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:

Mining for Historical News & Genealogy Clues in the Archives

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott searches old newspapers to find stories about how Mother Nature affected his ancestors’ lives—and discovers some important genealogy clues.

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

Ancestor Obituary Clue

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

Elijah Poad Dead, Anaconda Standard newspaper obituary 16 September 1910

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

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

Mining in Montana

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

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

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

More Mining for Genealogy Clues

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

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

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

News Flashback: the Polio Epidemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 Genealogy Projects to Interest Kids & Teens in Family History

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this guest blog post, Duncan describes six fun genealogy projects to help interest children and teenagers in family history.

Many of us want to share our passion for family history research with our children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and other young ones in our lives. This fulfills our innate need to leave a legacy behind, and to inform and guide the next generation. Not only is this sharing beneficial for the storyteller, it plays an important role in the life of the listener.

Why Pass Down Family Stories?

Family stories give children hope, courage, perspective, and greater understanding. They see that others have done hard things and come out the other side stronger (or at least still alive and kicking). “Uncle Bob had this exact experience and it turned out well for him.” It can provide perspective on life’s blessings and challenges. “What did people use to communicate before mobile phones and Facebook?” Sharing the stories of our ancestors can connect family members and encourage empathy and understanding for other people’s experiences. There is even evidence from recent psychological research supporting the idea that children with a better understanding of their family’s past possess more self-confidence.

But how can we have those magical moments with the young ones in our lives? Remember that when we share our passion for family history we don’t want to push others, but rather entice them and invite them to know more. While complex and in-depth genealogy research challenges may make us giddy, they aren’t nearly as exciting to “future researchers.” Start intriguing them with new ideas and family stories that will appeal to them at their level. Realize that not every effort will be a success every time. Some children are naturally more interested in family history than others. We should make an effort to reach all of the important children in our lives with genealogy in a way that makes sense to them.

1. Share Old Family Photos

Most children love pictures. Old family photos, and graphics from newspapers, are one way to interest children in family history research.

News of the World Told in Pictures, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 9 August 1922

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 9 August 1922, page 13

Smaller children have very short attention spans and are often highly visual.

2. Play Genealogy Games

They also love interactive games. When my children were young, I created two sets of cards with the pictures of their family members: themselves, siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, great grandparents and even pets. Many of these people my children knew well, some lived far away, and others had already passed on. We would play matching, “Go Fish,” and other games with these small laminated photos. Our favorite was our own brand of the classic children’s game “Guess Who.” This taught them how to notice small details, the names of colors, and other important skills in addition to learning about family members. Eventually, we lost a few of the cards after my smallest son started sleeping with them. I didn’t mind because they had fulfilled the purpose of creating a bridge between generations.

3. Explore Old Newspaper Articles Together

Using newspaper articles about family members is another effective way to engage little children. These articles are often written in interesting and entertaining language. Even better, they are usually brief enough to accommodate children’s short attention spans. I grew up with some copies of newspaper articles featuring my grandfather. One article had a picture of my grandpa receiving a cake for his 12th birthday. I loved seeing a picture of him when he was a child and thought he must have been someone important to get his picture in the paper!  As a child, I didn’t know that many people had their picture in the paper.

In fact, I had several old newspaper articles that included pictures of my grandfather. One showed him and his beautiful sister singing together. Another picture showed his graduating class. And yet another photo was of him eating a burger covered in my grandma’s homemade barbeque sauce, recipe included.

Newspaper articles, such as those in GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives, add flavor to the details about our ancestors. People are more than names and dates; they have stories. These newspaper articles express that and gave me a better understanding of my grandpa even though I grew up visiting him every week.

Imagine how excited your children would be to find an old newspaper picture of their grandfather as a youth, printed long ago when he was a Boy Scout!

Named Omaha's Best (Boy) Scouts (Cezere Zampesi and Edward Brown), Omaha World Herald newspaper articles 26 August 1926

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 26 August 1926, page 2

Teenagers often find old newspaper articles fascinating. I have searched for humorous or unusual articles by using the keywords “dear wife” or “dear husband” or even “funny” or “joke.”

Here are a few examples of what I found.

In this unusual example, a captured soldier in 1823 wrote his wife the day before his scheduled execution, explaining his death. She received his letter, and then decided to make the best of it by marrying another man. Well, that condemned soldier ended up being rescued, but he didn’t have the heart to go home and tell his wife the news, breaking up her new marriage!

letter written by a condemned soldier in 1823, Sentinel and Witness newspaper article 16 April 1823

Sentinel and Witness (Middletown, Connecticut), 16 April 1823, page 4

In this funny example, a husband’s practical joke on his wife backfired when he pretended he had fallen out of the bedroom window—and her response was not the scare he had hoped to cause. Hiding behind the curtain, he heard her say:

“Poor old Jim,” she quietly said. “He’s tumbled out of the window in his raggedest nightshirt. What a spectacle he’ll be when they find him in the morning!” Then she lay down again and went to sleep.

What did you do?

“Stood there like a fool for a minute or two and then sneaked into bed.”

article about a practical joke a husband pulled on his wife, Morning Olympian newspaper article 13 December 1900

Morning Olympian (Olympia, Washington), 13 December 1900, page 4

Children can also search for topics that they are interested in, such as trains, UFOs, scary stories, etc., on GenealogyBank’s search page by doing a keyword search.

Everyone loves a good ghost story. Despite the best efforts of 100 police, no one could identify the thumping sounds coming out of this haunted house in Chicago.

article about a haunted house in Chicago, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 13 October 1922

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 13 October 1922, page 3

How about this eerie story, of the “horrible experience” of Mrs. Hart? She fell into a seven-hour trance and everyone thought she was dead. Although she couldn’t move or speak, she was aware of everything the entire time—heard herself pronounced dead; listened to the fading footsteps of her loved ones after saying their goodbyes and walking away from her bedside; and was aware the undertaker was about to embalm her…when she suddenly woke up!

The Horrible Experience of Mrs. Hart at East St. Louis, Alive but Believed Dead, Rockford Republic newspaper article 17 January 1900

Rockford Republic (Rockford, Illinois), 17 January 1900, page 3

4. Compile a Family Storybook or Scrapbook

You can even write your own short stories about your ancestors, and add photos, to share with your children. I created a genealogy book, with both photos and short stories, to showcase our family history. The family stories don’t need to be long or even have a moral to impart. In my book I included a letter written by a neighbor of one of my 6th great grandmother’s. It talked about how my ancestor, Ann Quick, would take a hasty dip in the nearby river every morning, ice filled or not, to strengthen her “constitution.” My kids now refer to a fast, cold shower as an “Ann Quick shower” to which we all reply, “Good for the constitution!” It is a small story, but it makes her personal to my kids. I used to read this book as bedtime stories for my children.

Children enjoy seeing pictures of their ancestors when they were little kids.

photo of the McBan twins, Baltimore American newspaper article 28 December 1922

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 28 December 1922, page 9

5. Create a Family Recipe Book

If the children like to cook, have them collect family recipes and make a book to send out to friends and relatives. If they can’t find old family recipes, use ones that the family loves now and look through the newspaper for other recipes that sound interesting.

6. Join a Volunteer Project for Genealogy

Older children and teens that show an interest in family history can get involved in fun genealogy-related projects. For example, they can do indexing (get more information here: https://familysearch.org/indexing/). Indexing means reading original records and entering the information into a set form so that it is available for searching. This is crucial for making documents easy to find. FamilySearch’s highlighted projects for this year include obituaries, which are typically typed and fun to read. Many people I have talked to have mentioned that indexing can be a fun addiction! Other websites also have volunteer projects. One that comes to mind is BillionGraves. This site lets you download an app to your smart phone. Then you go to a local cemetery and photograph the headstones. These images and accompanying index are made free for anyone to view.

Here is an example of a recent—and lighthearted—obituary that would be fun to index.

obituary for Mary Mullaney, North Shore Now newspaper article 12 September 2013

North Shore Now (Bayside, Wisconsin), 12 September 2013, page 22

Some teens are interested in helping with genealogical research. Many of my peers began their own researching experience when 12-14 years old. Not only do they have excellent computer skills to find information, they also naturally question everything. While annoying to parents, it is actually a critical research strategy. A teen’s natural ability to question and seek to understand can help you to see your research in a different light. Guide them along by answering their questions, leading them to interesting resources, and gently nudging them to expand their thinking and learn more. Soon they will be showing you how to do things! My 15-year-old son just showed me a great new mapping tool that he found even though he insists that he “isn’t really interested in genealogy.”

Tip: Remember to Make Family History Fun!

If your goal is to interest your children in family history, then the key is keeping the activities fun and interesting. Never push them too far beyond their interest level or they will learn to dread the activity. I grew up hating history class in school, yet I graduated from college with a history degree. How did that happen? The short answer is that I loved to hear the stories my grandma told me. What impact will your family stories have on the rising generation?

3 True-Life Love Stories to Brighten Your Valentine’s Day

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 find three heart-warming love stories sure to brighten your Valentine’s Day.

Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra, Edward and Wallis Simpson. We tend to think of historical or fictional characters when we think of great love stories—but what about the true-life love stories from your own family history? When I think about my more immediate family history I think of my paternal grandparents and how they fell in love as teenagers; my grandmother was just 16 years old when they wed. They had been married 47 years when my grandmother died, a loss my grandfather never got over.

Do you know your ancestors’ love story? Search online newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, to see if their story was ever printed in the local paper.

Love at First Sight

Did your ancestors have a case of love at first sight? Sometimes Cupid hits a couple hard and they make a quick decision to marry. Such is the case described in this 1905 newspaper article about Margery Parker and M. J. Young, who met at a social gathering and then three days later got married!

Courted Three Days, She (Margery Parker) Is Now a Bride, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 13 April 1905

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 13 April 1905, page 1

The newspaper article explains that “on Sunday evening the young couple gave their friends in this city the slip” and went to the home of the bride’s sister. From there they went to the Baptist parsonage and were married with her sister and brother-in-law as witnesses.

Love Reunited

Do you have an immigration love story in your family history? Immigrating to a new country isn’t easy. Besides leaving the familiar and starting over, you also run the risk of not being allowed into the country when you arrive. The following story is a familiar one that involves a young couple and their baby. The father came to the United States and started a new life before sending for his intended and their baby. However, there was a hiccup in those plans when Elsie Ekberg stepped off the ship at Ellis Island. She was detained and an investigation was held to see if this 20-year-old unmarried mother really had someone here in the U.S. waiting for her. Luckily Harold Ericson telegrammed officials that Elsie “was already his wife in all but the formality of a wedding.”

Unwed Mother (Elsie Ekberg) Wins Entry into America, Oregonian newspaper article 26 May 1922

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 26 May 1922, page 1

I’m sure Elsie must have been relieved when Harold stepped forward. She said: “If all men were true blue to the girls they profess to love, this world would be a paradise.”

Love Growing Old Together

When we think of love stories we often think of young couples—but those young couples eventually grow old together, and in some cases they are still as much in love as they were when they were young. The next newspaper article is a wonderful example of that. Married for 69 years, this New York couple tells the story of how they met and also gives marital advice. The Maxwells knew each other as children and fell in love when Halley’s Comet went by—and were still in love as Haley’s comet was making its return appearance. “Halley’s Comet swung by us that year [1835]. Now it is back again and she still loves me,” Mr. Maxwell proclaimed.

Some of their marriage advice is “old-fashioned.” (Mrs. Maxwell explains that it’s best not to let those “…suffragette ideas get in your mind. They are dangerous.”) However, she does have advice about men that is relevant today: she would never marry a man who drank because it would “drive away his good self.”

Longest Recorded Is the Love Affair of This Happy Old Couple (James and Mary Maxwell), Grand Rapids Press newspaper article 25 May 1910

Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 25 May 1910, page 9

My favorite piece of advice is from her husband, James A. Maxwell, who says to bridegrooms:

In the first place keep your mouth closed. You’ve been mixing up with men so long you don’t understand women. You’ll try to treat her as you would a man partner. When she criticizes or argues or complains you’ll want to talk back to her as you would to a man. Don’t do it, I warn you. Kings of nations can make speeches; kings of homes can keep silence—or they are not kings.

He ends his relationship advice with:

My wife was pretty, but I didn’t marry her on that account. Be sure your girl is good and true. You can find it out by watching her. Then make up your mind to stick to her. You’ll love her more as each year goes by. I love my wife sixty-nine times more than I did when we were first married.

Your Family History Love Story Here

So what’s your ancestors’ love story? Have one that has been passed down the generations? Maybe you have a more recent ancestor that you personally remember was so in love. Write those old love stories down and preserve them for your family.

This Valentine’s Day we want to honor those family love stories. Please share your family history love story in the comments below.

Military Records in Newspapers: How They Help Make Your Genealogy Complete

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott shows how he used military records that he found in old newspapers to fill in some of the gaps in his family history.

Certainly none of us likes war. It tears families apart, causes untold destruction, and all too often results in the loss of life or severe injury. However, there is one benefit to us as genealogy fans—and that is the fact that military service, notes, casualty lists, etc., were often reported in historical newspapers. As a result those military records are available to help us fill gaps in our family history, providing many excellent details about our ancestors.

Here are just a few examples of the dozens of military details I have been able to find in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

Often during wartimes, things that may seem mundane during times of peace become newsworthy—such as an enlisted man getting a furlough. That was the case with this article I discovered in a 1942 Ohio newspaper. This news article contains some terrific detail on one of my mom’s favorite uncles, Charles G. Evenden. In just a few short sentences, I learned his rank (First Sergeant.), his years of service (24), his brother’s name and address, plus the fact that he was seeing his mother in nearby Lorain.

Then there was the icing on the cake! In the upper corner of the page is his photograph, which happens to be the only one we have of him in our family tree. What a family history treasure to discover in an old newspaper!

Greater Clevelanders at Home on Furloughs from WWII, Plain Dealer newspaper article 16 August 1942

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 16 August 1942, page 16

Recently, I have been working to gain a more detailed look into the actions of my dear father’s unit during World War II. He was in the 83rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, which is often called “the Ohio Division.” Unfortunately, his record file at the National Archives was lost during the 1973 fire. However, I have been very pleased at the amount of information I have discovered in local newspapers that reported on the activities of the 83rd. This article, from a 1945 Canton newspaper, provided me with quite a detailed description of many of the movements of the 83rd after their landing in Normandy, France.

WWII Fighting Divisions: 83rd Infantry, Repository newspaper article 19 November 1945

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 19 November 1945, page 18

I was very proud to read of the hard fighting and success achieved by my father’s division, especially the conclusion of this news article:

Crossing the Rhine [River], the Ohioans cleaned up several enemy pockets, then drove for the transportation center of Hamm. Taking that vital place, the 83rd slipped into high gear and began to speed through the Reich.

In 14 days of its push from the Rhine to the Elbe [River], the Ohioans captured 24,000 Germans and liberated 75,000 Allied prisoners of war.

Then an article from a 1945 Cleveland newspaper gave me some remarkably fine detail about the movements of the 83rd as they approached the Elbe River, a destination that my father had mentioned to me.

article about the movements of the 83rd Infantry Division in WWII, Plain Dealer newspaper article 10 April 1945

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 10 April 1945, page 1

I am still reading more of the dozens of articles that resulted from my search on the 83rd Infantry Division, amazed at how much I am learning about the performance of my father’s division during WWII.

In addition to my searches on the 83rd, I learned more about a troubling aspect of my father’s wartime experience by trying a different approach. This time, I searched the old newspapers for a place name: Langenstein Concentration Camp. This newspaper article from a 1994 Illinois newspaper gives as stark a description of this concentration camp as did my father the one and only time he ever spoke of the fact that he was one of this camp’s liberators. Among other things, it states: “The smell of death was there.” The smell was the first thing my father had mentioned.

article about the liberation of the Langenstein Concentration Camp during WWII, Register Star newspaper article 29 May 1994

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 29 May 1994, page 4

Unfortunately, death is also a part of war, and I was saddened when I discovered this obituary in a 1945 Ohio newspaper. It informed me that an ancestor, Pfc. Norman Sloan, had been killed in action in Germany, leaving a wife and 6-week-old daughter.

obituary for Norman Sloan, Plain Dealer newspaper article 25 February 1945

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 February 1945, page 83

Looking further I found an additional article from the same Cleveland newspaper, a longer casualty list article giving details about Pfc. Sloan’s death and his family, and providing a photograph as well.

obituary for Norman Sloan, Plain Dealer newspaper article 22 February 1945

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 22 February 1945, page 11

Using the information from this newspaper article, I was able to trace his burial as listed by the American Battle Monuments Commission, which in turn helped me find a photo of his grave marker in the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Henri-Chapelle, Belgium. While a bittersweet find, it was wonderful to be able to add so much information to my family history.

photo of the gravestone of Pfc. Norman James Sloan, Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, Belgium

Photo: gravestone of Pfc. Norman James Sloan, Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, Belgium. Credit: Mr. Desire Philippet.

Newspaper articles can provide immense help when you’re researching your veteran ancestor. I hope you have, or will, search old newspapers for battle reports, casualty lists, service records, pension lists, etc.—and let me know what you have found as a result.

Remembering Alex Haley: ‘Roots,’ Kunta Kinte & Genealogy

History of Roots by Alex Haley

Today is the 22nd anniversary of the death of Alex Haley (1921-1992), the author who wrote the popular African American novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The publication of Haley’s novel in 1976, and the subsequent ABC television miniseries based on his book that aired in January 1977, spurred tremendous interest in genealogy in the United States.

photo of the cover of the first edition of Alex Haley’s novel “Roots”

Photo: cover of the first edition of Alex Haley’s novel “Roots.” Credit: Wikipedia.

Haley’s award-winning novel was a fictionalized account of his own African American family history, tracing his roots all the way back to an African ancestor, Kunta Kinte, who was kidnapped in the Gambia in the 1760s, shipped across the Atlantic and sold into slavery in Maryland. Haley spent ten years researching his black genealogy, relying on both oral history and documentation to support his claim that he was a seventh-generation descendant of Kunta Kinte.

Both the book and the television miniseries were enormously popular and successful. The novel was translated into 37 languages and has sold millions of copies around the world. Haley was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for his book in 1977. The eight-part TV miniseries fascinated the American public and was watched by a then-record 130 million viewers.

Genealogy Research Suddenly Skyrockets!

After reading Roots and watching the television miniseries, Americans—both black and white—wanted to find out more about their own family roots. Requests to the National Archives for genealogical material quadrupled the week after the TV show ended. The number of genealogical societies in the U.S. skyrocketed. Libraries and government offices received a steady stream of requests to review books, official records, and microfilm collections.

In the spring of 1977 this newspaper article reported on the growing popularity of genealogy.

Many Are Climbing Family Trees, Morning Star newspaper article 19 April 1977

Morning Star (Rockford, Illinois), 19 April 1977, page 14

According to the article:

The increasing trend toward genealogical research apparently started three or four years ago, picked up stimulation in the Bicentennial year [1976] and was spurred again by Alex Haley’s “Roots” and the tremendously successful ABC television series based on his book.

That series, the most-watched ever on television, led thousands of blacks and whites alike to a search for their own roots. The National Archives reported that its mail requests quadrupled in the week after the series.

A decade later, newspaper articles such as this one were still crediting Haley for the public’s interest in genealogy.

article about Alex Haley and his novel "Roots" spurring interest in genealogy, Springfield Union newspaper article 13 October 1986

Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 13 October 1986, page 2

Ten days before he died, Haley gave a talk at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. A local newspaper, the Afro-American Gazette from nearby Grand Rapids, published this remembrance after his death.

Alex Haley--the End of an Era, Afro-American Gazette newspaper article 1 March 1992

Afro-American Gazette (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 1 March 1992, page 1

The news article begins this way:

Alex Haley was a man of vision—a man who knew [that], as individuals and a nation, [we] must know where we have been in order to know where we are going.

And when he died…he left that vision behind as a legacy to a world starving for truth, starving for direction, starving for peace and understanding.

Alex Haley’s Obituary

This obituary, published the day after Haley died, said he “inspired people of all races to search for their ancestors” and stated:

Mr. Haley’s warmhearted and rich descriptions of his ancestors’ lives set off a wave of interest in genealogy, lasting long after the book faded from best-seller lists.

Author Alex Haley, Won Pulitzer, (Dies) at 70, Boston Herald newspaper article 11 February 1992

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 11 February 1992, page 53

To find out more about Alex Haley’s life and influence—and to begin your own search for your family roots—dig into GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, a collection of more than 6,500 newspapers featuring the largest obituary archive online. Also, search our African American newspaper collection to trace your black family history.