My Ancestor’s Menu: Researching Food History 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 through historical newspaper archives and finds old menus—and shows how these provide social history that helps us better understand our ancestors’ times.

When was the last time you ate out? How often did you eat out as a child? While for some of us eating in a restaurant was a rare treat growing up because of where we lived or finances, eating out in today’s world is a more common occurrence. For modern families whose time is overscheduled, sitting down to a meal that mom prepared (with love) can seem like something out of the 1950s. Increasingly we are relying on restaurants to help with our cooking chores. Although it can seem like going out to eat is more of a recent phenomenon, the truth is that our ancestors, depending on circumstance, may have enjoyed a meal out once in a while.

Probably not surprisingly, restaurants originated in France in the 18th century and catered to upper class patrons. Early Americans, typically men, had the opportunity to “eat out” as they traveled and stayed in taverns and inns. One restaurant that opened in the early 19th century and still exists today is the New York institution Delmonico’s, which originally opened in 1827 as a pastry shop. Early customers of Delmonico’s were treated to a vast selection of foods; its 1838 menu was 11 pages in length and included French dishes with their English translations.

Gossip from Gotham: Delmonico's--The Most Fashionable Restaurant of the Continent, San Francisco Bulletin newspaper article, 19 January 1884

San Francisco Bulletin (San Francisco, California), 19 January 1884, page 4

One surprising aspect of researching ancestral food history in newspapers is that your assumptions may be proved wrong. A good example of this can be found in this 1898 newspaper article. It reports on Thanksgiving being served at local Cleveland (Ohio) hotels. Today, some families would never think of going to a restaurant for Thanksgiving, labeling it “untraditional”—and you might assume our ancestors felt that way, too. However, judging from this article it seems that eating Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant was something many of our ancestors did. This article states that “Hundreds of guests were entertained by the hostelries yesterday, for many Clevelanders preferred to dine down town rather than at their own homes.” The article goes on to provide names of those who dined at those hotels. What a great genealogical find to see the name of an ancestor and where they were eating on Thanksgiving Day.

Thanksgiving at the Hotels, Plain Dealer newspaper article 25 November 1898

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 November 1898, page 10

Restaurant menus found in newspapers show the types of food available to your ancestors. In this example of a 1909 Sunday dinner menu from South Dakota, 25 cents buys quite a meal!

Sunday Dinner at the Model Restaurant, Aberdeen American newspaper article 18 April 1909

Aberdeen American (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 18 April 1909, page 5

This 1903 Sunday dinner menu from Wichita, Kansas, costs 20 cents and includes dishes such as Irish Stew and Prime Beef.

Menu at the People's Restaurant, Colored Citizen newspaper article 31 October 1903

Colored Citizen (Wichita, Kansas), 31 October 1903, page 3

One great aspect of newspaper research is the reminder that fads can and do make comebacks. Case in point: calories printed on menus. Think that the printing of calories is a new idea to get all of us to make healthier food choices? Consider this article about the appearance of calories on menus—in 1918! Makes you wonder why the reporting of calories eventually fell out of favor. My guess is people want to enjoy their meal out without guilt.

Aha! A New One--Restaurants Put Calories Count on Menu, Times-Picayune newspaper article 12 May 1918

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 12 May 1918, page 9

Although today we are familiar with calories and how much is too much, the idea of watching your calories was a new one at the beginning of the 20th century. This article concludes with suggested total amounts of calories needed for different types of people, including laundresses who needed 3000 calories versus a secretary who needed just 2000.

Newspapers provide researchers with rich social history and help us better understand our ancestors’ times. Take an afternoon and peruse the food history printed in the newspaper of your ancestors’ hometown. You just might be surprised at what you find.

Eating on the Titanic: Massive Quantities of Food on the Menu

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about a lunch menu from the Titanic on the day the ship struck the fateful iceberg—April 14, 1912—and talks about the massive quantities of food carried and served on that immense ship.

Mention to anyone that you are going on a cruise and most likely one of the first topics of discussion will be about food. Cruises are synonymous with large quantities of food. Whether it’s a buffet or a more formal meal in one of the cruise ship’s restaurants, the quantity and variety of food seems limitless.

The abundance of food on a passenger ship is not a modern phenomenon; consider the Titanic, that infamous passenger ship that sank in the early morning hours of 15 April 1912.

Carpathia Will Dock with (Titanic) Survivors Tonight; Facts of Tragedy Being Withheld from World, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 18 April 1912

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 18 April 1912, page 1

The RMS Titanic rang in a new era in ship travel because even the third class passengers had access to a variety of food—though not the same foods or amounts as the first class passengers.

It amazes me to think about how much food had to be secured, purchased, and stored before a cross-Atlantic voyage on a ship as large as the Titanic. With 2,224 ship passengers and crew there had to be large quantities of everything from fresh water, to produce and meat, to alcohol. Practically every need of the passengers was anticipated down to the availability of kosher food.* The website Titanic Facts has a page entitled Food on the Titanic which provides an idea of the massive quantities of food needed to cater for such a voyage, including: 11,000 pounds of fresh fish, 40 tons of potatoes and 40,000 fresh eggs!

Obviously the type of food served to a passenger on the Titanic corresponded to how much they paid to sail. However, unlike earlier ship voyages that required steerage passengers to bring their own food, Titanic’s third class passengers were fed food similar to second class passengers with a few exceptions, such as being served high tea in place of dinner. First class Titanic passengers paid up to 25 times more for their passage and the food they were offered reflected that price difference.**

photo of the first class reception room on the Titanic

Photo: First Class Reception Room on the Titanic. Credit: National Maritime Museum, Flickr: The Commons.

Photo:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalmaritimemuseum/2843687676/ Accessed 4 April 2013.

A first class lunch menu from the fateful day the Titanic struck an iceberg, April 14, 1912, is now on display at Titanic Belfast. The Titanic menu gives us a glimpse of some of the foods that were served to the millionaires sailing on the vessel. A large selection of meat dishes could be sampled, including: corned ox tongue, bologna sausage, grilled mutton chops, roast beef, veal & ham pie, corned beef, chicken a la Maryland, and spiced beef. Seafood offerings included: potted shrimps, salmon mayonnaise, Norwegian anchovies, and soused herrings. Vegetables and cheeses were also offered for lunch. Probably one of the more unfamiliar dishes served was Cockie Leekie, a soup whose ingredients include young fowl and leeks.

You may wonder how a paper menu from the day of the iceberg collision might have survived all these years. It seems that some paper items did survive; they were ensconced in the pockets of the coats, or in the case of the above menu in the purse, of those who made it safely to a lifeboat. This particular old Titanic menu now on display at Belfast is not the only copy of that day’s menu. Several years ago, a copy of that same ship luncheon menu was appraised on the PBS show Antiques Roadshow. You can watch that Titanic menu appraisal on the PBS website.

Because of the tragedy of the Titanic, most newspaper and magazine food articles concentrate on the last meal served on the Titanic the evening of April 14, 1912 (the ship struck the iceberg 11:40 that night, sinking less than three hours later). In fact there’s even a book on the subject, entitled Last Dinner on the Titanic: Menus and Recipes from the Great Liner by Rick Archbold & Dana McCauley.

* “Availability of kosher food aboard Titanic sheds light on immigration via England.” Accessed 27 March 2013.

** “Food and Menus on the RMS Titanic 1912.” From: About.com British & Irish Food. Accessed 2 April 2013.

Early Women Occupations, Jobs & Avocations

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary provides a fun quiz to test your knowledge of terms used in old newspapers to describe our female ancestors’ occupations—and then provides illustrated definitions of those terms.

Our female ancestors were hard-working and talented women. Although historically many early jobs were not made available to women, the workplace roles that were filled by women often required highly skilled and talented workers—such as milliners and educators. These working women performed several different types of jobs throughout the 1800s and 1900s.

How well do you know the occupational terms used in old newspapers to identify our American female ancestors’ jobs during the nineteenth century and earlier? Test your historical jobs knowledge with this handy Early Occupations for Women quiz. Play the women occupations quiz by matching the historical occupational names in the left column with the modern occupational name answers on the right. Check the key on the bottom to see how well you know your historical jobs.

Early Occupations for Women quiz

Accoucheuse, Accoucheus or Accoucheur: An accoucheuse was a midwife, or one who assisted during childbirth. This 1826 newspaper article reported an unusual marriage, when Mr. William Sharp, age 18, married Mrs. Rebecca Varnel, who was 64 and had officiated as “accoucheur” at his birth.

wedding announcement for William Sharp and Rebecca Varnel, Bangor Weekly Register newspaper article 7 December 1826

Bangor Weekly Register (Bangor, Maine), 7 December 1826, page 3

Alewife: An alewife is a type of herring (fish) that spawns in rivers, and was used in Colonial times by Native Americans and Colonialists as fertilizer. When applied to an occupation, it indicates a female ale house or tavern keeper. In 1897, this newspaper account of “Meat and Drink in Old England” reported how food and drink were sold at a tavern: “The cook comes out to the tavern door and cries, ‘Hot pies, hot!’ and the alewife fills pots of half and half by pouring penny ale and pudding ale together.”

Meat and Drink in Old England, Woodbury Daily Times newspaper article 13 October 1897

Woodbury Daily Times (Woodbury, New Jersey), 13 October 1897, page 1

Besom Maker: A besom was a hand-made broom, in which a bundle of twigs was secured to a stick or broom handle. The job was common for, but not specific to, women. The term appears in this 1852 newspaper story.

story about a besom maker (broom maker), Albany Evening Journal newspaper article 14 August 1852

Albany Evening Journal (Albany, New York), 14 August 1852, page 4

Charwoman: Charwomen were cleaners, who sometimes worked by the day or for several employers. The etymology may relate either to the term “char,” indicating something burned (possibly related to fireplace cleaning), or to the word chore. In this 1890 newspaper article, the Archbishop’s daughter is doing charitable work as a charwoman.

A True Sister of Charity, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 15 August 1890

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 15 August 1890, page 5

Chautauqua or Chautauquan: In 1874, the New York Chautauqua Assembly was founded by Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent as an informal religious teaching camp along Chautauqua Lake. It developed into what is known as the Chautauquan movement. The main gathering was known as the “Mother Chautauqua” and spin-offs as “Daughter Chautauquas.” During these meetings, presenters provided lectures, concerts and other forms of educational entertainment. The following notice from 1874 announced the first convention, which lasted two weeks.

A Big Sunday-School Gathering, Springfield Republican newspaper article 4 August 1874

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 4 August 1874, page 5

Many women, such as Jane Addams and Maude Ballington Booth, were well-known on the Chautauquan circuit. The movement is still active today.

story about Chautauquan gatherings, Rockford Republic newspaper article 8 May 1905

Rockford Republic (Rockford, Illinois), 8 May 1905, page 5

Executrix: This occupational term is still current, and describes a female who is the administrator of an estate. This 1911 newspaper article names Mary C. Wishard executrix of the estate of E. S. Wishard.

The Wishard Estate, Evening News newspaper article 5 December 1911

Evening News (San Jose, California), 5 December 1911, page 4

Midinette and Milliner: Midinettes were Parisian fashion house assistants and seamstresses. Milliners made and sold women’s hats. In 1910, there was a strike in Paris by the midinettes, milliners and dressmakers of Paris.

Strike of the "Midinettes" in Paris, Trentoon Evening Times newspaper article 1 December 1910

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 1 December 1910, page 10

Necessary Woman: Prior to the advent of indoor plumbing, the necessary woman had the unfortunate job of tending to chamber pots (used for toilets). In 1882, this newspaper article described the employees of Queen Victoria’s household, which included a necessary woman.

Queen Victoria's Household, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 11 April 1882

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 11 April 1882, page 3

Pugger: Puggers were clay manufacturing workers who assisted in treading clay to make a paste. The job was not specific to women and often included children. This 1916 notice advertised for three clay puggers in Trenton, New Jersey.

ad for clay puggers, Trenton Evening Times newspaper advertisement 3 April 1916

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 3 April 1916, page 8

Scullery Maid, Woman and Worker: The term “scullery” applied to a small room, typically at the back of a kitchen (domestic or commercial), where laundry was processed, small food prepared or dishes washed. The job was common for females, but men also worked as scullery workers. This 1914 newspaper article, reprinted from a London newspaper during World War I, recruited women for a variety of jobs including scullery work.

story about work available in England during World War I, Weekly Times-Picayune newspaper article 15 October 1914

Weekly Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 15 October 1914, page 2

Tire Woman: Tire women were dressers or costumiers who worked in dressmaking or the theater. This 1801 newspaper article quoted the late Gov. Livingston commenting on the practice of promoting dress sales by dressing dolls in the latest fashion: “Doth a tire-woman in Paris send to London a doll completely accoutred [finely dressed] to shew [show] the new mode…”

story on fashion and dress making, Daily Advertiser newspaper article 26 June 1801

Daily Advertiser (New York, New York), 26 June 1801, page 2

Tucker: A tucker is a dress embellishment, or a person who attached a tucker to a garment. The decoration was typically made of lace or linen, and secured at the top of the bodice. The following image shows a 1906 ad for tuckers, and a 1910 picture of a girl’s evening frock (dress) described with a “neck being filled in with a tucker of mousseline and straps of pink ribbon.”

newspaper ads and a drawing for a tucker

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 19 March 1906, page 13 & Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 2 January 1910, page 13

Yeomanette: This is the female equivalent of yeoman, a term associated with certain military occupations, as well as farming. During World War I, women who served in the Naval Reserve were designated yeomanettes, as seen in this newspaper announcement that Eileen Carkeek, a member of the February 1918 class, had passed the Civil Service examination to become a yeomanette in the Navy.

notice about Eileen Carkeek becoming a yeomanette, Oregonian newspaper article 3 March 1918

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 3 March 1918, page 49

The Library of Congress Prints and Photograph archive has an interesting photo depicting uniforms worn by yeomanettes on duty.

photo of "Navy Girls on Review" c. 1918

Photo: “Navy Girls on Review, Washington, DC” c. 1918. Credit: Library of Congress file LC-USZ62-59313 at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3b07059/

 

Newspapers, Food & Family: Just like Nonna, Nana & Grandma Used to Make!

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott writes about how old newspapers helped to connect two of his favorite passions: food and family.

As a genealogical historian, I have always enjoyed the intersections of food and family! To begin with, meals frequently offer wonderful opportunities for sharing time together. It makes little difference if it is Thanksgiving (my personal favorite), Shabbot, Christmas, Rosh Hashanah, or simply Tuesday night. This is one of the main reasons I added a set of pages for food and recipes on my website at Onward To Our Past® and why my bookshelf (which you can see at LibraryThing.com) contains such titles as The Food of A Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky, The Best of Czech Cooking by Peter Trnka, and A Taste of Croatia by Karen Evenden.

In my own family tree I happen to have three very long, strong, and prominent branches. One is from Cornwall in the United Kingdom, one is from Bohemia (now Czech Republic), and my wife’s family branch which is from the Molise district of Italy. I love foods from all three family lines, but I am particularly partial to Cornish pasty, Bohemian kolache and Italian gnocchi.

photo of Scott Phillips and family members enjoying a “pasty party” over the holidays

Scott Phillips and family members enjoy a “pasty party” over the holidays. Photo from the author’s collection.

During the recent holidays my daughter, who has become quite a chef, asked me about my family food favorites. Just for fun, she and I grabbed the iPad and dug into GenealogyBank.com to have a look at what we might find in the way of interesting additions to these food favorites of mine. We were pleasantly surprised!

We started, since she tends to bend towards the Italian family branch, with gnocchi, a marvelous Italian potato dumpling. We put the term in the search box and in an instant we were reading hundreds of articles and recipes for this unique food.

One of the stories we liked best came from the Idaho Statesman.

How to Cut Down Your Food Bill and Still Live Well, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 22 September 1918

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 22 September 1918, second section, page 9

We both enjoyed this story as it gave a very nice gnocchi recipe with the bonus of a delicious, easy accompanying sauce. However, we got a good chuckle out of the estimate that the meal described would only cost us “fifty cents.” Oh, and we decided to skip the step later in the article advising us to place some of our food on an “asbestos pad.”

My grandson must have heard us laughing and joined us. When we explained what we were doing, coupled with the fact that he is a bit of a dessert-hound, he immediately said “let’s look for kolache, Grandpa.” So we were off again. This time we were in search of kolache, a simple but delicious Bohemian dessert pastry. We began to scroll through some of the almost 2,000 articles that search term returned while I regaled my grandson and daughter with stories of my Czech Nana’s kolache.

The very first article we found was from my hometown newspaper, the Plain Dealer.

kolache recipe, Plain Dealer newspaper article 15 March 1951

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 16 March 1951, page 16

This article was titled “Fancy Breads and Rolls Are Enjoyed by Family at Easter.” That sounded right to me as my Nana Vicha only made kolache for special events. Then something really caught my eye. Two of the fillings that were suggested were apricot and prune. These were the only two fillings my grandmother ever made. No one could quite understand how excited I was, but I was madly writing down every step of these recipes and calculating when I could get enough kitchen time to try them out!

By this time our group had grown to a family crowd of nine. Multiple ideas and suggestions were offered and requested. My son’s plea caught my ear when I heard him say “how about pasty, Dad?” Now we were off to see what we could find about this fine Cornish meal-in-a-crust!

My grandson was duly impressed when I came across, and read, an account found in the Stoughton Sentinel all the way back in 1876.

The Cornish Pasty, Stoughton Sentinel newspaper article 22 April 1876

Stoughton Sentinel (Stoughton, Massachusetts), 22 April 1876, page 1

This article is a fine backgrounder on the Cornish pasty—or, as it informed us, the “Cornish fiddle”—plus it offered such varieties as mackerel pasty and squab pasty. While it provided a general recipe, we needed something a bit more detailed for our use so we continued to look—since we all agreed we’d skip the squab.

It wasn’t long before I found this article from the Oregonian.

100-Year-Old Cornish Pasty, Oregonian newspaper article 2 April 1939

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 2 April 1939, page 74

This article, “100-Year-Old Cornish Pasty,” offered a recipe handed down for over 100 years (not actually about a pasty that was 100 years old—much to the dismay of my grandson!) This was great, but I soon realized that unless I had time for an extra run to the grocery store and a day in the kitchen, we would be pasty-less. Or would we?

I led my “gang” into the kitchen, pulled open the freezer drawer and showed everyone eight beautiful pasties ready for the oven (courtesy of the really awesome Lawry’s Pasty Shop in Marquette, Michigan). Although this bakery is all the way in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the good news is that they are willing to ship nationwide. I heated up the oven, and in a wee bit over an hour there we all were, having a “right proper” pasty party!

As I was putting my grandson to bed that night he drowsily said to me “Gee, Grandpa, who would have thought old newspapers could taste so good?”

I just smiled and agreed!

The World Was Your Ancestor’s Oyster: Food in Family History

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena explores one of her many interests: the connection of food and cooking to family history, revealing how much oysters were part of our ancestors’ diets.

What did your ancestors eat? Is this something you ever ponder? As family historians, the actual everyday activities of our ancestors can help to bring the dates and places we research to life.

In some cases the food our ancestors ate is quite different from what we are accustomed to today. With the lack of refrigeration and transportation, it’s no surprise that there were regional differences in cuisine. Considering the limited ability to transport and preserve ingredients, the variety of what was available to harvest locally, and the food preferences of local ethnic/immigrant populations, it is not surprising that the food that was served in various areas could be extremely different. A specialty enjoyed by those living in one region of the United States was all but unknown in another. While to some extent this is still true of modern cuisine today, as you can travel to different regions of the United States and taste local favorites not served where you live, these food differences are not as dramatic as they were 100 years ago.

So what were some food commonalities? Well there were many American foods that were feasted upon across the regions. One such food that was enjoyed by almost all Americans in the nineteenth century was oysters. Today oysters, depending on where you live, are usually a delicacy because of the price they command. It would also not be unusual to find people who have never even tried an oyster, raw or cooked.  In the nineteenth century oysters were everyday food items that were inexpensive and plentiful. They were the food of the common person.

Newspaper advertisements hint at the massive amounts of oysters available to our ancestors. Consider this 1874 newspaper advertisement from the Oregonian which lists several places to eat and obtain oysters.

Old Vintage Advertisement for Oysters - Oregonian Newspaper  1874

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 16 October 1874, page 5.

Street vendors, oyster houses, saloons, restaurants and home cooks prepared oysters in various, often creative ways. Oysters were served in every way imaginable including ways we are familiar with today like raw and fried. Interesting ways to serve oysters could be found in the era’s cookbooks including pickled oysters, oyster ketchup and one recipe that called for oysters to be served with shortcake.[i]

Consider this newspaper article which provides 11 ways to cook oysters that “if adhered to will bring cheer to the family board.” Note that this article was printed in a Kentucky newspaper—not exactly known today for its seafood. Yet this historical 1913 article tells “how best to serve the succulent bivalve [oysters], perhaps the most universally popular dish of the American table.”

How To Cook Oysters Old Recipe - Lexington Herald Newspaper 1913

Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 19 October 1913, section 4, page 3.

There were also “mock oyster” recipes for those who were unable to obtain oysters. These oyster recipes substituted different ingredients for oysters including corn, mashed potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant. Women could cook dishes such as “Mock Oyster Soup,” “Mock Oyster Sauce,” “Mock Oyster Stew” and just plain “Mock Oysters.” While the appearance of a “mock” recipe in a cookbook might connote that the item was difficult to obtain or expensive, this was not necessarily so in the case of the oyster.

As oyster beds became contaminated and overfished in the early 1900s, oysters began to cease being eaten as an everyday food and became more of a delicacy. No longer was the oyster part of America’s everyday diet.

To learn more about America’s love affair with oysters see the history The Big Oyster. History on the Half Shell by Mark Kurlansky.


[i] Stavely, Keith W. F., and Kathleen‎ Fitzgerald‎. America’s Founding Food. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2004, pg. 108. Viewed on Google Books 1 July 2012.

Julia Child (1912-2004)

This week the nation is remembering Julia Child – how much she contributed to our lives and how much fun she was to be with – via her books, newspaper columns, TV Show – The French Chef and interviews.

Julia Child was born Julia Carolyn McWilliams – this week – August 15, 1912 in Pasadena, California and died this week – August 13, 2004 in Montecido, California. She married Paul Cushing Child over a long Labor Day weekend – 1 September 1946. She had met Paul Child while stationed in Sri Lanka with the OSS during World War II. The OSS is now known as the CIA. For her life’s work she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2003. She was 92 years old.

She is celebrated in Meryl Streep’s new movie – Julie & Julia


and she is in GenealogyBank too – from her numerous recipes; articles about her books & TV series; numerous obituries published in newspapers across the country and her death record in the SSDI.

Cook like Julia Child

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Using the Congressional Serial Set for Genealogical Research

Using the Congressional Serial Set for Genealogical Research
By Jeffery Hartley


(This article appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Prologue. It has been excerpted and reprinted here with the permission of the author.

The Historical Documents section in GenealogyBank includes over 243,000 reports from the US Serial Set and the American State Papers).


Click here to search the American State Papers and US Congressional Serial Set in GenealogyBank.com

Genealogists use whatever sources are available to them in pursuit of their family history: diaries, family Bibles, census records, passenger arrival records, and other federal records. One set of materials that is often overlooked, however, is the Congressional Serial Set.

This large multivolume resource contains various congressional reports and documents from the beginning of the federal government, and its coverage is wide and varied. Women, African Americans, Native Americans, students, soldiers and sailors, pensioners, landowners, and inventors are all represented in some fashion. While a beginning genealogist would not use the Serial Set to begin a family history, it nevertheless can serve as a valuable tool and resource for someone helping to flesh out an ancestors life, especially where it coincided with the interests of the U.S. federal government.

Since its inception, the U.S. government has gathered information, held hearings, compiled reports, and published those findings in literally millions of pages, the majority of which have been published by the Government Printing Office (GPO).

These publications include annual reports of the various executive branch agencies, congressional hearings and documents, registers of employees, and telephone directories. Their topics cover a wide range, from the Ku Klux Klan to child labor practices to immigration to western exploration.

In 1817, the Serial Set was begun with the intent of being the official, collective, definitive publication documenting the activities of the federal government. Following the destruction of the Capitol in 1814 by the British, Congress became interested in publishing their records to make them more accessible and less vulnerable to loss.

In the early Federal period, printing of congressional documents had been haphazard, and the Serial Set was an effort designed to rectify that situation. Although initially there were no regulations concerning what should be included, several laws and regulations were promulgated over the years. The contents, therefore, vary depending on the year in question.

In 1831, 14 years after the Serial Set was begun, the printers Gales & Seaton proposed that a compilation of the documents from the first Congresses be printed. The secretary of the Senate and the clerk of the House were to direct the selection of those documents, 6,278 of which were published in 38 volumes between 1832 and 1861. This collection was known as the American State Papers.

Because it was a retrospective effort, these 38 volumes were arranged chronologically within 10 subject areas: Foreign Relations, Indian Affairs, Finance, Commerce & Navigation, Military Affairs, Naval Affairs, Post Office, Public Lands, Claims, and Miscellaneous.

Although not technically a part of the Serial Set, the volumes were certainly related, and therefore the volumes were designated with a leading zero so that these volumes would be shelved properly, i.e. before the volumes of the Serial Set. (1)

The Congressional Serial Set itself includes six distinct series: House and Senate journals (until 1953), House and Senate reports, House and Senate documents, Senate treaty documents, Senate executive reports, and miscellaneous reports. The journals provide information about the daily activities of each chamber. The House and Senate reports relate to public and private legislation under consideration during each session.

Documents generally relate to other investigations or subjects that have come to the attention of Congress. Nominations for office and military promotion appear in the Senate Executive Reports. Miscellaneous reports are just that­widely varied in subject matter and content. With the possible exception of the treaty documents, any of these can have some relevance for genealogists.

The documents and reports in the Serial Set are numbered sequentially within each Congress, no matter what their subject or origin. The documents were then collected into volumes, which were then given a sequential number within the Serial Set. The set currently stands at over 15,000 volumes, accounting for more than 325,000 individual documents and 11 million pages.

The Serial Set amounts to an incredible amount of documentation for the 19th century. Agency annual reports, reports on surveys and military expeditions, statistics and other investigations all appear and thoroughly document the activities of the federal government.

In 1907, however, the Public Printing and Binding Act provided guidelines for what should be included, resulting in many of these types of reports no longer being included as they were also issued separately by the individual agencies. The number of copies was also trimmed. With that stroke, the value of the Serial Set was lessened, but it nevertheless stands as a valuable genealogical resource for the 19th century.

So what is available for genealogists? The following examples are just some of the types of reports and information that are available.

Land Records
The Serial Set contains much information concerning land claims. These claims relate to bounty for service to the government as well as to contested lands once under the jurisdiction of another nation.

In House Report 78 (21-2), there is a report entitled “Archibald Jackson.” This report, from the House Committee on Private Land Claims, in 1831, relates to Jackson’s claim for the land due to James Gammons. Gammons, a soldier in the 11th U.S. Infantry, died on February 19, 1813, “in service of the United States.” The act under which he enlisted provided for an extra three month’s pay and 160 acres of land to those who died while in service to the United States. However, Gammons was a slave, owned by Archibald Jackson, who apparently never overtly consented to the enlistment but allowed it to continue. That Gammons was eligible for the extra pay and bounty land was not in dispute, but the recipient of that bounty was. Jackson had already collected the back pay in 1823 and was petitioning for the land as well. The report provides a decision in favor of Jackson, as he was the legal representative of Gammons, and as such entitled to all of his property. (2)

Land as bounty was one issue, and another was claims for newly annexed land as the country spread west. In 1838, the House of Representatives published a report related to Senate Bill 89 concerning the lands acquired through the treaty with Spain in 1819 that ceded East and West Florida to the United States. Claims to land between the Mississippi and the Perdido Rivers, however, were not a part of that treaty and had been unresolved since the Louisiana Purchase, which had taken the Perdido River as one of its limits. The report provides a background on the claims as well as lists of the claimants, the names of original claimants, the date and nature of the claim, and the amount of the land involved. (3)

Other land claims are represented as well. In 1820, the Senate ordered a report to be printed from the General Land Office containing reports of the land commissioners at Jackson Court House. These lands are located in Louisiana and include information that would help a genealogist locate their ancestor in this area. Included in this report is a table entitled “A List of Actual Settlers, in the District East of Pearl River, in Louisiana, prior to the 3d March, 1819, who have no claims derived from either the French, British, or Spanish, Governments.” The information is varied, but a typical entry reads: No. 14, present claimant George B. Dameson, original claimant Mde. Neait Pacquet, originally settled 1779, located above White’s Point, Pascag. River, for about 6 years. (4)

Annual Reports
Among the reports in the Serial Set for the 19th century are the annual reports to Congress from the various executive branch agencies. Congress had funded the activities of these organizations and required that each provide a report concerning their annual activities. Many of these are printed in the Serial Set, often twice: the same content with both a House and a Senate document number. Annual reports in the 19th century were very different from the public relations pieces that they tend to be today.

Besides providing information about the organization and its activities, many included research reports and other (almost academic) papers. In the annual reports of the Bureau of Ethnology, for instance, one can find dictionaries of Native American languages, reports on artifacts, and in one case, even a genealogy for the descendants of a chief. (5)

These reports can often serendipitously include information of interest to the family historian. For instance, the annual report of the solicitor of the Treasury would not necessarily be a place to expect to find family information. The 1844 report, however, does have some information that could be useful. For instance, pages 36 and 37 of this report contains a “tabular list of suits now pending in the courts of the United States, in which the government is a part and interested.”

Many on the opposite side of the case were individuals. An example is the case of Roswell Lee, late a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, against whom there has been a judgment for over $5,000 in 1838. Lee was sued in a court in Massachusetts and in 1844 still owed over $4,000. In a letter dated May 5, 1840, the district attorney informed the office (6)
that Mr. Lee is not now a resident of the district of Massachusetts, and that whether he ever returns is quite uncertain; that nothing, however, will be lost by his absence, as the United States have now a judgment against him, which probably will forever remain unsatisfied.

Another set of annual reports that appear in the Serial Set are those for the Patent Office. The annual reports of the commissioner of patents often include an index to the patents that were granted that year, arranged by subject and containing the names of the invention and the patentee and the patent number. The report included a further description of the patent, and often a diagram of it as well. Each year’s report also included an index by patentee.

Unfortunately, the numbers of patents granted in later years, as well as their complexity, led to more limited information being included in later reports. The 1910 report, for instance, simply contains an alphabetical list of inventions, with the entries listing the patentee, number, date, and where additional information can be found in the Official Patent Office Gazette. (7)

The Civil War gave rise to a number of medical enhancements and innovations in battlefield medicine, and the annual report for 1865, published in 1867, contains a reminder of that in the patent awarded to G. B. Jewett, of Salem, Massachusetts, for “Legs, artificial.” Patent 51,593 was granted December 19, 1865, and the description of the patent on page 990 provides information on the several improvements that Jewett had developed. The patent diagram on page 760 illustrated the text. (8)

This annual report relates to a report from May 1866, also published in the Serial Set that same session of Congress, entitled “Artificial Limbs Furnished to Soldiers.” This report, dated May 1866, came from the secretary of war in response to a congressional inquiry concerning artificial limbs furnished to soldiers at the government’s expense. Within its 128 pages are a short list of the manufacturers of these limbs, including several owned by members of the Jewett family in Salem, Massachusetts, New York, and Washington, D.C., as well as an alphabetical list of soldiers, detailing their rank, regiment and state, residence, limb, cost, date, and manufacturer. Constantine Elsner, a private in B Company of the 20th Massachusetts living in Boston, received a leg made by G. B. Jewett at a cost of $75 on April 8, 1865. 9 This may have been an older version of the one that Jewett would have patented later in the year, or it may have been an early model of that one. Either way, a researcher would have some idea not only of what Elsner’s military career was like, but also some sense of what elements of life for him would be like after the war.

Congress also was interested in the activities of organizations that were granted congressional charters. Many of the charters included the requirement that an annual report be supplied to Congress, and these were then ordered to be printed in the Serial Set.

One such organization is the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). As one would expect, the DAR annual reports contain a great deal of genealogical and family history information. The 18th annual report is no exception. Among other things, it includes, in appendix A, a list of the graves of almost 3,000 Revolutionary War soldiers. The list includes not just a name and location, but other narrative information as well:
Abston, John. Born Jan. 2, 1757; died 1856. Son of Joshua Abston, captain of Virginia militia; served two years in War of the American Revolution. Enlisted from Pittsylvania County, Va.; was in Capt. John Ellis’ company under Col. Washington. The evening before the battle of Kings Mountain, Col. Washington, who was in command of the starving Americans at this point, sent soldiers out to forage for food. At a late hour a steer was driven into camp, killed, and made into a stew. The almost famished soldiers ate the stew, without bread, and slept the sleep of the just. Much strengthened by their repast and rest, the next morning they made the gallant charge that won the battle of Kings Mountain, one of the decisive battles of the American Revolution. Washington found one of the steer’s horns and gave it to Abston, a personal friend, who carried it as a powder horn the rest of the war. (10)

Another organization whose annual reports appear is the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, which later became Gallaudet University. These reports, found in the annual reports of the secretary of the interior, contain much of what one would expect: lists of faculty and students, enrollment statistics, and other narrative. While that information can help to provide information about one’s ancestor’s time there, there are other parts of the narrative that include information one would not expect to find.

For instance, the 10th annual report for 1867 has a section entitled “The Health of the Institution.” It concerns not the fiscal viability of the institution but rather the occurrences of illness and other calamities. One student from Maryland, John A. Unglebower, was seized with gastric fever and died: “He was a boy of exemplary character, whose early death is mourned by all who knew him.” Two other students drowned that year, and the circumstances of their deaths recounted, with the hope that “they were not unprepared to meet the sudden and unexpected summons.” (11) Both the faculty and the student body contributed their memorials to these two students in the report.

Other organizations represented in the Serial Set are the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, Veterans of World War I of the United States, proceedings of the National Encampment, United Spanish War Veterans, the American Historical Association, and the National Convention of Disabled American Veterans.

Lists of Pensioners
The history of pensions provided by the federal government is beyond the scope of this article. However, the Serial Set is a source of information about who was on the rolls at various times. For instance, an 1818 letter from the secretary of war was published containing a list of the persons who had been added to the pension list since May 28, 1813. The list provides information on the likes of Susanna Coyle, certificate of pension no. 9, heiress of deceased soldier William Coyle, alias Coil, a private who received pay of four dollars per month. (12)

Sundry lists of pensions appeared in 1850, related to the regulation of Navy, privateer, and Navy hospital funds. The report included four lists: those placed in the invalid list who were injured while in the line of duty; those drawing pensions from wounds received while serving on private armed vessels; widows drawing pensions from their husbands who were engineers, firemen, and coal-heavers; and orphan children of officers, seamen, and marines pensioned under the act of August 11, 1848. (13)

One of the most widely consulted lists is that for 1883, “List of Pensioners on the Roll, January 1, 1883” (Senate Executive Document 84 [47-2]). This five-volume title, arranged by state and then county of residence, provides a list of each pensioner’s name, his post office, the monthly amount received, the date of the original allowance, the reason for the pension, and the certificate number.

An example is the case of Eli G. Biddle, who served in the 54th Massachusetts. Biddle can be found on page 439 of volume 5 of the “List,” and a researcher can learn several things without even having seen his pension file: his middle name is George, he was living in Boston in 1883, and he was receiving four dollars each month after having suffered a gunshot wound in the right shoulder. His pension certificate number is also provided 99,053­ and with that one could easily order the appropriate records from the National Archives.

Registers
The Serial Set serves as a source of military registers and other lists of government personnel as well. Both Army and Navy registers appear after 1896. The Army registers for 1848–1860 and the Navy registers for 1848–1863 are transcripts of the lists that appeared the preceding January and include pay and allowances, with corrections to that earlier edition for deaths and resignations.

The Official Register, or “Blue Book,” a biannual register of the employees of the federal government, appears for 10 years, from 1883 to 1893. If one’s ancestors were employees at this time, their current location and position, place from which they were appointed, date of appointment, and annual compensation can be gleaned from this source.

The Serial Set often provides unexpected finds, and the area of registers is no exception. There is a great deal of material on the Civil War, from the 130 volumes of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion to other investigations and the aforementioned registers and lists of pensions. There are not, however, large amounts of compiled unit histories.

One exception, however, is the report from the adjutant general of Arkansas. Shortly after the Civil War, the adjutant general offices of the various Union states prepared reports detailing the activities of the men from their states. The same was done in Arkansas, but the state legislature there, “under disloyal control,” declined to publish the report. Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, brought it to the committee in 1867, and it was ordered to be printed in the Serial Set so that the loyal activities of these 10,000 men would be recognized. (14) The report includes brief histories of each unit as well as a roster of the unit and rank, enlistment date, and other notes on each soldier.

Accessing Information in the Serial Set
The indexing for the Serial Set has long been troublesome to researchers. Various attempts have been made to provide subject access, with varying degrees of success. Many of the indexes in the volumes themselves are primarily title indexes to the reports from that Congress and session. The Checklist of United States Public Documents, 1789–1909, does provide information about what reports listed therein do appear in the Serial Set, but the researcher has to know the name of the issuing agency in order to access that information. The Document Index provides some subject indexing by Congress, and other efforts such as those by John Ames and Benjamin Poore can also be used, but none index the tables and contents of many of the reports that have been discussed in this article. (15)

The best comprehensive print index is the Congressional Information Service’s (CIS) U.S. Serial Set Index, produced in conjunction with their microfilming of the volumes through 1969 beginning in the mid-1970s. In this index, a two-volume subject index covers groups of Congresses, with a third volume providing an index to individual names for relief actions, as well as a complete numerical list in each report/document category. The index, however, does not index the contents of the documents. For instance, although the title given for the Archibald Jackson land claim includes James Gammons’s name, the latter does not appear in the index to private relief actions. In addition, users must often be creative in the terms applied in order to be sure that they have exhausted all possibilities. In the mid-1990s CIS released these indexes on CD-ROM, which makes them somewhat easier to use, although the contents are essentially the same.

The indexing problems have been rectified by the digitization of the Serial Set. At least two private companies, LexisNexis and Readex, have digitized it and made it full-text searchable.

[The Serial Set and American State Papers are available in GenealogyBank. Click here to search them online]

This article can only hint at some of the genealogical possibilities that can be found in the Congressional Serial Set. It has not touched on the land survey, railroad, western exploration, or lighthouse keeper’s reports or many of the private relief petitions and claims. Nonetheless, the reports and documents in the Serial Set provide a tremendous and varied amount of information for researchers interested in family history.

Author
Jeffery Hartley is chief librarian for the Archives Library Information Center (ALIC). A graduate of Dickinson College and the University of Maryland’s College of Library and Information Services, he joined the National Archives and Records Administration in 1990.

Notes
1 For a more complete description of the American State Papers, and their genealogical relevance, see Chris Naylor, “Those Elusive Early Americans: Public Lands and Claims in the American State Papers, 1789–1837,” Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration 37 (Summer 2005): 54–61.
2 H. Rept. 78 (21-2), 1831, “Archibald Jackson” (Serial 210).
3 H. Rept. 818 (25-2), 1838, “Land Claims between Perdido and Mississippi” Serial 335.
4 S. Doc. 3 (16-2), 1820, “Reports of the Land Commissioners at Jackson Court House” (Serial 42).
5 H. Misc. Doc. 32 (48-2), 1882, “3rd Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology” (Serial 2317).
6 H. Doc. 35 (28-1), 1844, “Annual Report of Solicitor of the Treasury” (Serial 441), p. 37. 7 H. Doc. 1348 (61-3), 1911, “Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents for the Year 1910″ (Serial 6020).
8 H. Exec. Doc. 62 (39-1), 1867, “Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents for the Year 1865″ (Serial 1257-1259).
9 H. Exec. Doc. 108 (39-1), 1866, “Artificial Limbs Furnished to Soldiers” (Serial 1263).
10 S. Doc. 392 (64-1), 1916, “Eighteenth Report of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, October 11, 1914, to October 11, 1915″ (Serial 6924), p.155. 11 H. Exec. Doc. 1 (40-2), “Tenth Annual Report of the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb” (Serial 1326), pp. 429–430.
12 H. Doc. 35 (15-1), 1818 (Serial 6), p. 17.
13 See H. Ex. Doc. 10 (31-2), 1850, “Sundry Lists of Pensioners” (Serial 597).
14 See S. Misc. Doc 53 (39-2), 1867, “Report of the Adjutant General for the State of Arkansas, for the Period of the Late Rebellion, and to November 1, 1866″ (Serial 1278).
15 A good discussion of how some of these indexes work can be found in Mary Lardgaard, “Beginner’s Guide to Indexes to the Nineteenth Century U.S. Serial Set,” Government Publications Review 2 (1975): 303–311.

A soldier’s last letter ….

What have I done I asked myself, to deserve to be remembered by strangers in a town in which I had never been…”

You can almost hear him ask that now, over 100 years later as we remember him.

Corporal Wilson Mcpherson Osbon (1877-1899) wrote the letter on 28 Dec 1898, in gratitude for a Christmas care package of food and goodies sent from Mrs. R.S. Gleason of Aberdeen, SD. She had sent it to him and the three other young men who were serving in the Philipines from Howard, South Dakota in Company F – among them was his brother Orman King Osbon (1874-1903).

Portion of his letter – Aberdeen Daily News 22 Feb 1899

This would be the last letter Wilson Osbon would write back home. He was killed just a few weeks later on 15 Feb 1899.

I found his story in the Aberdeen (SD) Weekly News.
In looking into it further, I quickly pulled more than a dozen articles about him and his family in GenealogyBank.
It was gripping to read his last letter.

Even more gripping to read in the old newspapers that his brother Orman was also killed in the Philippines just four years later in a fight leading a group of 22 men against a band of local thugs – in Bolinao, Philippines.

Going beyond the historical newspapers I found Orman Osbon’s obituary in a 1903 report of the War Department. It was there that I learned one more key family detail – Orman Osbon had married in the Philippines and his wife, Antonia Osbon resided in Manila.

Annual reports of the War Department for the fiscal year ended June 30, 1903. Volume VII. Report of the Philippine Commission –
Serial Set Vol. No. 4634, Session Vol. No.858th Congress, 2nd SessionH.Doc. 2 pt. 7. p. 719.
I checked the other popular online sources – none of them give these details that filled in the family tree.

I could only find the complete record in GenealogyBank – dozens of articles and reports that gave the crucial details of this family and their loss of two sons in the service of the country on the other side of the world.

The handy search box made it easy – I entered the name and it searched all 219 Million records and documents – making it quick and easy to find the details of the family tree.

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