Major Historical Fires in the U.S.—Save Your Genealogy!

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this blog post, Scott searches old newspapers to learn more about some of the major fires in our country’s history—including one he and his family lived through—and reminds genealogists how important it is to make copies of your family history research so that a natural disaster doesn’t destroy years of work.

Fire, fire, fire raging all about. Who’ll call the fireman to put the fire out?
—first line of a children’s song

If you grew up in the 1950s you may well recall this song. Details of the author, full lyrics, etc., seem to be lost to time, but after reading about a fire recently in the newspaper I began to research fires and their possible effect on our genealogy and family history work.

Iillustration of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, by John R. Chapin, originally printed in Harper’s Weekly, showing people running for their lives over the Randolph Street Bridge

Illustration: the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, by John R. Chapin, originally printed in Harper’s Weekly, showing people running for their lives over the Randolph Street Bridge. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Personally, I remember all too well the fire that ravaged my in-laws’ home. Although the house was saved the damage was extensive, and many heirlooms, pictures, etc., were lost forever as a result. It was a good lesson that taught me: genealogists should back up all their family history work and keep a copy of that backup somewhere other than in their home, unless they have a fireproof vault!

Enter Last Name

Great Chicago Fire of 1871

It is hard to look at famous fires throughout U.S. history and not begin with the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. One of the more detailed articles I discovered in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives was from this 1871 Massachusetts newspaper. This detailed news story covers almost a full page and reports: “…over 10,000 buildings are in ruins. The fire is still raging…” The article also reports that no one was spared, from “the dwellings of the mass of the German population of the city” to “some of the oldest and best residences of the city.” More than 100,000 people were left homeless by the two-day inferno. Finally on the second night a heavy rain did what the fire fighters—whose water supply had been cut off by the blaze—could not. The rain put the Great Chicago Fire out, but not before more than 17,000 buildings were destroyed at an estimated loss of over $200 million in property—in 1871 dollars!

article about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, National Aegis newspaper article 14 October 1871

National Aegis (Worcester, Massachusetts), 14 October 1871, page 1

San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906

It was in the early morning hours of 18 April 1906 when the earth rumbled, heaved, and shook terribly beneath the city of San Francisco. I found details in this 1906 Arkansas newspaper. As I read this article, I was struck by the fact that while I certainly recalled learning about the San Francisco earthquake in history class, I was not aware that fire raged across the city for three days afterward and actually caused most of the damage. Broken water mains prevented firemen from dousing the flames, and allowed the fire to move unhindered—eventually consuming over four square miles of the city. The earthquake and fire resulted in more than 3,000 deaths, left some 225,000 people homeless, and destroyed 28,000 buildings.

article about the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, Jonesboro Evening Sun newspaper article 18 April 1906

Jonesboro Evening Sun (Jonesboro, Arkansas), 18 April 1906, page 1

As I researched the news about this famous fire more, I found a very interesting article published in a 1907 Michigan newspaper. While the headline writers make it seem as though the San Francisco earthquake and fire was the year’s worst disaster, this extensive article admits this may be only “in the interest of the people of the United States” since “Hongkong” (sic) was ravaged by a three-day typhoon that devastated the city and cost an estimated 5,000 lives; a major earthquake destroyed Valparaiso, Chile, and damaged nearby Santiago causing the loss of between 1,500 and 2,000 lives; and in Italy, Mount Vesuvius erupted killing more than 2,000 and obliterating four towns and several villages. Natural disasters know no boundaries and can reach us in huge cities or tiny towns—and all this was just in the one year of 1906.

article about natural disasters, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 1 February 1907

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 1 February 1907, page 8

Cerro Grande Fire of 2000

Not many years ago, my family and I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico. During our time there we witnessed the “Cerro Grande” fire. I found a good article about this fire in a 2000 Illinois newspaper. Not only did this major fire force the closure of the famed Los Alamos National Laboratory, but it resulted in the evacuation of every one of the town’s 11,000 residents. While the nuclear materials at the Laboratory were all safe within fireproof facilities, many homeowners were not so lucky.

Fire Forces Evacuation of Los Alamos, N.M., Register Star newspaper article 11 May 2000

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 11 May 2000, page 3

A year later, there was a follow-up article in this 2001 Connecticut newspaper. This old news article begins poignantly with this:

The tears come for Lucy Thomas when she thinks about the family Bible and other precious possessions that burned in the Los Alamos fires a year ago.

Ms. Thomas was not alone either. The article reports that more than 220 structures were destroyed by the fire leaving more than 400 families homeless; the fire destroyed or damaged a further 115 buildings at the Laboratory; and burned over 43,000 acres of timberlands.

A Year after Fire, Los Alamos Residents Rebuild Their Lives, Daily Advocate newspaper article 6 May 2001

Daily Advocate (Stamford, Connecticut), 6 May 2001, page 20

Each morning during that fire, I well remember waking up to smoke throughout our yard, ash over an inch deep covering everything in sight, and the air quality monitor the EPA put at the end of our driveway. Shortly after the fire I had a meeting in Los Alamos and, while driving through the town, I was stunned at the complete and total destruction of so many houses. This brought the threat closer to home than we would have liked, but it also acted as a warning that fire can happen anywhere—and we had better be prepared for the possibility of the worst happening.

Enter Last Name

Capitan Fire of 1950

My newspaper research then brought me to an article regarding fires that could finally make me smile. It was in a 1954 newspaper from Washington, D.C. This story was about the famous Smokey Bear, who was rescued by firefighters during the Capitan fire in New Mexico in May of 1950.

article about Smokey the Bear, Evening Star newspaper article 13 June 1954

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 13 June 1954, page 153

An early news report of this fire in a 1950 Nebraska newspaper was headlined: “Central New Mexico Forest Fire Unchecked.” That news reporter couldn’t have known that a national treasure would be found, with singed paws and legs, clinging to a burned pine tree!

Central New Mexico Forest Fire Unchecked, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 9 May 1950

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 9 May 1950, page 8

As the examples in this article have shown, old newspapers are a great way to learn about the major events that impacted our ancestors’ lives, and the news that affected them. And these reports of the devastating power of fire and the overwhelming destruction it can cause serve as a powerful reminder that no home—and no collection of family records, documents and photos—is ever completely safe. Be sure to digitize your material and store it safely online, preferably on at least two different websites!

Related Articles about Records Preservation:

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What Can I Find in GenealogyBank about My Cousin Maid Marion?

No, I don’t mean Robin Hood’s love interest from the 16th century.

I’m referring to my cousin Marion Morgan Kemp (1862-1963) who owned villas in France, New York and Rome.

Years ago I contacted the authorities in Osmoy, France, where she died and received a copy of her death certificate.

photo of the death certificate for Marion Morgan Kemp (1862-1963)

Credit: Thomas Jay Kemp

Since Marion lived most of her life overseas, I wondered if I could find more details of her life in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

I quickly found many old newspaper articles about her that gave me a better sense of Marion’s social and civic activities. She not only hosted many events, but also during World War II—after the Allies retook Rome in June of 1944—she lent her personal villa for the use of President Roosevelt’s representative in Rome.

If you read the news article about the villa takeover carefully, you’ll see that her 60-room villa was highly sought after, causing “a scramble among high Allied officers who wanted it.” President Roosevelt’s personal representative, Myron Taylor, won the right to occupy her prized villa when he showed up with a personal letter from Marion—turns out they had known each other for many years.

collage of news articles about Marion Kemp, from GenealogyBank

Credit: GenealogyBank

Notice where the above three articles about Marion appeared:

  • “Mrs. Coolidge Honored,” Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 14 August 1949, page 16.
  • “Sporting Tea in Stable,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 9 April 1905, page 8.
  • “Myron Taylor Wins Row over Mansion in Rome,” Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 4 July 1944, page 3.

These are terrific articles, published in newspapers from Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Not locations where I had expected to find more information about my ancestor, but pleasant surprises nonetheless.

I had almost limited my record search to only New York newspapers, since that is one of the cities where she owned a home—but I went with a full search of GenealogyBank. It’s a good thing I did— I otherwise wouldn’t have discovered the interesting news articles I found that gave me a glimpse into her life.

Genealogy Search Tip: Cast a wide net when searching newspapers and gather in all of the articles about your family. You never know what you might find out about your ancestors.

Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 6: Search Cemeteries Online

A few weeks ago I wrote about online cemetery records (See: Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 3: Burial & Cemetery Records). In that article I wrote about the U.S. Veterans Administration’s Nationwide Gravesite Locator, Find-A-Grave, and BillionGraves.

Now I want to show how you can help your family history research by using information from these three websites: Find-A-Grave, GenealogyBank and Nationwide Gravesite Locator.

As shown in my earlier blog article, I gave Find-A-Grave a try by registering and adding the tombstone photo of my great-grandfather John Henry Kemp (1866-1944).

Registering with Find-A-Grave triggered a mini-avalanche of requests by family members and genealogists from around the country asking if I could take photos of their relatives’ tombstones at cemeteries in my local area. In the past week I’ve received almost 20 requests so far and they are still coming in: requests for me to take photos of gravestones in cemeteries all around my county.

Find-A-Grave has a “Request A Photo” feature that lets you ask nearby genealogists to take a photo of your target ancestor’s tombstone and post it to Find-A-Grave.

screenshot of the "Request A Photo" page from the website Find-A-Grave

Credit: Find-A-Grave

So I decided to give it a try and volunteered to be a gravesite photographer.

I received a request to photograph the tombstone of Daniel J. Clifford. They said that he was buried at the Connecticut State Veterans Cemetery in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1997.

First, I did a quick search on GenealogyBank and immediately pulled up Clifford’s obituary, giving me more details about him. He was 86 years old when he died and yes, he was buried in the Connecticut State Veterans Cemetery.

obituary for Daniel Clifford, Hartford Courant newspaper article 25 October 1997

Hartford Courant (Hartford, Connecticut), 25 October 1997, page B3

Next, I searched Nationwide Gravesite Locator to get a quick summary of Clifford’s military service and burial site.

screenshot of record for Daniel Clifford from website Nationwide Gravesite Locator

Credit: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

It shows that he was a Tec 5 in the U.S. Army and served in WWII. It also tells us that he was buried in Section 81-G, Site 02 in the State Veterans Cemetery.

That is a great feature of the network of military cemeteries: service members are not buried randomly—they are buried in neat, orderly rows. With that section and site number it is easy to go directly to Daniel Clifford’s grave.

So—I headed out this morning to do just that. Armed with my iPad, I went to see if I could actually do this. As you drive into the cemetery you can see the small markers indicating the sections. There was Section 81-G.

Walking the rows I was able to quickly find tombstone 02 in Section 81-G. Notice that the stones have the location code engraved on the back of the tombstone.

photo of the rear of Daniel Clifford's tombstone

Credit: Thomas Jay Kemp

Simple.

Here is his gravestone.

photo of the front of Daniel Clifford's tombstone

Credit: Thomas Jay Kemp

Sharp, clear and easy to read.

Find-A-Grave, Nationwide Gravesite Locator and GenealogyBank are essential tools genealogists rely on to get details of the lives of every member of their family.

Now—another word. I took these tombstone photos for Find-A-Grave with my iPad.

Imagine that.

When I first looked at an iPad I could see no practical value in having one. I could do everything I needed with my laptop—why would I need this extra tool? I quickly found that its always-on Apple software lets me check e-mail anytime, without having to wait for the laptop to crank up.

Now I see that it can actually take photos. Good ones, too.

It was easy to work with. When using it at the cemetery I could easily see the tombstone in the full screen image. It was even easier to frame the photo and to take the picture.

Wow. That was simple.

I have been working on my family history for the past 50 years. There’s always something new to learn.

Last year I learned how to text, to keep in touch with the kids—and now I have an iPad.

Couple this technology with such core tools as Find-A-Grave, Nationwide Gravesite Locator and GenealogyBank, and it’s clearly “A Great Day for Genealogy!”

Read these other blog articles about top genealogy websites:

Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 1: Google

Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 2: Google Books & Internet Archive

Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 3: Burial & Cemetery Records

Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 4: BillionGraves Smartphone App for Finding Graves

Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 5: State Vital Records in the U.S.

History of Trains & Railroads: Locomotives, Steam Engines & More

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary searches old newspapers for articles and ads about trains and locomotives, and discusses how important railroads were in the lives of our ancestors.

Trains & Railroads Shaped Early America

The importance of train travel cannot be overstated in the development of America, and its effect on how and why our ancestors traveled on land. Stagecoaches were an early transportation option, but once locomotives and steam engines proved their worth, travel by stagecoach became less frequent.

picture of a locomotive, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper illustration 15 February 1892

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 15 February 1892, page 5

Our nation’s great westward expansion took off, and trains became the favored mode of transportation until automobiles and air travel took over. Reading old newspaper articles to explore the history of train travel is a good way to better understand our ancestors’ lives and the times they lived in.

Steam Powers the Way

Early trains were powered by steam, but it may surprise you to learn that steam power was not a 19th Century invention. English inventor Thomas Savery (c.1650-1715) is given the credit for inventing steam power for transportation. He didn’t work on steam-powered trains, but this 1848 Connecticut newspaper article notes he did develop a steam engine for a rowing ship.

Thomas Savery the Engineer, Connecticut Courant newspaper article 28 October 1848

Connecticut Courant (Hartford, Connecticut), 28 October 1848, page 165

Although Savery received his steam engine patent in 1698, the first steam-powered engine didn’t arrive in the American Colonies until 1752 or 1753. Evidence of such a machine can be found in this 1753 Massachusetts newspaper article reporting that the Town of Charlestown was:

“so kind as to bring over their fine Water-Engine, which was of great Service in suppressing and preventing the Progress of the Fire.”

notice about a Charlestown, Massachusetts, fire engine, Boston Gazette newspaper article 13 February 1753

Boston Gazette (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 February 1753, page 3

A screw-driven steamboat was invented around 1802 by John Stevens. A Wikipedia article mentions he created a steam carriage around 1826 that ran on a track, but he was not the only one working on the concept.

There are several early newspaper reports of inventors working on steam carriages, including this 1822 New Jersey newspaper article about a petition for a steam carriage being presented on behalf of Isaac Baker, of Ohio.

notice about a patent petition from Isaac Baker for a steam-carriage, New Brunswick Fredonian newspaper article 14 February 1822

New Brunswick Fredonian (New Brunswick, New Jersey), 14 February 1822, page 2

The illustration below, from an 1826 Massachusetts newspaper, shows a 12-horsepower “loco-motive engine” used by the Helton Railroad in England.

picture of a locomotive, Boston Traveler newspaper illustration 7 March 1826

Boston Traveler (Boston, Massachusetts), 7 March 1826, page 4

Early Train & Railroad Companies

If you’ve played that famous board game “Monopoly,” you can surely guess the first railroad thought to have provided regularly-scheduled service.

Yes, it was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O), chartered on 28 February 1827, to provide service from Baltimore, Maryland, to the Ohio River. It was capitalized with 15,000 shares at $100 each ($1,500,000), what must have seemed like a tremendous fortune at that time.

Perhaps your ancestors traveled on the great B&O, credited to have been the first U.S. company to offer scheduled passenger and freight service?

However, B&O was not the first charted train company. A search of GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives finds mention of other train companies. This 1825 Pennsylvania newspaper article reports a petition to incorporate and provide service from Wilkesbarre, Pennsylvania, “to the nearest point on the Delaware.”

petition to construct a Pennsylvania railroad, National Gazette newspaper article 15 December 1825

National Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 15 December 1825, page 1

This advertisement was published in an 1856 South Carolina newspaper, showing the Virginia Springs Central Railroad’s announcement that its opening line will travel 56 miles. Until the rail line is completed, the company’s stage coaches will continue to operate at fares ranging from $10 to $13.

railroad ad, Charleston Courier newspaper advertisement 11 September 1856

Charleston Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 11 September 1856, page 3

We can all imagine the excitement generated by the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad on 10 May 1869 at Promontory Summit, in Utah Territory!

To commemorate the final joining, the railroad placed a golden spike and a silver railroad tie. This article from an 1869 New York newspaper reports that that the last spike would be engraved as follows:

“The last spike. The Pacific Railroad—ground broke January 8, 1863, completed May–, 1869. May God continue the unity of our country as this railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.”

The Silver Tie and Golden Spike, Evening Post newspaper article

Evening Post (New York, New York), 15 May 1869, page 4

There were many other train “firsts,” such as this article from an 1898 Minnesota newspaper commemorating the first Minneapolis Locomotive crossing the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River “at this point.”

The First Minneapolis Locomotive, Minneapolis Journal newspaper article 12 February 1898

Minneapolis Journal (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 12 February 1898, page 14

Railroad Family History for Kids (and Adults)

The children of today may never know the joy of train travel, except as a novelty. To connect your children with this important part of American history, search the newspaper archives to see if any of their ancestors were connected with the railroad industry—that may spark their interest.

In addition to their surname, be sure to search for your railroad ancestors by their job title, such as conductor or switchman. Also search for railway pension records (which are in a separate system from Social Security).

Here is an example of an old newspaper article that may show your ancestors in the context of railroad travel. This 1857 Pennsylvania newspaper wedding announcement notes that the marriage of William C. Pitman and Miss F.A. Fuller occurred on a moving train that exceeded 40 miles per hour!

Pitman-Fuller wedding announcement, Public Ledger newspaper article 10 January 1857

Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 10 January 1857, page 5

This is just the tip of the iceberg for conducting research on how our ancestors were connected to trains, either by occupation or their desire to travel.

Websites and Documents of Interest

Cyndi’s List: Railroads >> Records: Administrative, Employment and Pensions

U.S. Railroad Retirement Board

“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”

The original title of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” was “The Levee Song,” published in 1894 in a book of songs published by Princeton University titled Carmina Princetonia. If you search GenealogyBank you can locate several references to this famous song, including this one.

"I've Been Working on the Railroad" song, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 30 August 1920

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 30 August 1920, page 2

Have fun filling in the lives of your ancestors and the times they lived in with railroad and train stories. You never know what you’ll discover about your family history!

Case Study Part 3: Finding Old Newspaper Articles about Family

Continuing my search in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives for the history of the Crofoot family (see: “Case Study: Using Old Newspaper Articles to Learn about Your Ancestors” & “Case Study Part 2: How to Find Old Newspaper Articles about Family”) I found  information about the death of Ephraim Crofoot.

When we found the obituary of Thomas S. Crofoot published in August 1852, the newspaper article referred to his father as “the late Ephraim Crofoot, Esq.”

Constitution (Middletown, Connecticut), 25 August 1852, page 3 Thomas Crofoot Death Notice

Constitution (Middletown, Connecticut), 25 August 1852, page 3.

This clue told us that Ephraim Crofoot had died before August 1852.

Digging deeper into the archives I found Ephraim Crofoot’s obituary that stated he died on 24 February 1852 at the age of 51.

Constitution Newspaper March 3, 1852 Ephraim Crofoot Death Notice

Constitution (Middletown, Connecticut), 3 March 1852, page 3.

A week later a notice appeared in the same newspaper alerting everyone that probate proceedings for Ephraim Crofoot’s estate had begun on 28 February 1852.

Constitution Newspaper 1852 Ephraim Crofoot Probate Notice

Constitution (Middletown, Connecticut), 10 March 1852, page 4.

So far we have found quite a bit of genealogical information and clues about Ephraim Crofoot and his family in the newspaper archives including information about his marriages, children and death. It takes time to piece together the clues and facts that document a family tree.

In the weeks ahead I will continue to report on my findings about the Crofoot family and provide similar examples from other typical families to help you better understand the kinds of information that you can discover about your family history in old newspaper articles.

Case Study: Using Old Newspaper Articles to Learn about Your Ancestors

Old newspapers provide the stories of our ancestors’ lives, helping to flesh out the names and dates on our family trees.

What kind of family history can be found in historical newspapers? Let’s pick a typical, ordinary family and find out.

For example, what can I discover about the Crofoot family that lived in Connecticut back to colonial times? Did they appear in the old newspapers?

Let’s see.

I’ll do a search in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives for the family surname Crofoot.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's newspaper search page for Crofoot

Let’s take a look at some of the surname search results.

Here is a wedding announcement article I found in an old newspaper for Ephraim Crofoot.

wedding announcement for Ephrim Crofoot and Elizabeth Winship, Connecticut Mirror newspaper article 1 May 1830

Connecticut Mirror (Hartford, Connecticut), 1 May 1830, page 3

OK. The core facts: Ephraim Crofoot married Miss Elizabeth W. Winship about April 1830 in Middletown, Connecticut.

Here is another reference to Ephraim Crofoot I found in an old newspaper death notice.

death notice for Esther Elizabeth Crofoot, Constitution newspaper article 4 October 1848

Constitution (Middletown, Connecticut), 4 October 1848, page 3

Ephraim’s daughter Esther Elizabeth, aged 17 years, died 29 September 1848. Calculating back, this means she was born about 1831.

OK. That piece seems to fit nicely in the family puzzle, since Ephraim was married the year before in 1830. Esther Elizabeth probably was the daughter of Ephraim and Elizabeth W. (Winship) Crofoot. We’ll need to do more genealogy research to confirm that.

Here is another old newspaper reference to a child of Ephraim’s: Thomas S. Crofoot.

death notice for Thomas Crofoot, Constitution newspaper article 25 August 1852

Constitution (Middletown, Connecticut), 25 August 1852, page 3

This death notice tells us that Ephraim’s son, Thomas S. Crofoot, was 19 years, 4 months old when he died in August 1852. Calculating back, that would put his birth at about April 1833. Again, that fits Ephraim’s 1830 marriage.

There is another clue: this newspaper article refers to his father as “the late Ephraim Crofoot, Esq.”

So—had our Ephraim Crofoot died by August 1852?

More genealogical facts to double check.

But, look at this old newspaper article. It is another marriage announcement for an Ephraim Crofoot, to a Betsey Sampson.

wedding announcement for Ephraim Crofoot and Betsey Sampson, Constitution newspaper article 27 February 1850

Constitution (Middletown, Connecticut), 27 February 1850, page 3

Is this the same Ephraim Crofoot? A different Ephraim Crofoot?

Had something happened to Elizabeth (Winship) Crofoot? Had she died? Was there a divorce?

It takes time to piece together all the genealogical clues and facts that document a family tree. As you can see, there are many articles in old newspapers that can help us discover the stories of our ancestors’ lives.

In the weeks ahead I will continue to report on my findings about the Crofoot family and provide similar case study examples from other typical American families to help you better understand how to find newspaper articles about your ancestors—and how you can use them to fill in your family tree.

Find Your Female Ancestors This Women’s History Month

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena helps celebrate Women’s History Month by providing search tips to help you find your female ancestors in old newspapers.

One of the biggest roadblocks genealogists find when researching female ancestors is the lack of resources that document their lives. This is especially true of government records, which don’t always tell us what we want to know about our ancestresses’ lives. Fortunately, there is a good source for information about the women members of our family: old newspapers. The great thing about using historical newspapers is that they document the lives of common people and their everyday events, special occasions and activities—for women as well as men.

Where can you find your female ancestor in the newspaper? A complete discussion of all newspaper article types would be too lengthy for a blog post—but to start with let’s consider the following three categories (Death, Milestones & Activities) that you can find in the newspaper pages of GenealogyBank.

One caution before you start your female ancestor search. As you will notice from the following articles, it’s important to consider how you will search for your female ancestor’s name. Until very recently married women were most likely identified by their husband’s names. So searching for Mary Jane Smith might not yield any hits, but a search for Mrs. Aaron Smith or Mrs. A.P. Smith very well might. As you search, keep an Internet research log and note the variations of your ancestor’s name that you find and the date of the newspaper. GenealogyBank adds more newspapers to its online archive collections daily, so what you don’t find today might appear tomorrow or next week.

Female Ancestor Death Records in Newspapers

An obvious place to start researching any ancestor’s life is with their death. While we often equate death with obituaries, remember that other types of notices and articles about someone’s death may also exist in newspapers.

This list of death notices from a Philadelphia newspaper provides information about each individual’s death and funeral.

death notices, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 8 March 1904

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 8 March 1904, page 7

Throughout this list many women are identified—such as Anne C. Winkworth, wife of the late Thomas A. Winkworth, who died in her 80th year.

death notice for Anne C. Winkworth, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 8 March 1904

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 8 March 1904, page 7

Major Life Milestones in Newspapers

Milestone wedding anniversaries are something to celebrate and newspapers have done that with photos and articles about the wedding anniversary couple. If your ancestors celebrated 50 or more years of marriage, you may want to see if their golden anniversary was documented in the newspaper.

This old wedding anniversary article from a Portland newspaper doesn’t give us too many clues about Mrs. Austin H. Gates—in fact, her birth name is never printed. However, we are provided with her photo, as well as her descendants’ names.

Mr. and Mrs. Austin H. Gates Celebrate 50th Wedding Anniversary, Oregonian newspaper article 20 March 1908

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 20 March 1908, page 6

Do you have an ancestor who lived to be the ripe old age of 100 years or beyond? That significant milestone is often documented in the newspaper, as in this old Philadelphia newspaper article reporting that Mrs. Eliza Stranahan survived an entire century—from 1800-1900!

Mrs. Eliza Stranahan Today Celebrates Her 100th Birthday Anniversary at Sharon, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 5 September 1900

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 5 September 1900, page 4

As you create a timeline of your female ancestor’s life, note any milestones she may have achieved and look for these in the newspaper.

Women’s Activities Are Recorded in Newspapers

What organizations, activities or events was your female ancestor a part of? Her name could appear in articles associated with those activities.

Women were members of all types of groups. Consider church groups, auxiliaries to male membership organizations, benevolent groups, and social causes as you search for records of your ancestor.

In this small article about the Women’s Relief Corps in Wilkes-barre, Pennsylvania, an auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic, the occasion of their elections provides us with the names of members.

Officers Elected by Women's Relief Corrps, Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader newspaper article 3 December 1912

Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader (Wilkes-barre, Pennsylvania), 3 December 1912, page 13

Women and their church activities were often published in the local newspaper. In this article highlighting the fundraising efforts of female church members, even a few street addresses are included. It’s interesting to note that even though the women failed in their three-day fast (most suffered from thirst and hunger after a dozen hours), the article was still published.

women Fast to Raise Money to Repair Their Church, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 19 November 1899

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 19 November 1899, page 26

The great thing about old newspapers is that your ancestor didn’t have to be wealthy or famous to be mentioned. Newspapers document communities, and it is in that documentation that you just might find mentions of your female ancestors.

Enjoy the Women’s History Month celebrations and good luck with your own female ancestry research!

Help Solve a Genealogy Mystery: Who Is Uncle L in My Old Photo?

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott asks our readers for help in deciphering the writing on the back of an old photo identifying his “Uncle L.”

As I would imagine many of you do, I have some intriguing old photographs that unfortunately don’t have any identification on them. However, the one I have in my family history stash that makes me the craziest actually does have writing on it. The old black and white picture has a wonderfully clear full sentence on the back, which identifies my father around the age of 2 or 3 and—here is the kicker—a second, older fellow identified as Uncle L. Uncle L?

photo of Scott Phillips's father and uncle

From the author’s collection

Yep! The old family photo is as clear as a bell (as you can see here), except for the name of this mysterious uncle!

back of photo of Scott Phillips's father and uncle, showing inscription

From the author’s collection

Every so often I pull that old photo out and try again to identify this mysterious member of my family that I know nothing about. As my family tree continues to grow, becoming more refined and better documented, I keep hoping for a breakthrough. So far though, I have had no luck in identifying this Uncle L. I brought that old family photo out the other day and decided to try some lateral thinking via GenealogyBank.com and its newspaper archives.

To me the handwriting on the back of the photo might be read as Uncle “Lew” or “Len.” Unfortunately there is no Lew or Len in any of my Dad’s immediate family, nor his father’s family. So I branched out to look at some relations of my grandmother’s who lived nearby.

I began my genealogy research with the knowledge that the passenger list from Ellis Island shows my grandmother coming to America to live with her brother-in-law Thomas Martin. He happened to be living on the same street as she and my grandfather would later live on for decades. I still have many warm and wonderful memories of that home from my youth.

My new search began with this brother-in-law and fellow traveler, Thomas Martin. I learned many interesting facts about him from GenealogyBank’s newspapers, such as his job as a lamplighter—which conjured up many images of a great job, until I thought of winter and rainy evenings—and his later job as a street car motorman. However, nothing I found about Thomas helped me identify my mystery uncle.

So I broadened my search on the Martin surname and it wasn’t long before I discovered that a descendant had married a Starr family member related to Floyd Starr, the founder of the amazing Starr Commonwealth for Boys in Albion, Michigan.

Starr Commonwealth--the Miracle Home--Is Rebuilding Many Boys, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 16 November 1919

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 16 November 1919, page 14

While I truly enjoyed reading this old news article, which provides a great history of the charitable youth program, it still offered me no one with a given name that comes close to my mystery uncle’s name.

I branched my researching out some more and soon found another family member farther down the street, the Newell family. The Newell family matriarch, Marjorie, was another sister of my grandmother’s, so the search was back on. I discovered lots of interesting information about Marjorie in the newspaper archives, such as her old marriage announcement.

Marjorie Cottle Becomes Wife of T. J. Newell, jr., Plain Dealer newspaper article 14 May 1944

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 14 May 1944, page 47

While offering good genealogical information on Marjorie, this historical marriage announcement also led me to another interesting story about her soon-to-be brother-in-law being awarded the Purple Heart after an air raid in WWII.

Hero, Minus Foot, Is Glad He Did Bit, Plain Dealer newspaper article 28 July 1943

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 July 1943, page 1

However, once again I had nothing that solved my mystery about Uncle L.

I moved on to the last family member who lived in the States. This was my grandmother’s brother Thomas Cottle who lived just a couple of blocks away. I searched his family, his wife’s family the Morrells, his wife’s brother Wilbert, and his brother-in-law’s wife’s family the Ricks. Again I gained much useful information for my family tree, but my mystery uncle remains just that.

While I refuse to call this treasured family photograph a brick wall, I am back to staring closely at the photo and analyzing the name. Does it begin with an L, a T, or possibly even a script Q?

What do YOU think? Take a good look yourself, post a comment and let me know…PLEASE!

2013 Family History Expo Conference in St. George a Great Success

Over 700 genealogists packed the lecture halls at the Dixie Center in St. George, Utah, this past weekend to get training and sharpen their genealogy research skills at the 2013 Family History Expo.

Family History Expos logo

Family History Expos logo

James Tanner’s opening keynote remarks, “Top 10 Techniques,” made it clear that newspapers are critical to documenting our family history.

photo of James Tanner

Photo: James Tanner. Credit: Family History Expos.

That same point was made again and again by speakers at this year’s Family History Expo. With conference sessions like: “Newspaper, Critical Resource to Document Your Family Tree” by Thomas Jay Kemp; “Preservation Techniques for Documents, Newspapers and Photos” by Sharon Monson; “Tracing Colonial Immigrants” by Nathan Murphy; and “Obituaries—Clues to Look For” also by Tom Kemp, the importance of newspapers to genealogy research was made clear. All the conference talks were popular and well attended.

Among the dozens of presentations there were some new services announced, like the new FamilySearch Photos service that is available online in a Beta release. This new family tree tool allows users of the free Family Trees on FamilySearch.org to incorporate photos into their online tree. This feature allows genealogists to upload images of their ancestors, tag/identify ancestors in the photos, and associate the tagged ancestors in the photos to the Family Tree.

The family history conference covered a wide variety of sessions ranging from: German, French, Scandinavian and English genealogy research; to preparing your family history, letters and documents for publication in print or online.

One novel approach to genealogy was discussed during Marlo E. Schuldt’s presentation “It’s Time to Do a Slideshow Biography.” The slideshow biography format may be the answer you have been looking for. It’s an easy way to share a life sketch or family history that is online and visual, and can engage people in their heritage in a new way.

Here are links to download the PowerPoint decks Tom covered at the FH Expo:

Newspapers: A Critical Resource to Complete Your Family Tree
Top Genealogy Websites for the 21st Century

In Search of Our Early American Ancestors’ Patents on Inventions

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary explains that some of your ancestors may have patented inventions—and finding the government records or newspaper descriptions of these inventions may fill in some gaps in your family history.

When we think of patented inventions (not to be confused with land patents), the more famous inventors—such as Thomas Edison (inventor of the phonograph and 1000+ other inventions)—overshadow lesser-known American inventors.

But take a moment to reflect on life before the Industrial Revolution, when our early American ancestors were left to their own ingenuity. The family stories may have become lost over the years, but perhaps some of your ancestors invented unique tools or machines—and finding information about their patented inventions may fill in some gaps in your family history.

Necessity was the driving force behind many of these historical inventions, creating devices to deal with problems that don’t concern us today.

Peter Zacharie’s Mud-Moving Machine

For example, mud was a large problem in the late 18th century. When you cleared a swamp, it was a back-breaking, labor-intensive chore, and undoubtedly the inspiration for Peter Zacharie’s (of Baltimore) mud-moving device, which is described in this 1792 newspaper article.

Peter Zacharie's patent, Spooner's Vermont Journal newspaper article 14 February 1792

Spooner’s Vermont Journal (Windsor, Vermont), 14 February 1792, page 2

His device allowed a person to walk in a hollow wheel and raise, with what must have been a large spoon, a ton of mud. As the first one went up, a corresponding spoon simultaneously went down to get another load, thereby allowing a single man to empty it in a minute. What a fantastic labor-saving invention!

Although no drawing has been located of Zacharie’s machine, List of Patents for Inventions and Designs Issued by the United States from 1790 to 1847 (Edmund Burke, Commissioner of Patents, 1847) on Google Books, described it as an “Excavator, mud machine.” I imagine it more as an early elliptical machine—as this would undoubtedly have kept the farmer in shape!

Obadiah Herbert’s Spinning Wheel

That same 1792 newspaper reported that Obadiah Herbert (of Mount Pleasant) had created a spinning wheel that could eliminate the need for a second person. As noted, “the advantages of such a machine were evident.”

Obadiah Herbert's patent, Spooner's Vermont Journal newspaper article 14 February 1792

Spooner’s Vermont Journal (Windsor, Vermont), 14 February 1792, page 2

Miss E. A. Judkins Lace Loom

You’ll find descriptions of other lesser-known American inventions in early newspapers, such as this one by Miss E. A. Judkins (of Portland), who invented a loom to weave lace, fringes, etc., eliminating the need for tatting and crocheting.

E. A. Judkins's patent, National Gazette newspaper article 2 July 1839

National Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 2 July 1839, page 1

Patent Protection in Early America

These early inventions received patent protection under the “Act to Promote the Progress of Useful Arts” of 10 April 1790. Protection under this act was granted:

“to such persons or petitioners, his, her or their heirs, administrators or assigns for any term not exceeding fourteen years, the sole and exclusive right and liberty of making, constructing, using and vending to others to be used, the said invention or discovery.”

1790 Patent Act, Daily Advertiser newspaper article 13 April 1790

Daily Advertiser (New York, New York), 13 April 1790, page 2

There were various other stipulations, and the act included a statement that the issued patent “would be prima facia evidence that the said patentee or patentees, was or were the first and true inventor or inventors, discover or discovers of the thing so specified.” Filing fees were specified, which totaled $3.85:

    • 50¢ to receive and file the petition
    • 10¢ per copy-sheet containing one hundred words
    • $2.00 for making out the patent
    • $1.00 for affixing the great seal
    • 25¢ to endorse the day of delivering the same to the patentee
1790 Patent Act, Daily Advertiser newspaper article 13 April 1790

Daily Advertiser (New York, New York), 13 April 1790, page 2

Where to Find These Historical U.S. Patents?

Unfortunately for family historians searching government records, about 10,000 of the earliest patent documents were destroyed in an 1836 fire at the Post Office building. Luckily, many American patentees kept copies of their prized patents.

Known as the “X-Patents,” less than 1/3 of the documents destroyed in that fire have been restored to the United States Patent Office—mostly from personal collections or archives. One of the surviving early documents was Eli Whitney’s patent for the cotton gin.

drawing of Eli Whitney's cotton gin

Credit: Wikipedia Commons image

If you find one of the missing X-Patents in your family archives, be sure to contact the U.S. Patent Office. They’ll be appreciative you contacted them so that they can save more of these missing historical patents.

To learn more about patented early American inventions search GenealogyBank’s Newspaper Archives, along with Google Books and Google Patents. You’ll also find a number of accounts and related reference material in GenealogyBank’s Historical Books collection.

photo of an 1871 advertising card for Scientific American, Munn & Co., patent attorneys

Scientific American, Munn & Co., patent attorneys advertising card, 1 January 1871

Also visit the United States Patent and Trademark Office. There you’ll learn that protection for patented inventions is not much longer than it was in 1790, but fees now run into thousands of dollars!

From their website:

“How long does patent protection last?

“For applications filed on or after June 8, 1995, utility and plant patents are granted for a term which begins with the date of the grant and usually ends 20 years from the date you first applied for the patent subject to the payment of appropriate maintenance fees. Design patents last 14 years from the date you are granted the patent. No maintenance fees are required for design patents.”

Recommended reading from the newspaper archives:

Do you have any American inventors in your family tree? Share with us in the comments!