How to Use Old Newspapers to Research Family Stories & Photos

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott searches online newspapers to figure out who the companions are that appear with his grandmother in an old family photograph.

Recently my awesome Mom (God bless her as she is 92, still going strong, and loves to help me with our family history) gave me a couple of old family photographs. One was a photo of my paternal grandmother, Ina Cottle Phillips, with the notation on the back “On the Boardwalk with the Wades.” As you can guess, as a genealogist I was off and running trying to discover the “Wade” portion of that note. Who were these companions of my grandmother?

Photo of Ina Cottle Phillips on the Boardwalk with the Wades

Ina Cottle Phillips, seated in the rear, “On the Boardwalk with the Wades.” Photo from the author’s collection.

First, I did what every genealogist should do: ask the elders! I asked my mom, who had a recollection that when my grandmother first arrived as an immigrant in Cleveland, Ohio, she got a job with a Wade family. Ah ha! Next, I reviewed my family tree notes and found that I had a reference, long forgotten, that said my grandmother was the “traveling companion” of one Mrs. Wade of Cleveland. Now this story was getting interesting! I wondered who might, in the early 1900s, have had a “traveling companion.”

Next stop was searching the old newspapers at GenealogyBank.com. It wasn’t long before a fun story began to unveil itself. First I happened across a vast number of references to Wade families in Cleveland, but one in particular stood out. An old newspaper article published in the Cleveland Leader explained that one Wade family gave substantial donations around Cleveland, including a large piece of land for what, still to this day, is known as Wade Park.

The Gifts of the Wades, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 10 May 1902

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 10 May 1902, page 6

I dug deeper into the historical newspaper archives and soon found a beautiful drawing from the Plain Dealer showing the Wade Memorial Chapel in Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery.

illustration of the Wade Memorial Chapel, Plain Dealer newspaper article 25 December 1898

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 December 1898, page 1

Sensing that I might be on to something I started looking for obituaries, and sure enough found an exceptionally informative one in the Chicago Herald that gave quite a biography of Jeptha Wade. The old obituary’s lead was that Mr. Wade was the man who saw the true value in a newfangled device called the telegraph, and started a company known to this day: Western Union. This obituary also tied in Cleveland and Wade Park.

Demise of Jeptha E. Wade, Chicago Herald newspaper article 10 August 1890

Chicago Herald (Chicago, Illinois), 10 August 1890, page 11

Next I sharpened the focus of my genealogy research to include both the Wade and Cottle names and got a hit, but when I opened the newspaper article I was surprised to find that the Cottle was not my grandmother: it was an obituary for her brother George. I learned that he, too, had a connection to the Wade family. The obituary stated that my great uncle George worked for the Wade family in their Wade Realty Company for 35 years. A fun aside was discovering that he was also a gardener for John D. Rockefeller, but that will have to be a different story for a later time!

George B. Cottle, Plain Dealer newspaper article 27 January 1966

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 27 January 1966, page 61

Now the pieces were beginning to fit. Brother George immigrated first and got a job with the Wade family. Could he possibly then have vouched for my grandmother and helped her get a job as traveling companion for Mrs. Wade? Perhaps on one of their trips someone took the old photos of her that I now hold in my hands.

It has been tremendous fun learning about this aspect of my Cottle ancestors and beginning to understand the possible history of those photographs my Mom gave me. Now to finish the task! Thanks to some more genealogy detective work I have located the living descendants of the Wade family and have reached out and asked them if they might review the old photographs. Hopefully, they can identify my grandmother’s companions in the photos—and if I am really, really lucky, they just might.

Now…I wonder if anyone out there needs a “traveling companion” today. I’d sure be happy to apply for the job!

Sinking of the ‘Athenia’: Mythical Family Survival Story Proves to Be Reality

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott tells how old newspaper articles confirmed his uncle’s incredible WWII survival story—a tale that Scott, as a boy, used to question.

One of the first precepts of genealogy that my mentor (Ginger Simek, president of the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International) taught me, was to always work hard to find out if the family stories I had heard over the years were mythology or, in fact, reality. Mythology may be fun and exciting, but genealogy is all about reality and the truth as we can document it. Recently, I found myself employing this rule.

I have to say that I was basically blessed with a great childhood. However, I have always found myself harboring a serious regret—one that, as a genealogist and our family’s historian, continues to haunt me to this day. This regret is that I never listened closely enough to far too many family stories when they were proffered to me by my elder family members.

However, just a short time ago I found hope for abolishing, at least in part, this regrettable behavior of my youth. Here’s the story.

photo of the Edwin and Margaret Cottle family taken in Launceston, Cornwall

Only known photograph of the whole Edwin and Margaret Cottle family, taken in Launceston, Cornwall, on a date unknown. The author’s Uncle George Bellemy Cottle, the subject of this blog post, is the fourth from the left in back, sporting the black tie. Family photo from the author’s collection.

As a child, I found that by pleading with my Uncle George Cottle using my best smile, my saddest eyes, and/or my finest “please,” he could be coaxed into telling the story of when he and his wife were on a ship that was torpedoed by a German U-Boat in the Atlantic Ocean, and how they barely escaped with their lives. The trouble is I was always focusing on the submarine part (to this day I still love submarines) and not listening closely for the details of this amazing survival story, such as which ship they were on, when they sailed, where they were going, why, etc.

When I began researching the life and times of my Uncle George for our family tree, I decided I needed to find out if “the torpedo story,” as we all called it, was true or simply a family myth. Naturally, I found myself searching GenealogyBank.com for help.

Using the search terms Cottle, torpedo, ship, and a few others I found that good old Uncle George was indeed telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth! I found the ship’s name was the Athenia. Upon adding this name to the search terms, BINGO, I found myself reading about the sinking of the Athenia in over 300 newspapers from the Heraldo de Brownsville published in Spanish in Brownsville, Texas, to the Oregonian published in Portland, Oregon, and from the San Diego Union published in San Diego, California, to the Greensboro Record, published in Greensboro, North Carolina. I was also learning that the 1,347 passengers and crew were bound from the United Kingdom to New York in September 1939.

I found myself being entranced by the newspaper articles about the sinking of the S.S. Athenia in WWII, such as one in the Richmond Times Dispatch that reported the attempts by Nazi propaganda minister, Paul Josef Goebbels, to smear British Prime Minister Winston Churchill over the event.

Goebbels Charges Churchill Sank Athenia, Challenges Britisher to Reveal the Truth, Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper article 23 October 1939

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 23 October 1939, page 8

As I began honing in on Cleveland, Ohio, George’s home, I found a truly fantastic set of newspaper articles in the Plain Dealer from that city.

There I was looking at an old photo showing Uncle George and his wife Laura in a lifeboat on their rescue vessel, the Knute Nelson.

photo of George and Laura Cottle being rescued after the sinking of the Athenia, Plain Dealer newspaper article 11 September 1939

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 September 1939, page 20

This old photo brought a flood of family memories, and suddenly I was hearing my Uncle’s voice again as he related how he and Aunt Laura, after donning their lifejackets several decks below, headed up to their assigned lifeboat—where they were shoved out of the way by others clambering to get into any lifeboat they could to survive the attack. My Aunt and Uncle moved on to luckily find another lifeboat, the last one to leave the Athenia. They then spent more than seven hours at sea in their leaking lifeboat before their ordeal ended. As they were being rescued, they were horrified to see their originally-assigned lifeboat pulled into the propellers of the Knute Nelson and destroyed with a significant loss of life.

Here is Uncle George’s obituary. Notice that it mentions the sinking of the Athenia.

obituary for George B. Cottle, Plain Dealer newspaper article 27 January 1966

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 27 January 1966, page 61

In my memory, I can still hear my Uncle George telling his survival story of the sinking of the Athenia, and it makes me smile. He would always end this story by remarking “it was the first time in 28 years I went on the ocean, and I am not going again”—although he actually used a bit more colorful language!