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?