating is learning about the history that our ancestors were a part of, and finding out exactly what their role was and how they were affected.

The California Gold Rush

For example, was the ancestor you’re researching alive in 1849? Perhaps he read a newspaper article such as this and was caught up in the gold fever sweeping the country—in 1849 more than 90,000 prospectors came to California, and in all about 300,000 people flocked to California during the Gold Rush hoping to strike it rich. Was you ancestor one of them?

article about the California Gold Rush, Arkansas Weekly Gazette newspaper article 22 February 1849

Arkansas Weekly Gazette (Little Rock, Arkansas), 22 February 1849, page 3

How can you learn more about an ancestor’s part in a historical event? Consider taking the following steps.

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Create a Timeline

Start your research by creating a timeline for your ancestor. Insert the dates for what you know about their lives, such as a birth or death date. Then consider what major historical events happened in their lifetime that may have impacted them. If the ancestor was a young man during World War II, perhaps he registered for the draft or he served in the military. By including dates of important historical events you can get a better sense of what records you should be researching to find more information about your ancestor’s life.

articles about World War II, Advocate newspaper article 1 September 1944

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 1 September 1944, page 1

Not sure what historical events were going on during your ancestor’s lifetime? Seek out a general history timeline such as eHistory’s timelines or a specific timeline for a region like this one from Missouri Digital Heritage.

Also, take some time to read your ancestor’s hometown newspaper in GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives. Look for front-page stories of historical events and any commentary about how it affected that community. Keep in mind that adding every historical event that happened during your ancestor’s lifetime to your timeline is not necessary; you want to include only those that most likely impacted their everyday lives.

One idea for creating a timeline for your ancestor can be found on the Armchair Genealogist’s blog post Four Steps to a Family History Timeline.

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Survey the Available Resources

Let’s say you believe that your ancestor was involved in the Georgia land lotteries. So now what? Take some time to survey what resources are available for your research. You will want to look for historical records that mention your ancestor but also those that document that event for their community.

Start your research with GenealogyBank. Search on your ancestor’s name; don’t forget variations of their name and the possibility of misspellings, but don’t stop there. Continue to search their community newspaper for other clues as to how the event may have impacted their life. Make sure to consult, if you haven’t already, GenealogyBank’s Learning Center to ensure that you are finding everything possible in your searches. You can also peruse our Historical Events in America Pinterest board to review newspaper headlines and photographs of some of our nation’s most memorable historical moments as a starting point.

article about the Georgia land lottery, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 18 April 1827

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 18 April 1827, page 3

After newspapers, continue on to the FamilySearch Library Catalog. Search for both the city and the county your ancestor lived in and see what records exist for the time period they were living there. Once you identify some possible records, make sure to order the microfilm or check the digitized records online. To learn more about ordering microfilm from the FamilySearch Family History Library, see the FamilySearch Research Wiki article Ordering Microfilm or Microfiche.

Continue your survey of what’s available by searching the genealogy websites that you typically search, both fee-based and free. But don’t stop there. Also search for histories in digitized book websites like Google Books, and look for histories and archival collections in catalogs like WorldCat and ArchiveGrid.

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Genealogy Research Q&A

As you start your research, come to it with specific questions that you want to answer and then create a research plan to help you answer those questions. Did my ancestor enlist in the military during World War I? Did my family have a homestead claim? Did my ancestor die of the flu? Make your questions to the point and not too complex. Once you start researching and gathering documents, you will want to have those documents guide you to answering additional questions.

Don’t forget that records often lead to additional records and questions. So record everything you find in a research log, either on paper, through a genealogy database program, or an online source.

Your ancestor has a place in history. By identifying their possible historical role and gathering newspaper articles and other documents that tell that story, you will add “flesh to the bones” of your ancestor and create a family history narrative your non-genealogist family members will be interested in and enjoy.