100th Anniversary of the Panama Canal: History in the News

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 blog post, Duncan searches old newspapers to learn more about one of humankind’s greatest engineering feats: the building of the Panama Canal.

The Panama Canal recently turned 100 years old. This prompted me to learn more about the history of this important waterway.

photo of the SS Ancon passing through the Panama Canal on 15 August 1914, the first ship to use the canal

Photo: SS Ancon passing through the Panama Canal on 15 August 1914, the first ship to use the canal. Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Early Transportation History

The only way for ships in the Atlantic Ocean to access the western coast of the Americas was to go the long way round—either around the southern tip of South America, or an even longer distance around the horn of Africa. Either route was fraught with danger and took an exceptionally long time. The narrow neck of land connecting North and South America was quickly targeted as a possible transportation alternative.

In the 1500s, Spain was particularly interested in reducing the amount of time it took to transport silver mined in Peru to Atlantic fleets. This would give them an economic and militaristic advantage over their enemies and rivals. To accomplish this, they created a trail system across the Isthmus of Panama—Spanish fleets shipped the silver from Peru to the west coast of Panama, and mule trains followed the trails to the east coast, bringing the silver to waiting ships. It wasn’t fast and it wasn’t easy, but it was better than nothing.

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The Darien Disaster

Later, Scotland launched an early attempt to gain economic advantage by creating a shortcut for goods across the Isthmus of Panama. They wagered an absurd amount of money on the project termed the “Darien Scheme” (and later renamed the “Darien Disaster”). They set up an outpost in 1698 in the hopes of creating an overland route to transport goods and shorten the amount of time it took to carry items from Europe to the western coast. Conditions in the area were vastly different from what they were prepared for and horribly inhospitable. They slugged it out for less than two years before abandoning the project.

Meanwhile, the Spanish continued their efforts to make an even better route across Panama to maintain their economic success—and their enemies took notice. This 1762 newspaper article foretold “our” (British) troops’ plans to attack the Isthmus of Darien (Panama) and thwart the Spanish advantage.

article about a planned British attack on the Spanish outpost in Panama, Boston Evening-Post newspaper article 6 December 1762

Boston Evening-Post (Boston, Massachusetts), 6 December 1762, page 2

The Spanish were persistent in their efforts and, as this article reported, they had established a new colony in the Isthmus of Panama by 1777.

article about the Spanish estabishing an outpost in Panama, Virginia Gazette newspaper article 12 December 1777

Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg, Virginia), 12 December 1777, page 1

The Panama Railroad

By the time gold was discovered in California in 1848, the railroad was a significant technological advancement. Naturally, this idea was applied in Panama: build a railroad across this challenging terrain to quickly transport goods and prospectors from the East coast and Europe and deposit them on the Pacific coast, to complete their journey by ship. They used old Spanish trails that had been in use for over three centuries.

Actually, the idea of a railroad across Panama had been in existence for many years before the California Gold Rush. The Columbian and French governments had both shown interest. The U.S. had made some effort under Andrew Jackson in the 1830s, but it wasn’t until 1855 that a cross-Panama railroad came to fruition. It is amazing that they were able to accomplish this feat. The heavens dump around 150 inches of rain each year on the landscape. Laying track in such hot, wet conditions must have been a miserable experience. But the real threat came from disease, especially malaria and yellow fever. Workers dropped like flies. Completing the Panama Railway was certainly a cause for celebration.

article about the completion of the Panama Railway, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 31 January 1855

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 31 January 1855, page 2

However, traversing the troublesome landmass necessitated loading and unloading cargo, a painfully labor- and time-intensive undertaking for the railroad. There were calls for a canal through the isthmus to allow large cargo ships to alleviate this difficulty. The French rose to the occasion and dispatched the famous Ferdinand de Lesseps—designer of the newly completed Suez Canal—to lead their nation to triumph. They rushed to start the project in 1881, without sufficient understanding of the geology or hydrology of the area.

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At first the idea was simply to cut away the land leaving a sea level passageway. Attempts at this seemingly simple idea soon showed that the copious rainfall quickly filled these efforts of the exhausted laborers, with mud and large landslides causing problems. The wedge of land to be removed changed from a narrow slip, just wide enough to allow a ship’s passage, to an impossibly large width to prevent the frequent landslides. This was all being attempted with primitive steam shovels that quickly rusted to uselessness in the persistent rain. If that wasn’t disheartening enough, the swampy conditions were ripe for mosquitoes and therefore deadly malaria and yellow fever. Thousands of workers died and the project went bankrupt. Meanwhile, the American media had a heyday over the “Panama Canal Fiasco” or the “Panama Affair.”

The Panama Canal Fiasco, Springfield Republican newspaper article 13 January 1889

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 13 January 1889, page 2

Despite a later attempt to revive the project, the weary French eventually sold out to America for a bargain basement price.

article about the French selling their Panama Canal project to the U.S., Forth Worth Morning Register newspaper article 8 January 1902

Forth Worth Morning Register (Fort Worth, Texas), 8 January 1902, page 2

After the smoke had cleared from the expected congressional infighting over the viability of the project and the wisdom of purchasing the project from the French, there remained the matter of obtaining Colombian authorization (Panama was Columbian territory at the time).

When Columbia refused to ratify a treaty granting such permission, President Theodore Roosevelt and the U.S. got around this obstacle by promising support to Panamanian rebels seeking independence from Columbia. U.S. warships moved into position off the Panamanian coast on 2 November 1903, and Panama declared independence the next day. Three days later, on 6 November 1903, the newly-recognized nation of Panama signed a treaty granting the U.S. the right to build and administer a canal.

With that, the U.S. got to work. Fortunately, by that time technology had advanced and we were able to complete the project by building a lock system—but not before even more people died of illness and accident. (As a side note, it is good to know that the Panama Affair did contribute to a better understanding of mosquito-borne illnesses and their prevention.)

Panama Canal Opens

After much labor, the Herculean task of building the Panama Canal was completed, and it was officially opened on 15 August 1914.

Great Panama Canal Open for Commerce, State newspaper article 16 August 1914

State (Columbia, South Carolina), 16 August 1914, page 1

Of course, this is a simplified and selective account of the scandal-soaked history of the canal. It doesn’t mention that the treaty we signed with Columbia (which was refused by that country) was actually with a French representative. It doesn’t detail the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that the U.S. was involved in with the rebellion that created the country of Panama—all in order to accomplish our goal of building the canal. It doesn’t mention the Panamanian protests after WWII and international pressure which led—eventually—to the release of the canal to Panama beginning in 2000. Nor does it go in depth into the scandals, illnesses, and accidents that make a study of the canal so interesting.

Hopefully, this article gives a little insight into the history of the Panama Canal and whets your appetite for your own research. The significance of the Panama Canal cannot be overstated. World commerce depends on fast, dependable transportation, which the canal provides.

Also, it is hoped that this article offers insights into what can be found in and learned from the old newspapers contained in GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives.

Related Articles about Early Transportation:

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69th Anniversary: President Franklin D. Roosevelt Died in Office

Tomorrow marks the 69th anniversary of the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt; on the afternoon of 12 April 1945 the nation’s 32nd president died of a cerebral hemorrhage. His life ended just as the great Allied victory in World War II that he had worked so hard for was in sight. In his remarkable and unprecedented four terms and 12 years in the White House, Roosevelt steered the United States through two of the greatest traumas in its history: the Great Depression and World War II.

By consolidating the power of the presidency and inserting the government into many aspects of the country’s civic and economic affairs, Roosevelt was both beloved and hated. Since the 1951 ratification of the Twenty-second Amendment limits U.S. presidents to only two terms, it is safe to say we will never see another presidency like his. Historians consistently rank Roosevelt as one of America’s greatest presidents, along with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

The Day FDR Died

Although confined to a wheelchair ever since paralysis struck him in 1921, Roosevelt was a hearty, energetic man. The enormous strain of leading the nation during World War II took its toll on him, however, and his health seriously deteriorated in 1945. Despite this, his sudden death was unexpected. He died in the “Little White House” in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he had gone for the gentle weather and therapeutic waters for a respite. He was sitting for a portrait when he complained of a “terrible headache,” fainted, and never regained consciousness. He was 63.

News of Roosevelt’s Death Hits the Headlines

Historical newspapers are a great resource for exploring your ancestors’ lives—and to get a glimpse into the times they lived in. Here is a collection of front-page headlines to show how newspapers broke the tragic news of Roosevelt’s death to America. (Note: all of the newspaper articles used to illustrate this Blog post come from GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives.)

front page news about the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Plain Dealer newspaper articles 13 April 1945

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 13 April 1945, page 1

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front page news about the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Boston Herald newspaper articles 13 April 1945

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 April 1945, page 1

front page news about the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dallas Morning News newspaper articles 13 April 1945

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 13 April 1945, page 1

front page news about the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Greensboro Daily News newspaper articles 13 April 1945

Greensboro Daily News (Greensboro, North Carolina), 13 April 1945, page 1

front page news about the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Augusta Chronicle newspaper articles 13 April 1945

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 13 April 1945, page 1

front page news about the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Daily Illinois State Journal newspaper articles 13 April 1945

Daily Illinois State Journal (Springfield, Illinois), 13 April 1945, page 1

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front page news about the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Advocate newspaper articles 13 April 1945

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 13 April 1945, page 1

front page news about the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Daily Northwestern newspaper articles 13 April 1945

Daily Northwestern (Evanston, Illinois), 13 April 1945, page 1

front page news about the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Marietta Journal newspaper articles 13 April 1945

Marietta Journal (Marietta, Georgia), 13 April 1945, page 1

front page news about the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Oregonian newspaper articles 13 April 1945

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 13 April 1945, page 1

front page news about the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Repository newspaper articles 13 April 1945

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 13 April 1945, page 1

front page news about the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Seattle Daily Times newspaper articles 13 April 1945

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 13 April 1945, page 1

Discover more about FDR’s presidency and family life in GenealogyBank’s archives now: http://www.genealogybank.com/gbnk/?lname=Roosevelt&fname=Franklin+D.

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Eleanor Roosevelt, Norman Rockwell & Steve McQueen Obituaries

During this November week in American history a famous First Lady, a painter, and an actor died:

  • Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, American First Lady, died at 78 on 7 November 1962
  • Norman Perceval Rockwell, American painter, died at 84 on 8 November 1978
  • Terence Steven “Steve” McQueen, American actor, died at 50 on 7 November 1980

Newspapers are filled with profiles and obituaries that help us better understand the lives of our ancestors—and the famous people who lived during their times. You can use historical newspapers to research their public careers and trace their family trees. Who knows? You just might discover that you are related to the celebrity of your interest. The following old newspaper articles about these three famous Americans are great examples of how newspapers can be used to investigate the lives of the famous—as well as the not-so-famous—people that make up our family trees.

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)

Eleanor Roosevelt achieved many firsts in her long, active lifetime. Her list of accomplishments is equally long. The wife of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, she is the longest-serving First Lady in American history (1933-1945), playing an active role throughout her husband’s unprecedented 12-year, 4-term presidency—a record that will never be broken now that U.S. presidents are constitutionally limited to 2 terms.

Eleanor Roosevelt was the first First Lady to hold press conferences. As a women’s rights activist she was upset that most newspapers only had male reporters; she insisted that only women reporters could attend her press conferences—forcing many newspapers to hire female reporters. She was the first First Lady to write a syndicated news column, which she wrote six days a week from 1936 until she died. She was also the first First Lady to speak at a national convention.

Her support for humanitarian causes she believed in (such as women’s rights, civil rights, and child welfare) continued unabated after her husband’s sudden death on 12 April 1945. She traveled constantly, meeting world leaders, and influencing opinions and policies. She avidly supported the United Nations, and was the first chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Asked in her 75th year why she wouldn’t slow down, Roosevelt replied: “When you cease to make a contribution, you begin to die. Therefore, I think it a necessity to be doing something which you feel is helpful in order to grow old gracefully and contentedly.”

This obituary for Eleanor Roosevelt was published in a Georgia newspaper on 8 November 1962.

Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, Famous First Lady, Dead, Marietta Journal newspaper obituary 8 November 1962

Marietta Journal (Marietta, Georgia), 8 November 1962, page 1

Along with many photos showing her at various stages in her life, this obituary provided details of her illness and death, and contained tributes from influential leaders.

For example, President Kennedy called Mrs. Roosevelt: “one of the great ladies in the history of this country.”

United Nations Ambassador Adlai E. Stevenson said: “I have lost an inspiration. She would rather light candles than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world.”

A tribute on the Marietta Journal’s editorial page offered this praise: “Her greatness is embodied in a life of service to humanity. Her name will long remain an inspiration to those who recognize that there is no loftier aim than serving one’s fellow man.”

In October 1984 the nation celebrated the 100th anniversary of Eleanor Roosevelt’s birth by restoring and dedicating her home as a National Historic Site. The U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp.

This 1984 article began:

“She had no gift for small talk and was painfully shy. Her plain looks dismayed her and fed her grim sense of inadequacy.

“But Eleanor Roosevelt blossomed into one of the most liberated women of the century, wielding an influence over American policy and thought that would make many presidents itch with envy.”

Eleanor Roosevelt Was a Role Model for the Future, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 8 October 1984

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 8 October 1984, page 1

The news article went on to say that during FDR’s years as president, “she played a major role, serving as a conduit for the viewpoints of women, blacks, the young, and helpless.”

And this: “Her public activities continued long after FDR’s death in 1945. President Truman appointed her to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations. In 1948, she pushed through the U.N. General Assembly, with Soviet approval, the Declaration of Human Rights.

“She continued work on her favorite causes—child welfare, displaced persons, peace, minority and women’s rights—and continued globetrotting.

“Her opinion was sought by world leaders, including Truman. Kennedy nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize. Her last ‘working’ trip to Europe was in 1962, nine months before she died of a form of aplastic anemia.”

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978)

Norman Rockwell was one of the most popular and beloved artists in American history. A painter and illustrator who focused on everyday scenes of American life, especially family and childhood, his work reached a wide audience by gracing the cover of The Saturday Evening Post for more than four decades, as well as numerous other publications such as Popular Science and the Boy Scouts’ Boys’ Life. Rockwell also illustrated books and calendars.

His scenes often captured the innocence of childhood, such as this cover for The Saturday Evening Post.

photo of the painting "No Swimming" by Norman Rockwell, used on the cover of the 4 June 1921 edition of "The Saturday Evening Post"

Illustration: No Swimming by Norman Rockwell, used on the cover of the 4 June 1921 edition of The Saturday Evening Post. Credit: Wikipedia.

A fine tribute to Rockwell is provided by the opening paragraph of this 1978 newspaper advertisement run by the Norman Rockwell Museum, offering the official commemorative plate entitled “Norman Rockwell Remembered”:

“In more than 2,000 artworks, Norman Rockwell honored America, creating a pictorial history of our times…illuminating our lives with gifted warmth and insight.”

ad for a commemorative plate in honor of Norman Rockwell, Dallas Morning News newspaper advertisement 3 December 1978

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 3 December 1978, page 53

This obituary for Norman Rockwell was published in a North Carolina newspaper on 9 November 1978.

Artist Rockwell Dies at 84, Greensboro Daily News newspaper obituary 9 November 1978

Greensboro Daily News (Greensboro, North Carolina), 9 November 1978, page 1

Although Rockwell did paint some works about serious social issues in America such as racism (for example, his The Problem We All Live With was about integrating schools), he was best known for his sentimental views of American family life. This obituary contained this quote from Rockwell:

“Maybe as I grew up and found the world wasn’t the perfectly pleasant place I had thought it to be, I unconsciously decided that if it wasn’t an ideal world, it should be, and so painted only the ideal aspects of it—pictures in which there were no slatterns or self-centered mothers, in which, on the contrary, there were only Foxy Grandpas who played baseball with the kids and boys fished from logs and got up circuses in the backyard.”

Steve McQueen (1930-1980)

Steve McQueen was an enormously popular American actor during the 1960s and 1970s, often playing tough characters that were cool and defied authority. That defiance extended to movie directors—he was notoriously difficult to work with—yet his popularity with the ticket-buying public kept him constantly in demand. In fact, in 1974 McQueen was the highest-paid actor in the world.

McQueen starred in such films as Bullitt, Papillon, The Magnificent Seven and The Towering Inferno. He loved speed, and was an accomplished motorcycle and racecar competitor. He often performed his own stunts, including the amazing motorcycle riding in The Great Escape—thanks to careful editing, in one scene McQueen is performing his own character’s riding as well as the German chasing him on another motorcycle!

Steve McQueen died at the age of 50 due to cancer and related complications. This obituary was published in a Massachusetts newspaper on 8 November 1980.

Heart Attack Claims Steve McQueen at 50, Boston Herald newspaper article 8 November 1980

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 8 November 1980, page 2

This obituary related how McQueen’s acting was shaped by his own rebellious youth:

“Although he was often described as a rebel and nonconformist, his screen image was an updating of a Hollywood leading man tradition going back through Gary Cooper to silent film heroes—friendly Americans, smiling loners who become skillfully violent when pushed too far.

“It was founded in part on his own experiences, particularly his knockabout youth.

“Born Terrence Steven McQueen, he was placed in a Chino, Calif., boys home as a juvenile delinquent at 14. At 15 he ran away to sea.

“As he told it, before he was 24 he had been in and out of jails for fighting and theft, served a month on a Southern chain gang and was jailed briefly in Cuba.”

The obituary reported how McQueen himself connected his acting with his rough background, especially when discussing the character Josh Randall from the television Western Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-1961), the role that made him a Hollywood star:

“One of the strengths of Wanted was Randall’s unromantically practical attitude toward heroics. McQueen, who often spoke in the argot of the 50s village hipster he once was, referred to Randall as ‘an uncomplicated cat.’

“When the villain had him cornered and outnumbered, McQueen’s Randall would smile disarmingly and back off, figuring he’d live to get his man some other day, an outlook McQueen credited to his own hard-earned survival skills.

“He even rewrote his dialogue to make Randall fit his own experience of men who live close to danger.

“‘I couldn’t play some happy-jack who shoots it out with four men without batting an eyelash. I’ve been whipped, man, and in real life I tell guys who outnumber me: You’re right, you’re right.’”

Although he gained fame and fortune playing tough guys, McQueen didn’t want to be confined to those roles, as reported in this 1980 newspaper article.

[Steve] McQueen Didn't Always Play the Hero, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 8 November 1980

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 8 November 1980, page 53

According to this newspaper article:

“McQueen clearly wanted to expand if not destroy his image during the final years of his life. As far back as 1970, he was turning his back on the rugged image he earned in such action films as The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and Bullitt to tackle the role of a none-too-bright scalawag in The Reivers.

“By the time of this year’s The Hunter—ironically, his celluloid swan song—McQueen was willing to indulge in subtle parody of the role that first brought him fame: Josh Randall, the super-efficient bounty hunter he essayed in the 1958-61 television series that brought him to stardom, Wanted: Dead or Alive.

“‘I guess you could say I’ve come full circle,’ McQueen conceded during the Hunter filming. ‘I feel like this is where I came in.’”

Dig into GenealogyBank and discover more about the lives of your favorite famous people. Please share any interesting facts that you find out about them in the comments section.

Top Genealogy Websites: Utah Genealogy Resources for Records

Are you researching your family roots in Utah? Here are two good sources of Utah genealogy information online—GenealogyBank and vital records put up by the state itself—to help with your family history research in the “Beehive State.”

collage of genealogy records from the Utah Division of Archives & Records Service

Credit: Utah Division of Archives & Records Service

Utah county and state genealogical records are going online. The state’s Division of Archives & Records Service is putting up indexes and digital copies of original records ranging from birth certificates to probate records, and all types of records in between.

Utah has put up a wider variety of records than perhaps any other state in the U.S.

Utah Death Records

Utah has digitized and is in the process of putting online their death records from 1904-1961. These are Series 20842 (Index to Series 81448).

According to its website there are also these records. (Note: the series without links are not available online, but can be searched in person at the Utah Division of Archives & Records Service office.)

  • Reports from Summit County (Utah). County Coroner, Series 3716, contains the death certificates that are associated with the individual deaths investigated in this coroner record.
  • Military death certificates from the Department of Administrative Services. Division of Archives and Records Service, Series 3769, includes death certificates for military personnel killed in World War II and the Korean War, whose bodies were transported back to Utah for burial.
  • Death certificates electronic index from the Department of Health. Office of Vital Records and Statistics, Series 20842, is a computerized index for the death certificates.
  • Burial record from Vernal (Utah)Series 25360, contains death certificates from Uintah County beginning in 1905.

Utah Birth Records

Utah has an index to Birth Certificates 1905-1906 and has additional Birth Certificates 1907-1912 that are not indexed but can be browsed.

According to its website there are also these related birth records online:

  • Birth certificates from Weber County (Utah). County Clerk, Series 20896, includes all live births occurring in the state of Utah as recorded by the Office of Vital Records and Statistics.
  • Birth certificate indexes from the Department of Health. Office of Vital Records and Statistics, Series 81437, indexes the birth certificates (1904-1934) by Soundex code number.
  • Out-of-state births from the Department of Health. Office of Vital Records and Statistics, Series 81442, are birth certificates from other states sent to the Utah Office of Vital Records and Statistics for statistical compilation of Utah residents that were born in other states.
  • Native American birth certificates from the Department of Health. Office of Vital Records and Statistics, Series 81444, are a separate file of birth certificates issued for Indians.
  • Delayed certificates of birth from the Department of Health. Office of Vital Records and Statistics, Series 81445, are birth certificates that are registered with Vital Records a year or more after the date of birth.
  • Amendments to birth records from the Department of Health. Office of Vital Records and Statistics, Series 81446, are forms used to change information on birth certificates, either through error, name change, or subsequent sex change.
  • Birth registers from Emery County (Utah). County Clerk, Series 84038, contains birth certificates filed with the Bureau of Vital Statistics beginning in 1904—but do not become public until 100 years after birth. The researcher should contact the agency.
  • Birth and death records from Weber County (Utah). Vital Statistics Registrar, Series 85146, contains the official copy of birth certificates.

More Utah Records for Genealogy

Utah has also put an extensive collection of records online ranging from cattle brand registration books to naturalization records to probate records. See its complete list of records here.

Utah Newspapers for Genealogy

GenealogyBank has an extensive collection of Utah newspapers online dating from 1851 to 1922 & 1988 to Today.

Search Utah Newspaper Archives (1851 – 1922)

Search Utah Recent Obituaries (1988 – Current)

Discover a variety of genealogy records and news stories in these 8 Utah newspapers:

Search recent obituary records for your relatives in these 15 Utah newspapers:

Click on the image below to download a printable list of the Utah newspapers in GenealogyBank for your future reference. You can save to your desktop and click the titles to go directly to your newspaper of interest.

Utah Newspaper Archives at GenealogyBank

Feel free to share this list of Utah newspapers on your blog or website using the embed code provided below.

SSDI Quiz: Understanding the U.S. Social Security Death Index

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary provides a fun quiz to see how well you know the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA)—and the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) it maintains, an important resource for genealogists. Mary uses old newspaper articles to learn more about the SSA and SSDI.

One of the exciting features of GenealogyBank is the ability to search the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). This important genealogical database is updated by the United States Social Security Administration (SSA). GenealogyBank’s SSDI search page provides an easy way to access this data.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page for the Social Security Death Index (SSDI)

Not all the fields on the search page have to be filled in, and some of GenealogyBank’s SSDI features are the ability to:

  • specify a specific date or a range for a decedent’s birth and death
  • specify by zip code or last known residence, or non-U.S. location

Data from the U.S. SSDI is frequently misinterpreted. If you think you are well versed in the subject, try this handy Social Security Genealogy Quiz and then check your answers below.

Social Security Genealogy Quiz

When did the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) system start?

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act on 14 August 1935, but taxes for the system were not collected until January of 1937. For more information about the history of the Social Security system in America, see www.ssa.gov/history/hfaq.html.

Roosevelt Signs Security Act as Cameras Grind, San Diego Union newspaper article 15 August 1935

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 15 August 1935, page 1

Who is covered by the Social Security program?

Many groups are/were exempt, including railroad workers, and certain employees of state and local governments and schools.

The railroad workers are covered by the Railroad Retirement Program, and contribute a portion of their wages to both systems with a calculation adjustment done at retirement. It’s a bit complicated, so please see U.S. Social Security Administration: An Overview of the Railroad Retirement Program.

Prior to 1983, when Congress changed the law, various municipalities and other groups had opted out of the Social Security system. For example, the Texas counties of Galveston, Brazoria, and Matagorda opted out of the system prior to 1983, and are covered under an independent system. After 1984, municipalities who had not previously opted out of the system were required to be covered by the SSA, along with civilian federal employees.

Does that include the President, Senators and Congressmen?

Yes. The SSA’s Frequently Asked Questions website states:

“All members of Congress, the President and Vice President, Federal judges, and most political appointees, were covered under the Social Security program starting in January 1984.”

Here we see the SSDI record for President Richard M. Nixon.

Social Security Death Index (SSDI) record for President Richard M. Nixon

Is the SSDI’s birth and death information reliable?

After 1974, proof was required to obtain a Social Security number (SSN). For persons who entered the system prior to that date, one should cross-reference birth dates with other records. Death dates are more reliable, as proof of death (such as a death certificate) has to be submitted in order to claim a death benefit.

Proof Now Required for Social Security, Chicago Metro News newspaper article 6 July 1974

Chicago Metro News (Chicago, Illinois), 6 July 1974, page 3

Does the SSDI report the location where a person passed away?

No. It reports the last known place of residence, or the final address where Social Security benefits were sent.

What are the three parts of a Social Security number (XXX-XX-XXXX)?

The three parts are, in order:

  1. the 3-digit area number (XXX),
  2. the 2-digit group number (XX)
  3. and the 4-digit serial number (XXXX).

The SSA maintains a table explaining the assignment of the numbers. For instance, Alabama was assigned numbers from 416-424, and Louisiana 433-439. However, the location doesn’t necessarily indicate a residence, and could indicate a variety of locations—ranging from where one applied for a card (not necessarily one’s residence) to an office that processed the application.

According to the document Meaning of the Social Security Number (Nov. 1982, Vol. 45, No. 11): Table 1.–Assignment of area numbers by State:

“Until 1972, the area number indicated the location (state, territory, or possession) of the Social Security office that issued the number. When the numbering system was developed, one or more area numbers were allocated to each State based on the anticipated number of issuances in the State. Because an individual could apply for a SSN at any Social Security office, the area code did not necessarily indicate where the person lived or worked. Since 1972…[the] area code now indicates the person’s State of residence as shown on the SSN application.

“The group number has no special geographic or data significance. It is used to break the numbers into blocks of convenient size for SSA’s processing operations and for controlling the assignments to the States.

“The last four digits, the serial number, represent a numerical series from 0001-9999 within each group…”

Will the SSA run out of Social Security numbers (SSNs)?

It is not known how many Social Security numbers have been issued. However, the nine-digit system allows for nearly one billion SSNs, so the current system has not run out of numbers.

Does the SSA reuse numbers?

No, although some people claim they do.

Does GenealogyBank have the ability to make corrections in the SSDI?

No. The Social Security’s Death Master File Data is supplied to publishers of the SSDI, so corrections have to be addressed with the U.S. SSA. GenealogyBank has no method to process updates to this government-supported system.

Does the SSA have a smart phone app?

Yes, although it does not include the Social Security Death Index.

On 6 May 2013 Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, announced:

“…the agency is offering a new mobile optimized website, specifically aimed at smartphone users across the country. People visiting the agency’s website, www.socialsecurity.gov, via smartphone (Android, Blackberry, iPhone, and Windows devices) will be redirected to the agency’s new mobile-friendly site. Once there, visitors can access a mobile version of Social Security’s Frequently Asked Questions, an interactive Social Security number (SSN) decision tree to help people identify documents needed for a new/replacement SSN card, and mobile publications which they can listen to in both English and Spanish right on their phone.”

For more information, see: http://www.ssa.gov/pressoffice/pr/ssa-mobile-pr.html.

Note: if you experience issues with the SSA app on your smartphone, you can give Social Security a call (1-800-SSA-1213) to get help troubleshooting the issue.

Additional Social Security Resource for Genealogy

Acquiring Records from Social Security for Genealogical Research

Eleanor Roosevelt’s ‘My Day’ Newspaper Column: A Public Diary

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about Eleanor Roosevelt’s popular and long-running newspaper column, “My Day.”

When you think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt what comes to mind? Maybe it’s the fact that he was the only U.S. president to be elected to four terms. Maybe you’re familiar with the programs he helped to establish during the Depression, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Maybe you remember the words from his speech after the attack on Pearl Harbor, calling it “a date which will live in infamy.” Our 32nd president led the nation during the difficult times of the Great Depression and World War II.

What do you know about his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt? She was a crusader for many political and social issues, including women’s and civil rights. Mrs. Roosevelt has a long list of accomplishments in her own right apart from being a first lady. Starting in late 1935 she became one of the most-documented first ladies in U.S. history, due to the fact that she began a syndicated newspaper column that she personally wrote. Eleanor worked on her column “My Day” six days a week, from 1935 to 1962, writing about her daily activities and giving her views on a range of subjects.

This 1935 newspaper notice announced the upcoming “My Day” newspaper column.

Roosevelt Columns, Plain Dealer newspaper article 30 December 1935

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 30 December 1935, page 7

Many of Eleanor Roosevelt’s newspaper columns read like diary entries. In some cases, they resemble a letter to a dear friend—filled with her thoughts, conversations and opinions.

Her newspaper columns addressed many different topics; not all were especially poignant. For example, in one early column she discusses how much sleep she got and describes eating a tray of food by herself in her room. But looking at the totality of the columns helps paint a picture of the United States through the mid-20th century, reflecting the important issues our families faced such as war, poverty and racism. These “My Day” columns provide researchers with a social history of life during this time.

One issue that Eleanor Roosevelt was passionate about was civil rights. In her 21 February 1936 column, she mentions that she and her husband enjoyed a concert by African American singer Marian Anderson.

My Day in the White House by Eleanor Roosevelt, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 21 February 1936

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 21 February 1936, page 6

Three years later in February 1939 Eleanor Roosevelt quit the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) over their refusal to allow Marian Anderson to perform in Constitution Hall. At that time the Hall was segregated and the DAR refused to allow African Americans to perform there.

In her resignation letter, Mrs. Roosevelt stated:

“However, I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist. You have set an example which seems to me unfortunate, and I feel obliged to send in to you my resignation. You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.”

You can view a copy of that DAR resignation letter on the National Archives website.

Thanks to the support of Eleanor Roosevelt and other like-minded individuals, Marian Anderson eventually sang at Constitution Hall at the invitation of the DAR in 1942.

photo of Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson

Photo: Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson in Japan. Credit: Flickr: The Commons, U.S. National Archives.

Mrs. Roosevelt’s 27-year newspaper column spanned her time as first lady, when she became a widow, and when she worked with the United Nations. One of her only breaks from writing the columns was in the days following her husband’s death on 12 April 1945.

In her last column, which ran 26 September 1962, Eleanor was once again addressing the issue of civil rights. In that column she discussed the issue of desegregating the schools, saying:

“In the same way, we must realize that however slow the progress of school integration in the South, analogous situations exist over and over again in the Northern states. There the problem of school desegregation is closely tied to desegregation of housing; certainly we are not doing any kind of job that we could hold out as an example to our Southern neighbors.”

With that discussion Eleanor’s “My Day” column came to an end.* She died two months later on 7 November 1962 at the age of 78.

* “My Day” by Eleanor Roosevelt, 26 September 1962. Available on the website My Day by Eleanor Roosevelt. Prepared by the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project.

Recent Obituaries Coming Online for 25 Newspapers!

GenealogyBank is constantly expanding, putting more newspaper records online to help with your family history research.

screenshot of GenealogyBank home page showing link to obituaries search form

Screenshot of GenealogyBank home page showing link to obituaries search form

Over the next week we will be adding more coverage from 11 states, with 25 titles ranging from Alaska to Florida, adding these newspapers to our Recent Obituaries collection. Michigan will expand by a whopping 8 new newspaper titles and Pennsylvania by 6 titles, significantly increasing our obituary coverage for genealogy researchers exploring their ancestry in the U.S. Midwest and Northeast. Here are the details of our recent obituaries additions:

Cordova Times (Cordova, AK)

  • Obituaries:  04/27/2011 – Current

Juneau Empire (Juneau, AK)

  • Death Notices:  03/03/2011 – Current

St. Augustine Record (St. Augustine, FL)

  • Death Notices:  02/16/2002 – Current

Chicago Journal (Chicago, IL)

  • Obituaries:  09/30/2009 – Current

South Bend Tribune (South Bend, IN)

  • Obituaries: 1/1/1994 – 1/1/2006

AnnArbor.com (Ann Arbor, MI)

  • Death Notices:  08/05/2012 – Current

Bay City Times (Bay City, MI)

  • Death Notices:  7/17/2007 – 1/31/2012; 8/10/2012 – Current

Flint Journal (Flint, MI)

  • Death Notices:  9/5/2007 – 1/31/2012; 8/5/2012 – Current

Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, MI)

  • Death Notices:  5/12/2010 – 2/1/2012; 8/2/2012 – Current

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, MI)

  • Death Notices:  9/11/2007 – 2/1/2012; 8/5/2012 – Current

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, MI)

  • Death Notices:  08/05/2012 – Current

Muskegon Chronicle (Muskegon, MI)

  • Death Notices:  08/07/2012 – Current

Saginaw News (Saginaw, MI)

  • Death Notices:  7/30/2007 – 1/31/2012; 8/8/2012 – Current

Columbus Packet (Columbus, MS)

  • Obituaries:  12/12/2010 – Current

Citizen (Auburn, NY)

  • Obituaries:  07/09/2002 – Current

Daily Reporter (Columbus, OH)

  • Obituaries:  01/09/2002 – Current

Bridgeville Area News (Monroeville, PA)

  • Obituaries:  09/06/2012 – Current

Murrysville Star (Monroeville, PA)

  • Obituaries:  09/20/2012 – Current

Norwin Star (Monroeville, PA)

  • Obituaries:  09/20/2012 – Current

Penn Trafford Star (Monroeville, PA)

  • Obituaries:  09/13/2012 – Current

Sewickley Herald (Sewickley, PA)

  • Obituaries:  09/13/2012 – Current

Signal Item (Carnegie, PA)

  • Obituaries:  09/19/2012 – Current

Valley Voice (Hellertown, PA)

  • Obituaries:  07/13/2012 – Current

Uintah Basin Standard (Roosevelt, UT)

  • Death Notices:  04/03/2009 – Current

Bainbridge Islander (Bainbridge Island, WA)

  • Obituaries:  11/11/2006 – Current