America’s First Newspaper: Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, 1690

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan writes about the short-lived history of the first newspaper published in North America – which was shut down by the authorities after printing its first and only issue.

Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick was the first newspaper published in the Americas. Previously a few broadsides had been published in the colonies, but these were single-sided sheets of news or announcements meant to be posted in a public place. Publick Occurrences was the first real newspaper, consisting of three pages of news intended for individual consumption. This newspaper is a fascinating study of early North American life and times.

front page for the newspaper Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 September 1690

Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 September 1690, page 1

The History of the First American Newspaper

The editor, Benjamin Harris, had published a newspaper and other material in London, but ran afoul of the authorities and was twice jailed for his “seditious” pamphlets – so in 1686 he immigrated to the American colonies. He enlisted the help of a local printer, Richard Pierce, and together they produced their four-page newspaper on 25 September 1690 in Boston. It was about six inches by ten inches and the last page was blank.

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Harris and Pierce used the first few column inches of the new paper to explain their reasons and hopes for creating it. They intended to provide “an Account of such considerable things as have arrived unto our Notice” for three reasons:

    • “That Memorable Occurrences of Divine Providence may not be neglected or forgotten, as they too often are.”
    • “That people every where may better understand the Circumstances of Publique Affairs, both abroad and at home; which may not only direct their Thoughts at all times, but at some times also to assist their Businesses and Negotiations.”
    • “That some thing may be done towards the Curing, or at least the Charming of that Spirit of Lying, which prevails amongst us, wherefore nothing shall be entered, but what we have reason to believe is true, repairing to the best fountains for our Information.”
article explaining why the first newspaper in North America was being printed, Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick newspaper article 25 September 1690

Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 September 1690, page 1

A Day of Thanksgiving

The first article was about the “Christianized Indians in some parts of Plimouth” having “newly appointed a day of Thanksgiving to God for his Mercy in supplying their extream and pinching Necessities.” It went on to opine that: “Their Example may be worth Mentioning.”

This was an excellent beginning article for the new paper, a nice human interest story which caused no controversy. It will be remembered that in 1690, there was no independent nation and no national Thanksgiving holiday in North America. However, the colonists and their Christianized Indian allies observed periodic days of thanksgiving.

article about Indians celebrating Thanksgiving, Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick newspaper article 25 September 1690

Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 September 1690, page 1

Suicide after Wife’s Death

For the genealogist, this paper is full of stories of importance. For example, one front page article relates the story of an older resident of Watertown who committed suicide after the death of his wife. This man “had long Enjoyed the reputation of a Sober and a Pious Man; having newly buried his Wife, The Devil took advantage of the Melancholy which he thereupon fell into.” Despite the efforts of his friends to protect him, he slipped away one night and hanged himself. His name was not mentioned, but it might be possible to discover his identity using the clues given in the old newspaper article.

Small Pox Ravages Boston

There are stories about illness, including one about small-pox that had recently ravaged Boston:

The Small-pox which has been raging in Boston, after a manner very Extraordinary, is now very much abated. It is thought that far more have been sick of it than were visited with it, when it raged so much twelve years ago, nevertheless it has not been so Mortal. The number of them that have dyed in Boston by this last Visitation is about three hundred and twenty, which is not perhaps half so many as fell by the former [visitation].

Again, no names are mentioned, but it may provide clues on ancestors affected by this calamity.

Inferno Engulfs Town

Another story tells of a fire that took the life of one boy and destroyed five or six homes and a rare and valuable printing press: “…[one] of those few that we know of in America, was lost; a loss not presently to be repaired.”

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Children Taken as Indian Captives

Another story is about two Chelmsford children, ages 11 and 9, kidnapped by the hostile Indians. While these stories don’t mention the individuals by name, they can provide clues for identifying individuals you may already know something about from other records. In addition, these stories can provide an incredible look into the life and times of the residents of Boston. What were they most concerned with? What was life like? How did they adapt to their circumstances? And so on.

French vs. English

There is another story about an English ship that put in at the wrong port and was attacked by the French and their Indian allies, with one member of the crew escaping. Although the French and Indian War did not officially begin until 1754, we see in these 1690 reports that clashes between the French and English – and their respective Indian allies – were common.

In fact, the majority of this inaugural (and, as it turned out, only) issue of Publick Occurrences’s articles address the ongoing fighting. They graphically describe the various conflicts with a remarkable nonpartisanship, with blame assigned to both the French and English, as well as their Indian allies. As a British citizen, Harris could justify a printed attack on the French and their Indian allies. He reports how the French Canadians even annihilated some loyal Indian allies after a misunderstanding.  He grows bold in reprinting a letter which gave news from the Caribbean and accuses the French king of an incestuous relationship with his daughter-in-law.

Somewhat surprisingly, Harris also uses his newspaper to criticize the English – both for their own actions, and for not better restraining their Indian allies. He reports how some of the British forces’ Indian allies “returned with some Success, having slain several of the French, and brought home several Prisoners, whom they used in a manner too barbarous for any English to approve.” Harris also reports a story about the English Captain Mason, who “cut the faces, and ript the bellies of two Indians, and threw a third Over board in the sight of the French.”

article about a fight between French and British forces, Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick newspaper article 25 September 1690

Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 September 1690, page 3

Only One Issue Ever Printed

Although Harris and Pierce stated that their intent was to publish their new newspaper once a month “or if any Glut of Occurrences happen, oftener,” the inaugural issue of Publick Occurrences was also the last. The British authorities discovered the paper and moved quickly to suppress it.

And so the very first newspaper in American ran right into issues of press censorship and freedom of speech. Just four days after Publick Occurrences was published, the “Governour & Council” issued an order in which they “do hereby manifest and declare their high Resentment and Disallowance of said Pamphlet [i.e., newspaper], and Order that the same be Suppress’d and called in.” The official reasoning was that Harris had not applied for and obtained the proper licenses. However, the authorities were most likely unhappy with Harris’s opinions and criticisms, as mild as they may seem to the modern reader.

While not mentioning very many names, this first North American newspaper is fascinating to read. It provides a colorful description of what Bostonians and people in the original colonies were experiencing, what they cared about, and what trials they faced. It gives tantalizing clues about the early colonists and their lives, and is a good resource for anyone researching their ancestors during the early colonial period in American history.

Publick Occurrences is just one of the rare early colonial newspapers available in GenealogyBank’s  Historical Newspaper Archives, which houses more than 6,500 newspaper titles online. GenealogyBank can help you learn more about your ancestors in early America; see what’s inside the archives on your ancestors’ stories. Start your 30-day trial now!

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Early American Colonial History Timeline Infographic

Beginning in the 16th century, settlers from many European countries came to North America, including: Finland, Germany, Holland (the Netherlands), Ireland, Scotland, Sweden—and especially England, France and Spain. These settlers arrived seeking a better life, profit, and religious freedom. England eventually exerted control over the new land, and established the 13 colonies that became the United States.

If you are exploring your ancestry all the way back to the Colonial period in U.S. history, this Infographic will help—providing a timeline and facts to help you better understand the times your ancestors lived in.

Here’s a timeline of key historical events in Colonial America. (Note: this article continues after the Infographic.)

Click here for the larger version of the Settling America Infographic.

Early American Colonial History Timeline

Settling America Infographic

Settling America: Explore Your Ancestry in Colonial America

Does your family history in America begin before the United States became a country?

After Christopher Columbus’ voyages, many European countries came to the New World—but eventually Great Britain became the dominant power in North America.

This timeline shows some of the key events in the settling of America, as settlements and colonies became the 13 British colonies—leading to the original 13 United States.

Colonial America Timeline

1492: Christopher Columbus first arrives in the New World
1534: France’s New France Colony (Canada, Louisiana Territory)
1565: Spain’s St. Augustine—the oldest continuously-occupied city in the U.S. (Florida)
1585: England’s Roanoke Colony, the “Lost Colony” (North Carolina)
1607: England’s Jamestown Settlement (Virginia)
1614: Holland’s New Netherland Colony (Mid-Atlantic States)
1620: England’s Plymouth Colony founded by the Pilgrims (Massachusetts)
1625: Holland’s New Amsterdam settlement established on the southern tip of Manhattan Island
1630: Puritans from the Massachusetts Bay Colony establish Boston and 10 other settlements
1636: England’s Connecticut Colony, Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations
1638: Sweden’s New Sweden Colony (Mid-Atlantic States)
1656: First Quakers arrive in New England
1664: England captures the New Amsterdam settlement on Manhattan Island
1665: England renames New Amsterdam “New York City”
1667: England takes over Holland’s New Netherland Colony and renames it “New York”
1681: England’s Pennsylvania Colony
1687: Protest by New England settlers and merchants against “arbitrary” taxes
1690: Spain colonizes Texas
1690: Publick Occurrences, the first newspaper in America, is published in Boston
1754: Beginning of the French and Indian War, France and its Indian allies versus Great Britain, its Colonial militia, and Indian allies
1763: Treaty of Paris ends the French and Indian War—France loses most of its North American territory to Great Britain, with its Louisiana Territory going to Spain

Colonial Newspapers Online

Long-established American families have family trees that stretch back to the Colonial Era in the 17th and 18th centuries. Finding vital statistics and other genealogical information about these early Colonial ancestors from that time period can be difficult, as some vital records simply were not officially kept before and during the 1700s, or have been destroyed through war, accident or the passage of time.

Fortunately, GenealogyBank offers a rich genealogy resource for family historians tracing their family trees back to Early American times: an online collection of 27 Colonial newspapers, providing obituaries, birth notices, marriage announcements, and personal stories to get to know your pioneering ancestors and the times they lived in better.

Download our printable PDF list of Colonial newspapers for easy access to our historical archives right from your local desktop to begin researching your genealogy back to the Colonial period. The list shows the individual Colonial newspaper titles we house in our historical archives, ranging from the first newspaper ever published in America up to publications from the late 1800s. After you’ve downloaded the PDF, click the newspaper titles to be taken directly to the search landing page for that publication. Just click on the graphic below to start your download.

list of Colonial-era newspapers available from GenealogyBank

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Tracing Your Colonial & Revolutionary Ancestry in Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog post, Gena shows how old newspapers provide a great opportunity to learn more about your Revolutionary War-era ancestors, especially considering that primary sources are hard to find for this time period.

Are you researching your family history all the way back to your Revolutionary War-era ancestors? Old newspapers are a great way to learn about your ancestry during America’s Colonial and Revolutionary periods.

painting: Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze

Painting: Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze (1851). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

For example, GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives date from 1690 to today. What does this mean for you? It means a great opportunity to learn more about your Revolutionary War-era ancestors even when primary sources are few and far between. Remember that newspapers can hold rich family history information that details a person’s life story from cradle to grave.

Limit Your Ancestry Search—but Not Too Much

It’s natural to want to go straight to the advanced genealogy search engine on GenealogyBank to start your newspaper research. The advanced search engine is where we can limit or narrow our search, broadening it beyond just names by adding dates, and by including or excluding keywords. The advanced search box is a vital tool for researching a common surname. When researching a Revolutionary War-era ancestor, limiting the search to those years the ancestor was alive can help you filter out search results that aren’t about your specific ancestor.

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However, there is a caution: remember that the more information you add to a search engine the fewer results you will receive. Keep a log of your ancestor searches and results. Try a combination of keyword searches and note your results. One important aspect in researching Colonial newspapers is that language is much different now than in those early American newspapers. Don’t add too many “modern” words to your keyword search, as these may result in poor search results. Words associated with the cost of goods are just one example of a difference that could mean finding what you are looking for or not. It can be beneficial to take some time to read the newspaper from your ancestor’s area and time to get a sense of the layout, articles, and language.

Not sure which Colonial and Revolutionary newspapers are available on GenealogyBank? Find a list in this blog article: 27 Colonial Newspapers to Trace Your Early American Ancestry.

list of Colonial and Revolutionary newspapers available in GenealogyBank

Consider the possible articles that could exist about your 18th century ancestor in these early American Colonial newspapers!

While you won’t know what specific articles your ancestor may have been mentioned in until you do an actual search, simply reading through some of these early American newspapers can help to get a sense of what news was reported during their lifetime. When researching a Revolutionary War soldier for example, look for anything that might provide some historical context (think pension laws and battle descriptions), but would not necessarily mention him by name. Of course, with a specific search you are looking for articles like a pension list or an obituary that would mention him by name.

Revolutionary War Desertions

War is hell, and in every conflict some soldiers desert for a whole host of reasons. It makes sense that during the Revolutionary War desertions would be reported in the newspapers, so that the community could read the description and help find the missing soldier.

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In this 1777 desertion ad from a Pennsylvania newspaper, two soldiers are described. These descriptions are not limited to their physical attributes. One of the soldiers is listed as “Thomas Robinson…a stout well-made Irishman, about 35 years of age, fair complexion, and short dark hair, a little bald; he is a very great drunkard, and when sober his hands tremble as if afflicted with the palsy; he is very talkative, and speaks with his native brogue; his occupation is ditching and threshing.”

article about deserters in the American Revolutionary War, Pennsylvania Packet newspaper article 25 February 1777

Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 25 February 1777, page 1

War Pensions

Did your ancestor receive a pension? Newspapers may include lists of those receiving pensions, such as this one from a 1796 Massachusetts newspaper. Notice it includes the name and rank of the soldiers as well as the amount of each pension.

Pension Law, Western Star newspaper article 19 September 1796

Western Star (Stockbridge, Massachusetts), 19 September 1796, page 3

Stories of Your Ancestors’ Personal Lives

The newspaper isn’t just a place to find your ancestors’ names; it’s also a great place to learn more about their personal lives and the times they lived in. In this example the invalid pension law is explained, as well as when the pension is paid and the application process.

Invalid Pensioners, Salem Gazette newspaper article 16 February 1790

Salem Gazette (Salem, Massachusetts), 16 February 1790, page 3

Don’t forget that you can narrow your newspaper search by type of article. This is a great time-saving research tool in cases when you receive numerous “hits” or are looking for something specific. To narrow your search by type of article from the results list, click on the links to the left of the list, under the heading “Newspaper Archives.”

screenshot showing the newspaper article types on GenealogyBank's search results page

Combine Original Document Finds with Newspapers

Found your ancestor’s military file or pension record? Great! Follow that up by looking for information in the newspaper.

In the case of a common name, such as my ancestor Revolutionary War soldier Benjamin Jones, a search in the newspaper may bring up numerous hits but they may not be my Benjamin Jones. For that reason, consider using what you find in original documents in conjunction with the newspaper to help you narrow your search and analyze the evidence.

What can you find in the newspaper about your Colonial and Revolutionary War ancestry? Plenty! Those genealogy records can be an important and colorful addition to your family history.

Related Colonial & Revolutionary War Ancestry Articles:

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27 Colonial Newspapers to Trace Your Early American Ancestry

Long-established American families have family trees that stretch back to the Colonial Era in the 17th and 18th centuries, before the United States became an independent country. Finding vital statistics and other genealogical information about these early Colonial ancestors from that time period can be difficult, as some vital records simply were not officially kept before and during the 1700s, or have been destroyed through war, accident or the passage of time.

1754 political cartoon by Benjamin Franklin about the French and Indian War

Illustration: 1754 political cartoon by Benjamin Franklin urging the British Colonies in North America to join together to help the British win the French and Indian War (the segment labeled “N.E.” stands for the four New England colonies). Credit: U.S. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Fortunately, GenealogyBank offers a rich genealogy resource for family historians tracing their family trees back to American Colonial times: an online collection of 27 Colonial newspapers, providing obituaries, birth notices, marriage announcements, and personal stories to get to know your pioneering ancestors and the times they lived in better.

Discover a variety of historical genealogy records and news stories in these 27 Colonial newspapers, listed alphabetically by state and then city. Each historical newspaper title in this list is an active link that will take you directly to that paper’s search page, where you can begin researching for your Colonial ancestry by ancestors’ surnames, dates, keywords and more.

State    City                 Title

CT       New London   Connecticut Gazette (11/18/1763 to 5/29/1844)

CT       New London   New-London Summary (9/29/1758 to 9/23/1763)

GA      Savannah         Georgia Gazette (4/7/1763 to 11/25/1802)

MD      Annapolis        Maryland Gazette (12/3/1728 to 2/16/1832)

MA      Boston             Boston Evening-Post (8/18/1735 to 4/24/1775)

MA      Boston             Boston News-Letter (4/24/1704 to 2/29/1776)

MA      Boston             Boston Post-Boy (4/21/1735 to 4/10/1775)

MA      Boston             New-England Courant (8/7/1721 to 6/25/1726)

MA      Boston             New-England Weekly Journal (3/20/1727 to 10/13/1741)

MA      Boston             Publick Occurrences (9/25/1690)

MA      Boston             Weekly Rehearsal (9/27/1731 to 8/11/1735)

NH      Portsmouth      New-Hampshire Gazette (10/7/1756 to 12/30/1851)

NY      New York       Independent Reflector (11/30/1752 to 11/22/1753)

NY      New York       New-York Evening Post (12/17/1744 to 12/18/1752)

NY      New York       New-York Gazette (2/16/1759 to 10/31/1821)

NY      New York       New-York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy (1/19/1747 to 12/31/1770)

NY      New York       New-York Weekly Journal (1/7/1733 to 12/3/1750)

PA       Germantown   Germantowner Zeitung (12/15/1763 to 3/19/1777)

PA       Philadelphia    American Weekly Mercury (12/22/1719 to 5/22/1746)

PA       Philadelphia    Pennsylvania Gazette (12/16/1736 to 12/27/1775)

PA       Philadelphia    Pennsylvania Journal (12/9/1742 to 9/18/1793)

PA       Philadelphia    Pennsylvanische Fama (3/10/1750 to 3/17/1750)

PA       Philadelphia    Wochentliche Philadelphische Staatsbote (1/18/1762 to 5/26/1779)

RI        Newport          Newport Mercury (6/19/1758 to 12/30/1876)

RI        Newport          Rhode-Island Gazette (10/4/1732 to 3/1/1733)

RI        Providence      Providence Gazette (10/20/1762 to 10/8/1825)

VA      Williamsburg   Virginia Gazette (3/18/1736 to 12/30/1780)

Download our printable PDF list of Colonial newspapers for easy access to our historical archives right from your local desktop. Click the newspaper titles to be taken directly to the search landing page for that publication. Just click on the list below to start your download.

Feel free to embed our list of 1700s newspapers on your website or blog using the code below. Simply cut, paste and presto! You can easily share this fantastic collection for early American ancestry research with your visitors.

Got Pilgrim ancestry? Make sure to follow our Pinterest board about Mayflower Genealogy for tips on tracing your Pilgrim ancestry.

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Funeral Sermons – a core genealogical resource

GenealogyBank.com has over 7,000 funeral sermons – full text digital copies and excerpts.

These are a core source for genealogists searching for the details of their ancestor’s lives in Colonial America and the early Federalist period. (Photo, Ian Britton. FreeFoto.com).
It was common in Colonial America to have a funeral sermon printed and distributed “at the request of the family” to the mourners.
These slim pamphlets can range from six to thirty pages. While it was common for these to be printed – they were printed in small press runs, so it can be difficult for genealogists to locate copies. In many cases only one copy of the sermon – with its critical biographical information survives.

In my experience the earliest published funeral sermons that survive were for ministers and their wives. This practice expanded to include older members of the community and by the late 1700s to early 1800s it was common to see printed funeral sermons for children, men, women of all backgrounds and occupations.

Clergy routinely printed and circulated their sermons on all topics as a way to encourage the faithful to live better lives. I always assumed that the reason their funeral sermons survived while the others that may have been printed didn’t is that ministers/their wives were more widely known then regular townspeople.
Their funeral and other sermons were likely circulated to clergy in other cities; seminaries; townspeople in prior towns where they had been stationed etc. The wider the circulation – the more likely a copy would be preserved.
These sermons would not just be homilies to promote religious values but “news” – that people would want to read to be informed and reminded of the lives well lived by the ministers that had served them over the years. This would give more opportunities for people to have kept them – making it more likely for these fragile pamphlets to have survived.
Newspaper accounts of funerals vary – some give the complete sermon and some stories give brief details of the service – like this account of Mark Twain and his wife “listening” to the funeral service of her mother – Olivia (Lewis) Langdon, by telephone. (Inter-Ocean, 12 Jan 1891).
Another newspaper account gave the details of the “Most Impressive Funeral Service Ever Held” – the funeral of the Rev. Thomas Allen Horne. It was also the most unusual since he realized that he would soon pass away and had recorded his sermon to be played at the funeral.

His powerful remarks, in his own voice, made “grown men weep” and “women faint”. The family had a recording of the Rev. Horne and his late wife singing the old hymn “There is a Better Land“.

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Imagine the impact in 1890 of listening to the funeral sermon of the deceased – recorded in his own voice; the shock in 1890 of hearing the recorded voices of he & his wife singing their funeral hymn – the poignant, personal remarks in his sermon – again recorded in his own voice. No doubt, that would have been the “Most Impressive Funeral Service Ever Held”.

Click Here to read the entire story: Charlotte (NC) News 15 March 1890.

GenealogyBank has thousands of funeral sermons – elegies, memorials etc. Many of these are full digital copies and others are the full sermon or excerpts that appeared in the newspapers.
Here are some typical examples of what you will find in GenealogyBank.
Harris, Thaddeus Mason, (1768-1842). A tribute of filial respect, to the memory of his mother, in a discourse, delivered at Dorchester, Feb. 8, 1801, the Lord’s day after her decease. Charlestown, MA: Printed by Samuel Etheridge, 1801. 20p.
The biographical and genealogical details of the late Rebekah (Mason) Wait (1738-1801) begin on page 16. We learn that she was born on 28 Dec 1738 – the daughter of Thaddeus Mason “of Cambridge, who survives her, in his 95th year.”

On page 17 we learn that she was married twice. She married her first husband, William Harris of Cambridge, MA on 20 Aug 1767. He died 30 Oct 1778. She married her second husband, Samuel Wait of Malden, MA on 2 Mar 1780. She died on 2 Feb 1801 “leaving behind her a widowed husband and five children (four by her first marriage and one by the second) to mourn their loss.”

Maxcy, Jonathan, (1768-1820). A funeral sermon, occasioned by the death of Mr. John Sampson Bobo a member of the Junior Class in the South-Carolina College, who was unfortunately drowned in the Congress River, near Columbia. Columbia, SC: Faust, 1819. 16p.

Moore, Martin, (1790-1866). Death of the saints precious in God’s sight a sermon delivered in Natick, June 13, 1819, occasioned by the death of Mrs. Hannah Coolidge, wife of Mr. William Coolidge, aetatis 40. Dedham, MA: Mann, 1819. 15p.

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