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.

Remembering Robert E. Lee, John Denver & Wilt Chamberlain with Newspapers

During this October week in American history three giants—one quite literally—died who had a big impact on America:

  • Robert E. Lee, American soldier and Confederate general, died at 63 on 12 October 1870
  • John Denver (Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr.), American singer-songwriter, died at 53 on 12 October 1997
  • Wilt Chamberlain, American basketball player, died at 63 on 12 October 1999

Newspapers are filled with obituaries and profiles that help us better understand the lives of our ancestors—and the famous people who lived during their times. The following newspaper articles about these three famous Americans are good examples.

Robert E. Lee (1807-1870)

Around 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 12, 1870, Robert E. Lee, the beloved Confederate general who had spent his years after the Civil War serving as the much-respected president of Washington College, died. He was 63. Lee had suffered a stroke on September 28, and in his debilitated state contracted pneumonia, which did him in. He died in Lexington, Virginia, the home state he loved so well.

Robert E. Lee is one of the giants in American history. He had a remarkable 36-year military career, mostly with the U.S. Army (fighting in the Mexican-American War and reaching the rank of colonel) while the last 4 years were spent in the Confederate Army (fighting for the South in the Civil War, the general who led the famous Army of Northern Virginia).

As shown in Lee’s obituary below, it is easy to see why U.S. President Abraham Lincoln offered Lee command of the Union Army on April 18, 1861, the day after Virginia voted to secede. Lee was torn between his oath to serve the U.S. and its army, and his deep love for Virginia—but Virginia won out, and on April 20, 1861, Robert E. Lee resigned from the U.S. Army and headed home to become commander of the Virginia military forces.

Death of Robert E. Lee, Cincinnati Commercial Tribune newspaper obituary 13 October 1870

Cincinnati Commercial Tribune (Cincinnati, Ohio), 13 October 1870, page 4

This obituary provides a good review of Lee’s military career:

“Although not unexpected, the death of General Robert E. Lee, which is announced in our telegraphic columns, will create a profound sensation. General Robert Edmund [Edward] Lee, whose name a few years ago was on all lips, when he was at the head of the so-called Army of Northern Virginia, was born in that State, of distinguished parents, in the year 1808 [1807]. After receiving a liberal education, he was admitted into West Point, as a cadet, in 1825; entered the United States Army, as Second Lieutenant, in July 1829; was made First Lieutenant in September 1836; and Captain in July 1838. He was appointed a member of the Board of Engineers in 1845; Chief Engineer of the Army in Mexico in 1846; was made Major, April 18, 1846, for gallant conduct at Cerro Gordo; Lieutenant Colonel, August 20, 1847, for bravery at Contreras and Churubusco; and Colonel, September 13, 1847, for gallant conduct at Chapultepec. At the end of the Mexican War he was reappointed a member of the Board of Engineers, and in1852 was raised to the post of Superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point, which he held till March 1855, when he was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of Cavalry. He was appointed Colonel of Cavalry on the 16th of March, 1861, but resigned his commission in the United States Army a few days afterward under circumstance with which most of our readers are familiar. What General Lee did for the cause of the Rebellion during those eventful four years which will never be effaced from the memory of Americans, will be judged by history; and history, furthermore, will pass at a future day upon his military talents that opinion which his contemporaries will hardly be able to give.

“Soon after the close of the war he accepted the Presidency of Washington College, Virginia, and sustained a position of becoming dignity in regard to the past. Southerners almost universally entertained for him an affection that perhaps was not equaled in its intensity excepting by that in which General Thomas was held by the people of the North.”

To mark the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s birth, this Texas newspaper published a series of poems celebrating his life and commemorating his death.

Robert Edward Lee: One Hundredth Anniversary of His Birth, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 20 January 1907

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 20 January 1907, page 7

One of the poems about the famous Confederate general presented, “The Death of Lee,” begins this way:

The drapery of heaven hung low

In dark and gloomy shrouds,

And angels used the weeping stars

In pinning back the clouds.

The shades of gloom and woe prevail

O’er all the land and sea,

And eyes so long unused to tears

Now wept for Robert Lee.

 

A Christian soldier, true and brave,

Beloved near and far,

He was first in time of peace

And first in time of war.

Virginia never reared a son

As good and brave as he,

Save one, and that was Washington,

Who lived and died like Lee.

 

His peaceful sword is laid away,

His work on earth is done,

He loved the people of the South,

They idolized their son.

There’s not a woman, man nor child,

I care not where they be,

Throughout this still sweet, sunny South

But loves the name of Lee.

John Denver (1943-1997)

John Denver was a giant in the American music industry in the 1970s and 1980s, one of the leading stars of the acoustic singer-songwriter genre. He recorded more than 300 songs in his long, successful career, writing about 200 of them, including “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Rocky Mountain High” and “Sunshine on My Shoulders.”

Denver also appeared in movies and numerous television shows, and was a humanitarian, advocate for space exploration, and a crusading voice for environmental protection. He was as passionate about flight as he was about music—sadly, his life was cut short at the age of 53 in a fatal accident while flying his personal aircraft solo off the California coast near Pacific Grove.

The below profile and obituary from the Register Star said of Denver: “His trademark wire-rimmed glasses and handsome smile—sort of a clean-cut hippie who could appeal to all generations—made him a winner on countless TV specials.”

profile and obituary for John Denver, Register Star newspaper articles, 14 October 1997

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 14 October 1997, page 13

As reported in the news article below, more than 2,000 people attended Denver’s funeral in Aurora, Colorado: “It was the kind of day he loved to sing about: plenty of sunshine, the peaks of the Rockies in sight, and lots of family and friends around.”

His ashes were scattered in the Rocky Mountains he loved so much.

On Sunny Day, Service Honors John Denver, Register Star newspaper article 18 October 1997

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 18 October 1997, page 8

Wilt Chamberlain (1936-1999)

It is no exaggeration to say Wilton Norman “Wilt” Chamberlain was a giant of a man. During his years playing center for the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, Chamberlain stood 7 feet 1 inch and weighed 300 pounds. In his long professional basketball-playing career, which began with the Harlem Globetrotters in 1958 and ended with the Lakers in 1973, Chamberlain set numerous scoring and rebounding sports records. He performed feats on the basketball court that still astonish us today—he once scored 100 points in a single NBA game, the only player ever to do that. Chamberlain is the only player in the history of the NBA to average at least 30 points and 20 rebounds per game in a single season. No one else has ever done it—Chamberlain did it nine times, and in fact averaged 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds per game for his 14-year NBA career!

The below obituary recounts a funny story from New York Knicks center Darrall Imhoff, who had the unfortunate task of guarding Chamberlain the game he scored an amazing 100 points:

“I spent 12 years in his armpits, and I always carried that 100-point game on my shoulders…After I got my third foul, I said to one of the officials, Willy Smith, ‘Why don’t you just give him 100 points and we’ll all go home?’ Well, we did.”

Wilt Chamberlain Dead at 63, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper obituary 13 October 1999

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 13 October 1999, page 25

Chamberlain was known for more than his prowess on the basketball court. As reported in the below news article, about 800 people attended Chamberlain’s memorial service in Los Angeles: “Wilt Chamberlain was remembered Saturday more for his curiosity, intellect and quiet generosity than his unparalleled abilities on the basketball court.”

Memory of 'Stilt' Honored, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 17 October 1999

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 17 October 1999, page 47

Chamberlain’s fierce rivalry with Boston Celtics center Bill Russell was legendary. At the memorial service, Russell told the crowd:

“‘I knew how good he was and he knew that I knew how good he was,’ Russell said, drawing laughter. ‘I’ll just say that as far as I’m concerned, he and I will be friends through eternity.’”

Newspaper Obituaries provide personal details about someone’s life that we can’t find elsewhere—whether they are our ancestors or famous people we’re interested in. GenealogyBank features two collections of obituaries:

Dig into these obituary archives today and see what you can discover about your family tree and the famous people you admire most!

National Archives Launches Crowdsourcing Site for Transcription

The National Archives has launched a Transcription Pilot Project website to enlist the general public in transcribing old documents to make them easier for researchers to find. This will be a tremendous help to historians and genealogists everywhere.

screenshot of the Transcription Pilot Project website launched by the National Archvies

Credit: National Archives

This transcribing is easy to do and there are a variety of documents online needing transcription, requiring a range of skill levels from beginner to advanced, needing the ability to work with old handwriting.

This is a practical project for genealogists to give back to the community.

Here is a typical example: a multi-page Civil War regimental casualty list with the names of the troops killed, wounded or missing.

screenshot of a Civil War casualty list, an example of the documents that are part of the Transcription Pilot Project launched by the National Archives

Credit: National Archives

As a volunteer, your task would be to read and transcribe documents like this old Civil War casualty list.

Your document transcription work will be reviewed and then published on the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) website, making it easier for other family researchers to read this document thanks to your full-text transcription. Having the names typed in electronically makes them easy to search.

Click here to see the documents being worked on in the National Archives Transcription Project.

Notice that there are two sets of documents that you can work on transcribing: beginner level and advanced level.

If you want to suggest documents to be added to this project, click here to alert NARA to your suggestions.

This is a great public service.

Your effort will help others find their ancestors for decades to come.

Consider helping out—visit the Citizen Archivist Dashboard today to learn how to volunteer.

Lineage, Hereditary, Heritage & Patriotic Societies Have Genealogy Resources

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary searches old newspapers to learn about lineage, hereditary, heritage and patriotic societies, lists a number of these societies, and provides their website links in case you want to find out more.

The listings and records kept by various genealogical societies can be a gold mine for family historians.

But there are so many American lineage, hereditary, heritage and patriotic societies, you’d be hard pressed to find them all. And if you attempt to search on the keywords “genealogy” or “lineage society” on the Web, you’ll find the results overwhelming!

This blog article makes searching these societies a more manageable task, by discussing several key categories and providing links to make your genealogy record searches more efficient. It also shows how articles from an online newspaper archive can provide more information about these types of societies.

Societies & American History

Many societies have a long history in America, with some of the oldest going back to the early days of our nation’s founding.

This article from a 1985 Louisiana newspaper lists heritage societies active in New Orleans that year. It reports that the oldest society in the area is the St. Andrew’s Society, founded in 1729 with membership open to men of Scottish ancestry.

A Master List of Heritage Societies, Times-Picayune newspaper article 20 January 1985

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 20 January 1985, page 73

Lineage societies restrict membership to lineal descendants. Some have “good character” requirements, or are by invitation only. Hereditary, heritage and patriotic societies have similar restrictions, or their groups may be open to those of shared interests.

Most of these societies ask for documentary evidence, establishing the birth and death of each generation, to link to the applicable ancestor. Marriages may or may not be required, as some societies recognize that making out-of-wedlock births ineligible is a deterrent to recruiting members. Certificates are generally preferred, but alternate proofs, such as genealogy books, biographies, family letters, and state or local histories, may be acceptable. To learn specifics about what is required to join, contact the registrar of a society and he/she may even assist you in acquiring the necessary documents.

The Oldest Society in America

The society thought to be America’s earliest is the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, founded around 1637. As noted in this 1916 South Carolina newspaper article, the society’s origins date to an earlier organization incorporated by King Henry VIII in 1537 (see www.ahac.us.com).

The Oldest Military Organization in America, Charleston News and Courier newspaper article 25 September 1916

Charleston News and Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 25 September 1916, page 4

Newer Society Organizations

Some of the newest society organizations in America include the:

  • National Society of Saints and Sinners (founded in 2010)
  • Sons and Daughters of World War II Veterans (2011)
  • Order of Descendants of the Justicians (2011)

(In case you are wondering, the Medieval Chief Justiciar (hence the term “Justicians”) was the modern-day equivalent of an English Prime Minister.)

Society Categories & Lists

Comprehensive lists of heritage and lineage societies can be found at these websites:

Most lineage, hereditary, heritage and patriotic societies can be lumped into broad categories pertaining to:

  • Ethnic or Religious Affiliations (associations with countries of origin, i.e., ancestral locations; customs; etc.)
  • Military (specific war, such as the American Civil War or American Revolutionary War)
  • Pioneers and Settlements (first families or early arrivals to areas)
  • Prestigious or Unusual Connections (descent from presidents, rulers, military officers, even those who owned taverns—or were accused of being a witch)

Here are some of the groups that caught my attention.

Ethnic and Religious Societies

Persons with shared countries of origin or religious affiliations might contact groups such as the:

  • Huguenot Society of America (www.huguenotsocietyofamerica.org/), whose members left France to escape religious persecution
  • Daughters of Norway (www.daughtersofnorway.org)
  • Any of the “Saint Societies” which mostly relate to ancestry from Great Britain (England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales)

A few of the latter category, which may have branches in your area, include:

  • Saint Andrew’s Societies (open to lineal descendants of Scotland)
  • St. David’s Societies (Welsh descent)
  • St. George’s Societies (service in the Britannic Majesty’s Armed Forces)
  • Saint Nicholas Societies (Irish ancestry)

Military Societies

There are too many to list them all, but some better-known military societies include the:

  • Baronial Order of Magna Charta (formerly the Baronial Order of Runnemede) is also known as the Military Order of the Crusades (www.magnacharta.com/)
  • Order of Daedalians is the Fraternal and Professional Order of American Military Pilots. It was named after Daedalus, who achieved heavier-than-air flight (www.daedalians.org/)
  • Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War 1861-1865 (www.duvcw.org/) and the United Daughters of the Confederacy (http://hqudc.org/)
  • General Society of Colonial Wars (www.gscw.org/)
  • Hereditary Order of the Descendants of Loyalists and Patriots of the American Revolution (http://loyalistsandpatriots.org/)
  • Society of Descendants of Knights of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, for descendants of the Knights of the Garter, a prestigious honor bestowed upon knights as early as 1348 (http://www.brookfieldpublishingmedia.com/KG/KG.aspx)
  • Society of the Cincinnati, founded in 1783 by officers of the Continental Army and their French counterparts (http://societyofthecincinnati.org/), reports that it is the nation’s oldest patriotic organization
  • Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), founded in 1890 (www.dar.org), and their counterpart, Sons of the American Revolution, founded in 1876 (www.sar.org)

The illustration below, from an 1898 Alabama newspaper, portrays the prominent officers of the DAR.

illustrations of prominent officers of the Daughters of the American Revolution society, Age-Herald newspaper article 21 February 1898

Age-Herald (Birmingham, Alabama), 21 February 1898, page 6

You can discover much of the history and learn about former members of these societies in the newspaper archives. Just search the society name in the “Include Keywords” field.

American Pioneer and Settlers’ Societies

These organizations celebrate arrivals at, or settlements in, particular areas prior to a certain date. In addition to the list below, search newspapers and the Web for “Pioneer” or “First Family of” in connection with a location, such as “California” or “Indiana.”

Some examples of pioneer and settlers’ societies are the:

Occupational & Unusual Societies

Although they range from the ridiculous to the macabre, these are some of the most noteworthy societies.

Presidents

Prisoners & Outlaws

Royal Bastards

  • Descendants of the Illegitimate Sons and Daughters of the Kings of Britain (http://royalbastards.org/) grants membership to individuals who can prove descent from an illegitimate son or daughter of a king, an illegitimate son or daughter of the child of a king, or an illegitimate son or daughter of the grandchild of a king of England, Scotland, Wales, Great Britain or the United Kingdom.

Saints and Sinners

Tavern Keepers

  • One of the more unusual organizations, Flagon and Trencher Society (www.flagonandtrencher.org/) resulted from a speech on genealogy in which Walter Lee Sheppard, Jr. commented that there was a lineage society for every group except Colonial tavern keepers. Shortly thereafter, the society was formed by Sheppard and Dr. Kenn Stryker-Rodda. Membership is open to anyone (even children) who “can prove direct descent from a person conducting a tavern, inn, ordinary, or other type of hostelry prior to 4 July 1776 (within the area which became the first 13 states).” Brewers do not qualify. The society’s name is derived from the terms “flagon” (a drink container) and “trencher” (a wooden plate or platter used to serve food in a tavern). The annual meeting is a luncheon held in a Colonial tavern.

Whalers

Witch Societies (Accused)

  • If you think you are descended from an unfortunate person imprisoned, persecuted or placed on trial for witchcraft, then consider contacting the Associated Daughters of Early American Witches (hwww.adeaw.us/).

If you have an interest in any of these societies and want to learn more, contact them directly via the website links provided. The process of documenting your eligibility, plus interactions with other members and officials of the society, may well help you with your own family history research.

Tips & Tricks to Search Online Newspapers at GenealogyBank

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary shows some of the search techniques she uses when researching GenealogyBank’s newspapers collection—to help our readers do more efficient searches and save them time with their family history research.

Every American family has a heritage to celebrate—whether it is a connection with a specific event, such as the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620; a military event, such as the Civil War of 1861-1865; a particular country of origin; or person of interest, such as a president, suffragette or abolitionist.

I’m lucky to have proved connections in my family history to many of the above (alas, no president), and like most family researchers have jumped for joy at finding the documented proof.

Once we find the genealogical connections (sometimes with the help of others’ research), we feel enormous satisfaction. However, many genealogists don’t realize that search engines can be tweaked to shorten searches and make family history research more efficient— in particular the genealogy search engine within GenealogyBank.

The trick to more efficient searching is to experiment with specific targeted keywords, related to events or ancestry, along with adding wildcards (more on that below) that accommodate for variations.

Keyword Search: Lineal Descendancy

Let’s start with searches related to specific descendants, using the keywords “lineal descendant,” with or without an added surname.

In this example (long before lineage societies became popular), we read that Mr. Michael Kett, a Quaker, was a lineal descendant from Robert Kett, described as the famous tanner and political reformer in the reign of King Edward the Sixth.

Michael Kett obituary, Providence Gazette newspaper article 27 March 1784

Providence Gazette (Providence, Rhode Island), 27 March 1784, page 2

Doesn’t an ancestral report like that get a genealogist excited!

Most of us are happy to research to an immigrant’s arrival in America, but this gentleman had reportedly traced his ancestry to King Edward VI of England, whose brief life occurred between 1537 and 1553, having been crowned at the young age of nine.

Search Newspapers for Events

Another suggested query is to incorporate the word descendant with a specific event, such as the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620.

Enclosing the search in quotes, “Mayflower descendant,” produces a different result than if you searched on each term without the quotation marks. The difference is that when you simply input terms without quotes, the search engine will find results whenever the two words are located anywhere within the same article—but if you enclose the terms in quotation marks, the terms have to be next to each other in an article in order to show up on the search results page.

Note: generally the “s” is ignored, along with capitalization, so don’t worry about entering “Mayflower descendants” or “mayflower descendant”; either will suffice.

Mayflower Descendants, Daily Inter Ocean newspaper article 14 April 1896

Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), 14 April 1896, page 10

This obituary for Sarah Harlow of 13 March 1823 mentions that she was a descendant from “Mr. Richard Warren, who came in the Mayflower, in 1620, of the 4th generation.” It was found without using quotation marks around the words Mayflower and descendant.

Sarah Harlow obituary, Repertory newspaper article 13 March 1823

Repertory (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 March 1823, page 4

Accommodating Spelling Variations with Wildcards

Try variations of queries that accommodate spelling variations, by using either a question mark (?) or an asterisk (*). Known as wildcards, the first option replaces a single character in a word, and the other takes the place of several characters.

For example, “Harrell” can be spelled in a variety of ways, such as “Harrall” or “Herrell.”

If you want to search for all of these variations at once, substitute vowels with question marks. In addition, many early newspapers sometimes abbreviated “Samuel” as “Saml,” so try entering the given name as “Sam*” or “Sam*l.”

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box looking for Samuel Harrell

When I search for American Revolutionary War patriots, I often find the war described in various ways. One article might mention the Revolution, and another might describe someone as a Revolutionary War patriot. The solution is to abbreviate the term and add a specific surname.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box looking for Gilman

Don’t forget that you can direct the genealogy search engine to ignore certain words using the “Exclude Keywords” box.

If you are looking for one of George Washington’s namesakes, it might be useful to ignore the title President, whether it is abbreviated or spelled in full. And if you are repeating a previous search, you might wish to limit the query to the content added to GenealogyBank since your last search. Simply select the “Added Since” drop-down arrow, and limit by date.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box looking for George Washington

These newspaper search techniques usually carry over to your favorite Internet search engines.

Many search engines, such as Google Chrome, have advanced search options. However, if you can’t spot how to do that, you can still succeed. Without complicating things, you can apply what is known as a Boolean operator to a search query.

The three most common Boolean operators are AND, OR and NOT (in capitals).

  1. AND is usually a given in searches, but if you wish to be specific for search engines that ignore certain terms, be sure to add it.
  2. NOT is equivalent to adding a minus sign (-), and indicates that you want a search that does not include something.
  3. OR is an option that tells the search engine to find one thing or another.
  • Harrell OR Herrell OR Harrall
  • “George Washington” NOT President
  • “George Washington” -President
  • George Washington AND Adams

Occasionally you’ll find additional operators, such as the mostly undocumented NEAR in Bing, or AROUND in Google, as well as the ability to search by date ranges.

  • “Susan Smith” 1940…1950 (finds references for this person between two dates)
  • “Egbert Jones” 38…48 (finds a range of numbers connected with this person, such as a specified age)

You’ll need to experiment with the various search engines, and browse their help features. Click here to find a reference on search operators from GoogleGuide’s list: http://www.googleguide.com/advanced_operators_reference.html.

In addition, you’ll find that many popular social network and e-mail programs have additional shortcuts and search options that can be useful for searching.

Please let us know your favorite search techniques in GenealogyBank. Other readers may find them useful!

How to Date Old Photos of Our Ancestors with Early Fashion Trends

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary searches old newspapers and historical books to show how illustrations of fashion trends in hats can help you date an undated family photograph in your collection.

One of my earlier GenealogyBank blog posts, “How to Date Family Photos with Vintage Fashion Ads in Newspapers,” showed how to date an old photograph by comparing the clothes worn by the people in the photo with clothing illustrations from vintage advertisements in historical newspapers.

One of the points I made in that article was that if you can find a newspaper advertisement that matches a hat found in an old photograph, use the newspaper to establish the time period that photo might have been taken. This is an important determination, as it can eliminate relatives not from that time period as possible candidates for the people in the photo.

In today’s blog article, I’m following up on this topic of how earlier fashion trends found in old newspapers can help you date an old, undated photograph by focusing on hats.

First Newspaper Photograph Published in 1880

Photographs published in newspapers can be used to study early fashion trends—but only after 1879.

That’s because it took until 1880 for the first photograph to be published in a newspaper. Prior to that time, you’ll have to rely on newspaper illustrations and other aids to date those troublesome shoeboxes of unidentified, undated family photos.

The Library of Congress’s illustrated Guide on Pictorial Journalism, which I recommend reading, explains:

“The first photograph published in an American newspaper—actually a photomechanical reproduction of a photograph—appeared in the Daily Graphic on March 4, 1880. Before that time it was common practice for American editors to enlist artists to sketch and report on news events, from steamboat explosions to the battles of the Civil War.”

In this 1875 illustration from the Daily Graphic, note that New York Senator Francis Kernan’s image was derived from a photograph by Gardner, of Utica, New York.

illustration of New York Senator Francis Kernan, Daily Graphic newspaper article 23 February 1875

Daily Graphic (New York, New York), 23 February 1875, page 4

Prior to 1880, we must be creative to find clothing illustrative of specific time periods.

I’d also like to stress that old photographs may not have depicted ancestors in everyday dress, as photographers were notorious for utilizing props, lighting, and fashion accessories to make black and white results more appealing. They soon learned that dark colors needed to contrast with light, or the results were one dark mess.

Advice for getting a good photographic result was common, as demonstrated in this 1882 article from the Kalamazoo Gazette that is full of recommendations on how to dress for a photographic session.

Dressing for a Photograph, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 26 May 1882

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 26 May 1882, page 2

The article advised: “The best materials for ladies to wear when about to sit for a photograph are such as will fold or drape nicely, like reps, winceys [plain or twill-woven cloth], poplins, satins and silks. Lavender, lilac, sky blue, purple and French blue take very light and are worse for a picture than pure white. Corn color and salmon are better.”

Later on, the article noted that ladies “with dark or brown hair should avoid contrasts in their costumes, as light substances photograph more quickly than dark, and ladies with light hair should dress in something lighter than those whose hair is dark or brown.”

Don’t necessarily believe that your early photographs are extremely old. Of course, it’s possible that a rare ambrotype from the 1850s or daguerreotype from the 1860s lies in your collection, but more likely you’re looking at later photographs.

Examples of Early Hat Fashion

So, given these considerations, is there much value in examining earlier newspapers for American fashion trends to help with your family photos identification?

Yes, but you might find it easier to target specific attire—such as hats.

These 1834 advertisements from the Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics include simple illustrations: one of a buffalo, and the other of top hats. From these old newspaper ads, one gets the impression that our ancestors paraded around in attire made from animal products such as skins from buffalo, lynx, muskrat, seals and even swans.

Notice that gentlemen were purchasing beaver and satin hats, and that the youth of earlier days wore caps of sea otter, fur seal, leather and cloth. Boas, fur capes, and fur trimmings were available for the ladies.

ads for hats, Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics newspaper advertisements 22 November 1834

Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), 22 November 1834, page 4

If you are interested in researching early hat fashions, search for articles in connection with religious and ethnic groups. Some describe their costumes in great detail.

This 1850 article from the Washington Reporter remarked on the collarless coats and broad-brimmed hats worn by the Society of Friends (Quakers).

Why the Quakers Wear Their Hats, Washington Reporter newspaper article 4 September 1850

Washington Reporter (Washington, Pennsylvania), 4 September 1850, page 1

This 1860 article from the Philadelphia Inquirer discussed Panama hats, made by South American Native Americans from the bombonaxa plant.

Panama Hats, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 16 October 1860

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 16 October 1860, page 2

Examples of Old Advertising Cards

Before I finish this article about dating family photos using period fashion clues, I’d like to mention that there is a most exciting option within GenealogyBank to examine clothing illustrations: advertising cards.

By exploring the Historical Book Collection you’ll find examples of advertising cards dating back to the 1700s. Many are works of art, and if you search by keywords such as “Hats,” “Hat Maker,” or “Hat Manufacturer,” you’ll learn that this industry was of greater importance than most realize.

Advertising card from 1790 for Sam Sturgis, hat maker

Advertising card from 1790

Although C. C. Porter’s Hat Manufacturing Company probably didn’t market to Native American Indians, this advertising card from around 1830 has a fine example of an Indian costume and headdress.

Advertising card from 1830 for C. C. Porter Hat Manufacturing Company

Advertising card from 1830

This next old advertising card shows a dog swimming in the water fetching a top hat—suggesting it must have blown from the head of the man behind him. Luckily, H. D. Tregear was known to manufacture waterproof hats!

Advertising card from 1830 for H. D. Tregear  hat maker

Advertising card from 1830

You might think waterproofing apparel items was a new invention, but out of curiosity I searched the historical newspaper archives and found reports of waterproof hats as early as 1765. Apparently there was a European waterproof hat called a Nivernois that became popular. (I’ll leave it to you to research how this feature was achieved.)

notice about waterproof hats, Georgia Gazette newspaper article 21 February 1765

Georgia Gazette (Savannah, Georgia), 21 February 1765, page 2

Notice in the following advertising card, from Mann Swift & Company (North American Straw Works) in 1837, a sampling of lady’s bonnets and the clothing of those wandering on the lawn in the illustration. If those bonnets were made of straw, it’s not likely many have survived—making these illustrations of great historical importance.

Advertising card from 1837 for Mann Swift & Company (North American Straw Works)

Advertising card from 1837

Here is an advertising card from John W. D. Hall of Taunton, which shows greater detail of top hats than found in the first example above.

Advertising card from 1840 for John W. D. Hall hat maker

Advertising card from 1840

This fashion trend remained popular with men for decades, as seen in this 16 May 1861 photograph of President Abraham Lincoln seated next to a table, upon which he’s placed his prominent top hat.

photo of American President Abraham Lincoln seated at a small table

Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction number: LC-USZ62-15178. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3a17427/

Hats off to any of you who can find an ancestor’s photo with a top hat!

As these illustrations, photograph and advertising cards have shown, pictures from old newspapers can show you what clothing people from a certain time period were wearing—and just might provide the clue you’ve long been looking for to date certain undocumented family photographs in your collection.

Tips to Get the Most Out of Your GenealogyBank Subscription

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post Gena provides some search tips, and shows some resources available on the GenealogyBank website, to help her readers better understand how to use GenealogyBank with their family history research.

What are you doing this weekend? Have any genealogy research plans? How about spending the weekend with GenealogyBank and getting to know it better? What can you do to get the most out of your GenealogyBank subscription? Here are a few resources and tips to get you started.

screenshot of the home page for GenealogyBank.com

Tip 1: Start with the Learning Center

It’s in the Learning Center that you can find guidance for using GenealogyBank and researching your family history—there is a tab for it on the top of the GenealogyBank home page. The Learning Center page features six different sections, offering you many free resources to better understand how to do family history research—and how GenealogyBank can help you do it.

screenshot of the Learning Center page on the website GenealogyBank.com

Learn Online

From the “Learn Online—Webinars & Video Tutorials” section, I recommend the video “How to Search GenealogyBank” to start.

screenshot of the Learning Center page on the website GenealogyBank.com

GenealogyBank Blog

You can access the GenealogyBank Blog from the Learning Center, which offers hundreds of genealogy articles. Once there you can search the blog by keyword. Articles on the blog include tips, “how-tos,” and case studies. Reading the blog will give you many ideas for researching your family history.

Newsletter Archives

You can also access the extensive archives of the monthly newsletter GenealogyBank News from the Learning Center, providing hundreds more genealogy articles to help you get started tracing your family tree.

The three sections on the lower half of the Learning Center page provide even more resources for family history research.

screenshot of the Learning Center page on the website GenealogyBank.com

Download Free E-Book

Be sure to download the free e-book Getting Started Climbing Your Family Tree—this provides a great introduction.

What’s New?

I also recommend searching on the list of newspapers available under the heading “What’s New?” to get an idea of what newspapers GenealogyBank has to assist you in your genealogy research. Remember that newspapers are constantly being added to the website on a daily basis, so this list is frequently updated.

Call Our Family History Consultants

The Learning Center also provides a toll-free phone line to reach a Family History Consultant; these GenealogyBank experts will show you how to better use the site for your family history research.

Tip 2: Try Our Other Genealogy Databases

GenealogyBank is known for its historical newspaper archives, but there is so much more to the website. Besides newspapers you can find the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), historical documents, historical books, and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set. Why not take some time this weekend to look over these resources and see which ones should be explored further for your family history research?

screenshot of the home page on the website GenealogyBank.com

U.S. Congressional Serial Set

Ever use the U.S. Congressional Serial Set—a collection of the official papers and documents of Congress? Not sure how it can help your genealogy research? 19th century gems like land records, pensioners’ lists and military registers can be found in this U.S. government collection.

One of my favorite finds from this collection is the list that includes the name of my 4th great-grandmother’s husband, who was pardoned by the President for being a “Rebel Postmaster” during the Civil War.

To learn more about the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, see the article “Using the Congressional Serial Set for Genealogical Research” by Jeffery Hartley, which was excerpted and reprinted on the GenealogyBank blog. Start your search of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set by using the Historical Documents & Records search page.

Tip 3: How to Become a Search Master

Here are three steps to follow to help you become a master at searching for family records in GenealogyBank.

Step 1: Make a Keyword List

First, make a list of the keywords you will be searching on, including the names of your ancestors, places they lived, or events they were a part of. Make note of name variations, including the use of initials for the first or middle name, as well as any alternative spellings. When researching women, remember that they may not be listed by their given name, but instead by their husband’s name—as in Mrs. George Smith. Because names can be misspelled, consider using alternative search techniques like wild cards to catch any mentions that you might otherwise miss.

Step 2: Start Broad, Then Narrow

Second, cast out a wide net and then narrow your search. Techniques for narrowing your search include things like searching for newspapers in just the state that your ancestor was from, or adding other family members’ names, or the name of an organization. If a name is unusual, consider searching by just the surname and then narrowing your search by adding the given name. Casting a wide net is a good technique if your ancestor had a fairly uncommon name—but in the case of Smith, Jones or Adams, it may just result in a bigger research headache.

Step 3: Get Search Engine Savvy

Third, make sure that you understand how to best use the GenealogyBank search engine. This will assist you as you consider different search techniques. From the GenealogyBank Help page you can learn such things as how to search by collection, how to narrow your results, and advanced search techniques like phrase searching and wild cards.

Have some free time this weekend? Spend that time getting the most out of your GenealogyBank subscription and find more information to tell the story of your family history.

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.

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.