Mining for Historical News & Genealogy Clues in the Archives

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 find stories about how Mother Nature affected his ancestors’ lives—and discovers some important genealogy clues.

With the strength of this current winter, I don’t have to remind you that our dear Mother Nature can have a significant impact on our families and ourselves. Just the other day I got my car stuck in the snow in my own driveway! While I was “mumbling” about it to myself, I got to thinking about how long, harsh winters would have been even more challenging for our ancestors. That evening I decided to take a look at my family tree and see how Mother Nature’s hand had impacted some of my family members. Instinctively I turned to GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives and, naturally, I wasn’t disappointed.

Ancestor Obituary Clue

While researching one branch of my Phillips family, I uncovered an obituary about my ancestor Elijah Poad in a 1910 Montana newspaper.

Elijah Poad Dead, Anaconda Standard newspaper obituary 16 September 1910

Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), 16 September 1910, page 9

Elijah had married Catherine Phillips, and shortly thereafter they emigrated from Great Britain to settle in the United States. Certainly one of my first questions was: “What would cause a Cornishman from St. Blazey, Cornwall, to go to Montana in 1885?”

Mining in Montana

I think I found my answer when I read another article from the Anaconda Standard, this one from 1899. This article begins “E. Poad, a miner at the Gagnon, was seriously injured yesterday by getting a fall in the mine.” While there wasn’t “gold in them thar hills,” there was silver and copper in the Montana hills—and the discovery of both had caused a huge rush to the Anaconda area, including my miner ancestor. Mother Nature at her finest, offering the temptation of riches!

(Elijah Poad) Seriously Injured, Anaconda Standard newspaper article 8 June 1899

Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), 8 June 1899, page 8

More Mining for Genealogy Clues

While I was still reading the Anaconda Standard, another article from 1899 caught my eye due to its headline: “The Mesabi Range. Tremendous Possibilities of the Great New Region.” This was indeed a very interesting find to me. You see, my wife’s grandfather, Pasquale D’Aquila, had emigrated from Italy to Canada and then to the United States. I have found his border crossing record from 1915 at Eastport, Idaho. As the miner he was, could Pasquale have heard talk just like the news in this article about the iron ore riches of the Mesabi Range in Minnesota? Could an article just like the one I was reading have been what drew him there? Yes, or no, it is certainly evident that once again Mother Nature was wielding her influence.

The Mesabi Range (Montana), Anaconda Standard newspaper article 26 December 1899

Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), 26 December 1899, page 12

News Flashback: the Polio Epidemic

It wasn’t long after this that I came upon a totally different and far less desirable impact of Mother Nature. I discovered two articles side-by-side in a 1952 Ohio newspaper. They had huge headlines blaring “Ohio Now Has 232 ‘Sure’ Polio Cases” and “‘Iron Lung’ Supply Runs Short Here.”

articles about the polio outbreak in Ohio and especially Cleveland, Plain Dealer newspaper articles 19 July 1952

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 19 July 1952, page 4

Now here was an impact of Mother Nature that I did not need an ancestor to illustrate for me, since I vividly recall the polio epidemics of my youth. I remember all too well that, just as the first article reported, “Swimming pools have been closed and other precautionary measures taken.” Our local swimming hole was posted with a sign in big, red letters that read: “Closed due to polio.” I also remember that the mother of one of my best friends was confined to a wheelchair due to polio, and I’ll never forget the ever-present (at least in my mind) threat of living your life in an “iron lung.”

I next found an article from a 1962 California newspaper with an even larger headline.

Dr. Sabin Hails Anti-Polio Clinics Set for Sunday, San Diego Union newspaper article 18 October 1962

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 18 October 1962, page 12

How well I remember these clinics! I recall standing in a long line in the hot sun, with my entire family, awaiting our turn to get our “sugar cube” and incessantly questioning my father as to whether or not it was true that we would not get a “shot” but rather a sugar cube as we were told! (I really hated any shots as a kid!) And to think, especially now, that Dr. Sabin forwent patenting his discovery in order to keep the cost down and make his “wonder drug” available to everyone.

Then for some reason I searched the newspaper archives on “historic blizzard,” but when I saw there were 95 results I got too depressed at the thought of reading about any more winter. That’s when I made the only rational decision any genealogy fan could make.

I went back to the 1910 obituary that I had found in the newspaper for Elijah Poad since it also included this line: “He was 78 years of age and leaves, besides his brother in Helena, a brother in Dodgeville, Wis., a brother in England, a sister in Linden, Wis., and a son in Butte.” You see, while I have Elijah’s siblings in our family tree, I had no genealogy clues—until this obituary—as to where to search for them. Thank you, Mother Nature!

Family Search Uncovers Circus Elephant Story

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott speaks of his love of genealogy, and shares some of the family history discoveries he’s made—including the tale of an ancestor, a zookeeper, who was nearly trampled to death by Minnie, the lone elephant at Cleveland’s Brookfield Zoo, in 1915!

Right off the bat I’ll admit it. I’m a genealogy nut! My wife calls my pursuit of family history “our shadow.” My favorite quote is “I used to have a life and then I started doing genealogy.” Plus, I am hoping for another grandchild, simply because I have a myriad of historic family names that I think need to be carried on. I wonder what my chances are for either Lovejoy Cinderella for a granddaughter or Sylvia Marathan for a grandson?

Well, maybe not.

Additionally, it is a matter of great personal satisfaction that I have been able to trace my family roots, with documentation, to the 1500s on my father’s side (Phillipps and Cottle) in Cornwall, United Kingdom; to the early 1600s on my mother’s side (Vicha and Knechtl) in Bohemia, now the Czech Republic; and to the 1700s with my wife’s families (D’Aquila and Casagrande) in the Molise district of Italy. My Cornish and Bohemian immigrant ancestors all happened to find their separate ways to Cleveland, Ohio, between 1852 and 1911. My wife’s ancestors made their way to the Mesabi Iron Range of northern Minnesota.

The “Chase-of-the-Trace”

While the thrill of what I have dubbed the “chase-of-the-trace” is always amazing, I have to admit that, for me, the best part is more often the “little things.” You know, those human interest stories or unexpected items that one discovers pursuing genealogy and/or family histories. Sure there is the rush of excitement when we chip a brick out of a longstanding wall by finding a birth, marriage, or death certificate we’ve long been looking for, but to see the real lives of our ancestors unfold is what gets me truly excited.

A personal goal in my family tree and website (which I keep on the genealogy/social network site MyHeritage.com) is to find, capture, and then weave the threads of the culture, times, and values of our ancestors into what I call the quilt of our family history. For instance, in my family I will be the last person who will have grown up hearing Czech spoken in our home. I don’t want that memory to be lost. Not ever!

Sister Marjorie: the Chase Begins

Recently I got a phone call from a Cleveland cousin. Since I use our genealogy website as our worldwide family social network, she wanted to inform me of the passing of another cousin, Sister Marjorie. In the family we knew Sister Marjorie, before her vows, as Florence Kotrsal, a member of our Knechtl family branch. Cousin Florence had always intrigued me, especially since she was a twin (rare in our family tree) and I had not done any significant amount of work on her. As so often happens, the loss of a family member caused me to be doing something a bit too late.

First, I began learning more about her life as a member of the Order of the Sisters of Holy Humility of Mary where she lived for 73 years in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania. Next, I began to work more on her family members. I knew Florence was the daughter of Dr. Joseph J. Kotrsal (later, as with so many Slavic names in my family, “Americanized” to Kottershall) and Florence Kapl, and that Florence was the twin sister of Josephine. I began to move back in time and soon discovered I was in my favorite element, which is the early Bohemian community of Cleveland, Ohio.

As always, one of my first stops during my family history search was at GenealogyBank.com. I love the site and the coverage in the Cuyahoga County/Cleveland/Northeast, Ohio, area through the Plain Dealer and the Leader is excellent and very deep. Plus, with bated breath, I am awaiting their forthcoming additions of some of the early Cleveland Czech-language newspapers they recently acquired from the Balch Museum in Pennsylvania.

Sister Marjorie’s Father, Dr. Joseph J. Kotrsal (Kottershall)

J.J. Kotershall, Physician, Is Dead, Plain Dealer 11 December 1945

Obituary for Dr. Joseph J. Kotrsal (Kotershall), Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 December 1945, page 6

During my family search my first exciting discovery was that Florence’s father, Dr. Joseph J. Kotrsal, was the same medical doctor whose name I had seen frequently on death certificates and other documents. As I searched farther, I found his obituary, always a terrific find. As I read, I was amazed to see that Dr. Kotrsal was instrumental in bringing the very first x-ray machine to Cleveland, Ohio. Now you might think this would have changed him as a person or his practice, but his obituary states that he continued to focus on providing medical care in the Bohemian community of Cleveland his entire life.

An additional precept in my personal family history work is that I want to be as inclusive as possible, so I study spouses and their families for equal inclusion in my family tree. In this case, I directed my searching to Florence’s maternal grandparents, Joseph F. and Louise Mary (Babicky) Kapl.

Circus Elephant Story

But Never Again! Says Keeper Kapl of Minnie, Plain Dealer newspaper article, 23 March 1915

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 23 March 1915, page 4

The next item I found brought me to a stop. The first “hit” (of 31) in Historical Newspapers on Joseph Kapl, Florence’s grandfather, was a real keeper. Zookeeper that is! Not only was there a full newspaper article on this man, but there was a story, a terrific ink drawing of Joseph (so far the only picture anyone in the family has of him), and the unique story of how he was nearly trampled to death by Minnie, the lone elephant at Cleveland’s Brookfield Zoo, where Joseph happened to be Minnie’s keeper. Very kindly, the newspaper reporter even thought to list Joseph’s home address in the article, which matches spot-on with the 1920 United States Census listing for the Kottershall family.

Between the obituary for Dr. Kottershall and the wonderful circus elephant story with Joseph Kapl these newspaper articles gave me the exact threads I was seeking—ones that allow me to weave a bit of what the real lives of my ancestors were like into the quilt of our family history that I am still laboring over.

Ah, but what a labor of love it is!