Understanding Terms Found in Historical Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary explains some of the unusual or archaic terms often found in historical newspapers, and provides examples from period newspapers.

When I first started searching historical newspapers to help with my family history research, certain terms that I found in old papers confused me.

In the beginning, I found myself wondering: what was a “relict” or a “consort,” and why were there so many references to “inst.” or “instant,” and “ult.” or “ultimo”? It took some time to sort all these terms out, and I found various genealogical dictionaries useful.

Knowing that some of you may be having the same confusion about this terminology, I’d like to share some examples and definitions of the more commonly-found terms in old newspapers, with some insight on genealogical clues that these terms may provide.

MEANINGS OF GENERAL NEWSPAPER TERMS

Communicated (often abbreviated Com.): When reading old newspapers, you may spot the word communicated or its abbreviation, com. It can occur at the beginning of an article, or more typically it will be abbreviated at the end of the article, and indicates that the item was written by someone other than a staff writer, and “communicated” to the newspaper for publication. A notice at the beginning of the newspaper article will often look like this:

the term "communicated" from an old newspaper

Whenever you see the term communicated or its abbreviation com., look for additional articles in other newspapers. You never know if the first article you found is complete—often it has been edited from the original, and if you find that original article it may contain more family history information than the edited version of the article you found.

Here is an example where the abbreviation com. has been inserted at the end of the newspaper article. Note also that this example has a “Request to Insert,” explained next.

the abbreviation "com." from the Newburyport Herald newspaper 7 August 1838

Newburyport Herald (Newburyport, Massachusetts), 7 August 1838, page 3

Requests to Insert: An often overlooked clue in old newspapers is a request for printers to republish a notice in other locations. Generally, this indicates that a person or family once resided elsewhere, or has a familial or business connection outside of the published location, and therefore readers in that additional location will have an interest in news about the individual or family. This is a great clue to steer your family history searches to locations you might not have considered otherwise.

Mastheads: Typically located at the top of the front page, the masthead is the printed matter consisting of the name of the newspaper, along with details of its publication (date, location, etc.).

Here is an example of a masthead from a New Hampshire newspaper:

masthead, New-Hampshire Patriot newspaper 20 January 1823

New-Hampshire Patriot (Concord, New Hampshire), 20 January 1823, page 1

When saving important proofs for genealogical purposes, it is advisable to review the masthead. You may also learn something interesting, such as that Isaac Hill, printer of the New-Hampshire Patriot & State Gazette, was also a publisher of the “Laws of the United States.”

DEFINITIONS OF RELATIONSHIP REFERENCE TERMS

Banns or Bans (or Publishing of the Banns): This is an ancient matrimonial term, originating from the Middle Ages. A Banns proclamation was typically published on three consecutive Sundays prior to a wedding. The requirement was abolished by the Roman Catholic Church in 1983, but is still used in some parts of the world. Original Banns certificates are rare, but you may be able to locate a few in some archives.

In this 20th century newspaper notice, the entire announcement is about a couple’s wedding banns:

Voellinger-Ehrstein wedding, Belleville News Democrat newspaper article 28 March 1921

Belleville News Democrat (Belleville, Illinois), 28 March 1921, page 2

In this 19th century newspaper article, we see an amusing story about how important the banns requirement was:

amusing wedding story, Daily Advertiser newspaper article 22 August 1807

Daily Advertiser (New York, New York), 22 August 1807, page 3

Because he had no proof the banns had been “regularly published” as required, the Minister postponed the wedding until the following day. However, the groom would not be deterred! He pulled off his hat, handed it to his bride-to-be, and took off running at “full speed.” He returned “in exactly two hours and thirty-five minutes, to the great joy of the betrothed damsel” with the requisite proof that the banns had indeed been published—whereupon the Minister performed the ceremony!

Consort: A consort is a partner, and in the case of a death, a female who leaves a surviving spouse. An easy way to remember the term consort is to think of a marriage as a “consortium” between a husband and wife. A corresponding term is relict (see the next entry), along with spinster or bachelor, for persons who remain single.

In this example from an 1802 newspaper announcing Eleanor Harris’s death, she is described as the “consort” of Thomas Harris. Note the representation of the “s” as an “f,” common in 18th and early 19th century newspapers, so that “consort” actually reads “confort.” Also note that her death date is reported as “the 8th instant” (again, with the “s” spelled with an “f” so that it actually reads “inftant”). I’ll explain what “instant” means shortly.

Eleanor Harris obituary, Republican newspaper article 22 February 1802

Republican (Baltimore, Maryland), 22 February 1802, page 3

Relict (relictus): Relictus is a Latin term meaning having inherited or been bequeathed. Ergo, the relict is the survivor (usually a widow) of the marriage union.

The first sentence of this 1907 newspaper article reads: “Mrs. Prudence Hale, relict of the late Marshall Hale, died early yesterday morning at the home of her son…” It is lamentable that the typesetter misspelled her late husband’s name as Marshall “Hall” in the headline.

Noble Woman's Useful Life Ended, San Jose Mercury News newspaper article 21 January 1907

San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, California), 21 January 1907, page 1

DEFINITONS OF TIME FRAME TERMS IN NEWSPAPERS

Rather than print a specific date, old newspapers sometimes refer to a date by using terms such as instant, proximo and ultimo. Occasionally they do this for religious reasons, which I’ll explain shortly.

Instant (often abbreviated inst.): This term refers to a recent occurrence in the present or current month. In the consort example above, Eleanor Harris’s death date is reported as “the 8th instant.” Since her death notice was published on 22 February 1802, this means she died on 8 February 1802.

Proximo (often abbreviated prox.): Proximo refers to something that will occur in the future, or next month, as seen in this advertisement for the British armed ship Louisa, which was scheduled to sail on the “20th proximo.” Since this announcement was published on 27 February 1800, this means the Louisa will sail on 20 March 1800.

shipping notice about British ship Louisa, Georgia Gazette newspaper article 27 February 1800

Georgia Gazette (Savannah, Georgia), 27 February 1800, page 2

Ultimo (often abbreviated ult.): Ultimo or Ultimo Mense is a Latin term/phrase that refers to an occurrence from last month.

For example, in one old newspaper death notice Lt. Elliott’s death was specified as December 6, and in another (published in January), his death was reported as having occurred on “the 6th ult,” which is another way of saying December 6.

Boston Courier (Boston, Massachusetts), 23 December 1841, page 4:

  • “DIED, In Chester, N. H. Dec 6, Lieut Jacob Elliott, 86, a soldier of the revolution.”

Bellows Falls Gazette (Bellows Falls, Vermont), 10 January 1842, page 3:

  • “In Chester, N. H. very suddenly on the 6th ult. Lieut. Jacob Elliott, 86…”

Whenever you find an “ultimo” reference, cross-reference the date with vital records, since the newspaper in this case is reporting on an event that happened the previous month and is not immediate. Reports were often reprinted from one paper to another, and after sufficient time had passed the original date may have become unclear. In addition, some historical newspapers occasionally used the “ultimo” reference to refer to an event from two months prior.

In this notice from 1842, one’s first inclination is to record Mr. Basset’s death as having occurred in December of 1841, since the death notice was published in January and referred to the “23d ult.” However, upon further examination, I’ve uncovered some citations that report his death as having occurred in November.

Abel Basset death notice, Bellows Falls Gazette newspaper article 10 January 1842

Bellows Falls Gazette (Bellows Falls, Vermont), 10 January 1842, page 3

I suggest you consider recording “ultimo” dates as approximations (died circa or about).

New and Old Style References for Dates (often abbreviated N.S. and O.S.): Another reason that dates in historical newspaper notices may not be specific pertains to beliefs held by various religions, such as the Society of Friends, aka Quakers.

Since the commonly-used names for months are based upon pagan Gods (e.g., January from Janus, February from Februus, etc.), the early Quakers deemed it sacrilegious to use such names. Instead, the Quakers referred to months by the order in which they appeared during the year.

In this example from a 1788 newspaper, the time of the yearly meeting is recorded as being “from the 12th [Day] of the fifth Month, 1788, to the 19th Day of the same inclusive.”

notice about a Quaker yearly meeting, New-York Morning Post newspaper article 30 September 1788

New-York Morning Post (New York, New York), 30 September 1788, page 2

The conversion for Quaker dates is complicated, so if you find it necessary to record one, seek out a calendar converter and undertake further research. Mistakes are all too common.

Prior to 1752 (when the American colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar), the first month of the year was not January; the year started with the Spring Equinox in the middle of March.

The reason the calendar changed (from the Julian to the Gregorian system) was to accommodate for leap years. After several centuries the equinoxes were not falling on the calendar at the proper time, so various days were removed and the first of the year became January 1. When it was necessary to explain an old or new style date, an abbreviation of N.S. or O.S. was added.

In this 1822 newspaper article, both dating systems are used to give John Stark’s birth date: “Aug. 28, 1728, old style, corresponding to Aug. 17, N.S.”

John Stark obituary, Republican Chronicle newspaper article 29 May 1822

Republican Chronicle (Ithaca, New York), 29 May 1822, page 3

You may wish to consult one of my early RootsWeb Review articles, “Dates and Calendars through the Ages,” located at http://ftp.rootsweb.ancestry.com/pub/review/2007/0606.txt

You may also find it helpful to read “Quaker Dating before 1752” at the Swarthmore Friends Historical Library Website at www.swarthmore.edu/academics/friends-historical-library/quaker-meeting-records/quaker-calendar.xml.

I hope these definitions and genealogy tips helped you gain a better understanding of the newspaper terminology often found in old newspapers. Have you discovered any perplexing newspaper terms in your genealogy research? Share them with us in the comments!

Firsthand Stories of the Civil War’s 1864 Battle of Nashville

This decisive battle of the Civil War was fought in and around Nashville, Tennessee, 148 years ago, on 15-16 December 1864. Union General George H. Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga,” commanded the Federal troops who soundly defeated the Confederate army under the command of General John Bell Hood.

The Battle of Nashville was the last major clash in the Western Theater of the Civil War. After suffering more than 6,000 casualties the Confederate Army of Tennessee was badly weakened, no longer strong enough to threaten the much-larger Union forces in the area.

photo of the Battle of Nashville, 16 December 1864. Credit: Library of Congress.

Battle of Nashville, 16 December 1864. Credit: Library of Congress.

GenealogyBank gives you the news as your ancestors lived it, providing more context to your family story than is available from other genealogy sources. Newspaper coverage of the Civil War was extensive and vivid, with many reporters giving first-hand accounts of battles they witnessed from up close. Newspapers also published actual Civil War battle reports from the officers, and letters from the soldiers in addition to their own personal war stories.

For example, here are three first-hand accounts of the Battle of Nashville directly from the battle field.

This historical newspaper article featured General Thomas’s official report of the battle.

Battle at Nashville, Washington Reporter newspaper article 21 December 1864

Washington Reporter (Washington, Pennsylvania), 21 December 1864, page 2

“I attacked the enemy’s left this morning, the 15th, and drove it from the river below the city, very near to the Franklin pike, a distance of about eight miles. I have captured Chalmer’s headquarters and train, and a second train of about twenty wagons, with between eight hundred and one thousand prisoners, and sixteen pieces of artillery. Our troops behaved splendidly, all taking their share in assaulting and charging the enemy’s breastworks.”

Read the entire news article: Battle At Nashville Official Dispatch from General Thomas–The Enemy to be Again Attacked.

This old newspaper article included further stories from the battlefield.

Great Battle at Nashville, New York Herald-Tribune newspaper article 17 December 1864

New York Herald-Tribune (New York City, New York), 17 December 1864, page 1

“The western telegraph lines are working very badly, on account of the snowstorms prevailing. Just returned from the battle field. Battle severe and terrific. Our forces victorious…

“Hood has fallen back, and is apparently doing his best to get away, while Thomas is pressing him with great vigor, frequently capturing guns and men. Everything so far is perfectly successful, and the prospect is fair to crush Hood’s army.”

Read the entire historical newspaper article: Great Battle at Nashville. Decisive Union Victory. Rebel Army Defeated, He is Trying to Escape.

This old news article about the Civil War presented a reporter’s exciting description of the fighting.

Battle before Nashville, Plain Dealer newspaper article 19 December 1864

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 19 December 1864, page 3

“Our own troops were disposed in the following order: Wilson’s cavalry on the extreme right; Schofield’s 23d corps consisting of Couch’s and Cox’s divisions, at first held in reserve, but before the main battle opened had taken position on the left of the cavalry thus forming the right of our infantry line; A. J. Smith’s 16th corps, consisting of the divisions of McArthur, Garrard and Moore, came next on the left of Schofield. On the left of Smith the magnificent 4th corps of T. J. Wood, consisting of the divisions of Kimball, Elliott and Sam Beatty was formed in close order of battle and partially massed. Steedman with Cruft’s division and two brigades of colored troops held the extreme left…

“Longer, perhaps, than any troops ever remained in such a position, they stood and fired fast and furiously at the enemy, but they could not remain there and live, and a few gave way and fled in disorder. The whole line staggered, and had the rebels done nothing more than keep up their deadly fire we should have been driven back, but they made a movement to shift their artillery, which our men received as an indication that they were about to abandon their line and retire. Raising a loud shout, the division, with fixed bayonets, rushed impetuously forward and, swarming over the works, captured such rebels as hadn’t fled. They had time to get away two guns, but the rest fell into our hands.”

Read the entire old newspaper article: Battle Before Nashville. Interesting Particulars. 5,000 Prisoners and 37 Cannon. Complete Route of the Enemy.

Dig into GenealogyBank’s online historical newspaper archives of more than 6,400 titles to find out more about your Civil War-era ancestors.

The 1876 Centennial Exhibition Celebrated 100 Years of American Freedom

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition that celebrated 100 years of American independence.

Do you remember the American Bicentennial? In 1976 Americans celebrated our shared history and our fight for freedom. Visual reminders of the early history of America were everywhere. My school picture that year had a background of an American flag, and as I stood against that background my arm rested on a faux chair that had a small eagle painted in gold. For those who were around in 1976, it is easy to date that image.

Did you have ancestors living in the United States in 1876? Just as you may have participated in bicentennial celebrations, they participated in centennial activities to celebrate 100 years of American independence. Maybe they even attended the biggest celebration of America’s freedom: the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, the first time an official World’s Fair was held in the U.S. From May to November 1876 in Fairmount Park, the city of Philadelphia provided Americans the opportunity to see history, experience the newest technologies and innovations, and show patriotism just 11 years after the Civil War ended.

Philadelphia International Exhibition souvenir ribbon, 1876, from the Cornell University Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library

Philadelphia International Exhibition Souvenir Ribbon, 1876, from the Cornell University Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library

Approximately 10 million visitors strolled the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition’s 285 acres and saw exhibits in more than 200 buildings. The Exhibition of 1876 offered everything from historical and technological exhibits to food. Most states participated as well as over 30 nations. Patriotism was a big part of the great Centennial Exhibition but so too were the machines and exhibits that touted America’s innovation.

Many of the top American inventors of the day presented their newest creations at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. This was the international event where attendees from around the world were introduced to Alexander Graham Bell’s invention he called the telephone, and Thomas Edison was there showcasing some of his new ideas. Many everyday household items that we now take for granted were either exhibited or introduced at the Exhibition including typewriters, sewing machines and even Heinz 57 Tomato Ketchup. The largest steam engine ever built, weighing a staggering 56 tons, was at the Exhibition and powered the Machinery Hall.

Even Lady Liberty was there—well, part of her arm and torch to be precise. This section of the Statue of Liberty was displayed at the Centennial Exhibition as part of a fundraising effort to raise the money needed to build a base for the permanent statue.

colossal hand and torch “Liberty,” from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Colossal hand and torch “Liberty,” from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

All good things must come to an end and so did the Centennial Exhibition. On November 10th President U.S. Grant, with a wave of his hand and the words “I declare the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 closed,” marked the official end of the Exhibition. For ten days after that official declaration the Exhibition continued to stay open and allowed people to visit the exhibits until they were removed.

The International Exposition of 1876 Formally Closed, Critic-Record newspaper article, 11 November 1876

Critic-Record (Washington, D.C.), 11 November 1876, page 3

Today, all that is left of that 1876 event is Memorial Hall, the Ohio House (which now houses a café), and two smaller buildings.*

The Free Library of Philadelphia has an online exhibit, The Centennial Exhibition, where you can learn more about the fate of the buildings and machinery at the legendary Exhibition and about the event itself. Fairmount Park, the park that hosted the Exhibition, has an archival collection available to researchers by appointment.

Want to learn more about the 1876 Centennial Exhibition? The original guides to the Exhibition are available on Google Books. For a look at the history and images from the Exhibition see the “Images of America” book Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition by Linda P. Gross and Theresa R. Snyder (Arcadia Publishing, 2005).

If your ancestors were alive in 1876, perhaps they went to see the Centennial Exhibition themselves—about 20% of the American public did. Even if your ancestors did not actually visit the Exhibition, it was a big event during their lifetime that they most likely talked about in their homes and communities. You can peruse GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives to read thousands of news articles containing the original coverage on the Centennial Exhibition. GenealogyBank’s online newspaper archives are a great place to learn about your ancestors’ lives and the times they lived in—from 1690 to the present.

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*Whatever Happened to: Buildings. Centennial Exhibition Digital Collection. Free Library of Philadelphia. http://libwww.library.phila.gov/CenCol/what-bldgs.htm. Accessed 21 October 2012.

 

Genealogy Search Tips for Ancestors’ Names: Less Is More

Beginning genealogists sometimes write us and say: “I put in the correct information for my search—full name including middle name, birth date, last known place of residence, etc.—everything I know about my ancestor, and yet I found no matching records. I did this search for a few other ancestors after I was told that there was no record of death. I have seen these names on the Social Security Death Index before. How come I can’t find that information now?”

Be flexible in your ancestor name search

What you want to do is limit your family searches to the basic, essential information, typing in just enough to find your target ancestor without getting back too many hits.

For example, your ancestor’s full name might have been John Henry Thompson—but the editors of the newspaper simply called him “Bif Thompson,” the name he was known by in the community for the past 30 years.

The Social Security Death Index has records for 4,266 persons with the first name “Buddy,” 25,947 records with the first name “Tommy,” and one record for a person named “Bif.”

Now Bif, Buddy and Tommy just might be the first name on their birth certificates, but it is more likely that these are a nickname or the diminutive form of their formal name (for example, “Tommy” for “Thomas.”)

When these people’s names are indexed there is no way to know that “Bif Thompson,” for example, was actually “John Henry Thompson.”

There are over 1.3 billion names in GenealogyBank, and we index them exactly as the names appeared in the original record. So you want to be flexible in how you search for a name.

Search using only your ancestor’s surname, limited by date range if necessary

Most surnames are unique. You will learn by genealogy research experience if a search using only a surname will generate too many hits. If it does, then limit your search by a range of years—for example: 1950–1975. That will usually enable you to pull up just enough search result hits so that you can locate your target ancestor.

picture of the GenealogyBank search form for surname "Starbird" between the years 1950-1975

GenealogyBank search form for surname “Starbird” between the years 1950-1975

By searching for all persons surnamed Starbird from 1950–1975, you will then find all of those records regardless of whether the editor included their first name, middle name, initials, or nicknames.

Give the surname search, limited by date ranges, a try.

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

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

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

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

Hmm…

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

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

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

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

OK. This old death record seems to fit.

He did live in New Hampton, New Hampshire.

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

Captain, and “soldier of the Revolution.”

Yes, that all fits my ancestor’s profile.

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

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

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

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

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

OK; good testimonial to his character and work ethic.

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

“Hey, wait a minute…”

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

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

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

Did I have the dates and places for him wrong?

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

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

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

So that fits.

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

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

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

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

This Elisha Smith died in Lyman, Maine.

Lyman, Maine?

Hmm… that doesn’t fit as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Hill—American Revolutionary War Minuteman Hero Gone

“Hardly a man is now alive

Who remembers that famous day and year.”

—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In searching through early 19th Century newspapers, time and again we find historical obituaries about the passing of “Revolutionary Heroes,” as America’s newspapers recorded the honored service of those who fought to secure this country’s freedom from England.

This 1851 American Revolutionary War soldier’s obituary of Thomas Hill is a good example.

Thomas Hill Revolutionary War Hero Obituary - Massachusetts Spy Newspaper 1851

Massachusetts Spy (Worcester, Massachusetts), 15 July 1851, page 3.

This soldier’s obituary says of Thomas Hill: “He was in the battle of Concord, and was on Bunker Hill, but not in the engagement.”

Wait—he was there at the battle but didn’t fight?

Why was he given a pension by the U.S. federal government and called a “Revolutionary Hero” in this historical obituary if he was there at the battle but not engaged in the fighting?

Digging deeper in GenealogyBank I found this old newspaper article profiling Thomas Hill when he was 89, one year before he died. It was published in the New Hampshire Gazette (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), 23 April 1850, page 2, giving more details about his military service.

Thomas Hill New Hampshire Gazette NewspaperSo he was at the Battle of Concord as a 14-year-old boy and also at the Battle of Bunker Hill “with his father and eldest brother Abraham.” They were part of “the volunteer minute men who fought.”

Thomas Hill went on to fight in “two campaigns in the Jerseys and New York.”

Thomas Hill was honored along with “four other survivors, being all that could be found in the country around who were active in the scenes of 1775.”

And honored he was—the historical newspaper article went on to say:

Thomas Hill New Hampshire Gazette Newspaper 1850We can picture the old Revolutionary War veteran being escorted by the grateful citizens of West Cambridge over the same route used by the British when they attacked Lexington and Concord.

It calls to mind the words of the poet Longfellow:

“Listen my children and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;

Hardly a man is now alive

Who remembers that famous day and year.”

Longfellow’s immortal words were published in January 1861, 11 years after the 1850 tribute to Thomas Hill. Perhaps he was inspired by this celebration honoring Hill and the other four remaining men “who remembered that famous day and year.”

GenealogyBank gives us the key opportunity to dig in and find the details of the thousands who served as soldiers in the American Revolutionary War. Search GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives and document your ancestors—don’t let their stories be lost.

Today in History: Bizarre Yet Brilliant Inventor Nikola Tesla Born

Happy Birthday Nikola Tesla!

When most people think about an electrical genius who was a master inventor, they think of Thomas Edison. However, when Edison was working his magic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries he had a rival who was every bit his equal in brains if not lasting fame: Nikola Tesla. Today marks the 156th anniversary of Nikola Tesla’s birth on July 10, 1856. In remembrance and celebration of Tesla’s legacy on his birthday we explore his uncommon life.

A Brief Biography of Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla was born in the village of Smiljan, present-day Croatia, but became an American citizen. In his eventful 86-year life Tesla proved to be a real wizard of electricity: he perfected alternating current (AC) electrical power; made breakthroughs in radar, X-rays and robotics; invented the Tesla coil; and made many important discoveries that justify calling him the “father of modern radio.”

Unquestionably a genius, Tesla spoke eight languages fluently. He experienced astonishing visions in which he saw inventions so clearly that every detail was already sharp in his mind before he ever set them down on paper. At the height of his fame the public marveled at his inventions and recognized him as the equal of fellow inventor Thomas Edison.

Sadly, that fame was not to last. As he aged he became increasingly strange, with ever-more bizarre behavior. He was obsessed by many things, including pigeons and a deathly fear of dirt. The number 3 haunted him: for example, he always walked around a block three times before entering any building. The public lost its fascination with him, and his life ended without acquiring the lasting fame that Thomas Edison enjoys to this day.

Nikola Tesla died broke and all alone in a New York City hotel room on Jan. 7, 1943. Despite making more than 700 inventions in his lifetime and many of science’s most important breakthroughs, he died deeply in debt, unnoticed and forgotten—perhaps the archetype of the “mad scientist.”

He may have been bizarre, but Tesla was not crazy—and many of the devices and procedures we use today sprang from the mind of this baffling, incredibly inventive man.

Tesla's Latest: The Electrician Illustrates Three New Discoveries, Plain Dealer, 9 April 1897

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 April 1897, page 8

Published in the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 April 1897, page 8.

The above old newspaper article was written when Tesla enjoyed great renown.

The article begins: “After many months of silence, Nikola Tesla spoke night before last at the Academy of Science, and, as always happens on such occasions, the scientific knowledge of the world was the richer thereby. Mr. Tesla, without going deeply into the details of his methods, announced three discoveries he has made, and gave practical illustrations of them. One will revolutionize the present methods of electric lighting, will exert a tremendous influence upon a hundred different things, and will open to the investigator an infinite number of highways of research, and will end, Mr. Tesla says, in bringing about that sought-for end of all electricians: the transmission of information through space without the agency of wires now needed.”

A collection of old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives, provides tremendous information to help with your family history research—and also contains stories about the times and leading figures that influenced your ancestors’ lives such as this remarkable inventor. You can explore thousands of articles to learn more about the curious life of Nikola Tesla in our online archives.

GenealogyBank Adds Irish Vital Records to Historical Newspaper Archive

Wow – I have found something I never noticed before in my genealogy research. A U.S. newspaper, the Irish American (New York City, New York), routinely published thousands of Irish marriage and death records from 1849 to 1914. No, not every Irish marriage and death record, but nonetheless an exceptionally wide coverage of marriages and deaths from across Ireland. This material is extensive enough that genealogists will want to thoroughly review this online newspaper for coverage of their family in Ireland.

Irish American genealogists quickly learn that Irish civil registration of deaths began in 1864. Wow! These Irish death records in the Irish American newspaper start in 1849 – 15 years before the official civil registration started.

Here is an example of deaths published in the 28 October 1849 issue of the Irish American.

Irish civil registration of marriages begins in 1864 for Catholic marriages and in 1845 for Protestant marriages. This collection starts in 1849 for Catholic and Protestant marriages.

Here is a typical example of an Irish marriage record: Thomas Mathews of Dunbar, County Louth, married Bride Somers of Court Brown, Askeaton, County Limerick, on 19 June 1895.

The Irish couple got married at the “Kingstown Catholic Church,” which is pictured in the center right of this 1895 image of Kingstown harbor. Kingstown is in Dublin County, Ireland.

Image credit: Library of Congress, digital ID pmsc.09881.

Reading further in this Irish marriage notice we learn that the bride was the eldest daughter of Michael Somers and the niece of John Fitzgibbon of Castlerea, County Roscommon. Wow – relatives in four counties are named: Louth, Dublin, Limerick, and Roscommon.

This is terrific information to help genealogists trace their Irish ancestry.

I never expected to find this depth of coverage of Irish marriages and deaths in a U.S. newspaper.

You just don’t see Irish vital records like this in American newspapers – but now you do in GenealogyBank.

The Story of Perkins Swain: A Genealogist’s Online Research Discoveries

Online genealogy research is endlessly fascinating—you never know what you will find. I was doing some family history research in GenealogyBank’s newspaper archive when this double obituary caught my eye. Baltimore Patriot (Baltimore, Maryland), 25 July 1834, page 3.

Just a short, simple notice, 4½ lines long—and yet what a sad story it tells.

Sally Swain, 27-year-old wife of Perkins Swain, died on 17 June 1834 in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. Her husband, Perkins Swain, age 37, “was in [his] usual health at the funeral of his deceased wife”—but abruptly died seven days later. No doubt, of a broken heart.

Can you imagine the grief of the pallbearers? They were probably family members, or at least friends and neighbors, who sadly carried the body of young Sally Swain to her grave on June 17th while her grieving yet healthy husband, Perkins, stood nearby. And then suddenly, just seven days later, those same pallbearers were carrying the body of her husband to join Sally’s gravesite.

Who were this couple struck down by tragedy? This story of a perfectly-healthy husband dying seven days after his young wife’s funeral made me want to research more about them and learn about their lives.

Digging deeper into my genealogy research online, I found a marriage announcement that Perkins Swain married Sally Weymouth in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, in a November 1823 newspaper. Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), 15 November 1823, page 3.

Looking at the free collection of New Hampshire marriage certificates online at FamilySearch, I quickly found their marriage certificate. They were married on 23 October 1823 by the Rev. William Blaisdell. FamilySearch.org is a handy genealogy site. It has put up the entire U.S. Census, as well as birth and marriage certificates from all 50 states and many foreign countries. This free website by the Family History Library is well worth a visit to find great genealogical information that can aid in your research. Checking further in GenealogyBank, I found a newspaper probate article showing that Perkins Swain had known tragedy earlier in his life, when he and his brother Gorham were orphaned at age 5 and 4 respectively. The Sun (Dover Gazette & County Advertiser) (Dover, New Hampshire), 21 December 1805, page 4.
Enlarging the first paragraph, we find some interesting details about Perkins Swain’s life.
In this probate notice, Thomas Balch is acting as guardian for the young orphans. We discover that their father was William Swain, “late of Gilmanton,” a tailor who died without leaving a will. Did he die unexpectedly? And why is there no mention of the mother? These are tantalizing questions that require further family history research.

This probate notice also tells us that the two young boys have inherited an estate of 100 acres in Gilmanton.

Continuing to look further in GenealogyBank’s newspaper archive for details about Perkins Swain, I found this public auction notice that perhaps completes the story of his life.
New Hampshire Patriot (Concord, New Hampshire), 19 October 1835, page 3.

A year after his death, the homestead farm of Perkins Swain is being publicly auctioned on Nov. 2, 1835. This farm is a 100-acre parcel in Gilmanton, New Hampshire—the same piece of land we learned about in the probate notice of 1805.

Isn’t it amazing how many details we’ve found out about Perkins Swain, who died in 1834? We have found his marriage and death notices, his marriage certificate, the probate notice when he was orphaned at age 5, and the public auction notice of his farm after his death. With more online genealogy research, we could no doubt uncover even more details about Perkins Swain and his family.

There are so many digitized newspaper articles, historical documents and government records available online today—terrific research resources for genealogists.

This is a great day for genealogy.

How to Find Ancestor’s Legal Name Change Records with Newspapers

Sometimes when researching your family history, it is difficult to find a relative—they just seem to have fallen off the face of the earth.

Did they go into the witness protection program?
Were they abducted by aliens?
Did they go on a cruise through the Bermuda Triangle?

Maybe they simply changed their name.
After all, many people did opt to change their identity to start anew.


Daily People. (New York, New York) 25 September 1901. page 1.

Russian immigrant Max Kaplansky decided he needed to legally change his name. He had become a naturalized citizen of the United States and a businessman, but found that his surname caused him “much annoyance in the society of Americans” and that he was “subjected to much ridicule.”
In 1901 he went to the New York Supreme Court to request that his name be changed to Max Kapell because “Kaplansky” had become an obstacle, costing him “many opportunities” both “in a business and social way.” Court Justice James Aloysius O’Gorman agreed with him and granted his petition to change his name.

Kaplansky’s experience was something many immigrants with foreign names went through as they tried to fit in to turn-of-the century America. If your ancestor arrived in America around this time, perhaps he legally changed his name for the same reasons Kaplansky did.

Sometimes entire families legally changed their names. In 1848, members of the Dore family petitioned the New Hampshire State Legislature to change their surname from Dore to Richmond. There were a number of other people in New Hampshire who wanted to change their names at this time, as shown in the following historical newspaper article.

This name change record was printed by the New Hampshire Patriot & State Gazette (Concord, New Hampshire), 6 July 1848, page 3.

I have even found name change records examples where a person applied to have only their middle name legally changed.

Take a look at this old name change record example. It was printed by the Salem Register (Salem, Massachusetts), 8 August 1870, page 3.

In 1870, Hannah A. Simonds, mother of Thomas Batchelder Simonds petitioned her local Probate Court to have her son’s name legally changed to Thomas Stanley Simonds. Interestingly the court required her to inform the public of this name change by “publish[ing] this decree once a week for three successive weeks in the newspaper called the Salem Register, printed in Salem…” and then report back to the court “under oath that such notice has been given.”
So our ancestors often did change their names and over the years they could apply to various courts or levels of government to request this change. In these three legal name change examples the petitioners applied to their State Supreme Court, a state legislature and to a local probate court.

The key for genealogists is that legal name changes have been routinely reported in the local newspaper and in the case of the Probate Court of Salem, Massachusetts in 1870 – it required that an announcement of the the identity change be published in the local newspaper.

It’s amazing the genealogical information you can discover in newspaper archives to help you find missing family members.