How Old Newspapers Can Help You Search U.S. Census Records

Like detectives, we approach family history by gathering all of the clues and making a case for who our relatives were: their names, when and where they were born, pushing through all of the activities of their lives until their deaths.

Pulling all of the facts and clues together helps us rediscover who each one of our relatives really were. What happened while they were alive—what do we really know about them?

The U.S. census is a terrific tool—basic for building an American family tree. It gives us a snapshot of our family at the time of recording. The census looks in on them one day of their lives, every ten years, over their lifetime. Couple this census information with old family letters, perhaps a journal, and birth, marriage & death certificates, and we begin to discover the basic facts about each person.

Add newspapers to our research and we can go beyond the basic genealogical facts: we get to learn their stories.

Newspapers were published every day. They tell us what happened each day in their town, their state, in the world. Old newspapers tell us what was happening in our relatives’ lives every day of their lives.

Since a census record is a one-day look at the family, we complement those basic facts with newspaper articles to fill in the details and get the rest of their stories, as shown in the following two examples.

William T. Crow (1802 – )

Here is the listing for William T. Crow and his wife Elizabeth Crow (1806- ) in the 1880 census.

photo of the 1880 census listing for William and Elizabeth Crow, from FamilySearch.org

Credit: FamilySearch.org

Digging deeper into GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, I found this old 1800s newspaper article about William Crow.

notice about William T. Crow, Aberdeen Weekly News newspaper article 2 October 1885

Aberdeen Weekly News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 2 October 1885, page 2

This article fills in more of the details of their lives:

  • He was a judge
  • Her maiden name was Elizabeth Blackwell
  • They married on 26 February 1826
  • They were close to the 60th anniversary of their wedding day
  • They had 6 children and 47 grandchildren living in 1885
  • 1 daughter died during childhood
  • 2 sons “sleep in soldiers’ graves”
  • They lived near Carnesville, Georgia, and all of the children lived within 1½ miles of the family home

That’s a lot of family information packed into one short paragraph. Marriage records in newspapers are a fantastic resource to trace your family tree.

Hannah Lyman (1743-1832)

Hannah (Clark) Lyman lived in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Her census record gives us a start at her story.

Here she is in the 1830 census, living in Northampton, Massachusetts.

photo of the 1830 Census listing for Hannah Lyman, from FamilySearch.org

Credit: FamilySearch.org

She is there—and the check marks tell us that there were others, unnamed, living in the house with her at that time.

Once again I turned to GenealogyBank’s historical newspapers to get more of her story, and found this 1800s news article published just two years after the census was taken.

obituary for Hannah Lyman, Hampshire Gazette newspaper article 21 March 1832

Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, Massachusetts), 21 March 1832, page 3

Like the trendy saying “it takes a village,” it takes multiple genealogical resources to fill in the details of the lives of our ancestors.

And wow—do newspapers deliver!

This newspaper article from GenealogyBank’s deep backfile of historical newspapers builds on her brief mention in the census, and tells us the core facts of her life along with a terrific family story of her memories of the “great earthquake of Nov. 18, 1755.”

Details—stories.

Newspapers tell us so much about our family history.

Missing Men: Lost Husband Ads in Newspapers for Genealogy

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena explores a family history resource in old newspapers that may surprise you: missing husband ads.

The Internet, text messaging, email, cell phones, social media and instant messaging…today we take for granted the convenience and peace of mind that having access to a person at the drop of a hat—24 hours a day, 7 days a week—brings. When I was a teenager my parents knew that if I drove somewhere they would not hear from me again until I returned home. If I was going to be late I would find a telephone booth and call but there was no way to be in touch constantly. In today’s world, parents panic if they don’t get an immediate response from their cell phone-attached youngsters.

Imagine a time when, if someone left the house and didn’t return, there were few ways to track them down.

Immigrant Disappearances

I was confronted with this reality years ago when I researched a client’s grandfather who had come to the United States in the early 20th century to seek out a better life for his family. The idea, like for many immigrants, was that he would emigrate first to find work and then make enough money to bring his wife and children over to their new home.

Instead they never heard from him again. No one knew what happened to him. The family wasn’t sure if he had died en route or years after arriving in America. Back at the time he disappeared, there was little that could be done to find a person who simply vanished into thin air. In some cases leaving without a trace was seen as a preferable option to a difficult or expensive divorce proceeding. In other tragic cases, an unfortunate mishap or act of violence was the reason for an unintended disappearance.

Missing Husband Newspaper Ads

So what did 19th and 20th century wives do when their husbands left and never returned? They used the newspaper. Specific newspaper articles targeting missing husbands existed, as in the case of the Jewish Daily Forward, which for a time included a column entitled the “Gallery of Missing Men” that provided descriptions and photos of husbands who had deserted their wives.

Newspapers also provided women the option of taking out a personal advertisement in the classifieds asking for the public’s help in finding their missing husbands.

These missing husband newspaper ads might be a surprising source of family history information, helping you fill in some details about your ancestors that you can’t find elsewhere.

Consider these two advertisements found in a 1907 Texas newspaper from GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, both placed by women pleading for the public’s help in finding their husbands.

missing husband ads, Dallas Morning News newspaper advertisements 12 September 1907

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

In the case of the second advertisement placed by Mrs. H. L. Hooyer, her husband Henry was a harness maker who one day disappeared. In a previous advertisement more details of H. L. Hooyer were given, including a physical description and what he was wearing when he disappeared.

missing husband ad for Henry Hooyer, Dallas Morning News newspaper advertisement 28 August 1907

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 28 August 1907, page 8

Mrs. H. L. Hooyer placed multiple advertisements in the Dallas Morning News looking for her husband. His union magazine also carried notices of his disappearance. An article in the October 1907 The Leather Worker’s Journal (available from Google Books) from the Dallas Chief of Police provided information as well as a $50 reward. (See: http://bit.ly/1gfsW1C)

missing husband ad for Henry Hooyer, The Leather Workers’ Journal, October 1907

The Leather Workers’ Journal, October 1907. Credit: Google Books.

Another personal notice in The Leather Workers’ Journal stated that the family feared Hooyer had been a victim of foul play, with an unconfirmed report of his drowning in Nebraska. Conducting a quick search for H. L. Hooyer in GenealogyBank confirms that he had been involved in at least one past criminal court case, as well as a civil case, months prior to his disappearance. Whether Henry did meet with an untimely death or not, his wife is listed in subsequent city directories and in the 1910 U.S. Census as a widow.

Find Lost Ancestors in Missing Person Ads

In an era when social media meant a daily or weekly newspaper, personal advertisements alerted the community to those who went missing. For wives who found themselves suddenly alone, the classifieds were one of their only options for seeking help locating their missing husbands.

Genealogy Search Tip: Remember, newspapers are full of family history information—which sometimes turns up in the most unexpected places. Don’t rule out the classified ads when searching newspapers; your distressed ancestor may have placed an ad for her missing husband, providing personal details to help fill out your family tree.

Researching Old Occupations in Your Family Tree with Newspapers

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott turns to old newspaper articles to teach his grandsons about some of the occupations their ancestors once had.

From census forms to marriage records, and from birth records to death certificates, many of our ancestors are identified by their occupational jobs.

Whenever I discover an ancestor’s occupation I always make certain that I add this information to my online family tree. Recently I was talking with our young grandsons about our family history, and made mention of a couple of the old occupations our ancestors held. Many of these old job titles, not surprisingly, were very foreign concepts to them. To help them out and enhance my never-ending attempt to capture the tapestry that is our family, together we opened up GenealogyBank.com for some help understanding what our relatives did for a living.

Old Occupation 1: Lamplighter

First we looked up the occupation of a cousin from Cleveland, Ohio, who was a lamplighter. For some reason I have always conjured up rather romantic visions of lamplighters. Reality set in as I read the first article I found, from an 1894 New York newspaper.

Bridge Car Lamplighters Article in the New York Herald Newspaper

New York Herald (New York, New York), 24 June 1894, section 4, page 1.

This article explained how relentless and demanding this lamplighter’s job was, as he had to light every lamp on a train—only to then move immediately to the next train and its lamps.

Then I came upon an article from a 1916 Rhode Island newspaper.

John Finn Lamplighter Accident Fire Pawtucket Times

Pawtucket Times (Pawtucket, Rhode Island), 11 December 1916, page 10.

This historical newspaper article detailed the unfortunate experience of one John Finn, a lamplighter who accidently lighted his own clothes on fire, then jumped into a nearby pond to save himself! We chuckled and quickly decided that the work of a lamplighter was far from a romantic job!

Old Occupation 2: Cooper

The next old occupation that caught our attention was “cooper.” Although I knew that many of our Bohemian ancestors were coopers, this was a totally unknown job to our grandsons. While I explained that a cooper was a person who made barrels, we looked further. Our first discovery about this old job was an article from an 1898 Ohio newspaper.

Max Wolf Cooper Explosion Article in Cincinnati Post Newspaper

Cincinnati Post (Cincinnati, Ohio), 5 December 1898, page 1.

This story explained the unfortunate injury to one Max Wolf, a cooper who was working on a huge beer barrel with a 2,200-gallon capacity that exploded.

Next our occupational search brought us to an article from an 1880 Ohio newspaper.

Standard Oil Coopers Plain Dealer Newspaper

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 February 1880, page 1.

This 1800s news article contained an explanation of the cooper shop of the Standard Oil Company’s refinery, its “millions of oak staves,” its employment of “an army of men,” and the blue barrels with white tops coming out of the shop for hours on end.

Old Occupation 3: Grave Digger

We then moved on to another old family occupation: grave digger. Our first discovery on this occupation was an article from a 1906 Indiana newspaper.

Fritz Borchart Gravedigger Elkhart Truth Newspaper

Elkhart Truth (Elkhart, Indiana), 15 January 1906, page 6.

The news article’s subtitle stated: “Grave Digger at St. Louis Cemetery Becomes Insane Because of Nature of His Work.” Needless to say, that was enough to have us move on to something different.

Old Occupation 4: Miners

At this point I proposed we look into a more recent occupation of a family member, and suggested that we look up “miners.” Our first article was from an 1894 New York newspaper—but it wasn’t any more cheerful than the previous article.

Miners Mesaba Iron Range New York Herald Newspaper

New York Herald (New York, New York), 4 May 1894, page 3.

While this one sparked my interest, I decided we might need something a bit lighter for the boys. Soon we were scanning articles from the mines of Ishpeming, Michigan, to Hibbing, Minnesota—mines where family members worked over the generations to extract riches from the earth—that were more upbeat.

It wasn’t long before our conversation turned to the need for a good education to get a good job—and I realized that while we were looking at old family jobs, a positive impact had been made on these young men!

So tell me please. What are some of the different occupations in your family tree?

You might also be interested in these previous blog articles about early American jobs:

Top Genealogy Websites: Alabama Genealogy Resources

If you’re researching your family roots in Alabama, I suggest you rely on two online sources—GenealogyBank and FamilySearch—to find digitized newspapers and genealogy records from the “Heart of Dixie.”

Concentrating your Alabama genealogy research on these two websites will give you the documentation you need to learn about your family’s stories—and the specifics of their birth, marriage and death dates.

collage of Alabama genealogy records and newspapers from FamilySearch and GenealogyBank

Credit: FamilySearch and GenealogyBank

You want to focus on the best genealogy websites—the ones that have the information you need to trace your ancestry from Alabama.

GenealogyBank has the most extensive newspaper archive of Alabama newspapers online.

Search Alabama Newspaper Archives (1816 – 1992)

Search Alabama Recent Obituaries (1992 – Current)

FamilySearch has 14 collections of early Alabama records free online.

Search Alabama Census, Probate & Vital Records

Let’s look at the marriage of Joseph A. Gilbert and Margianna Whiddon on 4 August 1859 in Mobile, Alabama.

collage of records about the 1859 wedding of Joseph A. Gilbert and Margianna Whiddon, from FamilySearch and GenealogyBank

Credit: FamilySearch and GenealogyBank

Looking in GenealogyBank’s historical Alabama newspaper archive we find their marriage announced in the Mobile Register (Mobile, Alabama), 11 August 1859, page 2.

The newspaper article tells us:

  • The date of the marriage: 4 August 1859 at 8 p.m.
  • The exact place of the marriage: “the residence of Levi H. Norton”
  • Groom: Joseph A. Gilbert, formerly of Greenville, Butler County, Alabama
  • Bride: Margianna Whiddon, “adopted daughter of the officiating gentleman”

Great genealogical information—we have the who, what, when and where.

Let’s dig deeper and find out exactly who the “officiating gentleman” at the wedding was.

Looking at the Alabama marriage certificates online records on FamilySearch we can easily find the marriage certificate for Joseph Gilbert and Margianna Whiddon.

photo of the 1859 Alabama marriage certificate for Joseph Gilbert and Margianna Whiddon

Credit: FamilySearch

Who performed the wedding?

Looking at the signature of the Justice of the Peace, it appears to be L.H. Hardin or L.H. Nordin.

“L.H. Nordin” —that looks a lot like the Levi H. Norton named in the marriage announcement published in the Mobile Register. Their wedding was performed at his home.

So—we have the “officiating gentleman’s” name from the old newspaper and, although very difficult to read, confirmed again in the signature on the marriage certificate.

The marriage certificate gives us the basic facts given in the newspaper marriage announcement: their names and the date and place of the wedding, plus it tells us who performed the wedding.

The old newspaper announcement adds the important details that the officiator was her adopted father and that Joseph Gilbert was from Greenville, Butler County, Alabama.

By using only the best genealogy resources online we can find the facts we need to document our family and, importantly, the crucial details that fill in the stories of their lives…while focusing our ancestry research and saving time.

Note that this article is part of our ongoing series covering the top genealogy websites. To read the previous articles in this series visit the links below:

Top Genealogy Websites Pt. 1: Google

Top Genealogy Websites Pt. 2: Google Books & Internet Archive

Top Genealogy Websites Pt. 3: Burial & Cemetery Records

How to Spot and Avoid 9 Common Genealogy Mistakes & Errors

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary discusses 9 common mistakes made when doing family history research, and suggests ways to avoid them.

Family history researchers are often frustrated by the mistakes of others—particularly when there is an obvious error in identity, such as the mistake explained in this 1914 Virginia newspaper article. It points out that a member of the Gwathmey family was incorrectly identified as having been a maid of honor to Queen Elizabeth.

Rchmond Times Dispatch Newspaper Gwathmey Family Genealogy

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 17 May 1914, page 41.

This sounds like an obvious mistake, and one that could have been corrected with simple subtraction. Unfortunately, once a mistake is written in a book or newspaper article, the mistake is often carried into other research—forever frustrating the more serious genealogists.

Genealogical mistakes are not often easy to sort out, so let’s discuss some strategies.

1. Abbreviations Are Not Always What They Seem

Two of my favorites are “NA” and “NMI.”

In the case of the first abbreviation, “NA” might indicate non applicable, naturalized, Native American or even Navy, demonstrating the importance of finding the “key” explaining what an abbreviation actually means.

Another abbreviation that sometimes causes confusion is the use of “NMI” in place of a middle name. It is not an actual moniker, but rather used to indicate that a person has no middle initial—no middle name.

2. Age-Related Mistakes

  • Women who are too old to be mothers.

Although Mrs. Steve Pace, of Rose Hill, Virginia, reportedly gave birth to her 17th child in 1939 at the age of 73 (see the Wikipedia article “Pregnancy Over Age 50”), it is rare for women to give birth over the age of 50.

If a woman continued to give birth through her 40s, then it is possible that a report of her having a child as an older woman may be correct.

However, whenever you see such an older mother-child relationship claim, examine the possibility that the family may have been raising an orphan or a grandchild.

  • Persons who were born too young or old to have served during a military event.

If you are researching an ancestor for a lineage society, such as the Sons or Daughters of the American Revolution, start by figuring out the beginning and ending dates of the event.

For example, the American Civil War occurred between 1861 and 1865.

Although there are examples of very young veterans, most of the younger set did not serve in a military capacity—unless they were older. One exception was Civil War Missouri veteran George Huffman, who enrolled as a volunteer in the 13th Missouri Infantry on 4 November 1861 at the age of 14. He re-enlisted on 8 February 1864, and was considered to have been the youngest veteran to have re-enlisted that year—as explained in this 1864 Massachusetts newspaper article.

Lowell Daily Citizen & News Newspaper George Huffman Civil War

Lowell Daily Citizen and News (Lowell, Massachusetts), 2 September 1864, page 2.

For the most part, however, it is safe to assume that someone—other than a drummer or bugler—must have been at least 15 when he enlisted for combat service. Therefore, it is unlikely that a combat veteran actually served in the Civil War if he was born after the year 1850.

Now, if a child served in a non-military capacity, then you might find evidence of children as young as seven involved in a war—such as Nathan Futrell, a young boy who served in the American Revolutionary War.

Greensboro Daily News Newspaper Nathan Futrell Revolutionary War

Greensboro Daily News (Greensboro, North Carolina), 3 January 1971, page 24.

You can also apply an age factor to determine the likelihood of an older person serving in the military.

3. All Applicable Genealogy Records Have Not Been Found

Just because you can’t find a genealogical proof doesn’t mean that one doesn’t exist. For example, many military records were burned, so look to other types of records for evidence.

In other words, if an original record is missing you might be able to find alternate records. In the case of a missing military record, look for a petition for a pension, or a list of enlistments, reprinted in an old newspaper article. Other possible genealogical sources: a family diary or letter, or church bulletin, that references military service.

4. Children Listed without Parents May Not Be Orphans

Just because a child is not recorded with a parent on a census record doesn’t necessarily indicate that both parents are deceased.

On one of the 1850 U.S. Federal Census records, I noted that the children of my ancestor Permelia Ann (Davis) Drake were living in different households.

Not finding their mother, I at first assumed that she had died. It turned out that she was very much alive, and recorded in the census with her second husband, Samuel Bassett. It’s not clear why the children were with the neighbors in 1850, but perhaps they were mother’s helpers or farm helpers working to support the family.

5. Informants Are Not Always Correct

A primary record is one that was recorded at the time of the event. A secondary record is one that is recorded later, generally from an informant. In the case of a death certificate, the date and place of death is primary evidence, but the birth date of the decedent, along with the stated parents, is not necessarily correct.

In my family, my great-grandfather’s parents were recorded on his death certificate as his natural parents, when in fact court records and other records establish that he had been adopted.

6. Just Because Two People with the Same Name Reside in the Same Area Does Not Necessarily Mean They Are Related (Coincidences Happen)

In the case of my ancestor William Harrell of Virginia (and Indiana) of the late 1700s and early 1800s, it turns out there are three men by the same name. Now that descendants have submitted results from DNA studies, it is clear that they were not closely related.

7. Spelling Errors

Alternate spellings are the norm, rather than the exception.

For example, my Ebling ancestors can be found with the surname spelling Ebeling, Hebling and even Heblinger. As a result, I always browse a book’s index to see if there are similar spellings. When searching online or in a search box, such as at GenealogyBank, I frequently use a wildcard such as a question mark (?) or asterisk (*) when searching for ancestor names.

  • The ? is used to take the place of one letter
  • The * is used to take the place of several letters

For example:

  • Eb*ing* would find Ebling, Ebeling and Eblinger
  • ?Eb*ing* would find all of the above, and include Hebling or Heblinger
  • Cath?rine would find both Catherine and Catharine

8. Transpositions (Reversing or Mixing Up Letters and Numbers)

Many people, including myself, are prone to transpositions. The year 1787, for example, might be unintentionally entered as 1778, or even 1877.

To overcome this tendency, be sure to closely examine recorded figures, such as the reported age at death. Several genealogy programs calculate this figure, and may even note it during an error check.

9. Widows and Widowers May Not Necessarily Be Widowed

In the event of a divorce, separation or bigamy, a spouse might be recorded as widowed on an official record. This may be to handle a delicate issue, or simply to accommodate a census form that didn’t have other options.

These are just a few common genealogical errors. If you have some that you have observed, please share them with us on Facebook or our blog page in the comments section!

Using Historical Newspapers to Research My Civil War Ancestry

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott researches old newspapers to find stories about his Civil War cousin, Captain James Ham, who was mortally wounded at the Battle of Five Forks just as the war was drawing to a close.

 Earlier this month (July 1-3) our nation commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. I well recall the awe I felt when, as a youngster, my family and I visited those hallowed grounds during the centennial of the Civil War back in 1963. That experience was the one that sparked my deep interest in American Civil War history, which continues to this day.

As pure luck would have it, while I was enjoying all the recent publicity regarding the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, I happened to make the discovery of a cousin in my ancestry, James Ham, who was a veteran of the Civil War.

Gravestone of James Ham - A Civil War Veteran

Photo: gravestone of Captain James Ham in Glen Dyberry Cemetery, Pennsylvania. Credit: Patricia Bittner.

James was born in Launceston, Cornwall, in the United Kingdom. I discovered that after running into trouble with the law for “assaulting an officer in the execution of his duties” and receiving a 12-month sentence, he emigrated from Cornwall. It wasn’t long before I found that he established himself in Wayne County, Pennsylvania.

As I was following his listing from the 1860 U.S. Census, I also came upon the fact that James Ham served in the Civil War. He rose to the rank of captain in the Pennsylvania 17th Cavalry, in their M Company. It was very enjoyable to find, while searching the historical newspapers in GenealogyBank.com, an article from an 1889 Maryland newspaper reporting on the dedication of a monument at Gettysburg to “my” Captain Ham’s regiment, with a description of the huge crowds that attended this event.

Pennsylvania Veterans' Day Newspaper Article - Sun 1889

Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 12 September 1889, page Supplement 2.

Monument 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry Civil War

Photo: Civil War monument at Gettysburg dedicated to the Pennsylvania 17th Cavalry. Credit: from the author’s collection.

The more I followed my leads, the more I was able to improve my understanding of the life, and unfortunate death, of my Civil War ancestor. It wasn’t long before I came upon the fact that Captain Ham was wounded in Virginia at the Battle of Five Forks on April 1, 1865, and died from those battle wounds on April 5, 1865. Now, as much as I like to think I know a lot about the Civil War, I was not familiar with the Battle of Five Forks—so I turned again to research the historical newspapers in GenealogyBank.com.

This time there were hundreds of old newspaper articles for me to pick from. My knowledge was really expanded by reading an impressive article from an 1865 Wisconsin newspaper. This was a very detailed account of the battle, and the reporter wrote paragraph after paragraph that put me right in the action of many of the cavalry charges.

Civil War Battle of Five Forks Newspaper Article - Milwaukee Sentinel

Milwaukee Sentinel (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 7 April 1865, page 1.

Shortly thereafter I found an article in a 1908 Idaho newspaper that would make any genealogist’s and/or historian’s heart jump. This old news article contains a story of family letters, history, a dash of good luck, and perseverance in the discovery of the fate of the battle flag carried for a time by Union General Sheridan during the battle.

Old Battle Flag Sheridan Carried at Five Forks Is Found Newspaper Article - Idaho Statesman

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 23 March 1908, page 4.

Then my attention was captured by an article published in an 1880 New York newspaper which reported that General Sheridan was being called to court in order to explain why he relieved General Warren of his command after the Battle of Five Forks. The subheading really caught my eye: “Eight Days Previous to the Surrender at Appomattox.” I had read the date of death of my ancestor but I had not, until that point, realized that he was killed in action only days before the Civil War ended.

Sheridan Warren Civil War Battle of Five Forks Newspaper Article - NY Herald

New York Herald (New York, New York), 27 October 1880, page 8.

I am now in the second phase of seeking even more information about this Civil War ancestor as I have placed a research request with the Wayne County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society (http://waynehistorypa.org). One of their researchers is hard at work hopefully finding more clues, data, and details about Captain James Ham and his family. Plus after my very first conversation with the researcher, I have been “forced” to place Wayne County, Pennsylvania, on my “Genealogy Must-Visit List” since the researcher casually mentioned to me that the Museum holds dozens of personal letters written from Captain Ham back to his wife and family during the Civil War!

I think I better start packing right now. I figure at least two days reading for sure! Can you imagine what those letters might hold?

Do you have comparable success stories about researching your Civil War ancestor? Tell us about them in the comments section.

FamilySearch Family Tree Adds Important New ‘Attach Record’ Feature

FamilySearch.org has released a new “Search & Attach Record” feature this week that lets you easily search and attach genealogy records to each person on your family tree.

For example, let’s look at Allen Pierce Richmond (1826-1912) on the FamilySearch Family Tree.

screenshot of FamilySearch Family Tree for Allen Pierce Richmond

Credit: FamilySearch.org

Here he is on the Family Tree.

By clicking on his name, we can pull up his page of information on the Family Tree.

screenshot of FamilySearch Family Tree for Allen Pierce Richmond

Credit: FamilySearch.org

Here is how the new Search and Attach Records feature works.

First, notice the Search Records button on the right side.

screen shot of the new "Search and Attach Records" feature on FamilySearch

Credit: FamilySearch.org

Clicking on that button will pull up a list of possible genealogy record matches—much like Ancestry’s “shaky leaves.”

screenshot of FamilySearch Family Tree for Allen Pierce Richmond

Credit: FamilySearch.org

You then select the genealogy records that pertain to your target ancestor. You are able to open and see each of these documents to confirm that they are your ancestor’s records.

For example, if we click on the reference for the 1910 Census that page immediately opens up.

screenshot of 1910 Census from FamilySearch

Credit: FamilySearch.org

After confirming that this is the correct Allen P. Richmond, we can immediately add this census record as a hyperlinked source to his page on the FamilySearch Family Tree.

screenshot of FamilySearch Family Tree for Allen Pierce Richmond

Credit: FamilySearch.org

With a click we can switch from the digital image of the 1910 Census to the index page for that household in the 1910 Census.

Click on the bright blue “Attach to Family Tree” button.

screenshot of FamilySearch Family Tree for Allen Pierce Richmond

Credit: FamilySearch.org

This will pull up a decision box that lets you select the correct person to attach this 1910 Census page to.

Notice that this box has two options:

  • Possible Matches—where FamilySearch suggests matches
  • History List—where you can see the drop-down list of persons you recently viewed in your family tree

By selecting our target Allen Pierce Richmond (1826-1912) a confirmation screen will appear asking: “Is This Your Person?”

screenshot of FamilySearch Family Tree for Allen Pierce Richmond

Credit: FamilySearch.org

This step gives you the opportunity to review and confirm that you are accurately attaching this 1910 Census page to the correct Allen Pierce Richmond.

It also gives you the opportunity to add an explanation why you are attaching this document—perfect for those difficult-to-read old genealogy records. This space lets you explain how you reached your conclusion that this was his census record.

Click the blue attach button.

Now this census record has been attached as a source on Allen Pierce Richmond’s page on the FamilySearch Family Tree.

screenshot of FamilySearch Family Tree for Allen Pierce Richmond

Credit: FamilySearch.org

The 1910 Census attached to Allen Pierce Richmond on your Family Tree is permanently hyperlinked there in the list of “Sources” on his page in the tree. With one click the digital copy of the 1910 Census page will open right up.

Now you or any genealogist can see the sources you used to document your Family Tree on FamilySearch.

If you don’t agree with the conclusions and documentation that a genealogist adds to your ancestor, you can easily add the additional documentation that you find so that all of the genealogy records are attached to the person on the tree.

Quick, easy and permanent.

This new FamilySearch Family Tree feature will be heavily used and relied upon by genealogists.

Deciphering 19th Century Handwriting and Type in Records & Newspapers

19th Century newspapers and handwritten records (such as the census) can be hard to read.

If you are having difficulty deciphering the handwriting or type, read through the issue of a newspaper or page in the census to see if other words on the page can give you clues to the editor’s or census taker’s writing style.

For example: here we have Eliza Markham living with her husband and family in Gerry, Chautauqua County, New York, as recorded in the 1855 New York State Census.

photo of the listing of the Markham family in the 1855 New York State Census

Credit: FamilySearch.org
1855 New York State Census
https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/K6SG-7SG

Look carefully at the handwritten entry for Eliza Markham.

photo of the listing of Eliza Markham in the 1855 New York State Census

Credit: FamilySearch.org
1855 New York State Census
https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/K6SG-7SG

Is her name “Eliza” or “Eleru”?

Is this a 19th Century name you’re not familiar with—or is it simply a handwriting style you don’t recognize?

Not so simple is it?

As you look at each handwritten letter in her name, you have to think through the options. Some letters are easier to read then others.

What you want to do is to carefully review the other words on the page to become more familiar with the census taker’s handwriting.

Let’s examine each letter in this name:

  • “E” – the initial letter has flourishes that make you wonder, but it is probably an “E”
    “l” – yes, the second letter is clearly a lower-case “l”
  • “i” – the “i” can be a little tricky—I don’t see a dot over the “i”…is this an “e” instead?
  • “z” – is that fourth letter an “r”? Would that fit? Looking at it again, it is probably the letter “z” written in the printed style instead of the cursive style
  • “a” – what about this open-topped final letter—is it the letter “u” or an “a”?

In trying to determine if that final letter is a “u” or an “a,” look at other examples on that same page:

  • Repeatedly the final “a” in Markham is written with an open top, much like a “u”
  • The daughter’s name “Alvira” on the seventh line is written with an open-topped final “a”
  • The family’s one-year-old son—and the father—also have a final open-topped “a” in their name

So, we can conclude from this handwriting pattern that her name was “Eliza.”

You will want to verify this by comparing the name to other genealogy records created in her lifetime.

Newspaper editors set and reset the pieces of type needed for each day’s newspaper. Broken type, ink spots, and gremlins of all sizes made their way into print and became a permanent part of the surviving newspapers—just like the imperfections in the handwritten records made by thousands of census takers a century ago.

FamilySearch Wiki has a handy multi-page chart of common spelling and transcription errors that were common in 19th Century printed newspapers and in handwritten documents like the census.

The “Intended” column shows what the letter was supposed to be, while the “Common Mistakes” column shows how the letter may appear.

a common-letter mistakes chart from FamilySearch

Credit: FamilySearch Wiki

See the FamilySearch common letter mistakes charts here: https://www.familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/Spelling_Substitution_Tables_for_the_United_States_and_Canada

With these handy charts—and the patience to examine other examples on the page you’re viewing—you’ll find it gets easier deciphering difficult-to-read 19th Century newspapers and handwritten records.

Find the Oldest People to Ever Live, as Reported in Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary looks through newspaper articles to find stories about the oldest people to have ever lived—and issues a challenge to readers to find even greater claims of longevity in the newspapers.

With the Baby Boomers aging and advances in medicine, longevity is a hot topic in the news these days. There’s a lot of talk about how long people lived in the past—and speculation about how long people will live in the near future.

Newspapers are a great resource to research how long our ancestors lived—and a good way to keep up with current health, medicine and aging issues going forward. According to knowledgeable sources, the oldest verified person to have ever lived attained the astonishing age of 122 years, 164 days!

Her name was Jeanne Calment (1875-1997), a resident of France. According to this 1997 Georgia newspaper article, she was interred in Trinquetaille Cemetery in Arles, France.

Honoring the Eldest, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 7 August 1997

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 7 August 1997, page 53

Several groups track longevity, including Wikipedia on this Oldest People webpage. Guinness World Records tracks the oldest person by specific activities. Some oldest-person GWR listings include the oldest person to have a total hip replacement, the oldest person to obtain a pilot’s license, and the oldest person to sail around the world.

Those Guinness senior citizen records are all interesting, but it is more intriguing to focus on overall longevity.

Jeanne Calment, who received her certificate from Guinness Records in 1988 at the age of 113, passed away on 4 August 1997. This 1988 South Dakota newspaper article shows her in her ripe old age holding a large certificate noting her birth on 21 February 1875.

Guinness Record, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 15 June 1988

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 15 June 1988, page 2

After her in the rankings of greatest longevity are three other centenarian women: Sarah Knauss (119 years), Lucy Hannah (117 years) and Marie-Louise Meilleur (117 years), although some verification of their ages is disputed.

Another entry in the greatest-longevity rankings whose age is disputed is Carrie White, who was supposedly 116 when she died in 1991. She was said to have been born in 1874, a time “when Ulysses S. Grant was president and Gen. George Armstrong Custer was still two years away from his last stand” according to this 1991 newspaper article from Illinois.

Oldest Woman, Register Star newspaper article 15 February 1991

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 15 February 1991, page 6

In 1998, when Sarah Knauss was informed of her honor as the oldest person alive, she reacted with a simple “So what?” according to this 1998 Illinois newspaper story found in the online archives.

Woman Unfazed by Oldest Designation, Register Star newspaper article 19 April 1998

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 19 April 1998, page 3

Genealogical Challenge: Find the Oldest People to Ever Live

But who’s really counting when you are a centenarian of distinction?

We are, that’s who! So readers, we challenge you to verify the life of a centenarian older than any of the women mentioned above—or, alternatively, find the oldest claimed age at death. You’ll find an outrageous assortment of longevity claims reported in GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives, though certainly none as old as the Bible figure Methuselah—who reportedly attained an age of 969 years!

By browsing this collage of obituaries, you can review a succession of extraordinary longevity claims.

collage of obituaries claiming extreme old age

Collage of obituaries claiming extreme old age

It’s as if each newspaper wanted the bragging rights for the oldest centenarian. Did Andy Roark and Cato Pidgeon really attain the age of 130 years? Was it possible for Nancy Lawton to reach 140, and who was R. Sarman, reported to have lived to 160?

  • Andy Roark: 130 years
  • Cato Pidgeon: 130 years
  • John Hannah: 136 years
  • Nancy Lawton: 140 years
  • Antionio Infante: 150 years
  • Mary Tecuyas: 150 years
  • R. Sarman: 160 years

I tried to verify these age claims, but was not successful. See if you can verify any of these ages—or, if not, see what other incredible age claims you can find in the newspapers.

Follow these guidelines and let us know what you find in the comments on our FaceBook or Blog page. There are two ways to participate in this longevity challenge.

Part 1: Verify a previously unknown oldest person

Submit evidence to prove and verify a centenarian’s age older than Jeanne Calment.

Show supporting documentation, supported by generally accepted genealogical records (GAGR).

These may include civil and church registration, census, family records, and other documentation to show longevity. Tombstone photos alone do not suffice as evidence, as errors in birth years are often caused by confusion between persons of the same name.

Part 2: Find the oldest person as reported in an obituary

Even if you can’t verify the longevity, let’s see who can find the oldest reported person in an obituary or other newspaper article. No evidence is required—just an obituary or newspaper article from GenealogyBank, printed around the time of death. Recollections or reprints from long afterwards do not count.

Let’s see who can come up with the most convincing proof of extreme longevity—and who can come up with the most incredible and unbelievable claim of extreme old age!

Good luck! We look forward to your responses.

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

The Works of Benjamin Franklin (1817)

painting of Benjamin Franklin, by Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis

Painting: Benjamin Franklin, by Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis (1725–1802). Credit: National Portrait Gallery; Wikipedia.

Finding Ancestors’ Names Can Be Child’s Play: Paper Doll Comics

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena addresses the problem that it’s often hard to find information about our ancestors when they were children. One solution? Look for their participation in fashion and coloring paper doll contests run by newspapers.

Previously in my article “What about the Kids? Researching Your Family Tree’s Children” I wrote about places to find children’s names in newspapers. I commented on how as researchers we genealogists often ignore the childhood of our ancestors because children did not generate the quantity of records that adults left behind.

The wonderful thing about newspapers is that they are the great equalizer: they record the stories of everyone whether rich or poor, young or old. While there can be no doubt that some people get more articles written about them than others, you can find ancestors’ names in all sorts of places in the newspaper—even in something as unexpected as a paper doll contest.

"Tillie the Toiler" paper doll

Credit: Windows Live Photo Gallery

It seems that today very few children read newspapers—or for that matter very few adults. But it wasn’t too long ago that children read the newspaper often, at the very least to check out the comics page, enter contests, and even acquire new toys to play with. One toy that could be found in the Sunday newspaper was paper dolls. According to the OPDAG (The Original Paper Doll Artists Guild) article “History of Paper Dolls” by Judy M. Johnson, the Boston Herald was printing newspaper paper dolls as early as the 1890s. Additional wardrobes for those paper dolls could be found in subsequent issues of the newspaper, adding to the child’s paper doll collection. During the Depression years, children could find many different newspaper paper dolls, most based on their favorite comics including “Boots and Millie” and “Jane Arden.”

Not only would the comic strip authors themselves provide dolls and wardrobes in the Sunday papers, they would solicit contributions from readers. One comic strip that encouraged readers to design outfits was “Tillie the Toiler.” Tillie, drawn by Russ Westover, ran in newspapers from 1921 to 1959. Tillie toiled at her jobs as a stenographer, secretary and model. Her life as a single working girl was the focus of the strip and the character of Tillie was also featured in a couple of movies.

Here’s a call to the young readers of “Tillie the Toiler” to submit designs for the Fashion Parade.

Dresses for Tillie! Plain Dealer newspaper article 29 January 1933

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 29 January 1933, page 1

I’m always on the lookout for unusual places to find ancestors’ names. Searching through those newspaper paper doll fashion contests can yield the names of the winners; those people chosen to have their doll and/or wardrobe published. Not only are the contest winners’ names and cities printed but sometimes even street addresses and, occasionally, the winners’ relationships to other budding fashionistas—such as in this example, where friends Zelene Des Champs and Ann Wolff from South Carolina submitted entries together.

"Tillie the Toiler" paper doll

Credit: from the author’s collection

Girls were not the only ones who submitted entries; boys and even married women from the United States and Canada submitted their doll and fashion drawings.

Aside from designing an outfit and having their name printed in the newspaper, children could also enter coloring contests featuring their favorite comic characters. In this 1933 newspaper article, Shirley Jean French is congratulated on her winning entry by “Tillie the Toiler” cartoonist Russ Westover. According to the 1930 U.S. census Shirley was 12 years old when she won the first-prize award. Of Shirley’s entry, Westover wrote that “Tillie has never been better dressed.”

winner of "Tillie the Toiler" coloring contest, San Diego Union newspaper article 27 August 1933

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 27 August 1933, page 11

While today’s American children may not be as engaged with newspapers as previous generations, for their grandparents and great-grandparents the Sunday comics page was not just a place to get a few laughs—it may have been a place to leave their mark on the world.

Genealogy Tip: Examine every part of a newspaper when doing your family history searches. You never know where a long-sought ancestor’s name might turn up—an obscure ad, a paper doll contest, a family recipe—providing a little more detail to help bring that name on your family tree to life.