A Fascinating Genealogy Success Story: Mystery of Missing Ancestors Solved

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott tells the story of how a fellow genealogists used old newspapers to finally break through her family history brick wall.

Here on the GenealogyBank blog, I recently wrote an article titled Ah-Ha! Moment: GenealogyBank Member’s Favorite Family Find. At the end of my article I asked readers to please share their own “Ah-Ha!” moments from their genealogy and family history work. I then learned about “Cowfordlady’s” genealogy “Ah-Ha!” moment, which had occurred earlier that same day.

GenealogyBank member Cowfordlady kindly shared her genealogy success story with us so that we could share it with all of you. It is a story about breaking through a genealogy brick wall similar to those we each encounter in our own family history work.

It is a great story and if I may use a quote from Paul Harvey, there is a lot to “the rest of the story.”

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Cowfordlady had been searching for some clues to two of her ancestors who were missing from the 1940 U.S. Census, so she turned to GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives in the hope of perhaps finding an obituary. What she found was indeed an “Ah-Ha!” moment of epic proportions. She overcame the challenges of assumed names, misspellings, cross-country movements, 15 missing years, murder, and more!

She had been unable to find information about her ancestors Flossie Sula (mother) and Louise (daughter) Cothern. Cowfordlady knew that Flossie Sula had married David William Cothern, and Louise was their only child. He died in 1930.

Cowfordlady knew only a few details about her ancestors’ lives after David died. As she tells it:

Flossie was a widow and about age 33 when she and Louise left West Green (Coffee County), Georgia, in/about 1931; Louise was about age 9 then.

After that, her ancestors’ trail turned cold, and they were not listed in the 1940 Census.

Not able to find any information about her ancestors in government records, Cowfordlady turned to GenealogyBank’s newspapers. She tried several searches using variations of her ancestors’ surname—and one such variation (“Cothren”) turned up an article that was the key to unlocking this genealogy puzzle.

It was a front-page story from a 1946 Louisiana newspaper that began to unravel the mystery. The discovery was a chilling one.

Father, Son (Emmett and Leroy Bennett) Face Murder Charges in Razor Slaying, Times-Picayune newspaper article 19 November 1946

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 19 November 1946, page 1

The key was this paragraph, revealing that the unfortunate “Mrs. Henderson” involved in this tragic murder story was in reality Cowfordlady’s missing ancestor, Flossie Sula Cothern (spelled “Cothren” in the article).

article about Flossie Sula Cothern, Times-Picayune newspaper article 19 November 1946

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 19 November 1946, page 9

Along with finally solving the mystery of her missing ancestors, this newspaper article had the added bonus of providing a photograph of Flossie Sula Cothern.

photo of Flossie Sula Cothern, Times-Picayune newspaper article 19 November 1946

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 19 November 1946, page 9

Flossie Sula and Louise Cothern had left Georgia with a father and son who lived near them: Emmett Bennett and his son Leroy. The four of them lived as a family for 15 years under the assumed name of Henderson until Emmett (in the company of Leroy) murdered Louise in 1946 in New Orleans while Flossie was at work.

Cowfordlady’s discoveries continued when she found another 1946 Louisiana newspaper article. It seems that while on the lam from the law, the apparent murderer of Louise possibly committed suicide by allowing himself to be hit by an express train.

Find Body of Man (Emmett Bennett) Wanted in Slaying of Orleans Girl, Advocate newspaper article 22 November 1946

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 22 November 1946, page 1

But that was not the end of this story!

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There is a follow-up in this 1946 Georgia newspaper article. It seems that the second suspect in this murder case, Leroy Bennett ( “Henderson”) had changed his mind about accepting extradition to Louisiana from Georgia—and his family then swore out a warrant against the detectives for kidnapping!

Kidnap Warrant Is Served on New Orleans Detectives Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 23 November 1946

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 23 November 1946, page 1

While the kidnapping charge was dismissed, the case carried on—as reported in this 1946 Louisiana newspaper article. While much of this article details the legal haggling over extradition and habeas corpus, there was this interesting sentence that reads:

Coffee County Sheriff R. C. Relihan said today that a mental health hearing for the young Bennett this week disclosed him to be mentally incompetent. He was placed in the custody of an uncle and attorneys.

N. O. Extradition Case Pondered, State Times Advocate newspaper article 27 November 1946

State Times Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 27 November 1946, page 6

As you can see, Cowfordlady went from near-zero information to uncovering an amazing story about her missing ancestors. Her experience shows the value of newspapers for family history research; they provide the stories that vital statistics, with all their names and dates, don’t tell.

And her technique of searching on variations of her ancestors’ name—and her dogged persistence—provide good lessons for us all!

There may be nothing finer in genealogy than when we see success such as Cowfordlady’s. What has your best genealogy success story been?

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Did You Miss These Helpful Irish American Genealogy Articles?

The GenealogyBank Blog has posted several articles on Irish American genealogy. Since March is Irish American Heritage Month and we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day last Monday, we thought you’d enjoy these links to the following articles. They should help you with your family history research into your Irish ancestry.

photo of the South Kildare plains, looking east at the Wicklow Hills, Ireland

Photo: South Kildare plains, looking east at the Wicklow Hills, Ireland. Credit: Wikipedia.

Links to Irish American Genealogy Blog Articles:

Online Irish American Newspapers

After reading the Blog articles listed above, try a search for your Irish American ancestors in GenealogyBank’s online Irish American Newspaper Archives. This collection features newspapers published in New York that documented Irish American lives, featuring birth, marriage and death information from Ireland years before civil registration began there in 1864.

search page for GenealogyBank's Irish American newspapers

47 Maine Newspapers Now Online for Your Genealogy Research

Tomorrow Maine celebrates the 194th anniversary of its statehood—it was admitted into the Union on 15 March 1820 as the 23rd state.

photo of the official state seal of Maine

Illustration: official state seal of Maine. Credit: Wikipedia.

If you are researching your ancestry from Maine, you will want to use GenealogyBank’s online Maine newspaper archives: 47 titles to help you search your family history in “The Pine Tree State,” providing coverage from 1785 to Today. There are more than 2 million articles and records in this online collection.

Dig into the archives and search for obituaries and other news articles about your ancestors in these recent and historical ME newspapers online. Our Maine newspapers are divided into two collections: Historical Newspapers (complete paper) and Recent Obituaries.

Search Maine Newspaper Archives (1785 – 1950)

Search Maine Recent Obituaries (1992 – Today)

Here is our complete list of online Maine newspapers. Each newspaper title in this list is an active link that will take you directly to that paper’s search page, where you can begin searching for your ancestors by surnames, dates, keywords and more. The titles are listed alphabetically by city.

City                        Title                                       Date Range

Augusta                 Age                                      1/6/1832 – 8/29/1861

Augusta                 Herald of Liberty                  2/13/1810 – 9/2/1815

Augusta                 Kennebec Gazette               11/14/1800 – 7/31/1805

Augusta                 Kennebec Journal/Sunday    11/14/2003 – Current

Bangor                   Bangor Daily News             12/14/1992 – Current

Bangor                   Bangor Weekly Register     11/25/1815 – 6/21/1831

Bath                       Maine Gazette                     12/8/1820 – 12/29/1820

Belfast                   Hancock Gazette                  7/6/1820 – 12/28/1820

Belfast                   Waldo Patriot                       12/30/1837 – 12/21/1838

Biddeford              Justice de Biddeford             5/14/1896 – 3/2/1950

Brunswick             Maine Intelligencer                9/23/1820 – 12/29/1820

Buckstown            Gaz/ME Hancock Advert.     7/25/1805 – 4/10/1812

Castine                  Eagle                                    11/14/1809 – 3/19/1812

Eastport                 Eastport Sentinel                 8/31/1818 – 8/15/1832

Falmouth              Falmouth Gazette                  1/1/1785 – 3/30/1786

Hallowell               American Advocate               8/23/1809 – 1/28/1835

Hallowell               Hallowell Gazette                  2/23/1814 – 12/26/1827

Hallowell               ME Cult.&Hallowell Gaz.     10/4/1839 – 3/10/1870

Kennebunk           Annals of the Times            1/13/1803 – 1/3/1805

Kennebunk           Eagle of Maine                    7/1/1802 – 9/30/1802

Kennebunk           Weekly Visiter                      6/24/1809 – 6/30/1821

Lewiston               Sun-Journal                         1/29/2010 – Current

Madawaska         St. John Valley Times           8/6/2008 – Current

Paris                    Jeffersonian                         7/11/1827 – 6/14/1831

Portland                 Cumberland Gazette          7/20/1786 – 12/26/1791

Portland                 Daily Eastern Argus            1/1/1863 – 3/17/1888

Portland                 Eastern Argus                      9/8/1803 – 12/30/1880

Portland                 Eastern Herald                     1/2/1792 – 12/27/1802

Portland                 Freeman’s Friend                 9/19/1807 – 6/9/1810

Portland                 Gazette                                 4/16/1798 – 12/30/1828

Portland                 Herald of Gospel Liberty       4/27/1810 – 6/21/1811

Portland                 Independent Statesman        7/14/1821 – 5/6/1825

Portland                 Jeffersonian                           2/24/1834 – 7/25/1836

Portland                 Maine Sunday Telegram        3/6/1994 – Current

Portland                 Oriental Trumpet                  12/15/1796 – 11/5/1800

Portland                 Portland Advertiser               1/3/1824 – 1/30/1864

Portland                 Portland Daily Advertiser      8/13/1840 – 8/23/1898

Portland                 Portland Daily Press            9/3/1870 – 3/9/1882

Portland                 Portland Press Herald          3/1/1994 – Current

Saco                       Freeman’s Friend                 8/21/1805 – 8/15/1807

Sanford                 Justice de Sanford                 2/26/1925 – 12/27/1928

Sanford                 Sanford News                        1/21/2010 – Current

Waterville              Morning /Sunday Sentinel     11/14/2003 – Current

Wiscasset              Lincoln Intelligencer             11/1/1821 – 10/24/1822

Wiscasset              Lincoln Telegraph                  2/15/1821 – 10/18/1821

Wiscasset              Wiscasset Argus                 12/30/1797 – 1/13/1798

Wiscasset              Wiscasset Telegraph          12/10/1796 – 3/9/1799

Feel free to share the image below on your website or blog using the embed code at the bottom of this post. Click on the image to download a PDF version of the list with live title links to easily navigate to your newspaper of interest directly from your desktop.

Maine Newspapers for Genealogy Online

Outlaws in the News: Bonnie & Clyde, Al Capone & My Ancestor

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott shows how criminal records and old newspaper articles about your outlaw ancestors can help fill in important details on your family tree.

Everyone’s family tree has at least one or two “bad seeds”: outlaw ancestors, who ran on the wrong side of the law. While it is unfortunate that they chose the “dark side of the force,” it is lucky for us genealogists that newspapers love to report on these black sheep! Our outlaw ancestors might have been portrayed as “bad,” but we reap the benefits of the press coverage they generated—finding in those old newspaper articles many additional details for our genealogy, family history, and family trees.

To illustrate this point, I searched through GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives for old news articles about famous outlaws, to show how much family history information those articles contain.

Bonnie Parker & Clyde Barrow

Take a look at Bonnie and Clyde for example. While we all know the basic story, there is far more that can be found in the newspapers of the day, such as this 1934 article from an Illinois newspaper. This particular news article alone contains many juicy genealogy facts about the Clyde’s funeral, such as where Clyde was buried, that Bonnie’s sister was in jail at the time facing two counts of murder in the deaths of two policemen, and the name of Bonnie’s mother.

And what about that intriguing last paragraph? Who was the anonymous friend who flew an airplane over the gravesite as Clyde was being buried and dropped a wreath of flowers onto the grave? Now there’s a mysterious puzzle that would be fun to try and unravel!

Clyde Barrow Buried in Texas, Morning Star newspaper article 26 May 1934

Morning Star (Rockford, Illinois), 26 May 1934, page 7

Al Capone a.k.a. Scarface

While we all recognize the name “Scarface” Al Capone, this 1926 article from a Massachusetts newspaper reports that Mafia legend Al had a brother, Ralph, who had just been arrested and charged with the slaying of Illinois Assistant State’s Attorney William McSwiggin and two “beer gangsters”: “Red” Duffy and James Doherty.

article about Ralph Capone, Springfield Republican newspaper article 30 April 1926

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 30 April 1926, page 11

And of course it is almost impossible to say “Al Capone” without thinking of, or saying, Eliot Ness! I enjoyed this 1931 article from a California newspaper not only because it talks about Eliot Ness and his crew of agents—it also gives us the name of Steve Svoboda, who was among those arrested. Since Svoboda had been arrested in another Capone-owned brewery just two weeks earlier, he may well have been a member of Scarface’s gang!

Stage Raid on (Al) Capone Brewery, Evening Tribune newspaper article 11 April 1931

Evening Tribune (San Diego, California), 11 April 1931, page 19

My Outlaw Ancestor: Herman Vicha

But it is not only the infamous that we can read about and learn from for our family trees.

In my own family tree is information from a small newspaper clipping that a cousin once gave me. Yellowed with age, brittle, and tattered about its edges, this small article was dated in its margin simply “1916” and consisted of a single sentence. That sentence was: “Herman Vicha was convicted in common pleas court of stealing brass from the Lorain Sand and Gravel Company.” That one sentence led me to some amazing discoveries about this ancestor.

First I contacted the Lorain County, Ohio, courts and—thanks to a wonderfully helpful staff member—I soon received five pages of court documents from the 1916 case of “State of Ohio vs. Herman Vicha.” The case was for grand larceny because my ancestor was accused of stealing $37.25 worth of brass from the Lorain Sand and Gravel Company. He was convicted and sentenced to 1 to 7 years!

Following up on this case, I contacted the Ohio State Historical Society and, after filing the appropriate paperwork, received over a dozen pages of the prison files for this ancestor. This paperwork path initially took me to the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio. If the name of this prison isn’t familiar, perhaps you have seen the movies Shawshank Redemption and Air Force One? If so, this was the prison used in those movies.

photto of the Ohio State Reformatory

Photo: Ohio State Reformatory. Credit: from the author’s collection.

One of the more amazing historical documents I received was the “Bertillon Card” for my ancestor. This was a great genealogical find since it has our only photograph of Herman Vicha, plus gives a wealth of physical description about him as well as the year and location of his birth.

photo of the Bertillon card for Herman Vicha, 1916

Photo: Bertillon card for Herman Vicha, 1916. Credit: from the author’s collection.

I admit that I had to take a moment and learn exactly what a Bertillon Card was. The full-page obituary for Alphonse Bertillon that I found in a 1914 Colorado newspaper gave me all the information I needed to understand the details listed on my ancestor’s card.

obituary for Alphonse Bertillon, Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper article 15 March 1914

Colorado Springs Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colorado), 15 March 1914, page 31

My ancestry research path moved from this prison, across the state of Ohio, to the Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane where Herman was kept. My concern for what my ancestor went through increased when I read this 1971 article from a Virginia newspaper with this opening sentence:

“The fortress-like state hospital for the criminal insane here has been described by inmates, staff members, state officials and Ohio’s governors as a chamber of horrors.”

Ohio Hospital Has Sordid Image, Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper article 28 November 1971

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 28 November 1971, page 34

Herman Vicha’s sentence actually lasted for 7 years, 3 months, and 8 days plus an additional 1 year, 3 months, and 12 days in the Cleveland State Hospital after being released from Lima.

Note that all of this detective work to track down my outlaw ancestor began with one small old newspaper clipping!

Herman died in a boarding house in Danville, Kentucky, while working as a trucker and having assumed the new name of “Henry Miller”—but how I found him under his new name is a whole different genealogy detective story that will have to wait for another day!

What information have you found for your family tree from the criminal records and newspaper clippings about your outlaw ancestors? Share your family stories with us in the comments.

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8 Genealogy Tips for Tracing Female Ancestry

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, to celebrate March being National Women’s History Month, Mary provides practical tips to help you search for your female ancestors.

You know that age-old expression, What’s in a name? Well, it means absolutely nothing if you can’t find your female ancestor in any of the records—much less her maiden name.

Since the majority of “dead end” ancestor quests are for women, I’d like to share some overlooked avenues for breaking through those genealogy research brick walls, in honor of Women’s History Month.

photo of the B. F. Clark family

Library of Congress Photo: “Family of B. F. Clark, 219 N. 4th Street” www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ncl2004002862/PP/resource/

(Note: all of the newspaper articles used to illustrate this Blog post come from GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives.)

Tip #1: Know All of Your Ancestor’s Identities

This tip suggests that when searching the women in your family tree, you need to search for every name she ever went by, whether it be a formal first name (given name) or an informal nickname.

Most women, including myself, have multiple identities, depending upon the context.

Someone might have a pet name within the family, a formal name on a birth record, and might also gain a new name in a religious setting. And a woman might also go by one spelling as a child, and then choose to spell her name differently as an adult.

Nickname References and Examples

  • Abigail: Abbie, Abby, Gail, Nabby
  • Adeline: Addie, Aline, Dell, Della
  • Clementine: Clem, Tina
  • Henrietta: Etta, Henry, Etty
  • Margaret: Daisy, Greta, Madge, Maggie, Mamie, Marge, Margery, Peggy
  • Roberta: Berta, Bertie, Bobbie, Bobby, Robbie, Robby
article about Daisy Walker, Freeman newspaper article 20 March 1909

Freeman (Indianapolis, Indiana), 20 March 1909, page 4

Tip #2: Search All of Your Ancestor’s Titles

Titles aren’t always formal. They can be applied according to the role one takes in the community, and vary from situation to situation. Take, for example, Mary Jane Smith, a popular neighborhood mom in Atlanta. It’s possible some genealogical records only call her Mama Smith, whereas others might name her as Mary Jane Smith.

article about Mary Jane Smith, Marietta Journal newspaper article 4 June 1985

Marietta Journal (Marietta, Georgia), 4 June 1985, page 6

Ancestor Title examples:

  • Aunt, Aunty, Sis, Mama, Mother, Grandma, Grannie, Nana
  • Goodwife or Goody Jones (a Puritan title)
  • Miss America
  • Mrs. Peabody, Mrs. Juan Moreno
  • Nurse Miller
  • Widow Channing
article about the Puritans' use of the terms "goodman" and "goodwife," Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper article 4 July 1937

Heraldo de Brownsville (Brownsville, Texas), 4 July 1937, page 5

Tip #3: Search for Pseudonyms

If a woman wished to compete in a man’s world, she typically used a pseudonym.

Many people have heard of Louisa May Alcott, who wrote the beloved novel Little Women. However, few know that Louisa used the pseudonym A. M. Barnard to publish a series of “potboilers” that were thrilling Gothic stories.

book review of Louisa May Alcott's book "Plots and Counter-Plots," Dallas Morning News newspaper article 26 September 1976

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 26 September 1976, page 5aaa

Tip #4: Search by Her Initials

Many assume that men are more prone to be recorded by their initials, but it is common for women also, depending upon the circumstance.

Competing in a Man’s World

Female authors and artists very often use initials to compete in a man’s world.

Mary Jane (Olmstead) Stanton was a suffragette and author who appears in records under the name M. O. Stanton. In this 1890 newspaper article, written when Stanton was involved as a founding member of the Woman’s Press Association of the Pacific Coast, some women were referred to by their initials (Mrs. E. T. Y. Parkhurst), others by their own names (Mrs. Sarah B. Cooper), and one by her husband’s name (Mrs. Sam Davis).

Woman's Press Association, San Diego Union newspaper article 9 October 1890

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 9 October 1890, page 2

Official Government Records

Official government records, such as patents, are sometimes recorded by the inventor’s initials—so if you search only by the obvious names, you’ll miss them.

  • The invention of the modern form of the rolling pin was patented by C. Deiner (Catherine Deiner) 17 March 1891 under U.S. Patent 448,476.

Tip #5: Incorporate Cultural Considerations in Searches

As a country of immigrants, we shouldn’t be surprised that name spellings vary from country to country, or that a bilingual family might interchange names according to the cultural setting. A woman might be called by her Old World name in the family setting, and recorded in other ancestry records by the more common American spelling.

For example, an ancestor named Mary might also be known as: Maria if your family came from Spain; from the Netherlands, as Marja or Maaike; and if your female progenitor was Welsh, she might also be recorded in records as Mair.

article about Marja Rufa, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 11 February 1909

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 11 February 1909, page 3

Research Considerations

  • It can take several generations before Old World names are Americanized.
  • American and foreign versions were often interchanged, depending upon the cultural setting.
  • Names are typically recorded differently in English-speaking newspapers than in foreign-language editions.

Tip #7: Search Multiple Sources for Marriage Records

There are more ways to prove a marriage than almost any other event—but many sources for marriage evidence are overlooked. Some will not be found on the Web, so think creatively if you haven’t been able to locate a woman’s maiden name or marriage record.

Marriage Record Research Suggestions:

  • Bibles
  • Biographies
  • Cemetery Records
  • Church Books and Minister’s Records
  • Church Newsletters
  • Civil Registrations (courthouses)
  • Consent Affidavits
  • Courthouse Records
  • Death Certificates
  • Diaries
  • Divorce Decrees
  • Engagement Notices
  • Frakturs (form of artwork common with the Pennsylvania Dutch; see “Frakturs & Family Bibles Can Provide Proof of Marriage”)
  • Immigration Records
  • Journals
  • Land Records
  • Marriage Banns—or Publishing of the Banns (see “Understanding Terms Found in Historical Newspapers”)
  • Marriage Bonds
  • Marriage Certificates
  • Marriage Licenses
  • Marriage Permits
  • Naturalization Papers
  • Obituaries of Family Members
  • Orphan Court Records
  • Pension Files (widows)
  • Probate Records
  • Town Histories
  • Town Records (prior to civil registration)
  • Wedding Showers
  • Wills
article about marriage permits, Cincinnati Daily Gazette newspaper article 16 July 1878

Cincinnati Daily Gazette (Cincinnati, Ohio), 16 July 1878, page 3

Tip #8: Enter “Maiden Name” as a Search Engine Keyword

When I discovered this last genealogy research tip, it was a real “Aha” moment!

If you are looking for a maiden name, use “maiden name” or “maiden name was” as keywords in your search. Notice how many results were returned when I tried it in the GenealogyBank search box:

  • “maiden name”: over 125,000 results
  • “maiden name was”: almost 35,000 results

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page for keywords "maiden name was"

Now incorporate those keywords with a name search, and see what you find! When I entered “Sarah Furman” “maiden name,” this record identifying her as a Strickland appeared—a fantastic research find listing her 260 offspring!

obituary for Sarah Furman, Boston Post-Boy newspaper article 22 February 1742

Boston Post-Boy (Boston, Massachusetts), 22 February 1742, page 3

Yes, finding all the genealogy records for your female ancestors can be tough, but employing these eight research tips—plus a little patience—might turn up some solid results for you in your family history searches.

Please share with us in the comments section any successes you’ve had from using these tips, and any additional methods you’ve used to find the females in your family tree.

Genealogy Tips for Researching Letters in Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena searches old newspapers to show how much good family history information can be found in our ancestors’ letters published in newspapers.

Newspapers have a long history of publishing letters. Many of us are familiar, thanks to the movie National Treasure, with the “Mrs. Silence Dogood” letters that were actually penned by 16-year-old Benjamin Franklin. These 14 letters, published in his brother James’s newspaper New-England Courant during 1722, allowed the young Franklin to fulfill his dream of having his writing published. These letters were so convincing that several men proposed marriage to the “widow” who wrote them.

"Mrs. Silence Dogood" letter written by Benjamin Franklin, New-England Courant newspaper article 13 August 1722

New-England Courant (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 August 1722, page 1

For some people, letters published in the newspaper are the only opportunity they have to be a “published” author.

Correspondence is an important—yet often overlooked—resource for genealogy research. It’s through a letter found by a cousin that I learned more about a 4th great-grandmother’s family. Another letter published in a newspaper helped me to confirm a World War I solder’s service.

When you think of letters, think outside of the proverbial envelope. Yes, letters are often a home source or housed in archival collections. But remember that letters have long been published in the newspaper. Whether written specifically to the newspaper, or those that were never meant for public consumption, letters found in the newspaper can be an important addition to your family’s story. At the very least they provide a place and time for your ancestor. But they can also contain important details such as organizational affiliations, military service, and the names of other family members.

Did your ancestor write a letter that was published in the newspaper? There’s a good chance they did, considering the types of letters spotlighted in this article and others that we have discussed on this blog before, including letters to Santa and letters written home by soldiers.

All of the following examples are from GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives.

Letters to the Editor

While we tend to stereotype Letters to the Editor as something people write when they are passionate about an issue or angry about an article, these letters can have varied content. I love this example written by James H. Baum honoring a fellow “Forty-sixth Regiment” Civil War soldier.

letter to the editor written by James H. Baum, Patriot newspaper article 6 June 1912

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 6 June 1912, page 6

Baum wrote:

“Ned” Whitman was an universal favorite. Everybody liked him, officers and men alike. He was approachable at all times and never wore his honors on his sleeves…Among all those I saw no soldier in our army was more graceful on horseback as “Ned” Whitman. Horse and rider, when in motion seemed as one.

Imagine finding this wonderful tribute about an ancestor written by someone who served beside him during the Civil War! This letter shows that we can sometimes find information about an ancestor by searching those who were part of their community.

What about a letter that listed an organization that your ancestor belonged to? Such is the case in the following written by H. J. LaQuillon, who was the secretary to Local No. 174, Brotherhood of American Railway Express Employees. His 1918 letter to the New Orleans Times-Picayune voices his displeasure about an article that was published having to do with unions.

letter to the editor written by H. J. LaQuillon, Times-Picayune newspaper article 1 December 1918

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 1 December 1918, page 10

This letter not only provides us with his organizational affiliation—an important clue to his occupation—but also a glimpse into his life.

Letter Writing Contests

Did someone in your family (an adult or child) enter a letter writing contest? Newspapers and other groups once held letter writing contests. In these types of articles you may see the name and address of the person, whatever prize they won, and perhaps a sample from their letter.

In this example of a New Jersey letter writing contest, sponsored by the newspaper and an exposition that was being held, women discuss what they learned or give their recommendations about the local exposition. In this article, the newspaper listed letter writing winners along with their addresses and prizes.

Prize Winners Picked; Letters to Be Printed, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 2 February 1916

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 2 February 1916, page 1

Then little by little the Trenton Evening Times printed the actual letters in the newspaper.

Times Food Show (Winning) Letters, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 16 March 1916

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 16 March 1916, page 12

While one of your ancestors may have taken part in a local letter writing contest, don’t forget that national contests may have also occurred with the results listed in the newspaper. This article is about a 1938 letter writing contest sponsored by American Beauty Flour. Winners were from Texas, Missouri, and Illinois. This Texas newspaper made a point of highlighting the Texas winners.

Hillsboro Woman Wins First in Flour Letter-Writing Contest, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 14 January 1938

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 14 January 1938, section III, page 4

Post Office Letters

One of my favorite sources of names in newspapers is the list of those who hadn’t picked up their mail at the post office. While you won’t see the actual letter in this type of article, you will get your ancestor’s name. Maybe your ancestor was a procrastinator, and thanks to that trait you can place them in a specific time and place because they had letters waiting for them!

This 1840 list includes nine different post offices in Connecticut along with the names of the postmasters.

list of people who have mail waiting for them at the Post Office, Times newspaper article 1 January 1840

Times (Hartford, Connecticut), 1 January 1840, page 4

Contrast the above article with this newspaper list that is separated according to gender and then includes letters that are “unmailable.”

Genealogy Tip: Many of these lists of unclaimed letters held at the post office can be found in the Tables & Charts archive of GenealogyBank.

list of people who have mail waiting for them at the Post Office, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 20 August 1879

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 20 August 1879, page 4

Newspapers are great sources for information on the common man, woman and child. There’s a good chance that even if your ancestor wasn’t featured in an article, their name was published because of a letter they wrote or a letter they forgot to pick up.

Genealogy Tip: In order to pick up a reference to an ancestor mentioned by someone in another city or state, make sure to conduct your initial search broadly, without limiting your results by place.

Digging Up Your Ancestors: Cemetery Research with Newspapers

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott researches old newspapers to find out more about Woodland Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio where many of his relatives are buried.

Historical newspapers are incredibly helpful in our genealogy research, especially obituaries that provide information on our ancestors and, often, their extended family. But what else can we learn from other types of newspaper articles? Let me just answer that with one word: Plenty!

I happen to have over 150 family members interred at a cemetery by the name of Woodland Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio.

Tombstone of Karolina Porkony, Cleveland OH

1895 headstone (in Czech) for Karolina Porkony Vicha, one of the author’s ancestors, from Cleveland’s Woodland Cemetery. Image Credit: from the author’s collection.

I decided recently to research this cemetery in GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives—and I was not disappointed at what I learned!

The first discovery I made in my cemetery research was an article in an 1853 newspaper. It reported on the dedication of the Woodland Cemetery—and I was happy to learn when burials began in this cemetery. I also could not help but smile at these lines:

“The Ode was read by the Rev. Mr. Hawkins, and sung by the Choir. The singing was only tolerable, we thought.”

City Facts and Fancies Woodland Cemetery Dedication Article

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 15 June 1853, page 3

Shortly after this, I read an item in an 1854 newspaper. This old news article recounted a visit to Woodland Cemetery by some member of the newspaper staff. It gives us a very interesting look not only at the cemetery as a whole, but how they interred the indigent and poor citizens of the city as well as the children. My heart sank though when I read:

“Two long rows of graves stretch from one side of the enclosure to the other, containing the remains of 200 deceased persons, nearly all of whom fell before the epidemic.”

Visit to Woodland Cemetery Cleveland Article Excerpt

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 2 October 1854, page 3

I decided to take a look further and see what “epidemic” the newspaper article was referring to.

It wasn’t long before I came across an 1854 article with the headline “The Dread Epidemic,” which begins with:

“The cholera this year comes with dread punctuality.”

1854 Cholera Dread Epidemic Newspaper Article

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 19 June 1854, page 2

I picked up my Ohio history book and discovered that, beginning in the 1830s: cholera epidemics killed thousands; Cleveland was the first Ohio city to experience a cholera epidemic; and it was cholera that killed former United States President James K. Polk.

Next I found an article in a 1900 newspaper about a burial in Woodland Cemetery. It gives us a very intimate view of the celebration of a Chinese funeral at this time. Plus there was an interesting final sentence in this article, which reads:

“The body of Huie will be removed by and by and taken to China for final interment.”

Burial of Huie Gimm 1900 Newspaper Article

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 7 February 1900, page 5

While furthering my cemetery research I spoke with Michelle Day, the director of the Woodland Cemetery Foundation of Cleveland. She told me that, while there were hundreds of Chinese immigrants interred in Woodland Cemetery, nearly every single one was later disinterred and removed to China for final burial.

I then came across an interesting article from an 1892 newspaper. This somewhat humorous article gives us a nice view of just how reporters used to gather information for obituaries, and how some of the more “interesting” items get included that we often while doing genealogy research!

Facts for An Obituary Reporting Newspaper Article

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 20 May 1892, page 7

I closed out my cemetery research by finding an article from a 1984 newspaper. The columnist, Bob Greene, takes an interesting look at the fact that so many folks move, in their later years, to a Southern climate and makes note:

“…it must be strange to know one’s obituary is destined to appear in a newspaper that was never read in the house of one’s most vital years.”

A Story of Death and Life Newspaper Article

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 25 April 1984, page 17A

This made me think: I had better be sure to cast my geographical net wide when I am searching for an obituary for one of my elusive ancestors!

Good luck with your family history research, and comment here to let me know some of the intriguing facts you have discovered about your ancestral cemeteries and obituaries.

African American Slave Trade: Ships & Records for Genealogy

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena searches old newspapers and other online resources to learn more about the African slave trade in early American history.

Throughout the course of the Atlantic Slave Trade, an estimated 12 million Africans were captured in their homeland and forcibly shipped across the Atlantic, on more than 35,000 voyages, starting in the 17th century* The African Diaspora scattered Africans throughout the Caribbean and Americas. The first slave ship to land in Colonial America went to Jamestown, Virginia, in August 1619. Eighteen years later, the first American slave ship, Desire, sailed out of Massachusetts. This forced migration caused the displacement, torture, enslavement and murder of many Africans.**

African slaves brought to the Americas were part of the “Middle Passage,” a voyage that began in Europe, stopped in Africa to unload supplies and pick up enslaved human cargo, and then traveled to American ports on the eastern coast to trade that human cargo for goods that were then shipped back to Europe.

History of the African Slave Trade in Early America and the United States Infographic (Note: the article continues after this infographic.)

History of the African Slave Trade in America

This troubling part of American history—and important part of African American history—can be uncovered and explored with patient historical research, including searching in old newspapers such as GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives.

Laws Slow—but Don’t Stop—the African Slave Trade

It would seem that the African slave trade to America would have been stopped by a law passed by the U.S. Congress in March 1807 that stated:

“That from and after the first day of January, one thousand eight hundred and eight, it shall not be lawful to import or bring into the United States or the territories thereof from any foreign kingdom, place, or country, any negro, mulatto, or person of colour, with intent to hold, sell, or dispose of such negro, mulatto, or person of colour, as a slave, or to be held to service or labour.”***

Genealogy Tip:

Read more about U.S. legislation in the 1800s regarding slavery in GenealogyBank’s Historical Documents section which contains The American State Papers and more.

However, the Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves and a similar law passed in the United Kingdom didn’t end the practice of the slave trade. Slave ships illegally continued to bring their human cargo to U.S. ports, and American newspapers continued reporting on the occasional capture of a slave ship into the 1840s. (Two ships, the Wanderer and the Clotilde, are reported to have brought slaves to the United States well into the 1850s.) As with the passage of most laws, those who would break the law don’t end their criminal deeds; instead a black market thrives.

Slave Advertisements in Newspapers

Eighteenth-century newspapers found in GenealogyBank’s archives report of the comings and goings of slave ships, when the African slave trade was still legal. From advertisements to shipping news articles, researchers can find mentions of slave ships, names of their captains, and descriptions of the people on board.

In some cases advertisements for the upcoming sale of slaves included information on the ship they would be arriving on. In this example from a 1785 South Carolina newspaper, Fisher & Edwards advertise that the ship Commerce, under Captain Thomas Morton, will be arriving from Africa’s Gold Coast with “upwards of 200 prime slaves” for sale.

ad for a slave auction, South-Carolina Weekly Gazette newspaper advertisement 6 August 1785

South-Carolina Weekly Gazette (Charleston, South Carolina), 6 August 1785, page 3

An earlier South Carolina advertisement proclaims that the slaves aboard Captain Buncombe’s ship Venus are “mostly stout men.”

ad for a slave auction, South-Carolina Weekly Gazette newspaper advertisement 17 July 1784

South-Carolina Weekly Gazette (Charleston, South Carolina), 17 July 1784, page 4

Slave Ship “Shipping News” in Newspapers

Articles under “Shipping News” or “Marine List” headlines are a good place to start searching for information about slave ships, crew, and cargo.

In this example from a 1799 New York newspaper, we see updates on various ships including information about deaths on ships. We also see that the Gurbridge and Mary were bringing slaves, and to whom they were being brought.

shipping news, Commercial Advertiser newspaper article 31 July 1799

Commercial Advertiser (New York, New York), 31 July 1799, page 3

Where to Find Records on the African Slave Trade & Slave Ships

  • After exhausting your research in newspapers, learn more about a particular slave ship by consulting the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database website, which houses information about slave ships from 1514 to 1866.

The National Archives (NARA) houses resources that can assist in your research:

African American Slave Trade Infographic Research Sources:

These online websites can be helpful, but research on the name of a slave ship should begin with historical newspapers. It’s in their advertisements and news articles that you will find mentions of the slave ships’ cargo, crew, and destination.

You are free to share the History of the African Slave Trade in Early America and the United States Infographic on your blog or website using the embed code below.

__________________

* The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. http://www.slavevoyages.org/tast/index.faces. Accessed 23 February 2014.

** “March 2, 1807.” This Week in History, March. http://www.peacebuttons.info/E-News/images/peacehistorymarch.htm. Accessed 23 February 2014.

*** “An Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves into any Port or Place Within the Jurisdiction of the United States, From and After the First Day of January, in the Year of our Lord One Thousand Eight Hundred and Eight.” The Avalon Project. Yale Law School Lillian Goldman Law Library. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/sl004.asp. Accessed 23 February 2014.

6 Tips to Get Started Researching Your Family History

Introduction: Sarah Brooks, from Freepeoplesearch.org, is a Houston-based freelance writer and blogger. Questions and comments can be sent to her at: brooks.sarah23@gmail.com. In this guest blog post, Sarah provides some basic tips on doing your own genealogy.

Researching your family history can be both fun and gratifying. For some genealogists, this research is simply a way to complete an individual family tree by filling in missing names and dates. However, many family historians want to go farther than just collecting vital statistics. For them, the purpose of genealogy research is to get a better understanding of their family stories, family member personalities, and the unique cities, towns, and communities surrounding their relatives.

Whatever your reasons are for researching your family history, the effort will be challenging, time consuming—and worthwhile. Follow these tips to make your genealogy research as fun, rewarding, and easy as possible.

1) Gather Family Documents, Pictures, and Notes

To start your family history search, begin at home. Gather all of the family pictures, letters, and documents you currently have and organize them in archival, acid-free boxes and folders.

photo of archival boxes and folders

Source: Texas State Library & Archives Commission

Next, begin taking detailed notes on what you already know about your family. From where did your family emigrate? Where did they settle? What marriages and children do you know about? After collecting everything immediately available to you, it’s time to move on to the next steps in your genealogy research.

2) Interview Living Relatives

The most knowledgeable and accessible sources of information about your family are your relatives, so you should interview them as part of your family history search. In particular, the oldest surviving relatives in your family—grandparents, great grandparents, and great aunts or uncles—know a great deal about your family’s history and will probably be able to help the most in piecing together your family history.

Depending on what your relatives are comfortable with, you can bring a tape recorder, camera, video camera or just a notebook and pen to fully document the interviews and get as much input as possible from the older generation. While written content on family history is always valuable, so are images, audio, and video, which supplement your notes and capture each family member’s appearance and personality. Ultimately, this multimedia approach to interviewing can help bring your family stories to life.

3) Document Your Family Tree

Finally, as you interview your relatives, begin filling out your family tree. You can design your own family tree as the interviews unfold, or use a pre-designed family tree template to fill in the blanks. GenealogyBank offers a free digital family tree that can be edited with Microsoft PowerPoint. Just visit: “Family Tree Template—Free Download.” Once you are finished filling out the names and dates on the family tree chart in PowerPoint, you can easily print it out. That way you can create both digital and paper copies of your family tree.

photo of a family tree template

4) Back Up Your Genealogy Work!

As much as possible, preserve your genealogy material in different formats and places: store paper copies in archival boxes and folders; and digital copies on your computer’s hard drive, on various websites such as Scribd.com and Pinterest, and on “cloud” online storage sites such as Dropbox, Carbonite, Evernote and Mozy.

5) Find Good Genealogy Sources

After you interview relatives and record their family stories, you should then find additional genealogy sources to corroborate facts, fill in the blanks, and add additional stories. A great place to begin searching for secondary source information is through old newspapers. GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives, for example, offer more than 6,500 historical newspapers that date from 1690 to the present.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's newspaper search page

Historical newspapers are a great way to learn your ancestors’ stories, as they are filled with obituaries, marriage announcements, birth notices, and local news stories that are crucial to understanding and piecing together family history. Obituaries, in particular, can provide valuable information about an individual’s past.

In addition to searching online newspapers, you can also visit libraries in the towns where your ancestors lived. These visits allow you to search local publications, conduct interviews with clerks and historians, and view census information first-hand. Military records and even medical documents are sometimes available for your review. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also maintains an excellent database for genealogical records that can be a big help in your family history research.

6) Filling Gaps and Building Your Family Tree

The key to creating a full, detailed family tree is to be persistent in your search. New information about individuals and communities becomes available regularly, so it might be just a matter of time before you solve family mysteries and fill all the gaps in your family tree.

Whether your ancestral quest is a short-term project or a life-long passion, persistence and creative thinking will lead you to new and fascinating information about your family history.

Related Articles:

10 Famous African Americans in 18th & 19th Century History

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, to celebrate February being Black History Month, Mary searches old newspapers to find information about 10 African Americans who achieved notable “firsts” in American history

So rich is the history of persons of color, that when GenealogyBank asked me to research historical African American accomplishments, it was difficult to narrow the choices.

As a result, this article focuses on just a few famous African American women and men of the 18th and 19th Centuries. This list includes transformational leaders, authors, inventors and the people behind many of the “firsts” in American history. At the conclusion of this article, follow the links to further broaden your knowledge of these famous African Americans, as well as other notable people who could not be featured in this short piece.

For researchers of Black history who know these earlier achievers as household names, take this handy quiz—which you are welcome to share with others.

For everyone else, read on to learn more about these individuals, with information gleaned from GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives.

quiz about 10 famous African Americans from the 17th and 18th centuries

1) Benjamin Banneker (9 Nov. 1731 Baltimore, MD – 9 Oct. 1806 Baltimore, MD)

Early newspapers described Banneker as “a noted Negro mathematician and astronomer”—but he was also a farmer, clock-maker and self-taught scientist. In addition, he was the first African American to author an almanac.

Banneker was chosen to assist Major Andrew Ellicott with his project to survey the borders of the District of Columbia. Known to be a voluminous writer of letters, Banneker became involved in the movement to establish the colony of Liberia in Africa. He was never enslaved, as his parents, Mary and Robert, were free.

(See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Banneker.)

article about Benjamin Banneker, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 29 August 1926

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 29 August 1926, page 64

2) James Derham (1757 Philadelphia, PA – 1802)

Although he did not hold a degree, James Derham became the first African American man to formally practice medicine, a skill he learned during the Revolutionary War while serving with the British under his master, Dr. George West. Derham was fluent in French, English and Spanish. As someone taught to compound medicines, he was an early pharmacist. His medical business in New Orleans, Louisiana, reportedly earned him $3,000 per year.

This 1789 newspaper article presented a biography of James Derham.

article about James Derham, New-Hampshire Spy newspaper article 3 February 1789

New-Hampshire Spy (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), 3 February 1789, page 120

In this 1828 newspaper article, a local New Orleans doctor expressed his admiration for James Derham’s medical knowledge:

‘I conversed with him on medicine,’ says Dr. Rush, ‘and found him very learned. I thought I could give him information concerning the treatment of diseases, but I learned more from him than he could expect from me.’

article about James Derham, Freedom’s Journal newspaper article 14 November 1828

Freedom’s Journal (New York, New York), 14 November 1828, page 2

3) Jupiter Hammon (17 Oct. 1711 Lloyd Harbor, NY – before 1806)

Hammon was an abolitionist, the first published African American poet, and is largely considered to be one of the founders of African American literature. Enslaved by the John Lloyd family and never emancipated, he was allowed to write and even served in the American Revolutionary War.

One of his poems, “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries,” was published as a broadside (i.e., a paper printed on a single page).

(See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jupiter_Hammon.)

article about Jupiter Hammon, Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper article 24 April 1924

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 24 April 1924, page 6

For more information about his life, see: Authentication of Poem Written by 18th Century Slave and Author, Jupiter Hammon (Cedrick May, University of Texas at Arlington).

4) Absalom Jones (1746 Delaware – 13 Feb. 1818 Philadelphia, PA)

Born into slavery, Absalom Jones was a noted abolitionist who became the first ordained African American priest of the Episcopal Church, in 1795. Early newspapers depict him as an articulate and educated man, who worked to establish a free colony of former slaves in Africa. In the Episcopal Calendar of Saints, 13 February is celebrated as “Absalom Jones, Priest 1818.”

(See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absalom_Jones.)

article about Absalom Jones, Amherst Journal newspaper article 26 September 1795

Amherst Journal (Amherst, New Hampshire), 26 September 1795, page 3

5) Jarena Lee (c. 1783 Cape May, NJ – unknown)

A noted Evangelist, Jarena Lee was the first African American woman to publish an autobiography.

portrait of Jarena Lee

Portrait: Jarena Lee. Credit: Library of Congress.

The earliest mention of Jarena Lee in a newspaper was in 1840, when she was listed as a member of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society from Pennsylvania.

article about Jarena Lee, Emancipator newspaper article 29 May 1840

Emancipator (New York, New York), 29 May 1840, page 18

Another report from an 1853 newspaper mentions Lee involved in a discussion about the Colonization Society.

article about Jarena Lee, Liberator newspaper article 9 December 1853

Liberator (Boston, Massachusetts), 9 December 1853, page 195

6) Mary Eliza Mahoney (16 Apr. 1845 Dorchester, MA – 4 Jan. 1926 Boston MA)

After working at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, Mary Eliza Mahoney became the first African American woman to be accepted into nursing school, at the age of 33. It took 16 months, after which only 3 of the 40 applicants graduated. By 1908 she had co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) with Ada B. Thorns. She went on to be an active participant in other nursing organizations, along with holding titles as a director. When women gained their voting rights in 1920, Mahoney was the first woman in Boston to register to vote. Several prestigious nursing awards are given in her honor.

(See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Eliza_Mahoney.)

article about Mary Eliza Mahoney, Milwaukee Star newspaper article 13 July 1968

Milwaukee Star (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 13 July 1968, page 5

7) Judy W. Reed (c. 1826 – unknown)

Judy W. Reed is often hailed as the first African American woman to hold a patent, for her dough kneader.

illustration of Judy Reed's dough kneader

Illustration: Judy Reed’s dough kneader. Credit: United States Patent & Trademark Office.

Not much is known about her life, but this 1900 newspaper article reports that she and several other women received their patents in 1899.

(Note: Google patents reports that they were earlier. See: https://www.google.com/patents.)

article about Judy Reed, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 11 June 1900

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 11 June 1900, page 5

8) Alexander Lucius Twilight (26 Sep. 1795 Corinth, VT – 19 June 1857 Brownington, VT)

Twilight was a licensed Congregational minister, a teacher and politician. In 1823 he became the first African American to earn a bachelor’s degree when he graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont. He also became the first state-elected official when he joined the Vermont General Assembly in 1836.

(See: http://www.blackpast.org/aah/twilight-alexander-1795-1857.)

article about Alexander Twilight, American Repertory newspaper article 28 August 1823

American Repertory (St. Albans, Vermont), 28 August 1823, page 3

9) Phillis Wheatley or Phillis Wheatley Peters (8 May 1753 Senegambia, Africa – 5 Dec. 1784 Boston, MA)

Hailed in this 1773 newspaper as “the ingenious Negro Poet,” Phillis Wheatley was the first African American female poet to be published.

article about Phillis Wheatley, Connecticut Journal newspaper article 7 May 1773

Connecticut Journal (New Haven, Connecticut), 7 May 1773, page 3

Captured at the age of seven in the present-day regions of Gambia and Senegal, Africa, Phillis found herself enslaved by the John Wheatley family of Boston, who taught her to read and write. At the age of 20, this talented woman published Poems of Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, which was showcased in America and England. After the death of John Wheatley, she was emancipated and decided to marry John Peters. The family struggled financially, and after Peters was sent to prison for debts, Phillis became ill and died at the young age of 31.

(See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phillis_Wheatley.)

article featuring a poem by Phillis Wheatley, Boston-News Letter newspaper article 13 May 1773

Boston-News Letter (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 May 1773, page 4

10) Harriet E. “Hattie” Adams Wilson (15 Mar. 1825 New Hampshire – 28 June 1900 Quincy, MA)

Born to an African American “hooper of barrels” and a washerwoman of Irish descent, Hattie was raised by her parents until her father died. As a young girl, she found herself abandoned and bound out as an indentured servant on the farm of Nehemiah Heyward, Jr. After completing her indenture, she worked as a seamstress and servant. Some of her other occupations were: clairvoyant physician, nurse and healer. In 1851 she married Thomas Wilson, an escaped slave and lecturer. He soon abandoned her, but later returned to rescue her and her son from a poor farm.

(See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_E._Wilson.)

Harriet is credited with writing the first African American novel published in the U.S. Although copyrighted, “Our Nig: or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, was published anonymously in 1859 and rediscovered by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in 1982. Although a work of fiction, the book is thought to describe her life as an indentured servant. I couldn’t find any early newspaper articles to document her life or her novel, but I did find several recent articles discussing her work—including this one from 1982.

article about Harriet Adams Wilson, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 15 November 1982

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 15 November 1982, page 6

For more information, see: African American Registry.)

Additional African American Research Resources

For more complete biographies on these and other noteworthy African Americans, see: