About Mary Harrell-Sesniak

Mary Harrell-Sesniak, MBA, brings to the GenealogyBank Blog a blend of technical and genealogical research skills. In addition to having been a columnist with RootsWeb Review, she was president of a computer training/consulting firm for 15+ years, worked as an editor and has authored several genealogy books. You’ll find her an active contributor to a variety of online forums, RootsWeb’s WorldConnect, Findagrave.com and indexing projects.

Days of Thanksgiving Celebrated by Our Ancestors

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary searches old newspapers to learn more about Days of Thanksgiving that have been proclaimed throughout American history.

While planning Thanksgiving celebrations, most of us dream of the bountiful feast set upon our tables: turkey, corn, mashed potatoes, pie and all of those other goodies made for the day.

We do this to commemorate the first successful harvest of the Mayflower passengers and the Wampanoag Indians at the Plymouth Plantation in 1621.

Painting: “The First Thanksgiving,” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

Painting: “The First Thanksgiving,” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, c. 1912-1915. Credit: U.S. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

That first Thanksgiving celebration lasted three days. The Wampanoags brought five deer as gifts, which were consumed along with other food that has never been documented.

1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation

Much has been written about Thanksgiving, including President George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation on 3 October 1789, given in response to a request by Congress. Since few have ever read it, I searched GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to find the proclamation as it was printed in the newspapers of that time.

In three paragraphs, President Washington proclaimed “a day of public Thanksgiving and Prayer” to take place on November 26.

article about President George Washington's 1789 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper article 14 October 1789article about President George Washington's 1789 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper article 14 October 1789

article about President George Washington's 1789 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper article 14 October 1789

Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 14 October 1789, page 3

First Mention of Thanksgiving in a Newspaper?

I was curious about the first mention of Thanksgiving in a newspaper prior to Washington’s proclamation.

Would you be surprised to learn it occurred in the earliest newspaper to be published in our country: Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestik?

Richard Pierce of Boston had great hopes for this publication, but it was shut down by the authorities after the initial printing on 25 September 1690. Luckily the full copy of this first American newspaper can be found in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

The article reports:

The Christianized Indians in some parts of Plimouth, have newly appointed a day of Thanksgiving to God for his Mercy in supplying their extream and pinching Necessities under their late want of Corn, & for His giving them now a prospect of a very Comfortable Harvest. Their Example may be worth Mentioning.

article about Indians in Plymouth, Massachusetts, celebrating Thanksgiving, Public Occurrences newspaper article 25 September 1690

Public Occurrences (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 September 1690, page 1

Other Thanksgiving Proclamations

Ordinary subjects of Colonial America were not allowed to decide when to set aside a day of Thanksgiving. Magistrates and other leaders – such as Joseph Dudley, Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay – issued proclamations stating the reasons and guidelines for special days of Thanksgiving.

This 1704 Thanksgiving Proclamation was to celebrate “Victory over their Enemies in the Summer past,” referring to England’s victories in the War of the Spanish Succession. In his order declaring 23 November 1704 a “Day of General Thanksgiving throughout this Province,” the governor prohibited “all Servile Labour” on that special day, exhorting everyone:

to Celebrate the Praises of GOD, for all His Benefits and Blessings, And to devote themselves [to] a Thank-Offering to Him in a right Ordered Conversation.

an article about a proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving, Boston News-Letter newspaper article 13 November 1704

Boston News-Letter (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 November 1704, page 2

Day of Fasting and Prayer

One of the more intriguing early proclamations is this one, in part concerning captives taken from Deerfield, Massachusetts, in a 1704 raid by French and Native American forces. The attackers killed 44 Deerfield villagers and 12 of their militia defenders, and 112 settlers were taken as captives to Canada.

Since calling for a day of thanks would be inappropriate on this occasion, Governor Dudley called for “a day of Publick FASTING and PRAYER” to appease God in hopes of gaining “Remission of our great and manifold Sins that have justly displeased God” and caused the settlers’ misfortune.

In his proclamation, Governor Dudley expressed hope that the day of fasting and prayer would grant them their most fervent wishes:

The Designs of the barbarous Savages against us defeated; Our exposed Plantations preserved; And the poor Christian Captives in their hands, returned.

article about a proclamation for a Day of Fasting and Prayer, Boston News-Letter newspaper article 5 February 1705

Boston News-Letter (Boston, Massachusetts), 5 February 1705, page 1

Day of Thanksgiving for the Captives’ Return

By the end of 1706, many of the captives had been “redeemed” (recovered by the English, either through paying ransom or via prisoner exchanges). This newspaper report of January 1707 notes:

The People of this County are fill’d with Joy, for the Arrival of the Captives…Wednesday the 8th Currant [i.e., this month] was a Day of Thanksgiving there [Deerfield], to Praise GOD for His great Goodness.

article about a proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving, Boston News-Letter newspaper article 20 January 1707

Boston News-Letter (Boston, Massachusetts), 20 January 1707, page 4

I am entirely grateful for the captives’ return, as among them were members of my Belden, Burt and Foote families. Click here to see a list of the Deerfield captives of 1704.

Other Days of Thanksgiving

While contemplating the meaning of Thanksgiving, take the time to explore early newspapers to learn more about the many days of Thanksgiving set aside for our ancestors. Here are two more examples I found.

On 20 September 1704, Governor Dudley once again celebrated English victories in the War of the Spanish Succession by announcing that October 18 would be a day of Thanksgiving because it had:

pleased Almighty God in his Great Goodness to preserve Her Majesties Sacred Person, and to prosper Her Arms in the Just War, wherein Her Majesty and Her Allies are Engaged for the preservation of the Liberties of Europe.

The Governor ordered:

That a General THANKSGIVING to Almighty God, for these His Mercies be Observed throughout this Province, within the several Towns and Districts thereof, on Thursday the Eighteenth Day of October next; and do strictly forbid all Servile Labour thereupon; Exhorting both Ministers and People to Solemnize the said Day after a Religious manner, and to offer up sincere and hearty Praises to GOD.

article about a proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving, Boston News-Letter newspaper article 1 October 1705

Boston News-Letter (Boston, Massachusetts), 1 October 1705, page 2

In this next example, Governor Dudley on 27 December 1705 called for yet another day of Thanksgiving to celebrate English victories in the War of the Spanish Succession, this one scheduled for January 24.

article about a proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving, Boston News-Letter newspaper article 31 December 1705

Boston News-Letter (Boston, Massachusetts), 31 December 1705, page 4

Why not take a little time during this Thanksgiving break to search the old newspapers in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to learn more about early Thanksgiving celebrations and enrich your understanding of this very special day of thanks?

Happy Thanksgiving and blessings to you and your families!

Related Thanksgiving Articles:

Family History Research: Finding Blue Ribbon Winners at the Fair

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary demonstrates an important genealogy search tip: stories about your ancestors can be found in all parts of the newspaper. Consider, for example, articles about blue ribbon contest winners at country fairs.

An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is a great resource for genealogy research. But don’t just stop at the obvious choices: birth notices, wedding announcements, and obituaries. Stories about your ancestors can be found in all parts of the newspaper. Consider, for example, articles about the local, county or state fair.

It’s the rare family that didn’t attend a country fair – and many had a family member who won a blue ribbon. Perhaps the local newspaper wrote a nice article about your ancestor when he or she won the blue ribbon at the local fair.

illustration of a blue ribbon

It may have been your Aunt Be, Uncle Mo, Cousin Shirley or Grandpa Joe. Do yourself a favor and go look for these sweet tidbits of family memorabilia. They were almost always featured in old newspapers.

When researching old newspaper articles about fairs, don’t stop at the obvious keyword searches such as: livestock, quilts, and pies. Many other fun and unusual awards were bestowed. Here are some of my picks of Americana blue ribbon awards.


Starting from a very early time, country fairs offered financial prizes for horsemanship.

In 1855 there were not enough contestants for the prize at an Illinois county fair, so the judges announced there would be no financial premium (a first place prize of $50 had been offered originally).

article about a horsemanship contest at the county fair, Daily Illinois State Register newspaper article 29 September 1855

Daily Illinois State Register (Springfield, Illinois), 29 September 1855, page 2

However, the judges did present two ribbons among five ladies who rode for the honors, “accompanied by their knights.” Misses Poorman, Archer, Cass and Orr, along with Mrs. Rosette, “rode around the ring many times” in front of the spectators. Miss Cass took home the blue ribbon and Miss Poorman the red.

By the early 1920s, photos accompanied the newspaper articles about ribbon winners at the fair. This one depicts Miss Katherine Kennedy Tod riding her horse Sceptre; they won the blue ribbon “in the saddle horse class ridden by boy or girl not over sixteen.”

photo of Katherine Tod on her horse Sceptre, Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper article 23 October 1921

Colorado Springs Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colorado), 23 October 1921, page 42

If you search GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives as well as the Web, you’ll find that Miss Tod won a number of other prizes for horsemanship in her riding career.

Blue Ribbon Babies

Who doesn’t love a baby photo!

Many babies of yesteryear were dressed in their cutest garb and taken to the fair – and entered in contests.

photo of Anna McNamara and her daughter Nancy, Salt Lake Telegram newspaper article 1 November 1921

Salt Lake Telegram (Salt Lake City, Utah), 1 November 1921, page 3

In 1921, Mrs. Anna McNamara displayed her two-year-old daughter Nancy at the Long Island fair.

She won for being the prettiest and healthiest of the babies out of hundreds entered – and don’t you adore the little shoes and her mama’s hat. Just an observation, but perhaps the lack of a beaming smile tells us the little girl struck too many poses that day.

Root Beer – Better than Beer

I’m sure many people from 1920 – and even today – would agree that root beer is better than beer. Becker Products won the blue ribbon at the Utah State Fair in 1920 for its root beer, and this photograph appeared in the local newspaper. This image was timely, coming as it did right before the country entered into the prohibition of liquor.

photo of the display booth for Becker Products at the Utah State Fair, Salt Lake Telegram newspaper article 10 October 1920

Salt Lake Telegram (Salt Lake City, Utah), 10 October 1920, page 15

Scientific American’s Flying Machines (Heavier than Air) Trophy

Although not a blue ribbon contest per se, when aviation fever hit the United States there were many prizes awarded. One was a magnificent trophy from the Scientific American valued at $2,500 that was awarded in 1907. The prestige of blue ribbon trophies was echoed in this article’s text:

The trophy is valued at $2,500 and its beauty at once brings to the lips the words “Blue Ribbon of the Air.”

article about an aviation trophy offered by Scientific American, Plain Dealer newspaper article 7 September 1907

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 7 September 1907, page 2

It’s thought that these prizes spurred the rapid advancement of air travel in the United States. If this is one of your interests, go look for more details in the old newspapers. There are many lovely reports, including the names of winners.

Bicycle Races

Aviation wasn’t the only transportation method of contests.

In 1901, Bobbie Walthour of Atlanta, Georgia, won a six-day bicycle race that ended at Park Square Garden. Once again, the prestige of blue ribbon trophies was echoed in this article’s text:

Hardly a foot separated Stinson from the leader [Walthour], and these two demonstrated beyond question that they were far superior to even the redoubtable foreigners who came to America for the purpose of winning these blue ribbon events of the indoor season.

article about a bicycle race, Boston Herald newspaper article 6 January 1901

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 6 January 1901, page 1

Needlework and Quilts

Let’s not forget blue ribbon quilts and needlework. Notice that in 1936, there were dozens and dozens of winners reported in this Texas newspaper. A special “Quilt of States” drew merited attention. It was constructed with blocks embroidered in state flowers with the colors and shields of each location.

Let’s hope this quilt has been lovingly preserved somewhere.

Exhibition of Needlework Is Good, Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper article 6 December 1936

Heraldo de Brownsville (Brownsville, Texas), 6 December 1936, page 14

As part of your family history research in old newspapers, include searches for articles about blue ribbon contests and award winners at country fairs. You just might discover a story about your ancestor that you won’t find in any government record, vital statistics archive, or other genealogy resource.

Have you found a blue ribbon winner in your family tree? If so, please let us know in the comments section.

Related Articles:

Is There a Pirate in Your Family Tree?

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary searches old newspapers to learn more about pirates – their legends, and their true stories.

As long as there have been newspapers, there have been stories published about pirates. You can certainly find lots of them in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

Search Tip: Use these search terms to find pirate stories in the old newspapers: buccaneer, buried treasure, corsair, freebooter, marauder, raiders and privateer.

illustration of a pirate

Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division: LC-H824-T01-240

So avast ye family historians – is there a pirate in your family tree? Some of the stories I found in old newspapers will shiver ye timbers. Read on if you want to know more about this spine-tingling topic.

Pirate John Quelch (1666-1704)

Private ship owners were often commissioned to make reprisals or gain reparations for the British crown. They were called “privateers.” When they seized an enemy ship it was called a “prize” and all was perfectly legal. Proceeds were split, so it was a lucrative undertaking. But not all excursions went well.

Ponder Captain Daniel Plowman’s story. In 1703 he was commissioned a privateer by Governor Joseph Dudley, who happens to be one of my ancestors. His ship the Charles was authorized to attack French and Spanish ships off the coast of Newfoundland and Arcadia, but his crew soon mutinied and murdered him. See Wikipedia’s article about Quelch.

John Quelch, Plowman’s lieutenant, was elected leader and turned the Charles south to plunder Portuguese ships off the Brazilian coast. Legend has it that some of the pirates’ captured gold was later buried on New Hampshire’s Star Island. After looting and plundering for ten months, they returned to Marblehead, Massachusetts, where some of them were captured. Quelch and five others were executed and the rest put in jail. After languishing for 13 months, a pardon was granted to Charles James, William Wilder, John Dorrothy, John Pittman, John Carter, Dennis Carter and Charles King. Perhaps one of them is your ancestor.

article about the pardoning of some members of pirate John Quelch's crew, Boston News-Letter newspaper article 23 July 1705

Boston News-Letter (Boston, Massachusetts), 23 July 1705, page 2

Pirate Narratives

Encounters with pirates were the tabloid sensations of yesteryear.

This gripping report describes actions with a pirate schooner, chases and even how a brig was “much cut up with musquetry.” During one encounter the captain was burned from a gun powder explosion but survived, with the fight leaving several pirates dead on the ship’s deck.

stories about pirates, Hallowell Gazette newspaper article 12 June 1822

Hallowell Gazette (Hallowell, Maine), 12 June 1822, page 2

Obituaries That Mention Pirates

Pirate encounters often followed men to their death by appearing in their obituaries.

James MacAlpine, who passed away in 1775, had been “taken by a French Pirate and carried into Rattan, where he lived six weeks entirely upon turtle…” Interestingly, this forced diet cured him of consumption which earlier had nearly killed him.

obituary for James MacAlpine, Pennsylvania Ledger newspaper article 1 April 1775

Pennsylvania Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 1 April 1775, page 2

This next obit from 1789 for Captain Luke Ryan reports that his ship Black Privateer had “captured more vessels belonging to Great Britain than any other single ship during the war.”

After being captured in 1781, Ryan was tried as a pirate and thrown into the Old Bailey prison. Although condemned to be executed on four different occasions, each time he was reprieved – though he ended up dying in prison.

obituary for pirate Luke Ryan, Massachusetts Centinel newspaper article 7 October 1789

Massachusetts Centinel (Boston, Massachusetts), 7 October 1789, page 26

Famous Pirates

Ever wonder if legendary pirates were real? Even if they stretch the truth, some of the anecdotal articles you can find in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives are marvelous.

For example, there is this 1789 account of one of Blackbeard’s legends. After a swordfight that went “pell mell,” Blackbeard supposedly “received a severe stroke on the shoulder” from a lieutenant from a “British ship of war” who had challenged the old pirate to single combat. “Hah, cried he, that’s well struck brother soldier!” A stronger blow followed that “severed his black head from his shoulders.” The old newspaper article reports that Blackbeard’s head was then boiled and a drinking cup made out of his skull. The cup was presented to a “keeper of a publick house, as a cup to drink punch out of.”

article about the pirate Blackbeard, Massachusetts Centinel newspaper article 26 August 1789

Massachusetts Centinel (Boston, Massachusetts), 26 August 1789, page 186

Believe It or Not

The depth of one’s imagination often runs wild when it comes to the subject of pirates.

In 1820 a man identified only as J— D— passed away, supposedly at the age of 103. He claimed to have been one of the crew of the “old noted pirate” Captain Kidd. Since Captain William Kidd (1645-1701) died 119 years earlier, it’s apparent that this claim merely came from JD’s vivid imagination.

obituaries, Concord Observer newspaper article 17 January 1820

Concord Observer (Concord, New Hampshire), 17 January 1820, page 3

Any Pirates in Your Family History?

Please share your genealogical pirate stories in the comments section.

Civil War Genealogy: Old Letters in Newspapers & Research Resources

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary expands on her earlier article about Civil War letters published in newspapers by sharing some additional Civil War research resources and tips.

A recent GenealogyBank Blog article of mine discussed personal communications of the Civil War period (see: Civil War Newspaper Research: Personal Notices & Letters). Desperate families crossed enemy lines, sent letters via flags of truce, or – more safely – exchanged messages via newspapers, especially when a loved one had become a prisoner of war.

The importance of these Civil War letters published in newspapers should not be discounted, because in many cases they are the only record of a person’s experience during the war, if not their military involvement.

photo of a group of Union soldiers of Company G, 71st New York Volunteers, 1861

Photo: group of Union soldiers of Company G, 71st New York Volunteers, 1861. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Along with those old newspaper letters, there are other Civil War resources to help genealogists with their family history research. Here are some additional considerations for searching Civil War records.

Searching for Civil War Soldiers

When searching for Civil War records, the first stop for many is the National Park Service Soldiers and Sailors Database.

Many early American military records are to be found in this database. This is a wonderful resource – but as with all genealogical military databases, it’s nearly impossible for it to be complete. During periods of upheaval, many records go astray or were lost for many reasons.

What Happened to Lucien Wheatly?

One Civil War soldier I could not locate in the Soldiers and Sailors Database is Lucien Wheatly of the Sixth Regiment Cavalry.

A letter in the Richmond Enquirer reported that nothing had been heard from him since 17 December 1863. The writer, who was not fully identified, reported that Wheatly was a prisoner of war at a prison called “Scott’s Factory,” but thought he might have been sent away.

missing person ad for Union soldier Lucien Wheatly, Richmond Enquirer newspaper advertisement 30 May 1864

Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia), 30 May 1864, page 4

This is an extremely important citation, because it pinpoints the soldier’s last known location. However, scant information is available on this prison. The website Civil War Richmond states it existed from 1862 to 1864 and that its location has never been determined.

Whenever you cannot locate a historical place, search GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. I did an archives search, and found that there are only a few clues – but this one is important: Scott’s Factory was reportedly four or five miles from Smithfield.

article about a Civil War skirmish near Smithfield, Virginia, Richmond Enquirer newspaper article 3 February 1864

Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia), 3 February 1864, page 3

By triangulating the references in the old newspaper article (Chuckatuck Creek, Cherry Grove & Smithfield), a diligent researcher could possibly solve the prison’s location mystery, or at least narrow the possibilities. Perhaps someone more proficient in Virginia geography could use these clues to find Scott’s Factory. Google Maps shows Chuckatuck Creek to be about 12 miles south of Smithfield, and since the Union gunboat was to “go around and meet the Yankees at Cherry Grove,” perhaps one should follow the water routes.

Follow-up Searches for Lucien Wheatly

Whenever you can’t find an ancestor you’re researching, always perform a follow-up search using alternative dates. It’s not clear if there was more than one Lucien Wheatly, but I did locate the name twice in GenealogyBank’s collections, and also in several Web references.

  • Sanitary Inspector referenced in the 1890 Congressional Directory. Lived at 921 G Street N.W. (see Serial Set Vol. No.2819; 3 December 1890, Report: S.Misc.Doc. 9)
  • Cashier at an Illinois bank in 1892 (see Daily Illinois State Register (Springfield, Illinois), 26 May 1892, page 6)
  • Sales Representative from Chicago in 1911 (see The Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers)

Follow the Letter Reprints

When a letter was published in old newspapers, there was often a reference to “please copy” elsewhere. This is a good clue that the subject of the letter had connections to the place indicated. Note that the letter concerning Lucien Wheatly shown above concluded:

Any one knowing his [Wheatly’s] whereabouts will confer a great favor on his friends by addressing, by personal in the Richmond Enquirer, J. & B. D., Daily News office.

As noted in that missing person ad from 1864, the Southern newspaper Richmond Enquirer and the Northern newspaper New York Daily News often exchanged reports. That exchange enabled soldiers’ families in both the South and the North to place ads that would be seen in the other region.

This exchange is explicitly referred to in this article from the Richmond Enquirer, which mentioned that the New York Daily News recently printed 96 personals, first published in the Richmond Enquirer, that were addressed to persons in the North. That same historical news article reprinted ads from the New York Daily News from Northerners trying to reach family in the South. Here is one from “Jack” intended for an Edward Huntley in Richmond.

Civil War missing person ads, Richmond Enquirer newspaper advertisements 30 May 1864

Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia), 30 May 1864, page 4

The message from Jack is intriguing because it reports an inheritance. Jack, whose surname was withheld to maintain anonymity, let Edward C. Huntley know how to collect his share from Aunt Sarah’s estate. Holmes was the executor. Jack shared a reference to where he was in the Catskills and mentioned he had tried to reach Richmond twice, but was unable.

Here is another old newspaper ad from a Northerner, first printed in the New York Daily News and reprinted in the Richmond Enquirer. In this ad, the mother of Samuel Livingston was seeking information about her missing son. We learn from this ad Samuel’s rank, company and regiment. The ad also makes reference to a Colonel Moore who was wounded and left on the battlefield at Oloustee [Olustee], Florida. According to research on the battle, this was Col. Henry Moore.

missing person ad for Union soldier Samuel Livingston, Richmond Enquirer newspaper advertisement 30 May 1864

Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia), 30 May 1864, page 4

Livingston appears in the National Park Service Soldiers and Sailors Database as follows.

listing for Samuel Livingston, National Park Service Soldiers and Sailors Database

Genealogy Search Tips

  • Assume that every database is incomplete or has mistakes.
  • Use historical newspapers to fill in the blanks – and when you solve a puzzle, be sure to share it with others.
  • If a paper mentions “please copy,” there is always a personal connection. The person may have lived, worked or served in that place, a relative may live there, or there could be another possibility that you have not yet considered.
  • Not every publication will report that a piece was copied (i.e., reprinted), so look to see if it exists elsewhere. Sometimes the information will have been changed or have additions.
  • During the Civil War period, we often encounter scanning issues with the early newspapers. As fortunate as we are that they survived, some text may be smeary or split across two lines, so a search engine may misread it.
  • Don’t assume relationships unless specified. Mrs. Samuel Livingston could have been a wife, daughter, in-law or other relation; we only know for certain because her ad says that any news “will be most thankfully received by his mother.”
  • Always perform a follow-up search using alternate dates. Also, vary a person’s name by title and name abbreviations.
  • Follow location trails. Many battle parks and Civil War prison sites would be thrilled to add to their list of soldiers and sailors.
  • Map your ancestor’s movements. Think about known routes via land or water if they went to visit relatives, and consider military and troop movements.
  • Enrich your genealogical experience by taking a road trip. You may find that this experience adds an important component to your knowledge.
  • As an exercise, search for related names and events in the Soldiers and Sailors Database. For example, there is quite a bit of information on the 47th New York Regiment in which Samuel Livingston served.

As an exercise, see how many prisoner of war reports you can find and reconnect to their family. Each one has a story, such as the example below about William Kean who was captured on 17 June 1864 while on picket duty. One can only imagine how that came about.

missing person ad for Confederate soldier William Kean, Richmond Enquirer newspaper advertisement 23 July 1864

Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia), 23 July 1864, page 2

Researching your Civil War ancestor? There are many good Civil War genealogy resources available online. Be sure to include old newspapers, such as those in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. In some cases, you may find that the clue you’re searching for about your ancestor never appeared in a government record – but was contained in a letter a loved one had printed in a newspaper in a desperate attempt to get news about a missing son or husband. Their hunt for information may be just what you need for your own searches!

Related Civil War Articles:

Victoria Claflin Woodhull – the 1st Woman to Run for U.S. President

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary tells the story of Victoria Claflin Woodhull – who in a long, full life replete with many controversies, earned the distinction of being the first woman to run for U.S. president.

Who, you may be wondering, was this lady? And could you be related to her? If so, she may well be one of the “black sheep” in your family history!

photo of Victoria Woodhull, c. 1860s

Photo: Victoria Woodhull, c. 1860s. Source: Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum, Historical Photographs and Special Visual Collections Department, Fine Arts Library; Wikimedia Commons.

Victoria Claflin Woodhull was a woman full of gumption and a household name in her own time. As a spiritualist, suffragette, newspaper publisher, the first woman to ever run a stock brokerage – and the first woman to run for U.S. president – she became a very famous and controversial person. Read on to find out why.

memorial for women suffrage submitted by Victoria Claflin Woodhull

Brief Family & Marriage History

Victoria Claflin was born 23 September 1838 in Homer, Ohio, to Reuben Buckman “Buck” Claflin and Roxanna “Annie” Hummel. She was one of ten children and the family struggled financially. Buck was a school teacher who later kept a store, and his wife reportedly did not have much education. Victoria’s father often got into trouble, including the counterfeiting of money.

He even marketed his children as clairvoyants. From the age of 10, Victoria reported receiving psychic messages from the Greek statesman Demosthenes (384–322 B.C.). The family traveled from town to town until, at the age of 14, Victoria married her first husband, Canning H. Woodhull, a native of New York.

article about Victoria Claflin Woodhull and her family, Plain Dealer newspaper article 23 September 1938

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 23 September 1938, page 6

By 1855, they were living with his parents, Byron and Louisa Woodhull. The New York State Census reports a son Byron, and at the time Canning’s occupation was sailor. (See “New York, State Census, 1855,” database with images from FamilySearch at https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:K6Q9-J8C: accessed 3 September 2015.)

They later had a daughter named Zulu Maud Woodhull.

The marriage ended in divorce and Canning’s death certificate, displayed on his Findagrave memorial at http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=42444970, reports he succumbed to intemperance in 1872.

Victoria’s second marriage was to James Harvey Blood on 14 July 1866. (See “Ohio, County Marriages, 1789-2013,” database with images, FamilySearch https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XZBW-4DX.)

He was a veteran of the Civil War who often went by an alias. Several reports indicate that at times, her first husband lived with them. Victoria’s second marriage also ended in a divorce.

A Fortune for a Fortune

As a psychic, Victoria met with millionaire railroad magnate and philanthropist Cornelius Vanderbilt. She told him his fortune which purportedly resulted in a large financial gain for Vanderbilt of $13 million in the gold market – and in exchange, Victoria was reportedly the benefactor of generous financing. She and sister Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin used this money to found the first female-owned bank and brokerage in the United States: Woodhull, Claflin & Company. In 1870, it was located at 44 Broad Street in New York and stayed in business until around 1876. The sisters also founded the first female-owned newspaper, called Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, which began publication in 1870 in New York.

Newspaper advertisements announced that Woodhull, Claflin & Company bought and sold gold and government bonds, supplied advances, took collections of deposits in all parts of the Union, and paid interest on daily balances. They even provided mail and telegraphic services.

ad for Woodhull, Claflin & Company, Commercial Advertiser newspaper advertisement 24 February 1870

Commercial Advertiser (New York, New York), 24 February 1870, page 3

Legal Entanglements

In 1871, Victoria and Tennessee’s mother filed a petition to have Victoria’s husband arrested, alleging that Mr. Blood (who sometimes used the alias Dr. J. H. Harvey) encouraged Victoria to seek the attention of various married gentlemen for the purpose of blackmail.

article about Victoria Claflin Woodhull and her family, Springfield Republican newspaper article 6 May 1871

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 6 May 1871, page 4

Several other legal squabbles ensued, the most notable with the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. One of their first entanglements was when the sisters sued, claiming that they were portrayed in the novel My Wife and I, by his daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Later he retaliated with a lawsuit of his own.

article about Victoria Claflin Woodhull and her sister Tennessee suing Henry Ward Beecher for libel, Houston Daily Union newspaper article 28 June 1871

Houston Daily Union (Houston, Texas), 28 June 1871, page 2

In 1872, the sisters were deterred from sailing to Europe when they were charged by Mr. L. C. Challis with sending defamatory letters through the mail.

Arrest of Woodhull and Claflin, Washington Reporter newspaper article 6 November 1872

Washington Reporter (Washington, Pennsylvania), 6 November 1872, page 4

Female Presidential Candidate Hopeful

Many of these lawsuits were instituted by political enemies because earlier that year, Victoria announced she was running for U.S. president on the Reform ticket. Her running mate was noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

article about Victoria Claflin Woodhull running for U.S. president in the 1872 election, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 4 April 1870

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 4 April 1870, page 2

They were among good company – U.S. presidential candidates that year included Ulysses S. Grant, Horace Greeley and even Susan B. Anthony, who ran for vice president on the Independent ticket. Several authors report that Victoria’s name never appeared on an official ballot, as she was not yet 35.

list of the candidates in the 1872 U.S. presidential election, Stoughton Sentinel newspaper article 13 July 1872

Stoughton Sentinel (Stoughton, Massachusetts), 13 July 1872, page 5

Victoria lost her bid for the U.S. presidency, but went on to live a long, full life. She died at the age of 88 on 9 June 1927.

Are You Related?

I began this article with the question: Are you related to Victoria Claflin Woodhull? After reading these reports, perhaps you’re hoping you’re not – but as all genealogists know, if you root around your family tree, you’ll undoubtedly uncover some dirt.

Related Articles & Resources:

How to Find Your Ancestors’ Name Abbreviations & More

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary tackles a problem many genealogists encounter: how to find newspaper articles about your ancestors when editors often abbreviated or hyphenated your ancestors’ names.

So much has been written on searching newspapers for ancestors whose names have challenging spellings (see the links at the end of this article), but little has been written on dealing with ancestor name abbreviations and hyphenations. With narrow columns, newspaper editors often made adjustments in spacing to make an article fit. A wide variety of name abbreviations, hyphenations and spelling changes were used – as a result, genealogists’ queries often miss their targets.

Ancestor Name Abbreviations

Names are often shortened to accommodate character spacing issues, and this poses a challenge for genealogists searching old newspapers.

Using abbreviations was even seen as a problem in the 19th century.

An Age of Abbreviations, New York Herald newspaper article 13 December 1891

New York Herald (New York, New York), 13 December 1891, page 26

In 1826 there was a proposed New York state amendment that would have disqualified votes if a common abbreviation was used for the name on the ballot. The examples cited were “Alexr.,” “Wm.” and “Jno.” (Alexander, William and Jonathan). If these abbreviations were used on the ballot, then the proposed amendment would require that “it would be imperative to reject all votes.”

One state legislator rose to oppose the amendment, pointing out that use of abbreviations was common on ballots.

article about legislation concerning the use of abbreviations, Albany Argus newspaper article 7 February 1826

Albany Argus (Albany, New York), 7 February 1826, page 1

On a humorous note, the debate on abbreviations fell along geographical lines. Gen. Root was opposed to the proposed amendment based on the orthography and the dilemma of the many “Yankee electors” who “might be puzzled occasionally to write correctly the name of their candidate.”

article about legislation concerning the use of abbreviations, Albany Argus newspaper article 7 February 1826

Albany Argus (Albany, New York), 7 February 1826, page 1

Resources for Finding Name Abbreviations

Several guides can be found on the web for finding name abbreviations. I recommend browsing several, since in one you may find “Abraham” abbreviated as “Ab.,” while another guide might use “Abr.” or “Abram.”

More Abbreviations for Words & Terms

Lastly, don’t forget that other words were commonly abbreviated, and they aren’t always readily apparent.

Ancestor Name Hyphenations

Let’s look at common pitfalls and techniques to overcome hyphenation issues.

  • If a name was split at the edge of the page, one portion may be on one page and the remaining on the next. When this occurs the search engine may return an unwanted result or no results at all.
  • When a word is split in two, it can result in two words which a search engine misses. For example: if the word “carnation” was split, the result would be “car” and “nation.”
  • Search Tip: If your family names (given & surnames) can be broken into two words, such as “Newcomb,” search for the individual parts.
  • Another idea is to add a Boolean wildcard, such as an asterisk (*), to the end of a shortened named. For example: you could search for “New*” instead of “Newcomb.”
obituary for H. D. Newcomb, Evening Post newspaper article 18 August 1874

Evening Post (New York, New York), 18 August 1874, page 4

Customs & Common Expressions

Keep in mind that the customs of the day may have changed.

In the 16th and early 17th centuries, births from common families were rarely published in newspapers.

When they were, sometimes just a parent’s name was recorded. This article from 1800 notes:

It is fashionable in England to announce the Births among the Nobility. As the fashion is creeping into this country, we must of course follow it.

birth announcement for the Augustus family, Impartial Register newspaper article 23 October 1800

Impartial Register (Salem, Massachusetts), 23 October 1800, page 3

Search Tip: If you notice a particular expression, such as “true American blood,” incorporate it in your query along with a date and location. By doing this, I was able to locate other notices celebrating American births.

birth announcement for the Read family, Gazette of the United States newspaper article 28 October 1800

Gazette of the United States (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 28 October 1800, page 2

Newspaper Scanning Issues

Due to technical limitations, historical newspapers cannot always be scanned flat when they’re being digitized for posting online. Occasionally small portions of the old news articles are truncated, so vary your queries by searching specific:

  • Dates
  • Locations
  • Types of Events

For example, notice that the left-hand edge of this newspaper article was not scanned.

marriage announcements, Richmond Whig newspaper article 19 January 1841

Richmond Whig (Richmond, Virginia), 19 January 1841, page 3

Try some of these genealogy search tips to overcome abbreviation and hyphenation issues, and perhaps you’ll finally find that long-sought newspaper article about your elusive ancestor!

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Genealogy Humor: 7 Funny and Odd Inheritances & Bequests

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary reminds us that humor can be a fun part of family history research by sharing seven strange bequests she ran across in old newspapers.

They say that in order to be remembered long after you’re gone, make an unusual bequest in your will.

Writers and editors love to feature oddities, and genealogists love to read them – so go ahead and enjoy these odd and unusual inheritances and bequests. Search GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to find boatloads of these news stories to tickle your funny bone. You’ll be sure to have a good laugh.

Here are seven of my favorite funny “final requests.”

1) A Dollar in Four Monthly Payments

In 1908, the appropriately-named Catherine E. Heckler of Portland, Oregon, left her husband a dollar payable in four monthly installments of 25 cents. She didn’t call him her husband, but rather “the individual who married me in 1905 in San Diego, Cal., and who got from me thousands of dollars and when he could get no more deserted me.”

article about Catherine E. Heckler's bequest, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 2 November 1908

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 2 November 1908, page 7

Hope Mr. Heckler didn’t spend his inheritance all in one place!

2) Home for Non-Smoking Clergymen

Philanthropist Ann Jane Mercer, who died in 1886, left her residence to establish a home for Presbyterian clergymen who were “decayed by age, or disabled by infirmity and who do not use tobacco in any form or shape.”

article about Ann Jane Mercer's bequest, Plain Dealer newspaper article 14 April 1886

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 14 April 1886, page 1

This wonderful cause doesn’t sound that odd, but as this 1909 newspaper article reports, there were some strange aspects to the bequest. For one, it says of Ann Mercer’s insistence that the home only be used by clergymen who were nonsmokers:

This provision was the more singular because the bulk of the Mercer fortune was made on raising tobacco.

Another thing: it turned out that nonsmoking clergymen were scarce.

In the twenty-one years since the institution’s foundation four clergymen have entered its portals.

By 1909 only one clergyman was using the home, and the board of managers decided to put him up in a hotel at their expense.

Finally Rev. Mr. Jones was left alone, so he was sent to the hotel, where thoughtless young men, summer visitors, have been blowing cigaret smoke around his aged head.

article about Ann Jane Mercer's bequest, Plain Dealer newspaper article 3 September 1909

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 3 September 1909, page 5

3) An Astronomical Challenge

Mrs. Gruzman was interested in the planets. Her big idea was to bequeath a prize of 100,000 francs to the Institute of France (science section) for the person who could discover interplanetary or astral communications.

article about Mrs. Gruzman's bequest, Macon Telegraph newspaper article 24 January 1892

Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), 24 January 1892, page 2

A ten-year limit was set to collect the prize, with the other stipulation that a reply from outer space was necessary. If the Institute of France did not accept the legacy, the price would divert to the Institute of Milan or the Institute of New York.

What do you suppose happened to the money when nobody collected?

4) She Left Her Body to Favorite Nephew

One has to wonder what Charles Brower of Downingtown thought of his aunt’s will.

He was literally to inherit her body. By reading this newspaper article you’ll get her intent, but the wording was strange. Her will instructed the nephew to bring a double team of horses to Pottstown to fetch her. Apparently she didn’t want her estranged husband to bury her, so her nephew returned her body to Downingtown as requested.

Enter Last Name

Let’s hope she left some money for his corpse-carrying troubles.

article about Mrs. Steele's bequest, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 1 June 1896

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 1 June 1896, page 4

5) Don’t Miss the Banquet

If your ancestors were heirs of Albert Karutz, let’s hope they attended his funeral when he passed in 1909. As an inducement, he offered in his will a $500 funeral banquet with “liquid refreshments” – but heirs who failed to show up were to be disinherited!

article about Albert Karutz's funeral banquet, Times-Picayune newspaper article 26 August 1909

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 26 August 1909, page 3

6) Dinner on the House

One has to wonder if Karutz’s 1909 bequest inspired Ratke Siedenburg in 1910. He set aside $500 for friends to dine together within three months after his death. The executor was to choose the location as well as the lucky dozen diners.

article about Ratke Siedenburg's funeral banquet, Oregonian newspaper article 8 November 1910

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 8 November 1910, page 1

7) Delayed Support for Kitties & Puppies

This next bequest left $1,100 to found a homeless shelter for cats and dogs, but the money wasn’t to be touched until the year 2163. Wonder how much the trust is worth today, if it even still exists?

article about a bequest to establish a cat and dog shelter, St. Albans Daily Messenger newspaper article 18 July 1918

St. Albans Daily Messenger (St. Albans, Vermont), 18 July 1918, page 3

So there you have it. Strange and odd bequests are not that unusual. Have any of you encountered any funny or odd bequests in your ancestry research? If so, we’d love to hear about it; tell us in the comments section.

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Civil War Newspaper Research: Personal Notices & Letters

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary shows that one of the ways ordinary citizens and families communicated across enemy lines during the Civil War was by having personal notices and even letters published in newspapers – and these are a great resource for family historians.

It’s often said that “Where there is a will, there is usually a way.” This is true even during the most challenging times – such as during the American Civil War, when in the midst of terrible fighting, communications still found their way across enemy lines. Families either smuggled letters, sent them via flags of truce, or – what is not often realized – published them in local newspapers.

illustration: the 1863 Civil War Battle of Chickamauga, by Kurz & Allison, c. 1890

Illustration: the 1863 Civil War Battle of Chickamauga, by Kurz & Allison, c. 1890. Credit: Library of Congress.

Thanks to digitized newspaper collections online, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, genealogists can search these old newspapers to find very personal communications from and about their ancestors.

Restricted Messages

Some newspapers during the Civil War, such as the Daily National Republican of Washington, D.C., limited the types of notices its readers could publish. In this old news article example, readers could only submit information regarding health or whereabouts to friends and relatives.

  • E. Cunningham and family of New York City relayed a message to Mr. and Mrs. Bernard F. McKenna. They were well and wished to hear the same from them.
  • Charles Horsfield of Wilmington, North Carolina, learned that his mother had died on the 15th of July, an important genealogical date if an obituary was not published.
  • Letitia Donahue of New York City was desperate to hear news of her husband Sam. He was formerly of Atlanta, Georgia – but if you notice the reference to Augusta, this is an important clue as to his possible whereabouts.
personal ads, Daily National Republican newspaper advertisements 28 August 1863

Daily National Republican (Washington, D.C.), 28 August 1863, page 2

“Please Copy” or Answer Instructions

Whenever you spot a “please copy” notice, there is a connection to the location. It may be a residence, place where someone works, or – in the case of a soldier – a place where they were stationed.

Many of these newspaper notices also gave instructions as to how one could answer. This clue indicates that they had access to a particular newspaper, even if they lived elsewhere.

Reprisals and Hidden Identities

One of the more proactive newspapers during the Civil War was the Richmond Enquirer in Virginia, which exchanged personals with various northern papers.

Divided families often printed notices – but if they feared reprisals, either for themselves or for loved ones, they would disguise identities by using nicknames or initials. In this example, E. S. C. requested to hear from Mrs. M. J. Ebbs. They were well and sent their love to Alice.

personal ad to M. J. Ebbs, Richmond Enquirer newspaper advertisement 16 April 1864

Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia), 16 April 1864, page 1

Search tips to locate hidden identities:

  • Search without a surname
  • Search by initials with or without a surname
  • Search by nicknames and locations

Civil War Soldier News

Not surprisingly, many newspaper notices were about missing Civil War soldiers.

In the same issue of the Richmond Enquirer, there was a message to Lieut. J. M. Podgett of the 18th Georgia reporting that Britton W. Riggons was well and comfortable at Camp Douglas in Illinois.

Another notice, to Charles B. Linn, notes that messages were getting through and that “things” were sent back. He was welcome to respond to “W. S. R.” via the Richmond Enquirer or the New York News.

personal ad to Charles Linn, Richmond Enquirer newspaper advertisement 16 April 1864

Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia), 16 April 1864, page 1

Letters to Congressmen

Many letters published in newspapers during the Civil War are full of pathos and desperation, such as the following example.

personal ad to Joseph Segar, Richmond Enquirer newspaper advertisement 27 October 1864

Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia), 27 October 1864, page 1

After learning that Dr. Frederick Griffith had been captured about the 20th of September, Wat H. Tyler, M.D., wrote his Congressman Joseph Segar.

What is exciting about this discovery is that the capture is reported in official records, but not how assistance was requested. Griffith was exchanged on 19 March 1865, most likely a direct result of Tyler’s letter. Be sure to visit their Findagrave memorials:

Civil War Vital Records

When you cannot locate a vital record from the Civil War era, a genealogist might find direct or indirect evidence of that record in newspaper notices. In this example, the widow was visiting the Angier House and her husband’s loss was noted.

personal notice about Mrs. Woodbury, Plain Dealer newspaper article 12 July 1862

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 12 July 1862, page 4

This sad notice is important because it connects three generations, and substitutes for an obituary.

In this next example, M. Jane Richardson wrote her father to report that her husband had died on 1 October 1864 of diphtheria, and that Little Nora had no hope of recovering either. She was in deep distress and asked her father to come see her.

personal ad to Mr. Burton, Richmond Enquirer newspaper advertisement 27 October 1864

Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia), 27 October 1864, page 1

Civil War Marriage Records

What is wonderful for genealogists searching these Civil War-era newspapers is that not all notices were sad.

Many marriage notices were published at that time. In this one, G. L. M. married Miss A. L. on Wednesday, March 30, 1864, possibly in New York.

Genealogical Challenge: Try to figure out whom this marriage notice was about and let us know in the comments!

marriage announcement, Richmond Enquirer newspaper article 16 April 1864

Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia), 16 April 1864, page 1

Civil War research is a fascinating topic – and it doesn’t have to be limited to official records.

You can date early photographs using revenue stamps, learn about regiments through their uniforms, and explore the fascinating articles and letters found in historical newspapers.

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450th Anniversary of St. Augustine, the Oldest City in the U.S.

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary celebrates the 450th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine, Florida – the oldest city in the United States.

This week, St. Augustine, Florida – the oldest continuously-occupied European settlement in the continental United States – celebrated the 450th anniversary of its founding.

photo of a re-enactor at the 450th anniversary celebration at St. Augustine, Florida, dressed in Spanish costume

Photo: re-enactor at the 450th anniversary celebration at St. Augustine, Florida, dressed in Spanish costume. Credit: Mary Harrell-Sesniak.

Although this tropical area in what is now the state of Florida was settled by Native Americans much earlier, “San Agustin” was founded by Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés on 8 September 1565. Many family roots can be traced there – and even if yours can’t, many of our ancestors visited the historical city, a popular tourist attraction with breathtaking beaches.

photo of Cherokee women at the 450th anniversary celebration at St. Augustine, Florida

Photo: Cherokee women at the 450th anniversary celebration at St. Augustine, Florida; they were there to give a blessing to Native Americans of all tribes who had been imprisoned there. Credit: Mary Harrell-Sesniak.

This map shows how our ancestors would have driven there a mere 100 years ago.

map of auto routes in the Southern U.S., Miami Herald newspaper article 30 August 1915

Miami Herald (Miami, Florida), 30 August 1915, page 5

Fun Facts About St. Augustine

  • Augustine is about 13 square miles in area, but home to about 13,000. That’s about 1,000 residents every square mile, not including the 5,000,000 annual visitors.
  • It was explored as early as 1513 by Ponce de Leon, but it took more than 50 years to become a settlement. His desire was to find the legendary Fountain of Youth.
  • Agustin, son of Agustin and Francisca, was born there in 1606. His is the first African American birth recorded in the continental United States.
  • Augustine today has an attraction called the Fountain of Youth, a wax museum, a Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, and three forts in the area (Castillo de San Marcos, Fort Matanzas and Fort Mose).
  • Fort Mose was established in 1738 as the first legally free black settlement in North America.
  • The Castillo, which has had several names in its history, has the distinction of being the oldest masonry fort in North America and is the only remaining 17th century fort.
photo of Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, St. Augustine, Florida

Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

See: https://floridamemory.com/items/show/140584

  • It hosts the narrowest street in the U.S. at only 7 feet wide (Treasury Street), and the oldest wooden schoolhouse – which was built in 1716.
  • The first Catholic Congregation in North America was established at Cathedral Basilica.
  • There are ghost stories about many of the historical sites in the area, from the lighthouse to the cemeteries. If you want to learn about them, take one of the many haunted ghost tours – or examine your photos closely. Many visitors report seeing strange people, faces and orbs in their photos!
photo of The Tower Room, oldest house in the U.S., St. Augustine, Florida

Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

See: https://floridamemory.com/items/show/158399

If you search GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives for “St. Augustine Florida,” you’ll find over 138,000 references – very good resources for hunting North Florida family roots.

Genealogy Tip:

St. Augustine’s church the Cathedral Basilica has records dating back to 1594. Some of these are early African American slave records.

photo of the Ponce de Leon building in St. Augustine, Florida

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 10 February 1905, page 12

Does your family have roots traced back to St. Augustine, Florida? Tell us about them in the comments section.

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Ancestor Weddings: Genealogy Tips for Finding the Dress

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary searches old newspapers to find a variety of pictures and articles about our ancestors’ wedding dresses.

Historical newspapers not only give you the names and dates you need to fill in your family tree – they provide your ancestors’ stories, to help you better understand the lives they led and the times they lived in. You can use old newspapers to explore many aspects of your ancestors’ lives. For example, your ancestors’ wedding dresses and other wedding attire are great fun to research in historical newspapers.

GenealogyBank has an entire search category devoted to Marriage Records & Engagement Announcements in Newspapers, many of which describe your ancestors’ wedding garments – but don’t stop there. Look in other parts of the historical newspapers, such as advertisements, fashion pages, photos, illustrations, and the occasional obituary.

wedding announcement for Mae Robinson and Gordon Jackson, Broad Ax newspaper article 8 March 1924

Broad Ax (Chicago, Illinois), 8 March 1924, page 1

Many old newspaper articles and advertisements feature what were then the latest popular wedding fashion styles, such as this 1936 ad, which notes:

Perhaps the most unusual wedding dress we’ve seen this season, is the rich ribbed ottoman dress with a new wide puffed shoulder, at $89.50. For it, we’ve designed the veil garlanded with silver leaves – and silver with white is a new and quite unusual fashion. $30.

ad for wedding gowns, Boston Herald newspaper article 11 March 1936

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 11 March 1936, page 3

Dame Fashion

A somewhat forgotten term to use in your newspaper search is the keyword “dame fashion.”

As noted in this fashion column of 1883, bride and bridesmaid dresses were discussed “ad libitum” back then, along with the latest trends and embellishments. For example, this author wrote:

Iridescent beads are used a little in white dresses, but not much, although they are still seen on colored costumes. Amber beads in brown and old gold combinations are much used, but hardly ever on other colors. Where silver brocade is used for wedding dresses, occasionally silver fringe, hardly as heavy as bullion, but partaking of its brilliance, is employed.

article about wedding fashions, Truth newspaper article 11 November 1883

Truth (New York, New York), 11 November 1883, page 2

Missing Wedding Dress Heirlooms

For many brides, tradition dictates wearing a family gown – but if you’re wondering why Great Grandma’s wedding dress didn’t pass through the family, perhaps she was buried in it!

Such was the case with Mrs. Mary Brown of Danville, Kentucky, who passed away in 1907 at the age of 90. For the burial, she was dressed in her wedding dress of 70 years earlier. This was most likely a loving tribute – but from a practical standpoint, one has to wonder if the younger women of the family were relieved they were now able to choose a more modern bridal gown style.

obituary for Mary Brown, Lexington Herald newspaper article 19 August 1907

Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 19 August 1907, page 2

Wedding Dress Rentals

Another reason why heirloom wedding dresses sometimes don’t exist is that they were often rented.

Notice in 1901 that this Philadelphia merchant ran a prosperous business hiring out wedding dresses to those with limited finances. All sizes and shapes of bridal gowns were available. Three or four brides a day paid fees from $3 to $10 for gowns, or up to $25 for a more elegant “queenly” option, reminiscent of a Parisian design.

Due to the cost, this particular selection went out very little, except to be shown to prospective customers.

article about wedding gown rentals, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 28 July 1901

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 28 July 1901, page 5

Did Grandma Wear White?

An astonishing fact about our ancestors is that not every bride wore white. The same newspaper article reported a virtual rainbow of colors:

The prevailing color of the garments is of course white, but in the world of those who hire wedding dresses, blue and pink weddings are not infrequent, and even yellow and green have been known… He had even a red wedding gown, a bright, startling affair of some kind of soft, fluffy material. Beside the red was a gown of black and white, a very pleasing white silk, and over this a silk mousseline, over which in turn were many yards of black velvet ribbon, with narrow threads of black lace running up and down…

Multiple Wedding Dresses

It’s normal to think that our female ancestors only had one wedding dress – but if one could afford it, attire was commonly procured for each wedding event: from the bridal showers to the ceremony to the honeymoon.

Mme. Nilsson’s engagement to Count de Casa Miranda illustrates the point. At the Registrar’s office this wedding diva planned to wear a pale blue surah dress, embroidered with point d’Angelterre and a bonnet to match:

The wedding dress at the religious ceremony will be a very pale heliotrope peluche, with gauze in front, trimmed with a delicate lilac claire de lune, jet collar, high, trimmed with pearls; tulle bonnet to match, trimmed with pearls and a bunch of tea roses.

wedding announcement for Mme. Nilsson and Count de Casa Miranda, New York Herald newspaper article 9 July 1885

New York Herald (New York, New York), 9 July 1885, page 5

Dating Photographs and Heirlooms

Don’t underestimate the value of a newspaper in dating family treasures.

From early time periods, milliners, merchants, dress makers and tailors advertised goods and services in the papers. For instance, in 1834, splendid white crape robes and lace veils were advertised by this New York merchant.

clothing ad, Evening Post newspaper advertisement 13 October 1834

Evening Post (New York, New York), 13 October 1834, page 2

Bridal dresses from other cultures fascinated our ancestors as they do us today, so even if you can’t find an ancestral photo, look for examples among photos and illustrations.

photo of a Korean bride, Baltimore American newspaper article 20 August 1905

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 20 August 1905, page 6

Share Your Family Wedding Photos

Lastly, don’t forget to share your family wedding photos on social media and popular genealogy sites. Include pictures of your ancestors that you find in newspapers, such as Belle Wyatt Willard Roosevelt (1892-1968), the daughter-in-law of President Theodore Roosevelt, who was fortunate to be featured in a historical newspaper article in 1914.

wedding photo of Belle Wyatt Willard Roosevelt, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 26 June 1914

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 26 June 1914, page 9

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