Filling In My Family Tree with Stories in Old Newspapers

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this blog post, Scott shares some of the family stories he’s learned by searching through old newspapers—stories that help him get to know his ancestors better than just the names and dates on a family tree.

Everyone who enjoys working on their family history knows that nothing enhances your family tree and attracts more family to your work than the stories you weave together in your research! My family tree is full of interesting stories—and I am always on the lookout for more of them to add to our family history every opportunity I get. One of the best places I have found for discovering these stories is in historical newspapers—and GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives are my “go to” source for those newspapers.

GenealogyBank’s newspapers have given me some of the biggest leads in my genealogy work, as well as having added real sparkle to, and interest in, our family tree.

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My Great Grandfather the Union Man

It was a newspaper discovery that really helped me break down the brick wall that was my maternal great grandfather, Joseph K. Vicha. My breakthrough genealogical find was this 1896 newspaper article that stated: “J. K. Vicha of the Clothing Salesmen’s union was nominated and elected by acclamation.” With this tidbit of knowledge that my great grandfather had been the president of the Central Labor Union, I was able to begin following his career through the years.

article about Joseph Vicha being elected president of the Central Labor Union, Plain Dealer newspaper article 9 January 1896

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 January 1896, page 3

It was then with particular interest that I read an article from the same date but published in a different Cleveland newspaper, titled “Peanut Reform. How the Central Labor Union Regards the School Bank.” It seems that with my great grandfather as president, the Central Labor Union was protesting the establishment of savings accounts at public schools…something that I well remember from my own younger school days. I guess he must not have been successful in his protest on this matter!

article about the Central Labor Union protesting the establishment of savings accounts at public schools, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 9 January 1896

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 January 1896, page 8

My Mother’s First Engagement

Another fascinating fact I found concerned my own mother. While I was looking for any possible newspaper articles regarding her marriage to my dad, I happened to find this 1942 article. It was a brief story regarding an engagement announcement made by my grandmother for my mother, Laverne Evenden. However, I quickly noticed it was to a man she never ended up marrying. What a fun family find! Plus it brought a great opportunity for me to hear the whole story of what happened from my mom later on.

engagement notice for Laverne Evenden and Lincoln Christensen, Plain Dealer newspaper article 4 January 1942

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 4 January 1942, page 50

My Cousin & Minnie

Of course one of my all-time favorite story finds in the newspaper for my family tree—as regular readers of this blog have heard me talk about before—was the story of one of my cousins, Joseph Kapl, who as a zookeeper was almost trampled to death by the “loveable” Minnie the elephant!

article about zookeeper Joseph Kapl and Minnie the elephant, Plain Dealer newspaper article 23 March 1915

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 23 March 1915, page 4

The West Side “Dean”

In one instance I was able to find, in an obituary, wonderful details about the life of another of my ancestors, Dr. J. J. Kotershall. While I am accustomed to finding worthwhile genealogical information in obituaries, Dr. Kotershall’s held some real gems. His 1945 obituary explained that he was “instrumental in bringing to Cleveland the city’s first X-ray units in 1903.” It also reported: “Born in Cleveland of Bohemian parentage, Dr. Kotershall had spent the major part of his practice among the Bohemian, Slavic, Polish, and German groups on the West Side.” The old news article even listed where he attended college and conducted his internship. It was a real gold mine.

obituary for Dr. Joseph Kotershall, Plain Dealer newspaper article 11 December 1945

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 December 1945, page 6

Pictures of the Pretty Twins

On another occasion I was working on a branch of our family tree that included two sisters, Josephine and Florence. I had the feeling they might be twins since their births were listed as the same on the 1920 U.S. Census. Then I discovered a 1937 article with the headline “Twins Choose Dissimilar Careers.” This old newspaper article confirmed my suspicion that the sisters were indeed twins, plus it featured photographs of the twins as well—and provided a very complete review of their formative years. The best, however, might have been the fact that it also listed their parents and home address.

article about the twins Florence and Josephine Kotershall, Plain Dealer newspaper article 7 June 1937

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 7 June 1937, page 3

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A Genuine Country Fair

In addition to our ancestors’ stories that we can find in newspapers, there are also those stories we can discover that add to our understanding of places and events in our own lives. For instance, as a youngster I remember when the week of the county fair was something that my buddies and I looked forward to all year long. The rides, the midway, the games, the booths, the animals, and naturally the food! In just a few minutes of searching in the newspapers I found an 1896 article showing that the fair began as the “West Cuyahoga County Fair” and was advertised in the newspaper back then as “a genuine country fair.”

article about the West Cuyahoga County Fair in Ohio, Plain Dealer newspaper article 16 September 1896

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 16 September 1896, page 10

As this 1927 newspaper advertisement shows, it is evident that the fair had become “the” fair since it was billed as simply the “Cuyahoga County Fair” complete with horse racing and the King’s Rodeo.

ad for the Cuyahoga County Fair in Ohio, Plain Dealer newspaper advertisement 28 August 1927

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 August 1927, page 10

It was even more fun when I came across a 1967 news article. Oh, how that one brought back memories! My best boyhood friend Matt and I would marvel at the sideshow barkers while we tried to make up our minds as to which show we would spend some of our hard-earned paper route money to see! Those were the days!

article about the sideshow barkers at the Cuyahoga County Fair in Ohio, Plain Dealer newspaper article 18 August 1967

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 18 August 1967, page 8

Over and over, newspapers provide us with key leads, great stories, and many details about the times of both our own lives and our ancestors.

What are some of your favorite stories you have found in the newspapers as you work on your genealogy and family history? I’d love to hear them so please leave a comment!

Related Articles about Family Stories in Newspapers:

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Divorce Records in Newspapers: Genealogy Research Tips

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this blog post, Scott describes how divorce announcements in old newspapers helped him fill in his family tree.

Early on in my work as a genealogist I made the decision to subscribe to GenealogyBank.com to see what they might have in their online Historical Newspaper Archives that could help me with my family history research. I subscribed as a member well over four years ago now and it is still one of the genealogy databases I use most often for my research, and continually tops my annual review of my best genealogy investments. The wide range and the natural diversity of what those newspapers report often hold significant clues to helping me break down my genealogy brick walls.

While all of the marriage and wedding newspaper articles are of course helpful in tracing my family lines, so are the news articles that cover the other end of the spectrum: divorce notices and court proceedings.

It seems that today there is a lot of talk about the prevalence of divorce in our modern society, and that this is a recent development. However, when we look at a few historical newspaper articles we can see that divorce is not a new phenomenon at all—it has been the situation for some time.

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Old News Shows Divorce Isn’t New

As I began my genealogy research on this topic one of my first discoveries was an 1890 Ohio newspaper article that began with these lines:

Never before in the history of the state courts in this county has the divorce branch of the court been so busy. It must be that the tie binding the marriage relation to society is growing more and more frail.

Sounds like a comment that might be made today—but it was another line in the article’s headline that really captured my attention. It said: “Mrs. Vicha, Who Had a Husband Living.” Mrs. Vicha is on my family tree; it seems a couple of my own ancestors were adding to this growing trend of divorce, but I will talk more about this a bit later.

More and More Divorce Cases Begun and Decrees Granted, Plain Dealer newspaper article 11 October 1890

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 October 1890, page 6

Three years later, this 1893 article lamented: “The divorce business is on the increase in the Cuyahoga county courts, new cases being filed faster than the old ones are disposed of.”

Divorce Grind, Plain Dealer newspaper article 20 May 1893

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 20 May 1893, page 4

A few years later, this 1905 Georgia newspaper published an article titled “Record Breaking Divorce Session. Thirty Divorce Suits Acted Upon in Three Hours Time Yesterday by Superior Court.” As you might expect this was not welcome news, and the article included the following statement: “It would seem as if there was a divorce epidemic in the city.”

Record Breaking Divorce Session, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 29 October 1905

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 29 October 1905, page 6

Ten years later, a 1915 Washington newspaper published this article headlined “Olympia’s Divorce Record. During Year [There] Has Been One Divorce For Every Four Marriages in Thurston County.” One of the items of note in this article is the final sentence which reads:

But for each divorce granted it is estimated that the average will run close to one minor child left without the double protection of both parents, showing that divorce is responsible in a way for the rapidly increasing populations of children’s homes.

Olympia's Divorce Record, Olympia Daily Recorder newspaper article 27 December 1915

Olympia Daily Recorder (Olympia, Washington), 27 December 1915, page 1

I make this introduction to illustrate the fact that divorce has been fairly common for generations and as such we, as genealogists, need to be aware of that and always on the lookout for it as a possibility in our family trees. Plus, oftentimes you can find some very good information from a divorce proceeding that has been reported in the newspaper.

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A Double Marriage, Divorce & Attempted Murder

Let me go back to the case of Mrs. Vicha mentioned above, who apparently was not exactly single at the time she married Mr. Vicha. He was one of my ancestors, Frantisek (later Frank) Vicha. The Mrs. in the case was Katie Slamsidlova. Reading this historic news article whet my genealogy appetite to take a look and see whether I might find a reported prior marriage for Katie. The divorce article reported that Frank testified: “He solemnly avers that when he married Mrs. Vicha she already had a husband whose name was Krejci.”

It didn’t take long before I was able to find out that, while Katie married my ancestor Frank Vicha in 1883, in 1877 she had also married a Frank. The only problem was the first Frank had the surname of Krejci. So it would appear that Frank Vicha’s testimony in the divorce case had been correct, at least as far as Katie’s prior marriage. However there was another small matter I discovered in that 1890 newspaper article. It was this line: “Again Vicha says that after the marriage his wife favored another man and gave birth to a child whom he disowned, but which is now dead.”

This time the records said something quite different. Yes, there was a child, born in 1885, and it was a boy with the given name of Charles. The birth record lists Katherine Slamsidlova Vicha and Frank Vicha as parents. Oh, and this child happened to live to 1971. To add to the mysterious ways of this case, I also found that in 1917 Frank applied for a military pension based on his service fighting the Northern Cheyenne during the “Indian Wars” and listed Charles as one of his sons. To add one more oddity, Katherine continued to live with members of the extended Vicha family and continued to use the Vicha surname up to and including it being on her death record.

I don’t want to forget to add one more item of interest. I found this 1895 article that contained this line:

Frank Vicha is on trial in the criminal court for attempting to shoot his divorced wife, Kate Slamincha [sic].

article about Frank Vicha's trial for attempted murder, Plain Dealer newspaper article 10 December 1895

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 10 December 1895, page 5

Great-Grandpa Vicha

Here is another example of learning family history from divorce proceedings reported in newspapers. In the earliest days of my genealogy work I was understandably pleased when I came across this 1887 article that was simply titled “Licensed to Marry.” This article reported that a marriage license was issued at the Probate Court Office the day before for Joseph K. Vicha and Anna Knechtl. Joseph and Anna are my maternal great-grandparents.

marriage license announcement for Joseph Vicha and Anna Knechtl, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 29 April 1887

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 29 April 1887, page 5

Unfortunately, according to family lore, this marriage ended in divorce—but as can often happen, this unfortunate fact provided me with continued good information for my genealogy.

This great grandfather of mine is my “brick wall.” He disappeared from any United States Census after 1900 and his last listing in the City Directories of Cleveland is in 1907. It wasn’t until I discovered the divorce proceedings in the archives of the Court of Common Pleas for Cuyahoga County, Ohio, that I learned a divorce had been granted to my great grandmother Anna on 22 June 1911 “after an absence of 3 years” by Joseph. These files, as you can see from the excerpt included here, have many details of interest to a genealogist.

photo of the divorce record for Anna Knechtl and Joseph K. Vicha

Photo: divorce record for Anna Knechtl and Joseph K. Vicha. Credit: Scott Phillips.

To add an interesting twist, this divorce proceeding was after Joseph had quitclaimed his half-interest in the family home to his wife for only $1, according to the online records of the Recorders Office for Cuyahoga County.

I was about to call it a day when I made one more discovery: an article from a 1901 Ohio newspaper. Listed under “New Cases” for the Cleveland courts was this: “76192 – D. H. Tolman vs. J. K. Vicha. Appeal.”

article about a court case involving Joseph Vicha and D. H. Tolman, Plain Dealer newspaper article 19 October 1901

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 19 October 1901, page 9

This simple listing rang two bells in my memory. The first memory was from an old Ohio history book I had read that had mentioned the name of D. H. Tolman in very negative terms.

This was borne out when I read an article from a 1913 Georgia newspaper that began with this sentence: “Daniel H. Tolman, ‘King of the Loan Sharks,’ must serve six months in the penitentiary for usury.”

article about D. H. Tolman being sentenced for loan sharking, Macon Telegraph newspaper article 30 November 1913

Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), 30 November 1913, section: Holiday Number, page 9

The second memory was of my mother’s voice telling me a story long ago of her missing grandfather. She had asked her Uncle Ed why he never went looking for his father, Joseph Vicha. His response to my mother was: “Why would I? What if I found him and he owed someone a lot of money?” I wonder if Uncle Ed knew something he wasn’t telling?

So don’t keep secrets!

I’d enjoy reading any comments you have about what genealogy information and clues you have found from old divorce records in newspapers.

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Breaking through Genealogy Brick Walls & Finding Family Tree Firsts

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott shows how old newspapers helped him break through a genealogy brick wall that had stumped him for years—and led to an amazing find: the only known photograph of his great grandfather Vicha!

Several years ago I discovered GenealogyBank.com’s extensive historical newspaper archives through a referral by a wonderful newspaper reporter in Tennessee. While I don’t recall his name now, I thank him every time I am working on my genealogy and family history.

Subscribing to GenealogyBank has been one of the best decisions I have ever made for my ancestry and genealogy. Why? Let me give you a few examples of how GenealogyBank has helped me break through brick walls and discover a multitude of “firsts” for my family tree.

Incredible Family Tree Find: Only-Known Photograph of This Ancestor

This is the only known photograph my family has of my great grandfather Joseph K. Vicha.

photo of Joseph K. Vicha

Photo: Joseph K. Vicha. Credit: from the author’s collection.

Let me tell you how GenealogyBank’s old newspapers led to this amazing photo of my great grandfather.

Genealogy Brick Wall Busting: My Great Grandfather Vicha

When I began working in earnest on our family history, my Mother, God rest her soul, was fascinated by what I was finding and asked me for only one genealogy favor. That favor was to find out what I could about her grandfather, Joseph K. Vicha. As a family, we knew nothing beyond his name, the name of his wife, and the fact that he was Bohemian. I struggled for the first years of my family history work trying to discover much of anything about my great grandfather Vicha—until that day when I was directed to GenealogyBank by that wonderful newspaperman (to look for an entirely different person, I might add).

When I searched on my great grandfather’s name in GenealogyBank’s online archives, I was astonished to find over 110 results returned! As I opened each article, it was as if I were back on the streets of Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1880s, right there with the ancestor I had been searching for.

I discovered his work as a union organizer in an 1896 newspaper article that told me he was the president of the Central Labor Union.

[Joseph K.] Vicha Will Resign; Will Retire from the Presidency of the C.L.U., Plain Dealer newspaper article 28 November 1896

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 November 1896, page 2

In an 1897 newspaper article I discovered that my great grandfather Vicha was later appointed by the governor of Ohio as the superintendent of the Free Employment Bureau, where he pledged to “do everything in his power to do something for the good of the laboring people.”

His Commission: Joseph K. Vicha Receives It from the Governor and Expects to Assume the Duties of His Office Today, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 4 January 1897

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 4 January 1897, page 10

I also made the sad discovery that there was a son, Joseph K. Vicha, Jr., who died at the age of two—and whom no one in the family had known about until I found his death notice in this 1890 newspaper.

death notice for Joseph K. Vicha, Plain Dealer newspaper article 25 February 1890

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 February 1890, page 6

Then I even found a story about my great grandfather being held up at gunpoint in an 1898 newspaper article!

[Joseph K.] Vicha Held Up, Plain Dealer newspaper article 24 November 1898

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 24 November 1898, page 3

The Genealogy Thrill of a Lifetime: Finding My GGF’s Photograph

But the best discovery of all was hidden in an 1891 newspaper article I found in the archives.

Ten Thousand Bohemians Celebrate the Anniversary of the Birth of Huss, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 6 July 1891

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 6 July 1891, page 8

I was thrilled at the mention of my great grandfather in this article: “The formation of the [parade] column was under the direction of the chief marshal of the day, Mr. Joseph K. Vicha.”

Most importantly, this old newspaper article provided the clue that led to one of my most exciting discoveries in all of my genealogy efforts. In the news article’s description of who was in the parade column, I saw a reference to the Knights of Pythias. Not being familiar with this group I began to do more research, eventually finding a book published in 1892 with the title History of the Knights of Pythias.

As I began reading this book, I heard genealogy bricks falling down everywhere. Then it happened—there on page 180 I found myself looking at my great grandfather! I had made an amazing genealogy discovery: the only known photograph of my great grandfather Vicha that anyone in my family alive today has ever seen!

It is hard to describe the overwhelming emotions and the great thrill I felt when I was finally “meeting” my great grandfather for the first time. My voice was still trembling when I phoned my Mother to tell her the news of such a great family tree find. What a happy day that was—and I owe it all to GenealogyBank!

Finding Fabulous Firsts for Family History

I have subscribed to GenealogyBank continually ever since my initial genealogy research successes with those early discoveries of my great grandfather. I am thrilled that I have remained a constant subscriber, since GenealogyBank continues to add new content to the online archives every day—and this has enabled me to add more and more first-time discoveries to our family tree.

Many of my earlier GenealogyBank Blog posts discuss in detail many of these fabulous family firsts that now add incredible value, texture, and meaning to what I like to call the tapestry of our family history. For example:

I’d sure enjoy hearing about your own genealogy research successes: what is the best brick wall buster that GenelaogyBank.com helped you to find?

Genealogist Chips Away at His Family History ‘Brick Wall’

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott tells how the discovery of a faded news clipping in the drawer of an old desk provided an important clue about his family history.

The most impenetrable brick wall in my personal genealogy quest began as, and continues to be, my maternal great grandfather, Joseph K. Vicha.

When I was starting my genealogy the sum total of our family’s knowledge about my great grandfather Vicha was his name, his wife’s name (Anna Knechtl), and a penciled note of unknown date and author that simply stated “Joseph K. Vicha – Pisec (sic).” Nothing more.

Over the years of my searching, I can happily report that I have been successful in finding my great grandfather’s birth family, home village in Bohemia (Czech Republic now) of Milevsko, and have traced this family line back to the mid-1600s in Bohemia. However, he still disappears from view in 1911. But what wonderful things I am finding in the years between his birth in 1862 and his disappearance in 1911!

What I am discovering to be an extraordinarily useful method in my work is to expand the search terms I am using in GenealogyBank.com and other places.

A couple of examples might help me explain this best.

Quite by chance, my cousin was rummaging through an old family desk when he came across an envelope. It held a barely legible, torn, and undated newspaper clipping. This article showed me that my great grandfather was a labor union activist with something called the C.L.U. in Cleveland, Ohio.

old, faded newspaper clipping about J. K. Vicha, the author's ancestor

Old, faded newspaper clipping that provided the author his first clue in tracing his ancestor J. K. Vicha

Upon learning this I immediately started searching anew on GenalogyBank.com. I searched using terms such as C.L.U., Central Labor Union, and Joseph K. Vicha in the search boxes and I struck gold!

My first hit was an article from the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, dated 28 November 1896 and headlined “Vicha Will Resign. Will Retire From the Presidency of the C.L.U.” I still feel pleased when I think back on that discovery, and am thankful the newspaper articles in GenealogyBank.com are very carefully digitized and come complete with attribution of newspaper and date.

Vicha Will Resign, Plain Dealer newspaper clipping 28 November 1896

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 November 1896, page 2

This early article held the new clue that my great grandfather was seeking an appointment from Ohio’s governor, Asa S. Bushnell, to become the superintendent of the Free Employment Bureau. On I went with new searches looking into the Free Employment Bureau in Cleveland and sure enough there was more to be learned! Soon I was discovering that my great grandfather was also a close political advisor to Robert E. McKisson, a two-term mayor of the City of Cleveland from 1895 to 1898.

Mayor McKisson Had His Picture Taken at a Bohemian Reunion, Plain Dealer newspaper article 27 June 1898

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 27 June 1898, page 5

I was fast learning to follow each seemingly unrelated, but actually related, clue in article after article. For instance, moving from Vicha I found myself searching on Central Labor Union, then moving to C.L.U., Mayor Robert McKisson, Labor Unrest, Cloakmakers’ Strike, Lumbermen’s Strike, Czech, Bohemian, and the name of each company where my great grandfather was reported to have been working. One especially nice aspect of GenealogyBank.com is that it not only contains papers from the major Cleveland daily, the Plain Dealer, but it also has issues from the Cleveland Gazette and the Cleveland Leader.

Real Condition Given by Superintendent Vicha of the Cleveland Free Employment Office, Cleveland Gazette newspaper article 15 December 1900

Cleveland Gazette (Cleveland, Ohio), 15 December 1900, page 1

While searching each new term, it was exciting to find that while my great grandfather did start out as a tailor just like his father, he:

  • became a Union organizer
  • was active in some of the most contentious labor strikes in the history of Cleveland
  • was elected the president of the Central Labor Union
  • received a gubernatorial appointment as the superintendent of the State of Ohio Free Employment Bureau in Cleveland
  • fought against sweatshops and child labor in Cleveland
  • authored a bill for the Ohio State Legislature to provide for the teaching of Bohemian (Czech) in the public schools
  • worked as a political advisor to Mayor McKisson
  • was instrumental in the mayor’s campaigning in the Bohemian community of Cleveland
  • and, while making some of the most powerful enemies one could have (such as Mark Hanna, Max Hayes, and United States President William McKinley), great grandfather Vicha was also recognized as one of the most influential Bohemians in Cleveland at that time

Unfortunately, my great grandfather does simply disappear in 1911. Family legend has it that he was branded “persona non grata” by his political and business-community enemies in Cleveland and was forced to leave in order to find work and survive.

Undeterred, I am continuing my hunt—chipping away at the brick wall that is Joseph K. Vicha after 1911. I just have this feeling that the resources of GenealogyBank.com are going to hold the key for me!