Researching Old Military Records & War Stories in Newspapers

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott searches old newspapers for articles about his ancestors’ military service and records—just in time to help you research your military ancestors during this Memorial Day weekend.

As we commemorate Memorial Day this weekend, honoring the men and women who have died while in military service, you might feel inspired to research your veteran ancestors.

In our genealogy work, we frequently find ourselves having to use a wide variety of techniques to ferret out an obscure clue when we are working on our family histories. Often, this is especially true when we are working on the military service history of our ancestors.

One technique I have found to be especially valuable is searching GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives for articles that relate to my military ancestors. It can be a very successful genealogy strategy, as well as introducing you to some valuable history and stories.

Researching My Civil War Ancestor

painting of the Civil War Battle of Five Forks, Virginia, showing a charge led by Union General Philip Sheridan, by Kurz & Allison

Painting: Civil War Battle of Five Forks, Virginia, showing a charge led by Union General Philip Sheridan. The author’s ancestor was killed during this battle. Credit: Kurz & Allison; Library of Congress.

Recently I was researching one of my ancestors, Captain James Ham. I decided that rather than simply search on his name, I would search on the military unit he had enlisted in during the United States Civil War: the Pennsylvania 17th Cavalry. My first newspaper archive search on the “Seventeenth Pennsylvania” returned some very interesting results, such as this 1862 article from a Pennsylvania newspaper.

The newspaper article is headlined: “The Camps at Harrisburg. A Visit to Camp McClellan.” Initially, the reporter gives us a detailed, firsthand account of what conditions were like at Camp McClellan, such as: “Mud and slush seem to be the main characteristics…”; and, “These are cavalry men. But few of them have yet received their horses. They are but novices in the art and science of soldiery; but yet the men of Camp McClellan are remarkably well-disciplined.”

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List of Calvary Regiments

Then the news article continues on to list the three new Cavalry regiments, one of which was the 17th. I was delighted to find this newspaper article contained every officer of the regiment—and listed as a first lieutenant was my ancestor James Ham.

article about the roster of the Seventeenth Pennsylvania Cavalry during the Civil War, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 21 November 1862

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 21 November 1862, page 2

The next news article I came across was published after the war, from an 1880 New York newspaper. This report particularly caught my eye since it was at the Battle of Five Forks in Virginia that James lost his life to enemy fire. This newspaper article, though short, was firsthand testimony by Colonel Henry C. Durland, the commander of the PA 17th, and it reported for the first time the losses by my ancestor’s regiment of “seven officers and thirty privates.”

Losses at Five Forks, New York Herald newspaper article 15 October 1880

New York Herald (New York, New York), 15 October 1880, page 9

War Stories Abound

As I continued my newspaper research, I discovered dozens of news articles that reported on the military battles and movements of the PA 17th, which included more famous Civil War battle locations including Fredericksburg, Richmond, Petersburg, and several others—and often included fascinating first-person accounts of those battles.

Researching My Indian Fighter Ancestor

photo of Chiricahua Apache Chief Victorio, c.1875

Photo: Chiricahua Apache Chief Victorio, c.1875. The author’s ancestor fought against the Apaches. Credit: Wikipedia.

Here is another example of the value in using newspaper articles to fill in your genealogy and learn about an ancestor’s military service. One of my great, great uncles, Frantisek Vicha, served in the U.S. Army in Company “D” of the 16th Infantry while fighting in what we know as the “Indian Wars.” From previous research, I knew that he enlisted in 1878 and was discharged due to disability in 1881. However, I knew little about the Indian Wars and practically nothing about my ancestor’s military service.

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My first research finding in GenealogyBank’s newspapers was an old article from a 1919 New Jersey newspaper. This historical newspaper article listed the (unfortunate) multitude of Indian Wars and gave me a good overview of these conflicts and the time period when my ancestor fought.

article about all the wars and battles in U.S. history, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 5 January 1919

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 5 January 1919, page 6

The next article I located was from an 1880 Pennsylvania newspaper. This historical news article reported that “Company D, Sixteenth Infantry”—my ancestor’s company—was one of those sent in relief of General Hatch, who was pursuing “Victorio’s band of Apaches in New Mexico.”

article about the Apache War in New Mexico, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 2 June 1880

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 2 June 1880, page 1

Now I had a location that I could work from, with even more focus. I then began to search on Victorio’s Apaches and found this article from an 1880 Texas newspaper.

Victorio's Apaches, Galveston Weekly News newspaper article 8 July 1880

Galveston Weekly News (Galveston, Texas), 8 July 1880, page 3

I found dozens more newspaper articles detailing several battles and the movements of Victorio and his fellow Apaches. An interesting and helpful article was published much later, in a 1921 Arizona newspaper. This detailed article covers the time in Apache history when Victorio was the “accredited war chief” of the Ojo Caliente Apaches, including his death in 1880.

Apache, Past and Present, Tucson Daily Citizen newspaper article 22 May 1921

Tucson Daily Citizen (Tucson, Arizona), 22 May 1921, section: second, page 8

Then of course there was another old article I discovered about my Indian fighter ancestor, from an 1889 Ohio newspaper. This article reported an entirely different fight Frank Vicha had on his hands—but that one took place in a courtroom, and will have to be a story all its own for another time!

article about Frank Vicha filing for divorce, Plain Dealer newspaper article 17 March 1889

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 17 March 1889, page 6

Historical newspapers are a great way to weave together the story of your veteran ancestor’s military service, and find more military records. Have you had success in finding your ancestors’ military records using newspapers? Tell us what you’ve discovered in the archives about your ancestor’s military service in the comments section below.

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149th Anniversary: Civil War Ends with Lee’s Surrender to Grant

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott searches old newspapers to learn more about Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant that effectively ended the American Civil War.

All of us have studied it, memorized the date, and (if we’ve been lucky) visited the place where it occurred: Appomattox Court House, Virginia, the site of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union General U. S. Grant, effectively ending the United States Civil War on 9 April 1865.

Although General Lee’s surrender was 149 years ago now, that momentous historical event still seems fresh in the public’s mind—and it must have been incredible news to our American ancestors all those many years ago.

I decided to take a look in GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives to see how the news of General Lee’s surrender was announced via the nation’s newspapers, and learn what has happened to Appomattox Court House since that fateful day.

Just six days before the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, surrendered, this Richmond newspaper was still giving its readers news about the war.

Vigorous Assault upon the Enemy's Works near the Appomattox, Richmond Whig newspaper article 28 March 1865

Richmond Whig (Richmond, Virginia), 28 March 1865, page 1

Just days before Generals Lee and Grant were to meet at Appomattox, the Battle of Five Forks was raging as reported in this Albany newspaper. One of my ancestors, Captain James Ham of the Pennsylvania Cavalry, was mortally wounded in this action and died five days before Lee’s surrender. I wonder how his family received the news about the war’s end, coming so soon after they had received word of his death.

article about the Civil War's Battle of Five Forks, Albany Evening Journal newspaper article 3 April 1865

Albany Evening Journal (Albany, New York), 3 April 1865, page 2

After Lee surrendered on April 9, it didn’t take long for word to spread across America, as you can imagine.

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The headlines of this Boston newspaper article say it all.

Surrender of General Lee and His Entire Army, Boston Herald newspaper article 10 April 1865

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 10 April 1865, page 2

That same day and in the same city, readers of this Boston newspaper saw this article, including this paragraph:

The joy of our population this morning, as the intelligence of the surrender of Lee’s army spread, hardly knew bounds. Men embraced each other with the most extravagant demonstrations of feeling; staid, quiet citizens forgot their equanimity for the moment and found themselves cheering in the streets for Gen. Grant and the Potomac Army; workmen in shore gave voice to a joyous outburst of patriotic exultation, and everywhere the same accordant strains of heartfelt rejoicing were heard.

article about Civil War General Lee surrendering to General Grant, Boston Evening Transcript newspaper article 10 April 1865

Boston Evening Transcript (Boston, Massachusetts), 10 April 1865, page 2

Readers of a New York newspaper saw these headlines.

Surrender of Lee and His Whole Army to Grant, New York Herald newspaper article 10 April 1865

New York Herald (New York, New York), 10 April 1865, page 1

On the same day and across the country in California, this San Francisco newspaper reported the important news.

article about Civil War General Lee surrendering to General Grant, San Francisco Bulletin newspaper article 10 April 1865

San Francisco Bulletin (San Francisco, California), 10 April 1865, page 2

Twenty years later, as you can see in this 1885 Aberdeen newspaper article “The Interesting Story of Appomattox Retold,” the details of Lee’s surrender to Grant were still being reported. I remember as a young student reading these types of Civil War stories and realizing for the first time that Appomattox Court House was the name of a town, and that Lee and Grant had actually met in the home of the Wilmer McLean family.

Grant and Lee--The Interesting Story of Appomattox Retold, Aberdeen Weekly News newspaper article 17 April 1885

Aberdeen Weekly News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 17 April 1885, page 3

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The fortunes of Appomattox Court House waned after the war, as you can read in this 1884 New York newspaper article. It reports that the town was almost deserted and the McLean home had been:

…taken down, brick by brick, for removal to the World’s Fair, but for some reason the plan was not carried out, and the bricks and timbers are still stored in the vacant houses in the neighborhood.

article about Appomattox Court House, Virginia, New York Tribune newspaper article 10 June 1894

New York Tribune (New York, New York), 10 June 1894, page 16

Luckily for all of us, as you can read in this 1903 Dallas newspaper article, bills had been introduced in Congress to provide funding to buy and save the historic McLean house in Appomattox before it was sold to a Chicagoan who planned to move it there and use it as his residence.

McLean House at Appomattox, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 22 February 1903

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 22 February 1903, page 23

And of course as a genealogist, it would be hard not to note the remarkable role played by one of the Appomattox surrender’s lesser known but critically important players, Ely Parker. You might not recognize the name so I’d recommend you take a look at this wonderful obituary for this full-blooded Seneca Indian who actually penned Grant’s terms for surrender. This obituary appeared in an 1895 Cleveland newspaper.

obituary for Ely Samuel Parker, Plain Dealer newspaper article 1 September 1895

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 1 September 1895, page 1

Today Appomattox Court House, Virginia, and the McLean House are part of our National Parks system and well worth a visit.

Read More Articles about the Civil War:

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I Met Abraham Lincoln: True Stories in Historical Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post—in honor of today being Presidents’ Day—Gena searches old newspapers to find amazing stories about people who were still alive in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s who had met Abraham Lincoln.

Did your ancestor meet a famous person? Maybe they had occasion to hear a great orator or speak with an author. Did they rub elbows with someone infamous? I’m always fascinated by the history that our ancestors, even our more recent ancestors, witnessed.

Do you have an ancestor who met, heard or saw Abraham Lincoln? There could be a variety of reasons a 19th century ancestor encountered the 16th president of the United States. As president during the American Civil War, Lincoln gave speeches and visited the troops so it’s possible that a person living in the 1860s may have had an encounter with him.

photo of President Abraham Lincoln, 8 November 1863

Photo: President Abraham Lincoln, 8 November 1863, by Alexander Gardner. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

But did you ever consider that some of those same people may have lived into the20th century and had occasion to tell their story about meeting Lincoln? Many Civil War soldiers or contemporaries of Lincoln would have been at least middle-aged to quite elderly when the 20th century rolled in. There were some alive at the beginning decades of the 20th century who were able to boast about meeting Lincoln.

So what if we up the ante? What about people who were still alive in the mid-20th century? The chances of someone who had met or personally saw Lincoln would have dwindled by then. However, a search in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives shows that there were still people at that late date who could tell of meeting what many believe is the greatest president who ever lived.

Samuel J. Seymour, Last Living Witness to Lincoln’s Assassination

In 1956 an elderly man appeared on the television game show I’ve Got a Secret. This TV show featured a celebrity panel who, when presented with a special guest, tried to guess what secret the person held. The featured guests’ secrets included things that were amazing or unusual about that person. Those who stumped the panel received a cash prize. Samuel J. Seymour spent about five minutes on the show while two of the panelists asked questions that led them to guessing his secret. (A side note: while many younger readers wouldn’t recognize most of the celebrities that appeared on the show, on the day of Seymour’s guest spot there was a very recognizable face—that of famous actress and comedian Lucille Ball—who was on the panel, but she didn’t get a chance to question Mr. Seymour.)

Seymour was a 5-year-old boy when he was taken to Ford’s Theatre on 14 April 1865—the night that President Lincoln was shot. While he did not know initially that Lincoln was shot, and did not see the actual shooting, he did remember years later the fear he felt that night. He also remembered feeling concerned about the man (John Wilkes Booth) that he saw fall onto the stage. In the chaos of the moment—and because he was so young—Seymour didn’t realize that Booth had in fact shot the President when he saw the actor suddenly leap down onto the stage.

Of the lasting effect of being at Ford’s Theatre that night, Mr. Seymour said: “…I sometimes still relive the horror of Lincoln’s assassination, dozing in my rocker as an old codger like me is bound to do.”

Imagine that—a man in the 1950s carrying the memory of President Lincoln’s assassination!

I Saw Lincoln Shot, Plain Dealer newspaper article 7 February 1954

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 7 February 1954, page 192

You can view the actual portion of this episode of I’ve Got a Secret featuring Samuel Seymour on YouTube.

Richard R. Davis, Civil War Soldier

The following 1936 newspaper article, written just three years shy of Mr. Davis’s 100th birthday, tells of his Civil War career and his meeting Abraham Lincoln one day when the president came and spoke to the troops. Of that talk, Mr. Davis remembered that Lincoln “told us then that we were fighting to preserve the Union of States and of our sacrifice.” After speaking, Lincoln walked amongst the troops with his son.

Davis recounts that when he tussled the hair of Lincoln’s son the boy grinned and said: “Do you think I’m a child? Say, I’m a pretty big fellow.”

Richard Davis: Civil War Veteran Who Met Lincoln, Druid newspaper article 1 December 1936

Druid (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), 1 December 1936, page 1

Davis actually saw Lincoln several times, and also met other noteworthy figures of the time such as Generals Grant and Hooker. The reporter writes that it’s obvious that Lincoln was a hero to Davis and that his time serving in the Civil War was a “highlight of his journey along life’s highways.”

Meeting Presidential Candidate Lincoln

Because some young people who met Lincoln went on to live long lives, we do have stories of the Great Emancipator told by witnesses well after most who knew Lincoln had died. For example, Perry Green Brock—who died in 1949 at the age of 105 years—told of meeting candidate Lincoln in 1856 in Kentucky when he was a boy. Brock later fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War but doesn’t mention what he thought of Lincoln during that time. He was quoted in the following newspaper article as saying that the South would have won if “us rebels hadn’t run out of shells.”

Perry G. Brock, Who Met Lincoln, Passes at 105, Dallas Morning News newspaper obituary 24 November 1949

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 24 November 1949, section III, page 6

Did your ancestor meet Abraham Lincoln or another famous person? If so, research the encounter in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, then write the story and preserve it for future generations. If your ancestor did indeed meet Abraham Lincoln, please share the details about the encounter with us in the comments. We’d love to hear your family story.

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102 Year Old Ex-Slave Once Shook Abraham Lincoln’s Hand

Abraham Lincoln: The Life of a Legend Infographic

Civil War Genealogy: How to Find Union Soldier Uniform Clues

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary uses information from a historical newspaper article—and photos from the Library of Congress—to show how you can read clues from the uniform your Civil War ancestor is wearing in that old family photo.

Are you a genealogist who has an old family photograph of a Civil War ancestor? Have you often stared at that old photo, wishing it could tell you a little bit more about your Civil War ancestor? Well, perhaps it can—if your ancestor is wearing a uniform of the Union in the photo, then that uniform can provide clothing clues you can follow to uncover your ancestor’s rank, position in the military, and perhaps hints of his military service.

Occasionally one finds a reference of such importance in historical newspapers that it rivals (or exceeds) what one might find in a well-written textbook. I was lucky enough to make a discovery like this: a newspaper article that explains how to read Union uniforms from the Civil War.

That news article, “Insignia of Rank in the Federal Army,” is an in-depth guide published during the Civil War. It only discusses the uniforms of Union participants, but illustrates how newspapers assisted our ancestors in describing the war and identifying soldiers by their uniforms, swords, chevrons (V-shaped stripes) and other insignia.

This Civil War military apparel and decoration guide can also be of great help to modern-day family historians in identifying the ranks of ancestors from their old family photographs.

Insignia of Rank in the Federal Army, Weekly Wisconsin Patriot newspaper article 5 October 1861

Weekly Wisconsin Patriot (Madison, Wisconsin), 5 October 1861, page 6

Perhaps you’ll find this newspaper article as intriguing to read as I did. However, because the text reproduces small, I’ve taken the liberty to transcribe it below. You’ll also find illustrative Civil War photographs, such as this one of an African American Union soldier, from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: www.loc.gov/rr/print/.

photo of an African American Union soldier during the Civil War

Transcription:

Insignia of Rank in the Federal Army.

Now-a-days, when uniformed men are standing at all the corners, and are to be met on all the streets, it is pleasant to know just how to tell at a glance the rank of the wearer and the particular branch of the service with which he is connected. The Philadelphia Inquirer of the 14th inst. lays down rules for thus distinguishing the insignia of rank in the U.S. Army, and we quote as follows:

The highest rank in our army is that of Lieutenant General. Winfield Scott, General-in-Chief, is the only one who occupies this rank at present. The principal distinguishing marks of uniform are three silver embroidered stars on the shoulder strap or epaulette—a large one in the middle, flanked by two smaller ones—a double row of nine buttons on the coat, disposed in threes, a buff sash, a straight sword, and a sword-knot terminating in acorns. A Major General is the same, but with only two stars on the shoulder. A Brigadier General has one star, and the buttons up his coat number but eight in each row, disposed in twos. The Colonel is the highest in rank in a regiment, and wears a silver embroidered spread eagle, having in the right talon an olive branch, and in the left a bundle of arrows on his strap, the buttons on his coat in double lines, numbering eight, at equal distances.

photo of Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, General-in-Chief of the Union armies during the Civil War

A Lieutenant Colonel is second in command of a regiment, and is known by a silver embroidered leaf at each end of the strap; otherwise his uniform is the same as a Colonel’s. The Major’s is also the same, the leaf being of gold. His duty is to act as Aid-de-camp of the Colonel, and in the event of his two superior officers being disabled or absent, he takes command of the regiment; these three constitute the field officers of a regiment, and are mounted. The Adjutant, whose position is the same to the regiment as that of the Orderly Sergeant to a company, generally ranks as a Lieutenant.

photo of lieutenants in the Union army during the Civil War

Captains are commandants of companies, and are distinguished by two bars of gold on the shoulder strap, and eight buttons at a regular distance in a single row on the coat; the First Lieutenant is the same, but with one bar on the strap, the Second Lieutenant having a plain strap without marks. These last are called line officers. All regimental officers wear a red sash.

The Surgeon has the letters M. S. (Medical Staff) embroidered on his strap; also wears a green sash. The Quartermaster also takes a Lieutenant’s rank, and has the letters Q. D. (Quartermaster’s Department) embroidered on his strap; the Paymaster the same, with the letters P. D. (Paymaster’s Department) and the Commissary with the letters C. D. (Commissary Department). These constitute (with the Chaplain, who wears no marks, only plain clothes of uniform cut) the regimental staff, and all are allowed to have horses.

photo of quartermaster's mechanics in the Union army during the Civil War

The non-commissioned officers are hospital stewards, whose business it is to attend to the hospital stores, and all the details of the hospital department under the orders of the Surgeon. His insignia is a green band on the upper arm, with a serpent entwined round a winged staff, and embroidered on it.

Chevrons: The rank of non-commissioned officers is marked by chevrons upon both sleeves of the uniform coat and overcoat, above the elbow, of silk or worsted binding, one-half an inch wide, same color as the edging of the coat, points down, as follows:

The Sergeant Major is first sergeant in the regiment, and acts as orderly to the Colonel. He wears three bars and an arc in silk. The Quartermaster Sergeant’s business is the management of the details of that department. He wears three bars and a tie, in silk. The Orderly Sergeant is first sergeant in the company, and commands it in the absence of commissioned officers. The chevron is of three stripes without connection, and a diamond or star above. The Second Sergeant takes charge of half a company, called a platoon, and has the same chevron as the first, but without a diamond. The Corporals are in charge of sections or quarters of a company, and are distinguished by two bars in worsted.

photo of a corporal in the Union army during the Civil War

Of the swords, the cavalry sabre is the longest and has a steel scabbard. The field officers come next, the scabbard being of chocolate enamel, with git [sic] trimmings. The line officers’ plainer and shorter, with sheath of black leather. A general officer’s weapon is straight, with a gilt scabbard; regimental staff is straight and short; musicians’ and non-commissioned officers’ being shorter still, and more for show than use.

To indicate service: All non-commissioned officers, musicians and privates, who have served faithfully a term of five years, wear, as a mark of distinction, upon both sleeves of the uniform coat, below the elbow, a diagonal, half chevron, one half an inch wide, extending from seam to seam, the front end nearest the cuff, and one half an inch above the point of the cuff, to be of the same color as the edging of the coat. In like manner, an additional half chevron, above and parallel to the first, for every subsequent five years of faithful service; distance between each chevron one-fourth of an inch. Service in war is indicated by a light or sky blue stripe on each side of the chevron for artillery, and a red stripe for all other corps, the stripe to be one eighth of an inch wide.

The color of the cloth used for the strap of the general staff and staff corps, is dark blue; of the cavalry yellow; dragoons, orange; artillery, scarlet; riflemen, medium or emerald green; and infantry, light or sky blue.

photo of an African American sergeant in the Union army during the Civil War

To research Civil War Confederate soldier uniforms and other Union soldier uniforms not illustrated in this article, be sure to visit the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division at www.loc.gov/pictures/, or visit websites that sell Civil War reenactment supplies.

For example, C&C Sutlery has a number of illustrations showing Civil War uniforms available for purchase that you can refer to in your genealogy research.

Now that you have acquired all of this detailed information about Union soldiers’ uniforms, take another look at that photo of your Civil War Union ancestor. Pay close attention to all the details of the uniform, sword, chevrons and other insignia, and see what they can tell you about your ancestor’s military service.

Please share your Civil War genealogy discoveries in the comments, and tell us about any additional military uniform clues you use in your ancestor sleuthing.

Civil War’s Last Rebel Town Finally Rejoined the Union—in 1946!

Part of the fun of doing family history research in old newspapers is the occasional strange, unusual—and even startling—story you run across. Such certainly is the case with the tiny New York town called Town Line, which joined the Rebel Cause and seceded from the Union in 1861—and did not come back to the United States until 1946, 81 years after the American Civil War ended!

a photo of the Confederate battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia

Photo: Confederate battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. A flag similar to this was flown above the blacksmith shop in Town Line, NY, during the 1946 vote on whether the town would rejoin the Union. Credit: Wikipedia.

There have been thousands of books and movies produced about the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of eager visitors flock to Civil War battlefields every year, and the nation is in the midst of commemorating the sesquicentennial of this great and tragic conflict that caused more than a million casualties.

A Northern Town Joined the Rebel Cause?!

With all this interest and knowledge, however, few people know this Civil War story: the last Rebel town to rejoin the Union after the Civil War was not south of the Mason-Dixon Line, but was in the Union state of New York.

That Northern town was a tiny hamlet called Town Line, in upstate New York near Buffalo. For reasons no one seems to know anymore, the hamlet’s eligible voters (all 125 of them) met in 1861 and, after an intense debate, voted 85 to 40 to secede from the Union! Apparently the hamlet even sent five men to fight in the Confederate army in Virginia. But as the war dragged on the secessionist fever cooled, and the locals appear to have politely decided to quietly forget about their defiant stance.

However: they never officially rejoined the United States, until the patriotic fever following victory in WWII moved the residents of Town Line to rethink this matter of secession. Their surprising story is explained in this 1945 Oregon newspaper article.

article about the secession of Town Line, NY, from the Union in 1861, Oregonian newspaper article 9 September 1945

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 9 September 1945, page 103

This historical news article’s coverage of Town Line concludes this way:

“In the years that have come between, Town Line has not officially changed its decision. Technically, by choice of its voters in 1861, it is still not a part of the United States. But the folks that live there now feel that it is time for something to be done about it. ‘If our former allies in Mississippi and Georgia feel that the Civil War is over, so do we,’ said a prominent citizen of Town Line the other day.”

A Town Barbecue Brings about Change

Someone from the town sent President Harry Truman a letter about the situation, and he cheerfully wrote back:

“Why don’t you run down the fattest calf in Erie County, barbeque it and serve it with fixin’s in the old blacksmith shop where the ruckus started? Who can tell? The dissidents might decide to resume citizenship.”

Well, they did just that, holding the barbeque in October of 1945—during which they agreed to hold a vote soon on the great matter at hand. Finally, January 1946 was chosen for the vote.

Town Line, NY Rejoins the Union

On 24 January 1946, by a vote of 90 to 23, the last Rebel town of the Civil War officially rejoined the Union.

New York Town [Town Line, NY] Rejoins Union, Greensboro Daily News newspaper article 25 January 1946

Greensboro Daily News (Greensboro, North Carolina), 25 January 1946, page 7

The Union was whole at last!

Are you researching your Civil War ancestry? Read more interesting blog articles about the Civil War and follow our Civil War Genealogy Pinterest board.

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.