Genealogy Records: A History of Regional Coverage in the U.S.

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this guest blog post, Duncan discusses the availability of genealogy records in various regions of the U.S. She concludes with a genealogy case study showing how old newspapers helped her break through a brick wall in her own family history research.

When researching family history in the United States, you will find vast differences in the availability of genealogy records in various regions. This is due to a myriad of reasons, including: who initially settled the area, what government was created, what occurred during the region’s history, what records were preserved, and the availability of those documents today to the researcher.

In this blog article, I’ll provide a quick overview of three major geographic areas in the United States: New England, the South, and the West. In each region, I will briefly discuss three issues from a genealogist’s perspective: settlement, government, and history. Keep in mind, to cover hundreds of years of history in such vast regions is not fully possible in a few paragraphs. Therefore, you will want to do additional research about your area of interest.

Although the extent of official government records and other vital records about your ancestors may vary from region to region, there is one constant that is true for all areas of the country: old newspapers, such as the large online collection in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, are a great genealogical resource.

At the end of this article, I’ll present a case study from my own family history research, showing how two 1895 newspaper articles let me finally break through a brick wall I had with one of my ancestors.

Genealogy Record Coverage in New England

the painting "Autumn in New England" by Maurice Prendergast

Painting: “Autumn in New England,” by Maurice Prendergast. Credit: Wikipedia.

Many diverse groups settled New England originally. Some came looking for the freedom to practice their religion, others to create a new utopia—but they had many things in common. The settlers generally believed that their local government was created for the benefit of society and should be actively supported, participated in, and abided by. Also, they were largely a well-educated people. These factors led to the creation of excellent community and church records, which delight current genealogical researchers.

For example, records exist for the large majority of marriages that occurred in New England prior to 1700! One book, New England Marriages Prior to 1700 by Gary Boyd Roberts, provides a “comprehensive listing of the 37,000 married couples, their marriage date or the birth year of a first child, the maiden names of 70% of the wives, the birth and death years of both partners and their residence.” From the earliest days of their settlements, these educated, orderly people were keeping detailed records. The keeping of vital records (birth, marriage, and death certificates) was instituted statewide in this region earlier than anywhere else in the country, beginning in the mid- to late-1800s in most cases. Contrast that history of record-keeping with some of the other regions of our nation, and you can see how unusual these records are.

New England has also had many thriving newspapers throughout its history, which provide coverage from 1690 to the present.

Genealogy Record Coverage in the South

the painting "A Home on the Mississippi" by Currier & Ives

Painting: A Home on the Mississippi, by Currier & Ives. Credit: Wikipedia.

The diverse groups that settled the South came for entirely different reasons than most New Englanders. They were here for economic reasons. The government and laws they created were primarily to protect their business interests. It was for the most part an elitist society where only the wealthy were allowed to vote and authoritarian rule was the norm. The majority of the population consisted of undereducated, poor workers and slave laborers who were not represented. Southerners were naturally distrustful of government and did not institute the official keeping of vital records until much later. Some Southern states did not begin recording this information until the early- to mid-1900s! Even census records can be challenging to use because Southerners would often provide middle names in one census and first names in the next, or only initials—particularly in the 1860 and 1870 censuses.

During the Civil War, Union soldiers intentionally targeted Southern courthouses to destroy records naming slaves as property. The first records that were reconstructed following the war were land and property records. Land was wealth that needed to be authenticated and protected. These reconstructed land records list the person currently owning the land and often an explanation of where they got it. This can include land received from a relative and, in some cases, their relationship to that person, which is invaluable documentation for genealogists. Land records are often called the “bread and butter” of the South by family historians, meaning they are the necessary documents to use in your research.

Tax records may have survived which will show men coming of age, and can be used to get an approximate age of an individual and the names of potential family members. Kentucky is one example where excellent tax records are available. Court and probate records, where they still exist, are priceless and can provide an abundance of crucial information. Southern church records can be another excellent source of birth, marriage and death information (as well as membership details). Of course, newspapers are also excellent records.

In addition to courthouses, Union soldiers also targeted newspaper printing presses, because newspapers were the main source of information for most people. Because they were in danger of destruction, some Southern newspapers temporarily suspended operation or moved further South where it was safer. The good news is that even if a particular newspaper and its archives were destroyed, many of its articles had been picked up and printed by multiple other papers and can still be found.

Genealogy Record Coverage in the West

the painting "Emigrants Crossing the Plains" by F. O. C. Darley

Painting: Emigrants Crossing the Plains by F. O. C. Darley. Credit: Wikipedia.

The West is an idea as much as a place; it brings up images of frontier towns and vast prairies. “The West” meant anything on the western border of civilization, which had different definitions during different time periods. It can mean the western edge of the colonies, west of British King George III’s 1763 proclamation line, west of the Mississippi River, etc. The people attracted to this frontier life were those escaping persecution from the rest of society, or those with a pioneering spirit. Although white people lived west of the proclamation line prior to the king’s declaration, the main western push was in 1798-1819. In addition to Dutch, German, and Polish people, one predominate group that settled west was the Scots-Irish. These people were often marginalized and used as a buffer between the Native people and the colonies. They had a fiercely independent spirit and were quick to move if an area became too populated, which can make them hard to track. They did not have “regular schooling” and did not keep many records. In fact, they were often hostile to record keepers such as tax collectors. News, on the other hand, was prized in these small communities and people often gathered to drink and share information. Newspapers played a vital role in communicating information throughout the West.

Other American Regions of Significance

Of course, this brief description of some of the larger regions of the nation excludes vital and colorful histories such as Texas, French Louisiana, Spanish Florida, and Native peoples, to name just a few.

Genealogy Research Tip

When conducting your own genealogy research, spend some time getting to know the area your ancestors lived in: why it was created, what government agencies had jurisdiction over it, what records were created, for what reasons, and where those records can be accessed. County histories are a valuable source of information, as are finding aids for the county in question. Try searching the county or city name on Google or Bing to see what information can be found. Look for all the records that might exist such as newspapers, land records, tax lists, church records, cemetery records, etc.

Tracing My Great Grandfather: a Case Study

Newspapers are a crucial genealogical resource for all time periods. Historically it did not cost readers anything to publish news in their local paper, and they used newspapers very much like we use Facebook and other social media sites today. Information in local newspapers can give the reasons behind events, and sometimes supply information to replace missing vital records. It is worth keeping in mind that news and information can travel, even if your ancestor did not.

A great example of this is the death of my great grandfather, Zachariah Nicholson. He disappeared from the records after the 1880 census, when he was an older farmer in a very small town in Indiana. I ran a search for him in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives from 1880-1900 hoping to find out when and how he died, and found these two articles:

obituary for Zachariah Nocholson, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 19 January 1895

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 19 January 1895, page 7

obituary for Zachariah Nicholson, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 19 January 1895

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 19 January 1895, page 3

There are a few things to note about these two newspaper articles.

First, you’ll notice that his name in one article is spelled “Zachariah” and in the other it is spelled “Zacariah” without the middle “h.” You will want to check multiple spellings for a name, or search using an asterisk (*) as a wildcard to cover various possibilities.

Second, you’ll notice that the articles give slightly different information, emphasizing the importance of viewing multiple articles about the same event. One tidbit in the second article is the term “wealthy farmer.” The 1860 census lists his estate at $2100, which is sizable but not outlandish. Apparently it had grown by the time he died.  This is a reminder that I should look through the probate records for his will.

Last but not least, you will notice that one of these articles was printed in a Michigan newspaper, while the other was from his home state of Indiana. And as I mentioned, Grandpa Nicholson was from a very small town in Indiana—and yet a Michigan paper reported his death! As far as I know, there are no family connections with Michigan. The Jackson Citizen Patriot appears to be publishing information that would appeal to their readers in general. Perhaps some of their readers were from Southern Indiana or had business interests there. The point is: begin by doing a wide search, because information about your ancestor might turn up in newspapers published where you would not expect it.

I was surprised to find something about my small-town grandfather by doing a nationwide search—but I’m awfully glad that I did. I am grateful for these newspaper articles about Zachariah because they are the only documentation I have found to show when and how he died.

Genealogy Research Tip

Newspapers publish information from all around the country. Make sure you cast a wide net when searching for your ancestors in GenealogyBank because you never know where you might find information about them.

First Lady Edith Wilson & Her Ancestor Pocahontas

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post—in celebration of November being Native American Heritage Month—Gena searches old newspapers to find stories about First Lady Edith Wilson and her connection to her famous Native American ancestor, Pocahontas.

When we think of great Native American leaders throughout U.S. history, names like Cochise, Geronimo, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull come to mind. But what about Native American women? Most Americans know the names of only two Native American women: Pocahontas and Sacagawea. Pocahontas, whose mythology was immortalized in a song sung by Peggy Lee and a Disney movie, might be the most familiar Native American woman because she left a sizable number of descendants through her son Thomas Rolf.

Who can claim descent from Pocahontas? At least one First Lady, numerous politicians, and even Confederate General Robert E. Lee, to name just a few. It was estimated in the 1980s that Pocahontas’ descendants probably numbered around 250,000. According to genealogist Gary B. Roberts, those who claim this lineage are through the Bolling line, which are the only known descendants traced beyond the early 18th century.*

Mrs. Woodrow Wilson’s Native American Ancestry

One American whose Pocahontas lineage was well reported was Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, the second wife of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. From the time she became engaged to the president, her family history was a frequent topic in the newspapers.

photo of First Lady Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, married to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson

Photo: Edith Bolling Galt Wilson. Credit: Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library.

This 1915 newspaper article provides some information about Edith’s family history. It reports that ever since the engagement was announced “there has been a live inquiry for the correct data.” The article provides that data by tracing Edith’s direct line to Pocahontas and proclaims Edith Bolling Galt the ninth in descent from Pocahontas. [Note: the article erroneously states that Pocahontas married Thomas Rolfe; her husband’s name was John Rolfe, and their son’s name was Thomas.]

Fiancee of the President Is Undoubtedly a Direct Descendant of Pocahontas, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 14 November 1915

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 14 November 1915, page 5

In writings about Edith’s foremother, emphasis was placed that someone with “Indian blood” would now reside in the White House. This announcement about Edith’s lineage was also the catalyst for impromptu history lessons found in newspapers across the country. The short life of Pocahontas has been retold often, and—as with any well-told story—inaccuracies creep in. This old newspaper article provides readers with information and images reportedly of Pocahontas.

Unhappy Pocahontas, Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper article 24 October 1915

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 24 October 1915, page 43

The widow Edith Bolling Galt married President Woodrow Wilson in December 1915. Undoubtedly, any presidential wedding results in gifts from a diverse range of well-wishers. The Wilson wedding was no different.

According to this 1916 newspaper article, one item that Edith received was a Pocahontas statuette presented by the Pocahontas Memorial Association. The article points out that Edith Bolling Wilson was related to Pocahontas through her paternal line.

Indian Statuette for Mrs. Wilson; Figure of Pocahontas, Her Ancestress, a Bridal Gift, Broad Ax newspaper article 8 January 1916

Broad Ax (Chicago, Illinois), 8 January 1916, page 3

The news article included this picture of the Pocahontas statuette.

photo of a statuette of Pocahontas given to her descendant, First Lady Edith Wilson

The statuette was not the only Pocahontas-related gift that Edith received while in the White House. Other gifts related to her Native American ancestry included dolls and a portrait of her ancestress presented by the heritage membership organization Colonial Dames.

Pocahontas' Picture Gift; Private Copy of Original Portrait to Be Sent Mrs. Wilson, Oregonian newspaper article 3 March 1919

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 3 March 1919, page 14

When Edith Wilson visited England in 1918, this Duluth newspaper article heralded the visit of a descendant of Pocahontas—pointing out it was a little over 300 years since her ancestor made a similar trip. The newspaper article claims: “Only one other American woman [Pocahontas] ever has been received in England with the social and official courtesies which will be lavished upon Mrs. Woodrow Wilson.” The news article goes on to trace Edith’s roots to Pocahontas and even to her early Bolling English roots.

To Be Greeted as Was Pocahontas in 1616; England Prepares for President's Wife, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 3 December 1918

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 3 December 1918, page 12

Pocahontas Research Resources

Are you a descendent of Pocahontas? You may be interested in the book Pocahontas’ Descendants: A Revision, Enlargement, and Extension of the List as Set Out by Wyndham Robertson in His Book Pocahontas and Her Descendants (1887), by Stuart E. Brown, Jr., Lorraine F. Myers, and Eileen M. Chappel (the Pocahontas Foundation, 1985).

Gary B. Roberts’ article Notable Kin: Some Descendants and Kinsmen of Descendants of Pocahontas: An Excursion into Southern Genealogy on the American Ancestors website has additional sources you may be interested in.

Whether or not you have Native American ancestry, dig into GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives to find out more about your ancestors, discovering the stories that help fill in the details on your family tree.

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*Notable Kin: Some Descendants and Kinsmen of Descendants of Pocahontas: An Excursion into Southern Genealogy by Gary B. Roberts. American Ancestors. 1986. http://www.americanancestors.org/an-excursion-into-southern-genealogy/ accessed 11 November 2013.

Solve the Robert ‘Believe It or Not!’ Ripley Ancestry Brick Wall

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary writes about two discoveries she made relating to Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley, and invites readers to join her in breaking through a brick wall in Ripley’s family history.

There is a wealth of discovery waiting to be found in historic newspapers. For one thing, old newspapers provide the stories that help you understand your ancestors and get to know them as real people.

For another thing, while researching your family history in a newspaper archive you occasionally stumble across interesting discoveries that have nothing to do with your family, things you never knew before—like what I found out about Robert L. Ripley and the origins of his “Believe It or Not!” publishing/radio/television/museum empire, and his involvement with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

In this article I want to talk about my Ripley discoveries, and then ask for your help in breaking through a brick wall I’ve hit in exploring his genealogy.

photo of Robert L. Ripley, Dallas Morning News newspaper article, 28 May 1949

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 28 May 1949, page 1

Ripley’s First “Believe It or Not” Newspaper Cartoon

One day while looking through old newspapers I was fortunate enough to stumble upon this tantalizing treasure, explaining how Robert L. Ripley drew his first “Believe It or Not” cartoon.

On 19 December 1918, Ripley—a 27-year-old cartoonist for the New York Globe newspaper—was sitting in front of his drawing board with no new ideas. He was under deadline pressure to produce a cartoon for the next day’s paper, so “in desperation” he put together an assortment of odd sports occurrences to make a cartoon. He published it under the caption, “Believe It or Not.” He was interviewed on the subject of the cartoon’s origin years later, and his recollection was published in the New York Daily Mirror.

When Robert Ripley died in 1949 at the age of 58, his obituary reprinted that first cartoon recollection:

obituary for Robert L. Ripley, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 28 May 1949

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 28 May 1949, page 1

Here is one of Robert Ripley’s early “Believe It or Not” cartoons with a sports theme:

Ripley's "Believe It or Not," State newspaper cartoon 22 October 1919

State (Columbia, South Carolina), 22 October 1919, page 8

How astonishing it is, that from a single case of writer’s block developed an empire of over 90 world-wide attractions, including wondrous museums and amazing aquariums!

Robert Ripley & “The Star-Spangled Banner”

Here’s another Ripley tidbit I uncovered while browsing through old newspapers, of historical importance: Ripley had a role in making “The Star-Spangled Banner” our official national anthem.

The lyrics come from a poem written by Francis Scott Key in 1814, entitled “Defence of Fort McHenry.” Key wrote his poem after witnessing the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1812. Key’s poem was set to the tune of a popular British song, “The Anacreontic Song” (or “To Anacreon in Heaven”) and the resulting song came to be known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Although officially used by the Navy in the late 1800s, it wasn’t the country’s national anthem at that time. Nonetheless, crowds caught up in patriotic fever would rise and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

"The Star-Spangled Banner," Daily Register-Gazette newspaper article 2 January 1930

Daily Register-Gazette (Rockford, Illinois), 2 January 1930, page 2

And then one day, Robert L. Ripley started a national conversation about its use with this comment, noting that the U.S. “has no official national anthem”:

Ripley at Music Box, Oregonian newspaper article 5 November 1930

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 5 November 1930, page 10

The discussion about the country’s lack of a national anthem gained momentum. Several months later, President Herbert Hoover signed the act that made “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official national anthem, on 3 March 1931.

"Star Spangled Banner" Is Now National Anthem though Pacifists Object, Springfield Republican newspaper article 5 March 1931

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 5 March 1931, page 1

And for you curiosity-seekers, you can read the first publication of Francis Scott Key’s poem by searching the newspapers in GenealogyBank. It was published in the Baltimore Patriot (Baltimore, Maryland) on 20 September 1814. No, I’m not going to republish it in this blog—you can have the joy of looking up this amazing discovery yourself.

But readers, I need some help with Robert Ripley, whose ancestry is as elusive as spotting a shooting star on a cloudy night.

Help Me Uncover Robert Ripley’s Family Tree!

I can’t seem to crack the brick wall in his genealogy. He left no descendants and was only married briefly to actress Beatrice Roberts. I can’t discover his family history any further back than his maternal grandmother.

Here are the clues I’ve been able to find, if any of you determined genealogists want to take up the challenge and break through the Ripley genealogy brick wall:

  • See one of Findagrave.com’s earliest memorials, #1399, from Odd Fellows Lawn Cemetery in Santa Rosa, California
  • His parents, Isaac Davis Ripley (1854-1904) and Lillie Belle Yocka or Yocke (1868-1915), are also buried there; they married on 3 October 1889 in Sonoma, CA (California, County Marriages, 1850-1952 Database at familysearch.org)
  • Isaac was a carpenter born in Ohio (various California directories)
  • In 1870, a census reports that Isaac was possibly residing in the household of Jason and Phelia A. Stubs or Stutes in Belpre, Washington, OH, and attending school, age 16 (see http://ohgen.net/ohwashin/OMP-2.htm — Ohio Historical Society, Newspaper Microfilm Reel # 38487 — marriage license for Jason Stubbs and Phelia A. Hunter of Belpre on 8 May 1865)
  • Lillie was the daughter of Nancy Yocke (1828-?) and an unknown father from Germany (1880 Analy, Sonoma, CA, census)
  • Ripley’s siblings were Douglas and Ethel or Effie Ripley (obituary); it is unclear if they ever married, but are seen on a passenger list traveling together

We look forward to seeing who can crack this ancestry brick wall first, and promise to publish your results in the GenealogyBank blog! Please post your Ripley genealogy finds on GenealogyBank’s Facebook or blog pages as comments, or email us using our blog contact form at: http://blog.genealogybank.com/contact.