Understanding Terms Found in Historical Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary explains some of the unusual or archaic terms often found in historical newspapers, and provides examples from period newspapers.

When I first started searching historical newspapers to help with my family history research, certain terms that I found in old papers confused me.

In the beginning, I found myself wondering: what was a “relict” or a “consort,” and why were there so many references to “inst.” or “instant,” and “ult.” or “ultimo”? It took some time to sort all these terms out, and I found various genealogical dictionaries useful.

Knowing that some of you may be having the same confusion about this terminology, I’d like to share some examples and definitions of the more commonly-found terms in old newspapers, with some insight on genealogical clues that these terms may provide.

MEANINGS OF GENERAL NEWSPAPER TERMS

Communicated (often abbreviated Com.): When reading old newspapers, you may spot the word communicated or its abbreviation, com. It can occur at the beginning of an article, or more typically it will be abbreviated at the end of the article, and indicates that the item was written by someone other than a staff writer, and “communicated” to the newspaper for publication. A notice at the beginning of the newspaper article will often look like this:

the term "communicated" from an old newspaper

Whenever you see the term communicated or its abbreviation com., look for additional articles in other newspapers. You never know if the first article you found is complete—often it has been edited from the original, and if you find that original article it may contain more family history information than the edited version of the article you found.

Here is an example where the abbreviation com. has been inserted at the end of the newspaper article. Note also that this example has a “Request to Insert,” explained next.

the abbreviation "com." from the Newburyport Herald newspaper 7 August 1838

Newburyport Herald (Newburyport, Massachusetts), 7 August 1838, page 3

Requests to Insert: An often overlooked clue in old newspapers is a request for printers to republish a notice in other locations. Generally, this indicates that a person or family once resided elsewhere, or has a familial or business connection outside of the published location, and therefore readers in that additional location will have an interest in news about the individual or family. This is a great clue to steer your family history searches to locations you might not have considered otherwise.

Mastheads: Typically located at the top of the front page, the masthead is the printed matter consisting of the name of the newspaper, along with details of its publication (date, location, etc.).

Here is an example of a masthead from a New Hampshire newspaper:

masthead, New-Hampshire Patriot newspaper 20 January 1823

New-Hampshire Patriot (Concord, New Hampshire), 20 January 1823, page 1

When saving important proofs for genealogical purposes, it is advisable to review the masthead. You may also learn something interesting, such as that Isaac Hill, printer of the New-Hampshire Patriot & State Gazette, was also a publisher of the “Laws of the United States.”

DEFINITIONS OF RELATIONSHIP REFERENCE TERMS

Banns or Bans (or Publishing of the Banns): This is an ancient matrimonial term, originating from the Middle Ages. A Banns proclamation was typically published on three consecutive Sundays prior to a wedding. The requirement was abolished by the Roman Catholic Church in 1983, but is still used in some parts of the world. Original Banns certificates are rare, but you may be able to locate a few in some archives.

In this 20th century newspaper notice, the entire announcement is about a couple’s wedding banns:

Voellinger-Ehrstein wedding, Belleville News Democrat newspaper article 28 March 1921

Belleville News Democrat (Belleville, Illinois), 28 March 1921, page 2

In this 19th century newspaper article, we see an amusing story about how important the banns requirement was:

amusing wedding story, Daily Advertiser newspaper article 22 August 1807

Daily Advertiser (New York, New York), 22 August 1807, page 3

Because he had no proof the banns had been “regularly published” as required, the Minister postponed the wedding until the following day. However, the groom would not be deterred! He pulled off his hat, handed it to his bride-to-be, and took off running at “full speed.” He returned “in exactly two hours and thirty-five minutes, to the great joy of the betrothed damsel” with the requisite proof that the banns had indeed been published—whereupon the Minister performed the ceremony!

Consort: A consort is a partner, and in the case of a death, a female who leaves a surviving spouse. An easy way to remember the term consort is to think of a marriage as a “consortium” between a husband and wife. A corresponding term is relict (see the next entry), along with spinster or bachelor, for persons who remain single.

In this example from an 1802 newspaper announcing Eleanor Harris’s death, she is described as the “consort” of Thomas Harris. Note the representation of the “s” as an “f,” common in 18th and early 19th century newspapers, so that “consort” actually reads “confort.” Also note that her death date is reported as “the 8th instant” (again, with the “s” spelled with an “f” so that it actually reads “inftant”). I’ll explain what “instant” means shortly.

Eleanor Harris obituary, Republican newspaper article 22 February 1802

Republican (Baltimore, Maryland), 22 February 1802, page 3

Relict (relictus): Relictus is a Latin term meaning having inherited or been bequeathed. Ergo, the relict is the survivor (usually a widow) of the marriage union.

The first sentence of this 1907 newspaper article reads: “Mrs. Prudence Hale, relict of the late Marshall Hale, died early yesterday morning at the home of her son…” It is lamentable that the typesetter misspelled her late husband’s name as Marshall “Hall” in the headline.

Noble Woman's Useful Life Ended, San Jose Mercury News newspaper article 21 January 1907

San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, California), 21 January 1907, page 1

DEFINITONS OF TIME FRAME TERMS IN NEWSPAPERS

Rather than print a specific date, old newspapers sometimes refer to a date by using terms such as instant, proximo and ultimo. Occasionally they do this for religious reasons, which I’ll explain shortly.

Instant (often abbreviated inst.): This term refers to a recent occurrence in the present or current month. In the consort example above, Eleanor Harris’s death date is reported as “the 8th instant.” Since her death notice was published on 22 February 1802, this means she died on 8 February 1802.

Proximo (often abbreviated prox.): Proximo refers to something that will occur in the future, or next month, as seen in this advertisement for the British armed ship Louisa, which was scheduled to sail on the “20th proximo.” Since this announcement was published on 27 February 1800, this means the Louisa will sail on 20 March 1800.

shipping notice about British ship Louisa, Georgia Gazette newspaper article 27 February 1800

Georgia Gazette (Savannah, Georgia), 27 February 1800, page 2

Ultimo (often abbreviated ult.): Ultimo or Ultimo Mense is a Latin term/phrase that refers to an occurrence from last month.

For example, in one old newspaper death notice Lt. Elliott’s death was specified as December 6, and in another (published in January), his death was reported as having occurred on “the 6th ult,” which is another way of saying December 6.

Boston Courier (Boston, Massachusetts), 23 December 1841, page 4:

  • “DIED, In Chester, N. H. Dec 6, Lieut Jacob Elliott, 86, a soldier of the revolution.”

Bellows Falls Gazette (Bellows Falls, Vermont), 10 January 1842, page 3:

  • “In Chester, N. H. very suddenly on the 6th ult. Lieut. Jacob Elliott, 86…”

Whenever you find an “ultimo” reference, cross-reference the date with vital records, since the newspaper in this case is reporting on an event that happened the previous month and is not immediate. Reports were often reprinted from one paper to another, and after sufficient time had passed the original date may have become unclear. In addition, some historical newspapers occasionally used the “ultimo” reference to refer to an event from two months prior.

In this notice from 1842, one’s first inclination is to record Mr. Basset’s death as having occurred in December of 1841, since the death notice was published in January and referred to the “23d ult.” However, upon further examination, I’ve uncovered some citations that report his death as having occurred in November.

Abel Basset death notice, Bellows Falls Gazette newspaper article 10 January 1842

Bellows Falls Gazette (Bellows Falls, Vermont), 10 January 1842, page 3

I suggest you consider recording “ultimo” dates as approximations (died circa or about).

New and Old Style References for Dates (often abbreviated N.S. and O.S.): Another reason that dates in historical newspaper notices may not be specific pertains to beliefs held by various religions, such as the Society of Friends, aka Quakers.

Since the commonly-used names for months are based upon pagan Gods (e.g., January from Janus, February from Februus, etc.), the early Quakers deemed it sacrilegious to use such names. Instead, the Quakers referred to months by the order in which they appeared during the year.

In this example from a 1788 newspaper, the time of the yearly meeting is recorded as being “from the 12th [Day] of the fifth Month, 1788, to the 19th Day of the same inclusive.”

notice about a Quaker yearly meeting, New-York Morning Post newspaper article 30 September 1788

New-York Morning Post (New York, New York), 30 September 1788, page 2

The conversion for Quaker dates is complicated, so if you find it necessary to record one, seek out a calendar converter and undertake further research. Mistakes are all too common.

Prior to 1752 (when the American colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar), the first month of the year was not January; the year started with the Spring Equinox in the middle of March.

The reason the calendar changed (from the Julian to the Gregorian system) was to accommodate for leap years. After several centuries the equinoxes were not falling on the calendar at the proper time, so various days were removed and the first of the year became January 1. When it was necessary to explain an old or new style date, an abbreviation of N.S. or O.S. was added.

In this 1822 newspaper article, both dating systems are used to give John Stark’s birth date: “Aug. 28, 1728, old style, corresponding to Aug. 17, N.S.”

John Stark obituary, Republican Chronicle newspaper article 29 May 1822

Republican Chronicle (Ithaca, New York), 29 May 1822, page 3

You may wish to consult one of my early RootsWeb Review articles, “Dates and Calendars through the Ages,” located at http://ftp.rootsweb.ancestry.com/pub/review/2007/0606.txt

You may also find it helpful to read “Quaker Dating before 1752” at the Swarthmore Friends Historical Library Website at www.swarthmore.edu/academics/friends-historical-library/quaker-meeting-records/quaker-calendar.xml.

I hope these definitions and genealogy tips helped you gain a better understanding of the newspaper terminology often found in old newspapers. Have you discovered any perplexing newspaper terms in your genealogy research? Share them with us in the comments!

Columbia University puts Tibetan newspaper online

Columbia University Libraries has placed a new digital library of 97 issues of the Tibet Mirror (Tib. Yul phyogs so so’i gsar ‘gyur me long) online for scholars to consult and study. Click here to see this collection.

(Image: Yul phyogs so soʾi gsar ʾgyur me long (Kālimpong : G. Tharchin, 1925-<1963>)

The digitized newspapers date from 1933 to 1961, and offer a total of 844 scanned pages drawn from the rich collections of the C. V. Starr East Asian Library.

This Tibetan-language newspaper was published from 1925 to 1963 in Kalimpong, India, and chronicles the most dramatic social and political transformation to have occurred in Tibet during a time when vernacular writing was relatively scarce, and a Tibetan media otherwise non-existent. Columbia’s holdings represent about 30% of the paper’s full run.

“The recent digitization of large portions of the Tibet Mirror is a welcome and significant advancement in the study of modern Tibet,” said Gray Tuttle, Leila Hadley Luce Assistant Professor of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University. “This Tibetan language resource was a key source of news of the world to Tibetans in the middle of the 20th century. As such, it demonstrates that at least some Tibetans were well aware of international developments, from the spread of Communism from Russia to China to the price of wool in Indian markets.”

“To date, no serious study of the contents of this important resource has been published. Having used the existing collections in the past, I am very excited to see how easy it is to navigate around, read and download from this online resource. The contributors Paul Hackett and Tina Harris, Columbia’s Tibetan Studies librarian Lauran Hartley, and all the Columbia staff who made this beautiful site a reality have made an immense contribution to modern Tibetan Studies worldwide,” continued Tuttle.

The digitized newspaper is a cornerstone of the Starr Library’s “Tharchin Collection,” which features the papers of Gegen Dorje Tharchin (1889-1976), a Tibetan Christian convert and the renowned editor of the Tibet Mirror. The Tharchin Collection, which is being readied for public access this year, was acquired with support from the Columbia University Libraries’ Primary Resources Acquisitions Program. In addition to final and draft publications (in both modern and traditional formats), the Collection also includes correspondence; accounts from 1918-1924, and later years; receipts and financial statements; an imprint of a seal designed for the “Future Democratic Tibet Government;” Tibetan hymnals and bibles; scattered photographic prints; advertising solicitations; a list of cotton licenses; and a “Certificate for Traders, Muleteers and Porters.”

The newspapers were a recent gift to C.V. Starr East Asian Library from Dr. Paul G. Hackett, who donated 75 issues, and CUNY graduate student Tina Harris, who donated 22 issues of the paper. The digitized library was created as joint project of the C. V. Starr East Asian Library, the Preservation and Digital Conversion Division, and the Libraries Digital Program Division. For more information about the project, contact Hartley at lh2112@columbia.edu.

The C.V. Starr East Asian Library is one of the major collections for the study of East Asia in the United States, with over 820,000 volumes of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tibetan, and Western language materials, as well as some holdings in Mongol and Manchu, and over 6,500 periodical titles. The collection, established in 1902, is particularly strong in Chinese history, literature, and social sciences; Japanese literature, history, and religion, particularly Buddhism; and Korean history. The Library’s website is located at: www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/indiv/eastasian/.

Columbia University Libraries/Information Services is one of the top five academic research library systems in North America. The collections include over 10 million volumes, over 100,000 journals and serials, as well as extensive electronic resources, manuscripts, rare books, microforms, maps, graphic and audio-visual materials. The services and collections are organized into 25 libraries and various academic technology centers. The Libraries employs more than 550 professional and support staff. The website of the Libraries at www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb is the gateway to its services and resources.

This collection is not on GenealogyBank.

Funeral Sermons – a core genealogical resource

GenealogyBank.com has over 7,000 funeral sermons – full text digital copies and excerpts.

These are a core source for genealogists searching for the details of their ancestor’s lives in Colonial America and the early Federalist period. (Photo, Ian Britton. FreeFoto.com).
It was common in Colonial America to have a funeral sermon printed and distributed “at the request of the family” to the mourners.
These slim pamphlets can range from six to thirty pages. While it was common for these to be printed – they were printed in small press runs, so it can be difficult for genealogists to locate copies. In many cases only one copy of the sermon – with its critical biographical information survives.

In my experience the earliest published funeral sermons that survive were for ministers and their wives. This practice expanded to include older members of the community and by the late 1700s to early 1800s it was common to see printed funeral sermons for children, men, women of all backgrounds and occupations.

Clergy routinely printed and circulated their sermons on all topics as a way to encourage the faithful to live better lives. I always assumed that the reason their funeral sermons survived while the others that may have been printed didn’t is that ministers/their wives were more widely known then regular townspeople.
Their funeral and other sermons were likely circulated to clergy in other cities; seminaries; townspeople in prior towns where they had been stationed etc. The wider the circulation – the more likely a copy would be preserved.
These sermons would not just be homilies to promote religious values but “news” – that people would want to read to be informed and reminded of the lives well lived by the ministers that had served them over the years. This would give more opportunities for people to have kept them – making it more likely for these fragile pamphlets to have survived.
Newspaper accounts of funerals vary – some give the complete sermon and some stories give brief details of the service – like this account of Mark Twain and his wife “listening” to the funeral service of her mother – Olivia (Lewis) Langdon, by telephone. (Inter-Ocean, 12 Jan 1891).
Another newspaper account gave the details of the “Most Impressive Funeral Service Ever Held” – the funeral of the Rev. Thomas Allen Horne. It was also the most unusual since he realized that he would soon pass away and had recorded his sermon to be played at the funeral.

His powerful remarks, in his own voice, made “grown men weep” and “women faint”. The family had a recording of the Rev. Horne and his late wife singing the old hymn “There is a Better Land“.

Tip: Click & Read this:

Imagine the impact in 1890 of listening to the funeral sermon of the deceased – recorded in his own voice; the shock in 1890 of hearing the recorded voices of he & his wife singing their funeral hymn – the poignant, personal remarks in his sermon – again recorded in his own voice. No doubt, that would have been the “Most Impressive Funeral Service Ever Held”.

Click Here to read the entire story: Charlotte (NC) News 15 March 1890.

GenealogyBank has thousands of funeral sermons – elegies, memorials etc. Many of these are full digital copies and others are the full sermon or excerpts that appeared in the newspapers.
Here are some typical examples of what you will find in GenealogyBank.
Harris, Thaddeus Mason, (1768-1842). A tribute of filial respect, to the memory of his mother, in a discourse, delivered at Dorchester, Feb. 8, 1801, the Lord’s day after her decease. Charlestown, MA: Printed by Samuel Etheridge, 1801. 20p.
The biographical and genealogical details of the late Rebekah (Mason) Wait (1738-1801) begin on page 16. We learn that she was born on 28 Dec 1738 – the daughter of Thaddeus Mason “of Cambridge, who survives her, in his 95th year.”

On page 17 we learn that she was married twice. She married her first husband, William Harris of Cambridge, MA on 20 Aug 1767. He died 30 Oct 1778. She married her second husband, Samuel Wait of Malden, MA on 2 Mar 1780. She died on 2 Feb 1801 “leaving behind her a widowed husband and five children (four by her first marriage and one by the second) to mourn their loss.”

Maxcy, Jonathan, (1768-1820). A funeral sermon, occasioned by the death of Mr. John Sampson Bobo a member of the Junior Class in the South-Carolina College, who was unfortunately drowned in the Congress River, near Columbia. Columbia, SC: Faust, 1819. 16p.

Moore, Martin, (1790-1866). Death of the saints precious in God’s sight a sermon delivered in Natick, June 13, 1819, occasioned by the death of Mrs. Hannah Coolidge, wife of Mr. William Coolidge, aetatis 40. Dedham, MA: Mann, 1819. 15p.

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Best source for old newspapers online

GenealogyBank is the best source for early US newspapers on the planet.

Last week I wrote about digging in GenealogyBank and finding articles about my early American ancestors in Maine.

I had found family death and marriage announcements – this week I kept digging for more information about William Garcelon (1763-1851) his wife Maria (Harris) Garcelon (1763-1850) and his father Sea Captain James Garcelon (1739-1813) – and I found it!

Wow – in GenealogyBank I found this article from the Maine Gazette 22 July 1799

reporting that William Garcelon lost a horse in 1799 – “a black mare, with a white face and two white hind feet, about 15 years old” – it adds the key fact that he was living in Freeport, Maine in 1799.

Looking further I found a shipping article in the Essex (MA) Gazette (1769) stating that [Captain] J[ames] Garcelon had set sail on the Schooner Alexander for Bilbao, [Spain].

By family tradition we knew that he was a sea captain but here was proof and details of this voyage in 1769 – just 10 years after he had settled in America.

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Wow – A newspaper published in 1769?

I didn’t know that newspapers that old had survived – let alone that they were digitized and easily searchable online.

Tip: GenealogyBank has old newspapers going back to 1690 – easy to search, read, print and save!

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Then in the 25 Feb 1811 issue of the Maine Gazette was the advertisement that James Garcelon’s farm was for sale. It gives a terrific description: 150 acres, 20 of them wooded, “handsome young orchard”, a “very pleasantly situated” two story house and more. Wow, you could almost picture the property.

Why was James Garcelon (1739-1813) selling his home and property? Were he and his wife, Deliverance (Annis) Garcelon (1735-1828), moving in with one of his children? At age 72, had he become infirm and unable to manage the property? Probably so.

We get another clue from the probate notice in the 24 Jan 1814 Maine Gazette.

Sea Captain James Garcelon had died 17 November 1813. His son [Rev.] James Garcelon was the executor.
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Tip: GenealogyBank is a goldmine.

No other source has this many early US newspapers.

Only newspapers give this level of detail about the lives of Colonial Americans.
Wow – over 3,700 newspapers – the best newspaper site on the planet.

Search GenealogyBank now.
What will you find? _____________________________________________________