Little-Known WWII Facts: German POWs in the U.S.

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to learn about a part of World War II that many people don’t know: there were hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war (POWs) that were kept in the U.S. during the war.

When I was growing up, I – like many youthful book lovers – read the novel Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Green. This fictionalized account dealt with a relationship between an American Jewish girl and an escaped German prisoner from a Prisoner of War (POW) camp in the United States during World War II. This little-remembered history was explored in that book and later the accompanying TV adaptation.

Like many works of fiction, Summer of My German Soldier was loosely based on historical events. During World War II, the United States was home to approximately 400,000 Prisoners of War. Roughly 379,000 were German military personnel. These prisoners were housed in 900 camps scattered throughout the U.S.*

POWs Working and Living in America

For many people, the idea of POW camps on American soil may seem bizarre. This is a part of World War II history not often discussed in high school history classes. During the war, the Allies captured POWs and had to house them somewhere. In many places in the U.S., these prisoners became a part of everyday American life – actually working on individual family farms as well as for larger employers. We associate the idea of prisoners with being locked up and hidden from a community – but not so with the POWs who spent time in the United States during and shortly after WWII. With American men off fighting the war, American women and these POWs helped make up the labor force needed on the home front.

What types of agricultural work did prisoners do? This brief 1946 newspaper article provides one example, reporting on 3,121 German POWs who were assigned to sugar beet thinning in southern Idaho.

article about WWII German POWs in the U.S., Idaho Statesman newspaper article 14 March 1946

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 14 March 1946, page 11

POWs assisted with the shortage of laborers by working on all types of farms. This 1944 article explains that German POWs were brought into Lepanto, Arkansas, by the War Food Administration’s Bureau Office of Labor to pick cotton.

article about WWII German POWs in the U.S., Bellingham Herald newspaper article 3 December 1944

Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Washington) 3 December 1944, page 8

American Resentment for Treatment of German POWs

With the recent release of the movie Unbroken and other similar accounts, we have a better understanding of how our POWs were mistreated at the hands of the Axis powers. So how were enemy soldiers treated in the United States? Prisoners of War housed in America were treated according to the rules of the Geneva Convention. Housing, food and work conditions for POWs were equal to that for our own U.S. soldiers. While this angered some citizens, the Joint Chiefs had hoped that this treatment would be reciprocated for our own POWs held by Germans.** Many Americans considered this fair treatment too good for enemy soldiers. There was much opposition to the perceived “cushy” life that POWs lived in the U.S.

Enter Last Name

In this letter to the newspaper editor from PFC Robert J. Kuhn, a U.S. soldier and former POW captured in Africa and held in “Italian and German concentration camps,” Kuhn voices his dismay at the preferential treatment of German POWs and their interaction with American women. In his letter, sent from “somewhere in Italy,” he recounts reading in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes about German POWs living in the United States:

…and then I read: “American soldier gets letter from girlfriend now engaged to German soldier – POW from camp in America” – couldn’t believe it. Then I saw in another one: “German prisoners in America have sit-down strike for day.” Also “POW go on excursions in America.” “POW in America have morale dance.”

Did American prisoners of war have German frauleins? Did we go to dances? Did we go on excursions? And above all, did we sit down and strike? No! No! No!

He continues on by mentioning, approvingly, that French women who cavorted with German soldiers had their heads shaved as punishment. His sentiments are understandable, and one can easily see how outrageous it was to American soldiers to find out that enemy soldiers were interacting with American families – and, in some cases, dating American women during their imprisonment!

letter to the editor about WWII German POWs in the U.S., Dallas Morning News newspaper article 9 November 1944

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 9 November 1944, section 2, page 2

Some German POWs Escaped

Over 2,000 German POWs tried to escape while being held in the United States. Most POW escapees were caught fairly quickly – but there were a few who eluded capture for months, years, and in at least one case, decades. Many German POW who escaped didn’t get too far before they were caught or voluntarily surrendered.

This 1946 newspaper article tells of the escape of Helmut von der Au (in some articles his name is spelled von Der Aue) from Camp Breckenridge, Kentucky. At the time of the writing of this newspaper article, von der Au had already escaped twice before. He had an advantage over other German POWs who tried to escape from camps in the United States because he could speak English. He had a plan for what he would do in a successful escape: “He would steal a P-38 (Lightning) fighter plane and fly to Greenland.” A lawyer prior to the war, von der Au was apprehended three days after his latest escape when he surrendered to police in Uniontown, Kentucky, less than 10 miles from where he began. He walked up to Police Chief Gilbert Page, still in his prisoner uniform, and asked to be returned to camp because he was hungry.

article about escaped WWII German POW Helmut von der Au, Times-Picayune newspaper article 4 January 1946

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 4 January 1946, page 26

Helmut von der Au’s story doesn’t end there. He eventually is sent to Mississippi where he is one of many prisoners who helps out on a plantation. Over time he becomes well acquainted with the plantation owner’s wife and the two fall in love. Running off together seemed like a good idea at the time, but the couple is eventually caught and his American lover, Mrs. Edith Rogers, was held for aiding in the escape of an enemy of the United States.

According to this 1946 newspaper article, the “…27-year-old, dashing German officer met Mrs. Rogers, 37-year-old Mississippi society woman, as a member of a war prisoner labor detail assigned to the 1000-acre Bolivar county plantation of her husband, Joseph R. Rogers. He and Mrs. Rogers became such close friends, von Der Aue explained to federal authorities…that after a number of drinks they decided to leave and be married.”

article about escaped WWII German POW Helmut von der Au, Advocate newspaper article 8 January 1946

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 8 January 1946, page 11

Edith Rogers wasn’t the only American woman to fall in love with a German POW. Joan McBride, with the help of her husband James McBride, assisted Rudolph Joseph Soelch, a former bodyguard for Hermann Goering, escape from the camp he was being held at in Southern California. For six months Soelch lived as “Mr. McBride” and worked in Detroit alongside Joan. Joan’s husband left her when she proclaimed her love for the German POW. Eventually they were apprehended and Soelch was repatriated back to Germany and told never to enter the United States again.

article about escaped WWII German POW Rudolph Joseph Soelch, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 18 September 1946

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 18 September 1946, page 11

Repatriation of POWS after the End of WWII

World War II came to a close with Japan’s surrender on 2 September 1945. Now the work of repatriation of all POWs living in the United States would begin.

Enter Last Name

January 1946 newspapers announced that former Axis soldiers would be sent back to their home countries in four months. (In reality it took longer.) The newspaper article below explains that later that month Japanese POWs would be sent out of the U.S. mainland but would not go directly home. Some would be sent to Hawaii for assignments. The historical news article ends by asserting that some POWs did not want to go home. Understandably, due to high unemployment and conditions in their homeland, some German POWs wanted to stay in the United States.

article about the repatriation of WWII POWs held in the U.S., Advocate newspaper article 7 January 1946

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 7 January 1946, page 8

While there were German POWs who eventually returned to the United States to live permanently, there were undoubtedly some cases where they wanted to return as soon as possible – like in the case described in this 1946 newspaper article, where a young POW stowed away on a ship so that he could return to the United States because “he liked it so much.”

article about WWII German POW Host Haufe, Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper article 6 October 1946

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 6 October 1946, page 16

World War II History and Family History

As family historians, we seek to learn more about our family’s lives. As you research your military family and ancestors, don’t forget about those on the home front. I’ve had family members tell me stories of living near POW camps and the experiences they had living in close proximity and interacting with the “enemy.” Now’s the time to seek out these remembrances, or to record your own.

To learn more about World War II history on the American home front, check out GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

In addition to the news reports and first-hand accounts that can be found in old newspapers, several books have been written about POW camps in the United States. They include:

  • Buck, Anita. Behind Barbed Wire: German Prisoners of War Camps in Minnesota. St. Cloud, Minn: North Star Press of St. Cloud, 1998.
  • Fiedler, David. The Enemy among Us: POWs in Missouri during World War II. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2003.
  • Krammer, Arnold. Nazi Prisoners of War in America. Chelsea, MI: Scarborough House, 1996.
  • Marsh, Melissa A. Nebraska POW Camps: A History of World War II Prisoners in the Heartland. Charleston: The History Press, 2014.

Did you or any of your family members have any contact with POWs held in America during WWII? Please tell us your stories in the comments section.

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* HistoryNet. German POWs: Enemies In Our Midst. http://www.historynet.com/german-pows-enemies-in-our-midst.htm. Accessed 17 February 2015. This resource includes a map with POW camp locations.
** HistoryNet. German POWs: Coming Soon to a Town Near You. http://www.historynet.com/german-pows-coming-soon-to-a-town-near-you.htm. Accessed 17 February 2015.

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Remembering Daniel Boone, Dr. Seuss & Paul Newman with Newspapers

During this September week in American history three famous octogenarians died who had a big impact on America:

  • Daniel Boone, American explorer, died at 85 on 26 September 1820
  • Theodor Seuss Geisel (better known as “Dr. Seuss”), American children’s book author, died at 87 on 24 September 1991
  • Paul Newman, American actor, died at 83 on 26 September 2008

Newspapers are filled with obituaries and profiles that help us better understand the lives of our ancestors—and the famous people who lived during their times. The following newspaper articles about these three famous Americans are good examples.

Daniel Boone (1734-1820)

Daniel Boone, who died 26 September 1820, is one of the most famous figures in American history, a legendary frontiersman, hunter and explorer credited with opening up the area now known as Kentucky to white settlers. In his long, adventurous life, Boone was an officer in the American Revolutionary War; a captive of the Shawnees, who later adopted him into their tribe; and a successful politician, serving three terms in the Virginia General Assembly. When he died in Missouri in 1820, all of America mourned.

The St. Louis Enquirer published Boone’s obituary four days after he died. Today Daniel Boone is regarded as the quintessential American folk hero, and in this contemporary obituary we can see that he was held in high regard during his own time. When the Missouri General Assembly learned of Boone’s passing they sadly adjourned for the day, pledging to wear black armbands for 20 days as a sign of respect and mourning.

obituary for Daniel Boone, St. Louis Enquirer newspaper article 30 September 1820

St. Louis Enquirer (St. Louis, Missouri), 30 September 1820, page 3

The obituary erroneously states that Boone was 90 when he died (he was 85). It reports that up until two years before his death, Boone “was capable of great bodily activity,” and notes that “Since then the approach of death was visible, and he viewed it with the indifference of a Roman philosopher.”

Here is a profile of Daniel Boone published in 1910, burnishing his legacy and legend, calling him a “courier of civilization.”

Daniel Boone: Pathfinder, Mighty Hunter and Courier of Civilization, Oregonian newspaper article 17 April 1910

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 17 April 1910, section 6, page 2

The old newspaper article states: “He found more profit in the woods than in tilling the soil, and for months at a time he was away hunting beaver, otter, bear, deer, wolves and wildcats. Garbed in hunting shirt of deerskin, with leggings and moccasins of the same material, and with powder horn, bullet pouch, scalping knife and tomahawk, the world afforded him plenty. The bare ground or the bushes furnished him a bed, and the sky was his canopy. His skill with a gun or in throwing a tomahawk was marvelous. Of Indian fighting he had enough to satisfy.”

Theodor Seuss Geisel (“Dr. Seuss”) (1904-1991)

Best known as the author and illustrator of beloved children’s books, Theodor Seuss Geisel was also a novelist, poet and cartoonist. His vivid imagination, crazy rhymes, and colorful illustrations graced 46 children’s books, creating such enduring characters as “The Cat in the Hat” and “Horton” the elephant. Generations of American children grew up learning to read from such classics as The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and Horton Hears a Who!

In this obituary, published two days after Geisel’s death on 24 September 1991, we learn how the wild animals that peopled his imagination and stories came from his childhood experiences in the zoo.

'Seuss' Author Dies in Sleep, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 26 September 1991

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 26 September 1991, page 1

Dr. Seuss’s obituary states:

“The world of Geisel’s imagination was nourished by his childhood visits to the zoo in Springfield, Mass. He was born in Springfield on March 4, 1904, the son of Theodor R. Geisel, the superintendent of parks, and Henrietta Seuss Geisel.

“Superintendent Geisel, the son of an émigré German cavalry officer who founded a brewery in Springfield, expanded the zoo and liked to show it off to his son.

“‘I used to hang around there a lot,’ Geisel recalled in an interview. ‘They’d let me in the cage with the small lions and the small tigers, and I got chewed up every once in a while.’”

Geisel did very little merchandising of his popular characters during his lifetime—but that all changed after he died, as reported in this 1997 newspaper article.

'Cat in the Hat' Joins Commercial Scene, Register Star newspaper article 7 February 1997

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 7 February 1997, page 18

The newspaper article quotes Herbert Cheyette, Geisel’s longtime agent:

“Ted had been very reluctant to do it [merchandizing his characters],” he says. “His primary reaction was, ‘Why should I spend my time correcting the work of other people when I could do my own work creating new books?’ He said to me more than once, ‘You can do this after I’m dead.’

“In fact, Geisel’s death at 87 made merchandizing his characters a copyright necessity rather than a luxury; a case of use it or lose it, Cheyette says.”

Paul Newman (1925-2008)

Paul Newman was an Academy Award-winning American actor who appeared in more than 60 movies during his long career. Gifted, handsome, famous and wealthy, Newman shunned the Hollywood lifestyle and preferred his home life with his wife Joanne Woodward, to whom he was married 50 years—right up to his death. Newman also was a great philanthropist, co-founding a food company called “Newman’s Own” that donated more than $330 million to charity during his lifetime.

Paul Newman died on 26 September 2008; the following obituary was published the very next day.

obituary for Paul Newman, Sun newspaper article 27 September 2008

Sun (Lowell, Massachusetts), 27 September 2008

Newman’s obituary states:

“Newman, who shunned Hollywood life, was reluctant to give interviews and usually refused to sign autographs because he found the majesty of the act offensive, according to one friend.

“He also claimed that he never read reviews of his movies.

“‘If they’re good you get a fat head and if they’re bad you’re depressed for three weeks,’ he said.

“Off the screen, Newman had a taste for beer and was known for his practical jokes. He once had a Porsche installed in [Robert] Redford’s hallway—crushed and covered with ribbons.”

The following 1998 newspaper article reports on one of Newman’s charitable endeavors: he published a cookbook featuring favorite recipes from his famous actor friends.

What's on the Menu When Hollywood's Elite Meet to Eat, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 8 November 1998

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 8 November 1998, page 52

The news article reports:

“But it’s not all about dropping names. Newman introduces several recipes by recounting fond memories of meals enjoyed. He also tells about his life as the only man in his house along with his actress wife, Joanne Woodward, and five daughters, and waxes poetic about his ‘relationship’ with food.”

Obituaries provide personal details about someone’s life that we can’t find elsewhere—whether they are our ancestors or famous people we’re interested in. GenealogyBank features two collections of obituaries:

Dig into these obituary archives today and see what you can discover!

Civil War Music Makers: Finding Drummer Boys in Old Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena researches old newspaper articles to find stories about the young boys that served a crucial role in the American Civil War: drummer boys.

With the recent commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg, your family history research time may be focused on learning more about your Civil War ancestry. Reading history sources and American Civil War period newspapers online, you can immerse yourself in the battles, the politics surrounding the war, and even the movement of the troops. While most soldiers in the Civil War were adult men, some women, disguised as men, were involved in the combat as well. We also know that young boys suited up for battle, often filling the crucial role of drummer boy.

photo of Civil War drummer boy John Clem

Photo: Civil War drummer boy John Clem. Credit: Morris Gallery of the Cumberland, Nashville, Tennessee; Library of Congress; Wikipedia.

Whether they added years to their age in order to enlist or recruiters looked the other way, teenagers and even boys served and died for their respective sides during the Civil War.

Boys the Backbone of the Civil War, Oregonian newspaper article 30 May 1915

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 30 May 1915, page 3

Yes, boys served and died in battle in the Civil War. According to the PBS American Experience webpage “Kids in the Civil War,” as many as 20% of Civil War soldiers were under the age of 18 years. This is an amazing number of children participating in battle considering that over 3.2 million soldiers fought in the conflict, according to the Civil War Trust.

Many of these young boys played the battlefield music during the Civil War that stirred the troops and relayed important messages from the commanding officers. These young musicians bravely played their instruments as the opposing sides charged into battle. Looking through historical newspapers online in GenealogyBank, one can read various claims long after the Civil War ended about men said to be the youngest drummer boy during the war.

Youngest Drummer Boy in Union Army during the Civil War Is 62, Evening News newspaper article 9 November 1915

Evening News (San Jose, California), 9 November 1915, page 5

While some of the youngest Civil War drummer boys were 11 years old, there are even accounts of boys as young as 8 years of age joining on both sides of the conflict.

Youngest Civil War Drummer Boy Dies, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 6 February 1930

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 6 February 1930, page 14

What did these boys do during the Civil War? Some served as musicians for their respective companies. While it was thought this would have been the “safest” place for them, I don’t know of anyone who would want to go into battle with only a drum to defend yourself!

Civil War drummer boys like Johnny Clem, who went on to be the youngest non-commissioned officer in army history, sometimes dropped their drums and grabbed a gun during a battle to defend themselves and those around them. In an 1879 newspaper article Clem reportedly replied “Because I did not like to stand and be shot at without shooting back!” when asked about his shooting a Confederate colonel during the Battle of Shiloh.* According to his military service file index card, Clem was a musician in Company C of the 22nd Michigan Infantry.**

These boys, sometimes adopted by soldiers as “mascots,” played an important role on the battlefield during the Civil War. When the roar of fighting was too loud to hear a commanding officer’s orders, the drummer boys relayed those order via their drums. And just like their adult counterparts they suffered sickness, injury and even death during their military service.

Pvt. Clarence McKenzie was a 12-year-old drummer boy for the Brooklyn 13th Regiment when he was killed in June 1861 by friendly fire from a soldier in his own company. A statue of a drummer boy sits upon his final resting place at Green-Wood Cemetery. It is said that 3,000 people attended his funeral. You can read more about Pvt. McKenzie on the webpage “Brooklyn in the Civil War” found on the Brooklyn Public Library website.

Do you have any Civil War ancestors on your family tree? Dig into GenealogyBank’s online historical newspaper archives and see what stories you can find about their military service during that great and terrible American conflict. And please share your Civil War genealogy discoveries with us in the comments. We love to hear your personal family stories!

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*Johnny Clem, “the Drummer-Boy of Chickamauga.” Grand Forks Weekly Herald (Grand Forks, ND). Thursday, October 16, 1879 .Volume: I . Issue: 17 Page: 2 . Available on GenealogyBank.

**Available at Fold 3, http://www.fold3.com/image/295053556/

Effort to Mark 1,200 Unmarked Civil War Veterans’ Graves Hits Snag

American volunteers are out in cemeteries across the country, working to document the lives of bygone generations whose graves were not permanently marked with a tombstone. When these dedicated good Samaritans identify a veteran, the volunteers often request a headstone from the National Cemetery Administration which is part of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Per the Department’s instructions: “The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) furnishes upon request, at no charge to the applicant, a Government headstone or marker for the unmarked grave of any deceased eligible veteran in any cemetery around the world.”

illustration of government headstones available for the graves of military veterans

Credit: Department of Veterans Affairs

There are multiple styles of markers and tombstones that can be selected. These can be personalized with a symbol reflecting the veteran’s religious faith.

illustration of the religious symbols available for the government headstones furnished for the graves of military veterans

Credit: Department of Veterans Affairs

Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, has been using this VA program to place tombstones on the unmarked graves of Civil War veterans. As a team of volunteers documents each vet, they request a headstone to honor his service in the American Civil War.

Watch a New York Times video report about the volunteer effort to mark these Civil War graves:

This volunteer team estimates that there are over 8,000 Civil War graves in the National Historic Landmark Green-Wood Cemetery, many of them unmarked. The historic New York cemetery has gotten tombstones for over 3,000 formerly unmarked Civil War veterans’ graves, but they have had a problem getting the next 1,200 tombstones.

The Daily News reports that the Department of Veterans Affairs has changed its policy and is now requiring that the tombstone application be filed by a relative and not by a group such as the volunteers working at the Green-Wood Cemetery. See the complete news article “Department of Veterans Affairs blocks historic Green-Wood cemetery from giving Civil War vets tombstones.” Daily News (New York City, New York,) 9 July 2013.

New York Senator Chuck Schumer has gotten involved in this controversy, stating: “To require the permission of a direct descendant of men who died well over one hundred years ago is a nonsensical policy and it must be reversed.”

If the Department of Veterans Affairs doesn’t reverse this decision, then the volunteers and cemeteries will have to raise the funds to pay for these Civil War veterans’ grave markers.

GenealogyBank Adding More Recent Obituaries from 5 U.S. States

GenealogyBank is pleased to announce that it is adding recent obituaries from another 19 newspapers from 5 states. This includes newspapers from Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, New York and Vermont—thousands more obituaries to help with your family history research.

Search these newly-added recent obituaries online now at: http://www.genealogybank.com/gbnk/obituaries/

GenealogyBank's Recent Newspaper Obituaries search box

GenealogyBank’s Recent Newspaper Obituaries search box

Or you can go directly to your current obituary archive of interest by clicking on the newspaper title links below:

Athens Banner-Herald (Athens, GA)

  • Obituaries: 6/10/2003 – Current

Daily Nonpareil, The (Council Bluffs, IA)

  • Obituaries: 11/15/2006 – Current

Georgetown News-Graphic (Georgetown, KY)

  • Obituaries: 09/08/2000 – Current

Adirondack Journal (Warrensburg, NY)

  • Obituaries: 8/05/2011 – 02/01/2012

Cazenovia Republican (Cazenovia, NY)

  • Obituaries: 08/05/2011 – Current

Denpubs.com (Elizabethtown, NY)

  • Obituaries: 02/10/2007 – Current

Eagle Observer, The (Marcellus, NY)

  • Obituaries: 08/04/2011 – Current

Eagle Star-Review (Cicero, North Syracuse, NY)

  • Obituaries: 08/05/2011 – Current

Guilderland Spotlight (Delmar, Guilderland, NY)

  • Obituaries: 08/05/2011 – Current

News Enterprise (North Creek, NY)

  • Obituaries: 08/05/2011 – 02/29/2012

North Countryman (Altona, NY)

  • Obituaries: 08/05/2011 – 02/28/2012

Saratoga County Spotlight (Saratoga Springs, NY)

  • Obituaries: 08/05/2011 – Current

Schenectady County Spotlight (Schenectady, NY)

  • Obituaries: 08/05/2011 – Current

SpotlightNews.com (Delmar, NY)

  • Obituaries: 08/08/2006 – Current

Times of Ti (Ticonderoga, NY)

  • Obituaries: 08/05/2011 – 02/29/2012

Valley News (Elizabethtown, NY)

  • Obituaries: 08/05/2011 – 02/22/2012

Addison Eagle (Middlebury, VT)

  • Obituaries: 08/03/2011 – Current

Green Mountain Outlook (Middlebury, VT)

  • Obituaries: 08/05/2011 – Current

New Market Press (Middlebury, VT)

  • Obituaries: 08/03/2011 – Current

Dating Old Family Photographs with Civil War Revenue Stamps

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary shows how to determine the date of undated, Civil War-era family photographs using revenue stamps affixed to the back of the picture.

Do you have Civil War-era photographs of your ancestors that are undated? As this genealogy article explains, tax stamp legislation passed by the Union in 1864 might provide a valuable clue to help you finally assign a date to those old family photos, allowing for deeper Civil War family history research.

Stamp Duties, New York Herald-Tribune newspaper article 13 April 1865

New York Herald-Tribune (New York, New York), 13 April 1865, page 6

In order to fund the rising costs of the Civil War, the federal government passed an act on 30 June 1864 requiring that tax stamps be affixed to various goods, including:

  • Proprietary Medicines and Preparations
  • Perfumery and Cosmetics
  • Friction Matches
  • Cigar Lights and Wax Tapers
  • Photographs, Ambrotypes and Daguerreotypes
  • Playing Cards

Although this legislation achieved the intended goal of raising revenue, it was an extremely unpopular tax—especially for those desiring photographs of family members soon to be separated by war.

explanation of stamp fees for photographs, New York Herald-Tribune newspaper article, 13 April 1865

New York Herald-Tribune (New York, New York), 13 April 1865, page 6

Fees were assessed upon the selling price of photographs, ambrotypes and daguerreotypes, with different-colored stamps for the various fees.

  • 2¢ stamps were blue or orange and assessed on images 25 cents or less
  • 3¢ stamps were green and assessed on images between 26 and 50 cents
  • 5¢ stamps were red and assessed on images 51 cents to one dollar
  • For images exceeding one dollar, in addition to the 5¢ stamp an extra 5 cents was assessed “for every additional dollar or fractional part thereof”

As with most laws, there were exceptions and specifications that had to be followed.

exceptions to the stamp tax on photographs, New York Herald-Tribune newspaper article 13 April 1865

New York Herald-Tribune (New York, New York), 13 April 1865, page 6

“Photographs and other sun pictures, which are copies of engravings or works of art, or which are used for the illustration of books, or which are so small that stamps cannot be affixed, are exempt from stamp duty. In lieu thereof, they are subject to duty of 5 per cent ad valorem.

“The price of a photograph by which the stamp duty is determined is held to be the price which is received for such photograph, including the case or frame, as well as any labor which may have been expended upon the picture.

“Imported articles, when sold in the original and unbroken package in which they were imported, are not subject to stamp duty, but they become so as soon as the packages are opened.”

The process was for a photographer to affix a stamp to the back of an image, and cancel it by adding initials and a date.

Civil War-era photograph with a revenue stamp affixed to the back

Civil War-era photograph with a revenue stamp affixed to the back

In the old photograph example above of a Carte de Visite (CDV), which shows the back and front of the image side-by-side, the picture was taken at Delong’s Gallery on Locust street in Fairbury, Illinois. The 5 cent stamp indicates that the photographer charged from 51 cents to $1 for his services.

Photographers often designed their own system of stamp cancellation. The hand-written date appears to be 11/11, but more likely was 11/4 (Nov. 1864), with the information under the numbers indicating either his initials or an internal reference. It was not 1861, as revenue stamps are only found on images 1864-1866, with the final repeal of the Stamp Act on Aug. 1, 1866.

For more information on Tax Stamps, see eBay’s Guide to Tax Stamps on Antique Photography.

Gin Marriages, Gretna Greens & Your Ancestor’s Marriage Records

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena explains why gin marriage laws and Gretna Greens may have something to do with your ancestors’ marriage records appearing in unexpected newspapers from the 1920s and 1930s.

Where did you get married? Was it a town near where you lived? Did you run away to get married?

We often feel frustrated when we can’t find our ancestor’s marriage records in the most obvious place: the town they lived in. But let’s face it, not everyone gets married where they live. Maybe your ancestor chose to go to a “Gretna Green.”

What’s a Gretna Green?

Named after a city in Scotland, Gretna Greens are cities where couples run off to get married. According to the website The Gretna Wedding Bureau, Scotland historically has had lax requirements for marriage: a couple only had to be over 16 years of age and declare themselves husband and wife in front of witnesses. Because it was easy to get married in Scotland, people from neighboring countries flocked to marry there. Gretna Green was the first post along the route from England to the Scottish border, so it was a convenient wedding destination for eloping couples. Even today, Gretna Green, Scotland, continues to be a popular wedding destination.

There are Gretna Greens all over the United States. One of the most popular Gretna Greens is Las Vegas, NV. But even less glitzy places are popular wedding destinations for a whole host of reasons, especially places where couples can get married quickly without the requirement of blood tests, medical examinations or a marriage license. A Gretna Green might be the answer for couples who want to skip the hassle and expense of a traditional wedding and any disapproving family members.

Some people don’t want to wait to get married—for a variety of reasons.

Typically there is some time involved between the excitement of getting engaged and the actual wedding date. However, born out of a belief that those who married hastily, and perhaps while under the influence of alcohol, were more likely to divorce, some states enacted waiting periods between the time a marriage license was filed and the day the wedding could take place.

One state that enacted such a law was California. In 1927 California passed a “gin marriage” law. This law required a three-day waiting period from the time the couple purchased their marriage license until they could actually tie the knot.

Couples Must Give Notice of Bans, San Diego Union newspaper article 21 May 1927

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 21 May 1927, page 11

As with any good intention there were some unanticipated results with this marriage legislation. While the law stopped couples from marrying quickly in California, it drove them to nearby out-of-state Gretna Greens such as Yuma, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada, where they could secure “quickie” weddings. During one year of enforcement of California’s marriage law, Yuma—then a town of 5,000 residents—recorded 17,000 marriages! During the years of California’s gin marriage law, both Yuma and Las Vegas became the hip place for Hollywood stars and everyday people to get married.

Government officials started becoming wise to couples crossing state borders to marry in states with no gin marriage laws. In reaction, more laws affecting marrying couples were passed. Some of those laws required blood tests to check for venereal disease, as in the following example.

Gin-Marriage Ban, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 30 January 1939

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 30 January 1939, section 2, page 4

Here is another historical newspaper article about a gin marriage law, this one in New York.

Gin Marriage Law Reduces Gretna Green's Dawn Rites, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 26 May 1938

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 26 May 1938, section 1, page 11

This old newspaper article points out how effective the gin marriage law has been in curbing drunken couples from impulsively getting married in the middle of the night:

“At last the 3 a.m. marriage evil became intolerable. Dozens of young squirts with a snootful of bubble-water were wont to shoot to nearby Gretna Greens toward dawn, rout out sleepy but fee-hungry clerks and Justices, and become spliced before they had any notion what day it was, if any at all. This made dandy copy for the gaudier press, but it distressed the quieter element who still believed that marriages were not properly made in a tub of Scotch and soda.

“Jane Todd acted with her bill, and the law soon read that seventy-two hours had to elapse between license and the vows. Now a quick checkup reveals that it works fine.”

Can’t find an ancestor’s marriage record from the late 1920s or the 1930s? Maybe they decided to elope to a nearby Gretna Green. After all, who wants to wait when you’re in love?

How to Search for an Ancestor Whose Last Name Is a Common Word

We often get this question: What do I do when the surname I’m searching for generates thousands of hits because it is a common word (like Brown, Green or Coffee)?

Yes, searching for information on ancestors with ambiguous surnames can be a problem.

GenealogyBank often recommends searching using only the surname as the best way to maximize your search result hits and find the best target articles about your ancestor.

But a surname such as “Coffee” certainly can generate a lot of extra newspaper articles.

GenealogyBank search results page for search term "Coffee"

GenealogyBank search results page for search term “Coffee”

Scanning this list of search results we can quickly see articles about coffee roasters, flavor and other irrelevant articles—clearly not what the genealogist is looking for.

How do you find the genealogy records you are looking for?

GenealogyBank’s search results page has search tools to help you eliminate some of those extra newspaper articles and increase the likelihood of finding articles about your Coffee ancestor.

GenealogyBank search results page showing "article types"

GenealogyBank search results page showing “article types”

Look closely at the left column on the search results page. That is a list of “article types.”

GenealogyBank classifies the articles in our collection of over 6,100 newspapers into types: Historical Obituaries, Marriage Records, etc.

These article types can really help narrow the results of your genealogy search for your Coffee ancestor.

For example, try clicking on “Historical Obituaries.”

GenealogyBank "article type: historical obituaries" results for search term "Coffee"

GenealogyBank “article type: historical obituaries” results for search term “Coffee”

Now we’re not seeing any articles about coffee roasters or flavors of coffee—most of these obituary search results are about deceased people named Coffee.

If we click on “Marriage Records” we see similar results.

GenealogyBank "article type: marriage records" results for search term "Coffee"

GenealogyBank “article type: marriage records” results for search term “Coffee”

We can immediately see that these articles are mostly marriage and wedding announcements for people with the surname “Coffee.”

This genealogy search approach will save family history researchers a lot of time by limiting the website’s search results to the ones you want to use to document your family. The results will still include obituaries or marriage records that contain the word “coffee” in the text of the article. For example, perhaps the person was not named Coffee, but instead was employed by a coffee company or lived in Coffee City, Texas. The word “coffee” might appear in these articles for all types of reasons, but at least this genealogy search tip will help you get more relevant articles about Coffee the person, not the object.

Try your next ancestor search at GenealogyBank using the “article types” to better focus your search results.

 

More Recent Newspaper Obituaries Going Online at GenealogyBank

We recently added 16 million more records to our historical newspaper archives—and already this month we are working on putting more recent newspaper obituaries online to keep adding resources for your family history research.

Obituaries and death notices from newspapers in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas are being added to our Recent Obituaries Collection (1977 – Today), adding thousands more obituaries for your genealogy research. Look for these recent obits to go live online soon on the New Content page.

Newton Press Mentor (Newton, IL)

Obituaries: added 11/10/2005 – 10/5/2009

Death Notices: added 7/25/2005 – 10/6/2010

Wood Dale Press (Wood Dale, IL)

Obituaries: added 8/16/2007 – 1/21/2011

Death Notices: added 3/4/2011 – 7/13/2012

Benzie County Record Patriot (Frankfort, MI)

Obituaries: added 8/12/2009 – 1/19/2011

Death Notices: added 6/24/2009 – 1/5/2011

Harbor Country News (New Buffalo, MI)

Obituaries: added 3/3/2005 – 4/12/2012

Death Notices: added 4/8/2004 – 1/5/2011

Lake County Star (Baldwin, MI)

Obituaries: added 3/26/2009 – 6/7/2012

Death Notices: added 1/1/2009 – 1/6/2011

Minnetonka Sun-Sailor (Minnetonka, MN)

Obituaries: added 4/8/2010 – 06/23/2010

Death Notices: added 2/22/2010 – 1/26/2011

Norwood Young America Times (Norwood, MN)

Obituaries: added 7/26/2006 – 2/9/2011

Death Notices: added 8/4/2005 – 1/5/2011

Pioneer (Waconia, MN)

Obituaries: added 11/2/2007 – 9/23/2011

Death Notices: added 9/15/2005 – 1/19/2007

Indianola Enterprise-Tocsin (Indianola, MS)

Obituaries: 09/16/2010 – Current

Chowan Herald (Edenton, NC)

Obituaries: 07/12/2011 – Current

Duplin Times (Kenansville, NC)

Obituaries: 09/29/2011 – Current

Martin County Enterprise and Weekly Herald (Williamston, NC)

Obituaries: 08/02/2011 – Current

Nashville Graphic (Nashville, NC)

Obituaries: added 1/6/2009 – 1/28/2010

Death Notices: added 1/6/2009 – 6/22/2010

Statesman: SUNY, Stony Brook (Stony Brook, NY)

Obituaries: 12/08/2008 – Current

Sentinel-Tribune (Bowling Green, OH)

Obituaries: 06/02/2012 – Current

Index-Journal (Greenwood, SC)

Obituaries: 07/01/2012 – Current

Chattanooga Times Free Press (Chattanooga, TN)

Obituaries: added 4/3/1995 – 4/1/2011

Death Notices: added 4/1/1995 – 4/1/2011

Herald Democrat (Sherman, TX)

Obituaries: added 12/10/2004 – 1/26/2011

Death Notices: added 12/1/2004 – 3/11/2008

Note: Scattered earlier data also available

 

 

Genealogy Search Tip: Searching by Topic in GenealogyBank’s Database

Being a genealogy site, most people use GenealogyBank by searching on the name of an ancestor. But there are other ways to search for genealogical information in GenealogyBank’s online database.

Did you realize that you can search using any topic or search terms? It is not necessary to always enter an ancestor’s name for every search you do. GenealogyBank makes it easy to research a specific historical event, place or war battle.

Let’s say you know, from an old family letter, that your ancestor fought during the Civil War’s Battle of Vicksburg, and you want to read all you can about the battle to learn something of your ancestor’s actions and understand a little better what he must have experienced.

GenealogyBank lets you do that—by simply searching on the historical Civil War battle without including your ancestor’s name.

Here’s how to search by topic in GenealogyBank’s database.

First, use the “Include keywords with search” box that appears on the search form on GenealogyBank’s homepage, and leave the other boxes blank. Remember: you do not have to search by personal name; you may search on any word that appeared in a newspaper, document or map.

Enter the search term Battle of Vicksburg into the box field and click on the green “Begin Search” button. As you can see on the Search Results Page, GenealogyBank has more than 20,000 documents in our database about the Civil War Battle of Vicksburg, including 17,245 newspaper articles!

Perhaps you want to start your genealogy research by reading contemporary newspaper reports of the famous Civil War battle. Click on the historical newspapers link to access the newspapers’ search form.

Then perform a search on the term Battle of Vicksburg and limit the year to 1863 by putting 1863 in the Date box.

This search query returns 2,983 news articles from our newspaper archive database about the Battle of Vicksburg, all written in 1863, including reporters’ first-hand accounts of the action, official military reports, maps, and other documents about that important Civil War battle.

Plenty of good newspaper readings to help you better understand what your ancestor went through, and thereby flesh out that name on your family tree!