How Old Newspapers Can Help You Search U.S. Census Records

Like detectives, we approach family history by gathering all of the clues and making a case for who our relatives were: their names, when and where they were born, pushing through all of the activities of their lives until their deaths.

Pulling all of the facts and clues together helps us rediscover who each one of our relatives really were. What happened while they were alive—what do we really know about them?

The U.S. census is a terrific tool—basic for building an American family tree. It gives us a snapshot of our family at the time of recording. The census looks in on them one day of their lives, every ten years, over their lifetime. Couple this census information with old family letters, perhaps a journal, and birth, marriage & death certificates, and we begin to discover the basic facts about each person.

Add newspapers to our research and we can go beyond the basic genealogical facts: we get to learn their stories.

Newspapers were published every day. They tell us what happened each day in their town, their state, in the world. Old newspapers tell us what was happening in our relatives’ lives every day of their lives.

Since a census record is a one-day look at the family, we complement those basic facts with newspaper articles to fill in the details and get the rest of their stories, as shown in the following two examples.

William T. Crow (1802 – )

Here is the listing for William T. Crow and his wife Elizabeth Crow (1806- ) in the 1880 census.

photo of the 1880 census listing for William and Elizabeth Crow, from FamilySearch.org

Credit: FamilySearch.org

Digging deeper into GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, I found this old 1800s newspaper article about William Crow.

notice about William T. Crow, Aberdeen Weekly News newspaper article 2 October 1885

Aberdeen Weekly News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 2 October 1885, page 2

This article fills in more of the details of their lives:

  • He was a judge
  • Her maiden name was Elizabeth Blackwell
  • They married on 26 February 1826
  • They were close to the 60th anniversary of their wedding day
  • They had 6 children and 47 grandchildren living in 1885
  • 1 daughter died during childhood
  • 2 sons “sleep in soldiers’ graves”
  • They lived near Carnesville, Georgia, and all of the children lived within 1½ miles of the family home

That’s a lot of family information packed into one short paragraph. Marriage records in newspapers are a fantastic resource to trace your family tree.

Hannah Lyman (1743-1832)

Hannah (Clark) Lyman lived in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Her census record gives us a start at her story.

Here she is in the 1830 census, living in Northampton, Massachusetts.

photo of the 1830 Census listing for Hannah Lyman, from FamilySearch.org

Credit: FamilySearch.org

She is there—and the check marks tell us that there were others, unnamed, living in the house with her at that time.

Once again I turned to GenealogyBank’s historical newspapers to get more of her story, and found this 1800s news article published just two years after the census was taken.

obituary for Hannah Lyman, Hampshire Gazette newspaper article 21 March 1832

Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, Massachusetts), 21 March 1832, page 3

Like the trendy saying “it takes a village,” it takes multiple genealogical resources to fill in the details of the lives of our ancestors.

And wow—do newspapers deliver!

This newspaper article from GenealogyBank’s deep backfile of historical newspapers builds on her brief mention in the census, and tells us the core facts of her life along with a terrific family story of her memories of the “great earthquake of Nov. 18, 1755.”

Details—stories.

Newspapers tell us so much about our family history.

Genealogy Help: Two Captain Elisha Smiths—Which Is My Ancestor?

I was recently doing some family history research, looking for information about my ancestor Captain Elisha Smith—when I ran into a dilemma that genealogists occasionally face: two men with the same name from roughly the same time period.

Here’s how it happened, and here’s what I did to solve this riddle.

I was looking for my ancestor Captain Elisha Smith (1755-1834) who served in the American Revolutionary War.

Hmm…

Family records show that he was born in 1755, died in 1834, and lived in New Hampshire.

A quick search in GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives—Bingo—there he is.

obituary for Captain Elisha Smith, New Hampshire Patriot newspaper article 7 July 1834

New Hampshire Patriot (Concord, New Hampshire), 7 July 1834, page 3

OK. This old death record seems to fit.

He did live in New Hampton, New Hampshire.

The age is about right: “in the eightieth year of his age.”

Captain, and “soldier of the Revolution.”

Yes, that all fits my ancestor’s profile.

He’s called “a republican of the Jeffersonian school” and “a firm supporter of the present administration.”

OK, I have no idea what his politics were, but it is interesting to know that he was such a strong supporter of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.

“He was among the first settlers of the town in which he lived.”

OK, that fits. The family lived in New Hampton, New Hampshire, for generations.

He’s called “an enterprising and industrious farmer.”

OK; good testimonial to his character and work ethic.

So—this seems to be the old obituary of my ancestor.

“Hey, wait a minute…”

As the doctor said when my twin brother and I were born: “Hey, wait a minute, there’s another one.”

I found another historical obituary for a person named “Capt. Elisha Smith.”

Is this my “Captain Elisha Smith” ancestor that I was looking for?

Did I have the dates and places for him wrong?

obituary for Captain Elisha Smith, American Advocate newspaper article 16 April 1825

American Advocate (Hallowell, Maine), 16 April 1825, page 3

The name in the death record is the same, so is his title.

So that fits.

This Capt. Elisha Smith died in 1825 “aged 74.”

He was 74 years old in 1825, so his dates are approximately 1751-1825.

This could be a record for my ancestor—maybe the dates/places I had were wrong and this is the correct Elisha Smith.

He has the title “Captain.” Given his age he probably served in the American Revolutionary War; a local militia or other military role.

This Elisha Smith died in Lyman, Maine.

Lyman, Maine?

Hmm… that doesn’t fit as well.

As you can see from this map, Lyman, Maine, is about 70 miles from New Hampton, New Hampshire.

map showing distance between New Hampton, New Hampshire, and Lyman, Maine

Map showing distance between New Hampton, New Hampshire, and Lyman, Maine, from Google Maps

Was he traveling in Lyman, Maine, when he died?

I decided to see what else I could find about “Captain Elisha Smith,” so I Googled his name.

Bang. Up came a book written in 1915 by Mary Elizabeth Neal Hanaford: Family Branches of the Hanaford, Thompson, Huckins, Prescott, Smith…and Allied Families. (Rockford, Illinois: Author, 1915).

collage of pages from Mary Hanaford's 1915 book "Family Branches of the Hanaford, Thompson, Huckins, Prescott, Smith…and Allied Families"

Collage of pages from Mary Hanaford’s 1915 book “Family Branches of the Hanaford, Thompson, Huckins, Prescott, Smith…and Allied Families”

Genealogy Research Tip: Google has digitized hundreds of thousands of local histories and genealogies just like this one. Use Google Books as a quick source to see what conclusions other genealogists and local historians have made. It’s free, and can really help you with your own family history research.

Hanaford’s book is terrific. She published her research almost 100 years ago, in 1915, and she included a section on Captain Elisha Smith.

Hmm. She makes no mention of Lyman, Maine, for her Elisha Smith.

On page 145 she states: “Elisha Smith went to New Hampton [New Hampshire] from Brentwood Corner [New Hampshire] and settled at the foot of Beech Hill, in 1834.” Since he died 28 June 1834, he moved to New Hampton within weeks of his death. Perhaps it was his advancing age and possible ill health that prompted the move to New Hampton, to be closer to other family members.

Hanaford’s book has pages of references and citations that give more details on his life and that of the other members of the family.

I still need to check out those references, but with the additional corroboration in Hanaford’s book I can reasonably conclude that the first obituary I found in GenealogyBank for “Captain Elisha Smith,” the one published in the New Hampshire Patriot, is for my target ancestor Captain Elisha Smith that I was researching.