For the 12 Days of Christmas: 12 Types of Newspaper Articles for Genealogy Research, Part II

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena gives examples of six types of newspaper articles that can help with your family history research.

Still looking for your ancestor in the newspaper? Or maybe you’re looking to find more mentions of your family? In yesterday’s Part I of our “12 Days of Christmas” blog article, we looked at six types of newspaper articles that give us some of the basic facts of a person’s life: birth, marriage, death, etc.

Now let’s look at six more types of newspaper articles that fill in more of the details of what your ancestors’ lives were like. All of these examples were found in the pages of GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

7) Family Reunion Articles

I went to a family reunion last spring and that event was a great meeting between cousins who were new to each other – and an opportunity to trade photos and stories. Unfortunately, the local newspaper wasn’t there documenting that time we spent together, nor did anyone think of providing that story to them. However, it is not unusual to find family reunion activities documented in old newspapers. Large family reunions or milestone events that were the catalyst for a reunion (think of an elder family member’s birthday, 50th wedding anniversary, etc.) were newsworthy. Articles about these events in the local newspaper often include names, dates, history and memories.

For example, this Jackson family reunion article from a 1903 Texas newspaper tells the migration story of the family that ended in Dallas. The article gives the names, and the birth year and month, of each of the five Jackson family members pictured. It also gives a tremendous amount of family history, beginning with the family patriarch, John Jackson, his birth in England in 1806, and the perilous journey the family took in 1848 to come to Texas. Note that this article points out “His sons and daughters married, and had children, and these children did the same thing” – valuable clues to other records to search for in tracing this family’s history.

article about the Jackson family reunion, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 3 September 1903

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 3 September 1903, page 6

8) School Days Articles

All types of newspaper articles document the school days of children and young adults. You might find articles about school sports competitions or awards won for various events. Lists of graduates are also popular newspaper fodder. As you consider school-based newspaper articles, remember to not make assumptions about your ancestor’s school career (such as presuming they never attended school), and don’t assume that their school days were like your own (that assumption can result in missing articles unique to their time period). Lastly, remember that newspaper articles may focus on students, teachers, staff, and the school board.

This 1897 New York newspaper article about the graduates of Miss Hunter’s Training School gives the names of women who graduated from this Kindergarten teacher training school. The graduates’ and post-graduates’ names and city of residence are listed.

article about women graduates from a training school, New York Tribune newspaper article 8 June 1897

New York Tribune (New York, New York), 8 June 1897, page 5

Obviously your ancestor’s name mentioned in a graduate list or attached to a school activity would be great to find – but don’t forget about photos in the newspaper. The GenealogyBank search engine provides you the ability to narrow your search results by photos and illustrations. By narrowing a search to the phrase “high school football” I found this great photo of the 1901 Baker City High School football team from Oregon. The caption reads “In the group here presented are the husky fellows who make up the Baker City High School football team, together with the coach and manager of the eleven and Professor Churchill, principal of the High School.” Surnames and positions played by the students are listed.

article and photo about the Baker City High School football team, Oregonian newspaper article 2 December 1901

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 2 December 1901, page 3

9) Legal Notices

We’ve talked about legal notices before on this blog and how important they can be to your genealogy research. Those largely ignored, small dense notices in the back of the newspaper call to attention all kinds of important legal matters, including court actions. These notices, most useful for searching for your mid-19th century ancestors and beyond, are the place to find probate actions. If you’re having problems finding a probate in the courthouse archive where your ancestor lived, take a look at the legal notices in newspapers.

legal notices, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 3 August 1908

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 3 August 1908, page 7

10) Delinquent Tax Notices

This is a list most of us would rather not find ourselves on. But just like modern families, our ancestors faced difficult economic times. Lists of those with delinquent taxes can be found in the newspaper and those mentions include a name, address and even the amount owed. Such articles should be followed up by searching land grants as well as additional newspaper articles having to do with the possible sale of the property for the money owed. A seemingly sudden move to a different address or completely out of an area might be explained by finding your ancestor’s name on such a list.

list of delinquent taxes, Albuquerque Journal newspaper article 2 September 1910

Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, New Mexico), 2 September 1910, page 3

11) Letters to the Editor

Did your ancestor have a strong opinion about something? Maybe they just wanted to inform the community about an issue or event. There were several ways a person could get their name in the newspaper and writing a letter to the editor was one.

Judging from the various letters to the editor columns I read, some newspapers allowed letter writers to use a symbolic moniker, some provided anonymity by printing only the writer’s initials, while others insisted on the full name and address of the individual. I love this 1915 letter to the editor article that explains to a person who signed their letter “Neutral” why their anonymous letter wasn’t published. As you can see by the editor’s explanation, those wishing to have a letter published had to include their name and address.

letters to the editor, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 30 August 1915

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 30 August 1915, page 8

It’s important to remember to try various ways of searching for your family, including narrowing and widening your ancestry search. If you only narrow your search to a name and place, you may miss mentions of your ancestor in places you would least expect to find them.

For example, this 1925 Letter to the Editor column from a San Diego newspaper is a good example. The letter reminisces about the author’s 1929 trip to San Diego. The writer states that “In my opinion the two grandest sights in the United States are the Grand canyon of Arizona and San Diego bay from Pt. Loma.” Family of Mr. Lawrence J. Callanan of New York might be interested in this trip, which would provide some background to any photos or souvenirs passed down.

letter to the editor from Lawrence Callanan, San Diego Union newspaper article 24 August 1935

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 24 August 1935, page 5

12) Post Office Letters

I have a friend who lets her mail pile up for a week before begrudgingly picking it up. By the time she finally goes to the post office, her box is sometimes filled to capacity and some of the more urgent items have gone unchecked. One day in the future the idea of mail being delivered to our homes will probably be all but a distant memory.

Just like my friend, our ancestors didn’t always pick up their mail. Why? Lots of reasons come to mind, including that the person moved or died. This 1904 Alaska newspaper article with a list of names of people from Juneau who have not picked up their mail explains that after two weeks, the mail will be forwarded to the dead letter office in Washington, D.C. These types of lists found in the newspaper can be great clues for your ancestral timeline.

article about unclaimed letters at the post office, Daily Alaska Dispatch newspaper article 15 March 1904

Daily Alaska Dispatch (Juneau, Alaska), 15 March 1904, page 4

Most of us have heard at one time or another about the “dead letter office.” The Second Continental Congress established the position of inspector of dead letters, who would deal with undeliverable mail. Later, the first dead letter office in Washington, D.C. made its debut in 1825. Postmasters published lists of names in the newspaper of people who had letters waiting to be picked up, with warnings that unclaimed letters would be sent to the dead letter office.*

article about unclaimed letters at the post office, Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper article 21 March 1738

Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 21 March 1738, page 2

So where will you find your ancestor in the newspaper? Newspapers are a rich source of information and your ancestor could be mentioned in any type of article. But before you give up on finding that elusive ancestor, search for them in the 12 types of newspaper articles we outlined yesterday and today. Utilize tools provided in the GenealogyBank search engine to narrow and broaden your search. And remember to search on versions of your ancestor’s name, including initials.

Good luck in your search!

———————-

* Dead letter office gave rise to official seals. Linn’s Stamp. http://www.linns.com/en/insights/stamp-collecting-basics/2005/july/dead-letter-office-gave-rise-to-official-seals.html

Related Articles:

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.

A Wife & Mother’s Plea in the Newspaper after the War of 1812

The War of 1812 had been over for more than a year, and Catharine Logan had heard nothing from her husband or son since they marched off to fight the British in the summer of 1812. For four years she’d been waiting and hoping for news about her missing family…so she wrote a letter to the editor of the National Advocate newspaper pleading for information to “relieve the distresses of an anxious parent and wife.”

To the Public, National Advocate newspaper article 8 November 1816

National Advocate (New York City, New York), 8 November 1816, page 3

In search of her loved ones, Catharine had been to Sacket’s Harbor in Jefferson County, New York—the site of two battles in the War of 1812 and the location of an important shipyard for building warships.

Nothing. She found no information about them at Sacket’s Harbor.

So Catharine pressed on in her search for her missing family, going next to Plattsburgh, New York, the site of the decisive Battle of Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain that was fought in 1814.

painting of naval battle on Lake Champlain by B. Tanner, 1816

Illustration: Naval Battle on Lake Champlain, by B. Tanner, 1816. Credit: Wikipedia.

Still she found no information about either her husband or son.

Having searched for her family in vain Catharine next turned to the newspapers, writing a letter to her local newspaper editor—because she felt “induced in this public manner to appeal to the generous and humane—that any persons, who may have seen or heard of them, may give me information.”

Look closely at the note the editors added to her letter. They encouraged other newspaper editors to print Catharine’s letter to give it a wider circulation:

Catharine Logan's plea for information, National Advocate newspaper article 8 November 1816

National Advocate (New York City, New York), 8 November 1816, page 3

And fellow newspaper editors responded:

  • 13 November 1816: Catharine’s letter appeared on the front page of the Baltimore Patriot (Baltimore, Maryland) and on page 3 of the National Standard (Middlebury, Vermont)
  • 14 November 1816: the Baltimore Patriot (Baltimore, Maryland) repeated it on page 4
  • 20 November 1816: the National Standard (Middlebury, Vermont) repeated it on page 1 and again a week later on 27 November 1816 on page 4; and again on 1 January 1817 on page 4
  • 26 November 1816: the Vermont Gazette (Bennington, Vermont) ran it on page 2
  • 2 December 1816: the Irish American newspaper The Shamrock (New York City, New York) published it on page 371
  • 16 December 1816: it was published in Spooner’s Vermont Journal (Windsor, Vermont) on page 3

Newspapers carried the news back in the 1800s. Newspaper editors up and down the United States East Coast took compassion on Catharine Logan and spread the word about her search for her missing husband and son.

You can find great stories about your ancestors in letters to the editor, missing person ads, and other articles found old newspapers. These articles offer stories that bring the names and dates on your family tree alive and let you get to know them as real people.

Genealogist Challenge:

Did Catherine ever reunite with her long-lost husband and son? What happened to Timothy and Peter Logan, and where did they go?