Genealogy Tips for Researching Letters in Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena searches old newspapers to show how much good family history information can be found in our ancestors’ letters published in newspapers.

Newspapers have a long history of publishing letters. Many of us are familiar, thanks to the movie National Treasure, with the “Mrs. Silence Dogood” letters that were actually penned by 16-year-old Benjamin Franklin. These 14 letters, published in his brother James’s newspaper New-England Courant during 1722, allowed the young Franklin to fulfill his dream of having his writing published. These letters were so convincing that several men proposed marriage to the “widow” who wrote them.

"Mrs. Silence Dogood" letter written by Benjamin Franklin, New-England Courant newspaper article 13 August 1722

New-England Courant (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 August 1722, page 1

For some people, letters published in the newspaper are the only opportunity they have to be a “published” author.

Correspondence is an important—yet often overlooked—resource for genealogy research. It’s through a letter found by a cousin that I learned more about a 4th great-grandmother’s family. Another letter published in a newspaper helped me to confirm a World War I solder’s service.

When you think of letters, think outside of the proverbial envelope. Yes, letters are often a home source or housed in archival collections. But remember that letters have long been published in the newspaper. Whether written specifically to the newspaper, or those that were never meant for public consumption, letters found in the newspaper can be an important addition to your family’s story. At the very least they provide a place and time for your ancestor. But they can also contain important details such as organizational affiliations, military service, and the names of other family members.

Did your ancestor write a letter that was published in the newspaper? There’s a good chance they did, considering the types of letters spotlighted in this article and others that we have discussed on this blog before, including letters to Santa and letters written home by soldiers.

All of the following examples are from GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives.

Letters to the Editor

While we tend to stereotype Letters to the Editor as something people write when they are passionate about an issue or angry about an article, these letters can have varied content. I love this example written by James H. Baum honoring a fellow “Forty-sixth Regiment” Civil War soldier.

letter to the editor written by James H. Baum, Patriot newspaper article 6 June 1912

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 6 June 1912, page 6

Baum wrote:

“Ned” Whitman was an universal favorite. Everybody liked him, officers and men alike. He was approachable at all times and never wore his honors on his sleeves…Among all those I saw no soldier in our army was more graceful on horseback as “Ned” Whitman. Horse and rider, when in motion seemed as one.

Imagine finding this wonderful tribute about an ancestor written by someone who served beside him during the Civil War! This letter shows that we can sometimes find information about an ancestor by searching those who were part of their community.

What about a letter that listed an organization that your ancestor belonged to? Such is the case in the following written by H. J. LaQuillon, who was the secretary to Local No. 174, Brotherhood of American Railway Express Employees. His 1918 letter to the New Orleans Times-Picayune voices his displeasure about an article that was published having to do with unions.

letter to the editor written by H. J. LaQuillon, Times-Picayune newspaper article 1 December 1918

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 1 December 1918, page 10

This letter not only provides us with his organizational affiliation—an important clue to his occupation—but also a glimpse into his life.

Letter Writing Contests

Did someone in your family (an adult or child) enter a letter writing contest? Newspapers and other groups once held letter writing contests. In these types of articles you may see the name and address of the person, whatever prize they won, and perhaps a sample from their letter.

In this example of a New Jersey letter writing contest, sponsored by the newspaper and an exposition that was being held, women discuss what they learned or give their recommendations about the local exposition. In this article, the newspaper listed letter writing winners along with their addresses and prizes.

Prize Winners Picked; Letters to Be Printed, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 2 February 1916

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 2 February 1916, page 1

Then little by little the Trenton Evening Times printed the actual letters in the newspaper.

Times Food Show (Winning) Letters, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 16 March 1916

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 16 March 1916, page 12

While one of your ancestors may have taken part in a local letter writing contest, don’t forget that national contests may have also occurred with the results listed in the newspaper. This article is about a 1938 letter writing contest sponsored by American Beauty Flour. Winners were from Texas, Missouri, and Illinois. This Texas newspaper made a point of highlighting the Texas winners.

Hillsboro Woman Wins First in Flour Letter-Writing Contest, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 14 January 1938

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 14 January 1938, section III, page 4

Post Office Letters

One of my favorite sources of names in newspapers is the list of those who hadn’t picked up their mail at the post office. While you won’t see the actual letter in this type of article, you will get your ancestor’s name. Maybe your ancestor was a procrastinator, and thanks to that trait you can place them in a specific time and place because they had letters waiting for them!

This 1840 list includes nine different post offices in Connecticut along with the names of the postmasters.

list of people who have mail waiting for them at the Post Office, Times newspaper article 1 January 1840

Times (Hartford, Connecticut), 1 January 1840, page 4

Contrast the above article with this newspaper list that is separated according to gender and then includes letters that are “unmailable.”

Genealogy Tip: Many of these lists of unclaimed letters held at the post office can be found in the Tables & Charts archive of GenealogyBank.

list of people who have mail waiting for them at the Post Office, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 20 August 1879

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 20 August 1879, page 4

Newspapers are great sources for information on the common man, woman and child. There’s a good chance that even if your ancestor wasn’t featured in an article, their name was published because of a letter they wrote or a letter they forgot to pick up.

Genealogy Tip: In order to pick up a reference to an ancestor mentioned by someone in another city or state, make sure to conduct your initial search broadly, without limiting your results by place.

Dear Mother: Family Letters and Your Genealogy

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena shows how your ancestors’ letters can help with your family history research—and how you can find them.

Have you ever used a letter in your family history research? Letters from friends and family as well as those from businesses and organizations can provide information for your genealogy that can’t be found in standard genealogical resources.

Letters from Familial Archives

In the introduction to their book Women’s Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present, editors Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler remark: “Like women talking over the back fence, the telephone, the breakfast plates, or the business lunch, women’s letters rarely just exchange information. Instead they tell stories; they tell secrets…they—usually without meaning to—write history.”[i]

photo of an old letter

Photo credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega

Letters from family and friends can provide wonderful clues for your family history. In the case of my own family history research, a letter held by a distant cousin from my 5th great-grandfather listed the names of his children and their birthdates. He also provided insight into his everyday life as an elderly widower living with one of his daughters.

Letters in Manuscript Collections

While some researchers may be fortunate to have inherited the familial archives, not everyone is lucky enough to have copies of family correspondence. Even if you have no access to the letters penned by your ancestors you may want to search for letters written to and from friends, neighbors and community members where your ancestor lived. These pieces of correspondence, found in manuscript collections, can provide social history information about events that affected your ancestor as well as the possibility of mentioning your family members.

photo of old letters

Photo credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega

To find a manuscript collection for the place your ancestor lived in, use a website like ArchiveGrid or the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) and search on the name of the place your ancestor was from (for example, city and state), not just the name of your ancestor. Look through these results to find any mention of correspondence for the time and place your ancestor was from. State historical societies are another good place to search for letters.

Letters in Newspapers

There can be other places to find correspondence. Surprisingly, one place to find letters is the newspaper. Remember that a newspaper is the voice of a community and as such all types of news can be found there, including letters. In some cases the letters are intended to be published in the newspaper, as in the case of Letters to the Editor.

Letters to the Editor, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 12 June 1915

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 12 June 1915, page 8

In others, the recipient has shared a letter they received that they thought would be of interest to their neighbors. During war time soldiers’ letters home were sometimes shared in the newspaper, as in this feature “Letters from Over There.” These published correspondences can provide you with a glimpse of what life was like for those in your ancestor’s community.

Letters from Over There, Baltimore American newspaper article 26 August 1918

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 26 August 1918, page 7

Even children are represented in letters published in newspapers, as in the case of letters to Santa.

Letters to Santa Claus, Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper article 20 December 1903

Colorado Springs Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colorado), 20 December 1903, page 12

Don’t assume that just because you did not inherit your ancestor’s letter correspondence that none exists. Check out archives, libraries and newspapers for more information about your ancestor’s life.


[i] Women’s Letters. America from the Revolutionary War to the Present. Edited by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J Adler. Page 1. Available on Google Books http://books.google.com/books?id=y8cGGFpBnBEC&lpg=PA415&dq=%22lydia%20E%20Pinkham%22&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q=%22lydia%20E%20Pinkham%22&f=false.

What about the Kids? Researching Your Family Tree’s Children

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about the family history challenge of researching your ancestors’ lives when they were children.

My sons have had the opportunity to visit more cemeteries and hear more genealogy presentations than most family historians. They’ve been a captive audience as I give genealogy talks to conferences, societies, and libraries. They even have a few of my genealogy presentations memorized. Unimpressed by the family history topics I cover, my youngest always asks: “why don’t you ever talk about researching kids?”

old photo of children from Gena Philibert-Ortega's collection

Old photo of children, from the author’s collection

It’s a fair question considering that all of our ancestors started life as children. My guess is that most family historians would reply that children don’t leave a record trail, or that their lives aren’t as documented as adults—and that is why genealogists don’t spend much time researching their ancestors’ early years.

But there are instances where children do leave a paper trail. A visit to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois, reinforced this fact to our family when we viewed a photographic exhibit of Civil War soldiers. Boys as young as 9 years served in the Civil War, and some of them were photographed.

photo of an unidentified young Civil War soldier in Union uniform and forage cap, from the Library of Congress

Photo: Unidentified young Civil War soldier in Union uniform and forage cap. Credit: Library of Congress.

From: Library of Congress. Flickr, The Commons. Accessed 23 March 2013.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/5229153190/

While children are too young to leave the type of documentation reserved for adults, they do leave behind records. A birth record or church christening announcement may start your search, depending on the time period. School records are another choice for researching kids. Don’t forget the variety of articles found in a local newspaper.

Obviously the era the child grew up in will determine what mentions could be found in the newspapers. But some ideas include:

Organizations

What organizations or clubs did the child belong to? By learning more about the history of the place your ancestor was from, you may identify groups that they may have taken part in, including organizations that were social, educational, ethnic or religious in nature.

The Boy Scouts of Black Wolf and B.P., Lexington Herald newspaper article 25 September 1910

Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 25 September 1910, page 4

Although far from comprehensive, here is a list of some groups from the 20th century:

School

In a previous blog article, “Searching Family History: Old School Records in the Newspaper,” I explored the types of newspaper articles that listed teachers and students.

As explained in that blog article, there are numerous types of articles mentioning children. From their achievements and awards, to sporting events and even misdeeds, you can find mentions of school children in local newspapers. One of the pluses to digitized newspapers is that a search of just a name can assist you in finding these mentions. Consider limiting your search by date as you explore GenealogyBank, allowing you to focus on an ancestor’s early years.

Letters to Santa

Reading letters to Santa from the late 19th and early 20th centuries reminds one how much better off materially most people are now.

Letters to Santa from the Children, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 16 December 1906

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 16 December 1906, page 9

These letters range from requests for toys or food to desperate pleas for almost anything their parents couldn’t afford. These letters often include the child’s name and, in some cases, an address. What a great find to see the requests of your family member to the jolly guy in the red suit!

Dear Old Santa Claus, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 21 December 1899

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 21 December 1899, page 2

Social History

As with any genealogy research, consider social history when learning more about children from past generations. Use the newspapers as a local history source to get a sense of what organizations and activities your ancestors may have been involved in during their younger years. Read histories of the time to learn more about what childhood was like during their era. By learning more about the locality of your ancestor, you can learn more about what types of activities they may have enjoyed. Gaps in specific family records can be filled with broader social history information.

Keep your own children’s interests in mind! Including stories about their ancestors’ childhoods will stimulate present and future generations of children to take more interest in the family history you are documenting and preserving.

Genealogy Search Tip: Are Your Queries Returning Too Many Records?

GenealogyBank has grown from 160 million records since its inception to over 1.3 billion records today. That is a lot of articles to search through to find information about your family history. Genealogists often approach GenealogyBank with a direct search—using a surname—searching across the entire database to make sure we don’t miss any genealogy records about the family.

Sometimes, though, the simplest search query returns too many records for you to reasonably examine them all. When that happens, GenealogyBank has created over a dozen targeted search pages to help you narrow down the number of results you get back. Here’s a quick list of these helpful targeted search pages to get you started:

You can also perform targeted ethnic family searches with our African American, Hispanic and Irish American search pages.

Use these special search pages to narrow down your search to a particular type of newspaper article, as the following example shows.

Let’s say you’re searching for all the arrivals and departures of the ship Hector. If you search GenealogyBank just using the word “Hector,” you’ll get 400,000 hits. But, if you search the word “Hector” using the handy Passenger Lists link on our home page or in the left navigation pane of the Newspaper Archives category, you can narrow those search results to 14,000 passenger and ship records that specifically mention the ship Hector.

GenealogyBank Passenger List search for "Hector"

GenealogyBank Passenger List search for “Hector”

Even 14,000 records are a lot to examine. Limit the search again by a range of years when your relatives likely arrived on the ship Hector and you’ll have a manageable number of articles to sift through. Let’s say you are reasonably sure your ancestors arrived in America on the ship Hector sometime between 1820 and 1825—go ahead and use that date range in your search query.

GenealogyBank search results page for Passenger List search on "Hector" from 1820-1825

GenealogyBank search results page for Passenger List search on “Hector” from 1820-1825

Save time and zero in on the articles you need. GenealogyBank has more than a dozen targeted search pages: use them to focus your searches for the type of newspaper article you are looking for.

GenealogyBank targeted search pages

GenealogyBank targeted search pages

Ephemera: A Surprisingly Fertile Genealogical Resource

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about an unusual—but a personal favorite—source of family history information: ephemera.

As I research my family history I look forward to finding unusual sources that reveal different aspects of my ancestor’s life beyond what an online index provides. One unusual source I find myself searching for is ephemera. In fact, I LOVE ephemera.

What’s ephemera you ask? Well one of the official definitions is “paper items (such as posters, broadsides, and tickets) that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles” (from Miriam Webster). At first glance that may seem to refer to only a few items but, according to the Ephemera Society of America, the Encyclopedia of Ephemera lists 500 categories of ephemera. Vintage ephemera can provide details of your ancestor’s life, even vital record information, or a specific place and time for them.

ephemera example: wedding anniversary invitation

Ephemera example: wedding anniversary invitation. From the author’s collection.

In genealogical terms it can include everything from your grandparents’ World War II ration books, a Christmas card your great-grandparents sent out, newspaper clippings of obituaries and marriage announcements, to the letters your 4th great-grandfather wrote from the battlefield during the Civil War. But it’s even more than that. In some cases it may be tidbits that provide social history information like a World War I recruitment poster or a menu from the first restaurant in your hometown.

ephemera example: restaurant menu

Ephemera example: restaurant menu. From the author’s collection.

Not everyone fully embraces ephemera in genealogical research. Why? These types of historical records can be difficult to find. In searching for ephemera that has your ancestor’s name on it you will need to start with home sources. When I refer to a home source, I’m not just suggesting looking for items in your home. Ask your family members about any types of items they may have inherited. In some cases family members may not realize what genealogical treasures they have. It might take several discussions where you reminisce or conduct an interview before they remember some of the items they have been holding on to.

I recently blogged about a letter I found in my childhood stamp collection that was given to me by my maternal grandmother. She had given me the letter to keep because of its interesting stamp. As I read this long-forgotten letter, I realized it contained important genealogical information from her own research on an English family line from the 1800s.

Cast your genealogical fishing line far and wide, and reach out to a distant unknown cousin who may have an heirloom or a forgotten item in their home. Utilizing social media can help get the word out about your research. Consider using a blog, website, Twitter or Facebook as just some of the ways to help other researchers find you.

ephemera example: graduation exercises brochure

Ephemera example: graduation exercises brochure. From the author’s collection.

Ephemera can also be found in collections housed at archives, libraries, societies and museums. One way to find these types of historical collections is to search either the repository’s catalog or a union catalog (one that includes multiple repositories), such as ArchiveGrid or the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC). When researching collections, search on the place your ancestor was from to find materials that might have originated with an acquaintance or neighbor. Also consider groups and organizations your ancestor was a member of when searching through collections.

ephemera example: postcard

Ephemera example: postcard. From the author’s collection.

Do you have ephemera from your family or someone else’s? Consider sharing this by scanning and posting it on the Internet. Several non-genealogy blogs share ephemera they have found or collected. Check out Forgotten Bookmarks, Paper Great, and Permanent Record for ideas of how others are sharing ephemera. By sharing their genealogical finds and collections they make it possible for descendants to be reunited with their family history.

If Captain James Garcelon was the first "Garcelon" to come to America – then who was Peter Garcelon?

Genealogies often begin with the comprehensive statement that “the first (insert surname here) to come to America was…”.

In our family that would be Captain James Garcelon born in 1739 on the Channel Island, Guernsey, England.

However in searching old newspapers you can find the details that just might change family traditions and supply the information you need to accurately document your family tree.

In GenealogyBank I found this article in the Pennslyvania Gazette (March 14, to March 21, 1737) – It is a list announcing the unclaimed letters at the post office.
That is two years before James was born.

So, time to track down exactly who Peter Garcelon was and just how he fits into the family tree.

Here is the entire article: