How to Research Historical Events for Genealogy with Newspapers

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this guest blog post, Duncan shows three real-life examples in which she helped genealogists find newspaper articles about their ancestors, explaining the tips and techniques that got her successful results.

Some of the best information we find in family history research is news that helps us learn the motivations behind our ancestors’ actions. After all, these family members are so much more than just names and dates on a family tree. Finding out what our ancestors did and the events they were involved in—and their possible motivation—helps us better understand them as real people, not just collections of data.

The best sources to look for these details of our ancestors’ lives are the journals and letters they wrote. The next best source is old newspapers. They were the Facebook of the day and the gossip rag too. Searching through newspapers using the names of our ancestors can bring back many valuable results. We can also search for news articles about events in our ancestors’ lives that don’t mention our ancestors by name.

I’ve included several examples here of how to find these valuable articles and stories that provide a window into our ancestors’ lives.

The Explosion That Killed Emanuel Urban

A GenealogyBank member was looking for an article about a nitroglycerin explosion that killed her relative Emanuel Urban in September 1904 in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. I ran a search for the name Emanuel Urban but got back no results. She is confident that the date and location of the event are correct, but I couldn’t find any relevant historical newspaper articles. Perhaps the name wasn’t mentioned in the old news articles about the explosion. How can we search on GenealogyBank without using a name?

Tips for Searching the Newspaper Archives

I ran the search like this:

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page for a search on nitroglycerin and explosion

Why did I formulate the newspaper archives search like this? I put nitroglycerin OR nitro-glycerin in the last name field and explosion in the first name field because I wanted the words to appear very close to each other in the news articles. Since I don’t know if the newspaper articles use nitroglycerin or nitro-glycerin, I can search for both using the word OR (both letters capitalized) between them (this is called a “Boolean Operator”).

Nitroglycerin has a tendency to explode! Without some keywords and a narrow date range, I would get too many search results. To avoid this, I narrowed the results by entering “Upper Sandusky” in the keyword field. Using quotation marks around the name Upper Sandusky will make sure it appears exactly as I typed it.  I also added the date range of September 1904 to October 1904 to further narrow the results.

Enter Last Name










Search News Nationwide

What I didn’t do is select just one state’s newspapers to look through. And it is a good thing I searched nationwide. Upper Sandusky is a city in Ohio, but only two of the six search results were published in Ohio newspapers. The others were published in Idaho, Illinois, Michigan and Washington, D.C., newspapers.

Your Ancestor’s Name Might Have Been Misspelled

Surprisingly, several of the historical news articles mention Emanuel Urban by name. So why didn’t I find his name when I ran the search the first time? Apparently the newspaper editors couldn’t get the spelling of the name correct. I found Emanuel Urban under the following names: Emanuel Urcan, Irban, Urican, Hurcan, and even Samuel Green. Who knows how the name Emanuel Urban became Samuel Green!

Explosion Is Fatal to Five, Daily Illinois State Journal newspaper article 5 September 1904

Daily Illinois State Journal (Springfield, Illinois), 5 September 1904, page 1

West Virginia Train Robbery

Another GenealogyBank member was searching for articles about an event she had personally been involved in as a young girl in the late 1940s. She was traveling by train with her grandmother when the train was robbed somewhere in West Virginia. She wanted to find some newspaper articles about it so that she could learn more about the event. Her name would not be mentioned in the newspaper articles and she wasn’t sure how to search for information about the incident.

I ran this search:

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page for a search on train robbery and West Virginia

This search found 35 articles, most of which were about the exact train robbery she remembered! Here is one article that has pictures of some of her fellow passengers:

photos of the victims of a West Virginia train robbery, Boston Traveler newspaper article 10 March 1949

Boston Traveler (Boston, Massachusetts), 10 March 1949, page 27

Try Using Different Keywords in Your Searches

Of course if I entered different keywords into the genealogy search engine, I might be able to find even more old news articles. For example now that I know the date of the train robbery, I could run an archive search like this:

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page for a search on train and Martinsburg

This search returned 78 newspaper results! There are certainly more details and stories that could be gathered from these articles.

Passenger Train Robbed; One Shot, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 10 March 1949

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 10 March 1949, page 1

You will notice that my previous record search used the keywords “West Virginia” and robbery. The above article has neither term, which is why it did not show up on that first search. It abbreviates West Virginia to W.Va., and uses the term robbed rather than robbery.

Enter Last Name










James Nealand & the Gunpowder Mill

A GenealogyBank member was looking for an ancestor named James Nealand who was killed in an explosion at a gunpowder mill in Hazardville, Connecticut, during the Civil War. He knew there were multiple spellings of the name Nealand, but hadn’t been able to find newspaper articles under any of the known spellings. I tried the following search:

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page for a search on powder mill and explosion

Search without a Surname

I was able to find six articles relating to the event. I even found James Nealand. His name had been misspelled as James Kneeland.

Explosion of a Powder Mill, Boston Evening Transcript newspaper article 24 July 1862

Boston Evening Transcript (Boston, Massachusetts), 24 July 1862, page 1

Even if your ancestors weren’t directly involved in any big events, they were affected by the major historical events around them. Researching more about how these important events affected your ancestors’ neighbors and community will help you learn more about the people you are interested in. For example, while researching a small community in South Dakota, I found that the neighbors of the person I was researching had their house destroyed in a devastating tornado. If I had only searched for the people I was directly interested in, I would have missed out on knowing about this tornado that surely affected them too.

Genealogy Tip: When searching newspapers to learn more about your ancestors, don’t forget to look for the events they were involved in—or at least affected by—as well. Genealogy is more fun and complete when you learn not just about your ancestors’ individual lives—but also the communities where they resided and the times in which they lived.

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

A growing number of states in the U.S. are putting their vital records online, making it easier for genealogists to obtain these records.

collage of genealogy records available online from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History

Credit: West Virginia Division of Culture and History

The West Virginia Division of Culture and History is a prime example of how these state projects are revolutionizing family history research in the 21st Century.

West Virginia has put up millions of genealogical documents including:

wedding records for Joseph Strother and Amelia Davenport available online from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History

Credit: West Virginia Division of Culture and History

With a click you can see the original vital records registers for the Mountain State.

Take for example the marriage of Joseph Strother and Amelia Davenport on 5 June 1808 in Charles Town, West Virginia.

wedding records for Joseph Strother and Amelia Davenport available online from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History and GenealogyBank

Credit: West Virginia Division of Culture and History and GenealogyBank

West Virginia has given us easy online access to the original entry in the 1808 marriage register for this couple’s marriage.

photo of the wedding register for Joseph Strother and Amelia Davenport available online from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History

Credit: West Virginia Division of Culture and History

Brief and to the point: we get the date of their marriage, their names and the name of the minister that performed the wedding.

Couple that information with their marriage announcement that we find in GenealogyBank and we get the rest of the story.

wedding announcement for Joseph Strother and Amelia Davenport, Farmer’s Repository newspaper article 10 June 1808

Farmer’s Repository (Charleston, West Virginia), 10 June 1808, page 2

The marriage announcement tells us that the minister, Rev. Mr. Mines, is of Leesburg (Loudoun County), Virginia.

Now we know where to look for the church registers of that denomination.

From the marriage announcement we also learn that the groom, Joseph Strother, is of Madison County, Virginia, and that the bride, Miss Amelia Davenport, is the daughter of Major A. Davenport of Jefferson County, West Virginia.

This is critical information for genealogists.

Now we know where to dig deeper for information about the Strother and Davenport families: Jefferson, Loudoun and Madison counties.

Newspapers are the cutting-edge source for genealogists. GenealogyBank has made it easy to find facts like these details of the Strother-Davenport wedding. Combine this newspaper information with states like West Virginia putting digital copies of the original birth, marriage and death registers online—and it’s easy to see that this is a great time for genealogists!

For reference, here is a list provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of all the state websites offering vital records across the United States: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/w2w.htm

There Are Some Obituaries Everyone Needs to Read

I. D. Lilly, a retired trucker and promoter of the largest family reunion ever held, died in March of this year. He was an active participant in the famous West Virginia family’s gatherings, and served on the Lilly Family Reunion Board of Directors.

In 2009 some 2,585 Lilly relatives gathered in Flat Top, West Virginia. It was such a large reunion that Guinness’ Book of World Records named it the largest family reunion ever held.

Don’t you wish that your family was as organized and connected as the Lilly family?

Ira Dupuy Lilly’s obituary appeared in GenealogyBank and was published in the Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Florida), 22 April 2013, page B-4. Here is that obituary in full; it’s well worth reading.

His Family’s Reunions Set World Records

On Aug. 9, 2009, the Lilly family set the Guinness world record for the biggest family reunion. Within that group of 2,585, meeting for three days in a big pasture on Flat Top, W.Va., was I.D. Lilly, a former Orlando trucking company owner.

Before his death on March 27 at age 93, Lilly would earn family-reunion recognition for traveling the farthest, being the oldest and being one-half of the longest-married couple to attend the reunion. He died of complications related to dementia.

Before his mind began to abandon him, Lilly came to the reunions with a tent, a table and some chairs so relatives, near and far, could sit down and catch up.

“He would tell you about his Aunt Sally Ann and he would pull out his family tree,” said his daughter Barbara Savino, 65, of Longwood. “He had 102 cousins — can you imagine?”

So big is the Lilly family that just about anybody can find themselves on the family tree.

“This part of West Virginia, people call it Lillyland. There’s a Lilly everywhere you turn,” Savino said.

So important is the reunion, Savino said, that the governor of West Virginia often makes an appearance.

The family reunion is held on 38 acres of land that includes a kitchen and dining area, covered bleachers, stage and restrooms — all built for the purpose of the reunion. There are booths for family members selling jewelry, quilts, children’s toys and souvenir embroidered T-shirts and caps. The Lilly genealogist has a booth where she can show everyone where they fit on the family tree.

There are games and prizes for kids and a potluck buffet that would include a butterscotch pie baked by Lilly’s wife of 65 years, Allegra.

The reunion to I.D. Lilly was about home, heritage and linage. It was about staying connected to family no matter how far removed the relation or how far away the relatives. It was about walking into the kitchen and dining area and seeing the pictures of his ancestors on the wall, where his face will join the gallery of ghosts this summer.

His father and two brothers are on the wall. So is his mother, the woman who ran the general store in Cool Ridge. From her, he learned the lesson of selfless generosity.

Lilly moved to Orlando from West Virginia, in the late 1950s, when he started Laskco Inc., a trucking company. Through the years, Lilly helped out his drivers and mechanics whenever they ran out of money or into hard times.

Once, his wife came home and found her washing machine missing because Lilly gave it to an employee who needed one, Savino said.

“That’s the West Virginia style,” his daughter said. “If somebody needed something, he would just help them.”

The Lilly family reunion produces an annual program that is 160 pages thick. This year, there will be a tribute page to Ira Dupuy Lilly for his contributions on the Lilly Family Reunion Board of Directors.

After his death, Lilly’s body was flown back home to Beckley, W.Va., and the Sunset Memorial Park where so many of his relatives are buried. His interment on April 2 wasn’t in the family plot, but an above-ground mausoleum.

A Navy pilot who flew a blimp during World War II in search of German submarines, I.D. Lilly couldn’t abide being laid to rest underground.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Ira Dupuy Lilly is survived by his sons Larry Lilly, of Cool Ridge, W.Va., and Alan Lilly, of Orlando; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Rose & Quesenberry Funeral Home, Beckley, W.Va., handled funeral arrangements.

Irish American Genealogy & Family History Facts Infographic

Irish American Genealogy & Family History Facts Infographic

In celebration of Irish Heritage Month, here are some interesting facts about Irish ancestry in America.

Irish American Population Statistics

  • There are 34.5 million people who claim Irish ancestry in America
  • Approximately 11% of the total United States population is Irish American
  • There are over 7 times more people of Irish descent in the United States than the entire population of Ireland

History of Irish Immigration to America

There were 2 major waves of Irish immigration to America.

  1. The first immigration period was in the Colonial era of the 18th century. These people set sail from the northern provinces of Ireland looking for new lives as American pioneers. The migration consisted of approximately 250,000 Scots-Irish who were predominately Protestant. The major ports of entry for these incoming Irish immigrants were in New York and Philadelphia.
  1. The second wave of immigration was between 1846 and 1900. During this period approximately 2,873,000 people fled to America from the southern provinces of Ireland. This was primarily due to the Great Irish Potato Famine, which caused poverty and starvation throughout Ireland. These new arrivals were predominately of Catholic denomination. The major American ports of entry were in New York and Boston. The Irish also arrived on trains and ships from Canada, which was then called British North America.

Origins of the Saying “Luck of the Irish”

During the 1848-1855 California Gold Rush many Irish immigrants headed out West to mine silver & gold. Many Americans said the immigrants’ mining success was due to luck, not skill—hence the saying “Luck of the Irish.”

Common Irish Surnames

Here is a list of the top 10 most common Irish last names and their meanings:

  • Murphy – Sea Battlers
  • Kelly – Bright-headed Ones
  • O’Sullivan – Hawkeyed Ones
  • Walsh – Welshmen
  • O’Brien – Noblemen
  • Byrne – Ravens
  • Ryan – Little Kings
  • O’Connor – Patrons of Warriors
  • O’Neill - From a Champion, Niall of the Nine Hostages
  • O’Reilly – Outgoing People, Descendants of Reilly

Percentage of Irish Americans by State

The Northeastern United States has the highest concentration of Irish Americans. The following 9 states all have more than 15% Irish ancestry in their total populations. The states are listed in descending order from highest to lowest total Irish population percentages. Massachusetts has the highest percentage in the United States with 22.5% of its residents claiming Irish ancestry.

  1. Massachusetts
  2. New Hampshire
  3. Rhode Island
  4. Delaware
  5. Connecticut
  6. Vermont
  7. Pennsylvania
  8. New Jersey
  9. Maine

The following 9 U.S. states also have high Irish American populations of 12-14%. Montana has the highest in this range with 14.8% of its population claiming Irish ancestry.

  1. Montana
  2. Iowa
  3. Nebraska
  4. Wyoming
  5. New York
  6. Missouri
  7. Ohio
  8. Colorado
  9. Illinois

11% to 11.9% of the residents in the following 7 states claim Irish ancestry.

  1. Oregon
  2. Maryland
  3. Kansas
  4. Washington
  5. Minnesota
  6. Nevada
  7. West Virginia

The remaining states have less than 11% Irish ancestry in their total populations.

Famous Americans Who Are a Wee Bit Irish

From presidents to outlaws, there have been many famous Irish Americans throughout U.S. history. Here are a few of them:

  • John F. Kennedy a.k.a. JFK: 35th President of the United States
  • Henry Ford: Founder of Ford Motor Company
  • Barack Obama: 44th President of the United States
  • William Henry McCarty Jr. a.k.a. Billy the Kid: Outlaw
  • Judy Garland: Actress & Singer
  • Bill O’Reilly: TV Host & Political Commentator
  • Conan O’Brien: TV Host & Comedian
  • Grace Kelly: Actress & Princess of Monaco
  • Walter Elias Disney a.k.a. Walt Disney: Film Producer & Co-founder of the Walt Disney Company
  • Danica Patrick: NASCAR Driver
  • Eddie Murphy: Actor & Comedian
  • Mel Gibson: Actor & Film Producer

Top Irish Genealogy Records

The top genealogy records to trace your Irish roots are:

Did You Know?

Civil registration in Ireland didn’t begin until 1864, although some non-Catholic marriages were recorded as early as 1845. Fortunately for genealogists, Irish American newspapers routinely published the news of Irish births, marriages and deaths for more than half a century before Ireland started recording them.

Got a little Irish in you? Discover your Irish American ancestry at http://www.genealogybank.com/gbnk/ethnic/irish_american/

Follow GenealogyBank on social media with hashtag #IrishHeritage for more Irish American genealogy facts throughout Irish Heritage Month.

Sources:

http://www.biography.com/people/groups/famous-irish-americans

http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/facts_for_features_special_editions/cb13-ff03.html

http://www.edwardtodonnell.com/

http://www.energyofanation.org/waves_of_irish_immigration.html

http://www.irishcentral.com/roots/The-10-most-popular-Irish-last-names-2-133737553.html?page=3

http://names.mongabay.com/ancestry/st-Irish.html

http://www.udel.edu/soe/deal/IrishImmigrationFacts.html

http://www.wikipedia.org/