How to Research Old Diaries & Personal Journals for Genealogy

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary gives examples of how your ancestors’ diaries and journals—some available online in various collections—are invaluable to your family history research.

As family historians, we turn to newspapers to corroborate vital records—but often neglect to venture further with our research by exploring charming, firsthand accounts from our ancestors’ diaries and journals. Not only do these personal writings add to the fabric of our research, they enrich genealogical studies by adding unique perspectives into specific time periods, activities and historical events.

Some entries from diaries and journals, as well as complete autobiographies and memoirs, can be found in GenealogyBank’s Historical Book Archives, and others appear as feature pages in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

screenshot of GenealogyBank’s search page for its Historical Book Archives

Screenshot: GenealogyBank’s search page for its Historical Book Archives

I think you’ll enjoy reading some old-time intimate diaries.

The excerpts I’ve chosen from diaries found online present a variety of stories. Two are from brides, one is about shipwreck and imprisonment, another is about young school boys who get in trouble writing diaries, and the last is a description of the First Battle of the Marne during World War I.

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Bridal Diaries (1886 and 1921)

This 1886 article from an Illinois newspaper presents “A Leaf from a Bride’s Diary.” In her witty and entertaining diary entries, this bride recounts the story of her elopement, her impression of the justice of the peace, and her hilariously failed attempt at baking her first pie.

A Leaf from a Bride's Diary, Hyde Park Herald newspaper article 5 June 1886

Hyde Park Herald (Chicago, Illinois), 5 June 1886, page 2

She writes of her elopement with George:

We did not have dear papa’s consent, nor much of anything else.

She was not much impressed with the justice of the peace who married them, remarking:

He looked to me like a man who would snort around the cemetery and tear up the greensward when his wife died in the early spring, and friends would have to chain him to a tree somewhere till his grief had spent itself, and then in the early fall he would lower the top of his old concertina plug hat, and marry a red-eyed widow with a baritone voice and two sons in the penitentiary.

The young bride resolved to make the best of things:

To-day I am a wife with my joyous girlhood, my happy home and the justice of the peace behind me. Life is now real, life is earnest, for we have no girl [servant]. We will not keep a girl at first, George says, for if we did she would have to board at home, as we have only one room, and it is not a very good room either. We take our meals at a restaurant, and the bill of fare is very good.

Her first attempt at baking a pie ended in disaster. She “put in quite a lot of soda or baking powder,” put the pie in the oven, and started sewing while she waited for it to bake. Suddenly:

While thus engaged the oven door was blown off the hinges and the air was filled with subtle odor of some kind which I could not describe. We pulled the pie off the ceiling.

cartoon showing a young bride's failed attempt at baking her first pie, Hyde Park Herald newspaper article 5 June 1886

Hyde Park Herald (Chicago, Illinois), 5 June 1886, page 2

While perusing this next perfunctory diary, take note that some brides are more interested in the “haul” of their shower and wedding gifts than the feelings of friends and family, and that wedding planning has always had its challenges!

extracts from a young bride's diary, Montgomery Advertiser newspaper article 13 November 1921

Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Alabama), 13 November 1921, page 4

A Tale of a Shipwreck and Imprisonment (1795)

The Diary of Donald Campbell (1751-1804) was first published in 1795 and, due to its popularity, republished several times. Follow Campbell’s fascinating story of a journey to India, where he was shipwrecked and imprisoned. Luckily, Campbell was released and wrote his story for us to enjoy centuries later.

extract from a historical book: “A Narrative of the Extraordinary Adventures, and Sufferings by Shipwreck & Imprisonment, of Donald Campbell, Esq. of Barbreck. With the Singular Humors of His Tartar Guide, Hassan Artaz.” 1801 edition, page 260.

Historical book: “A Narrative of the Extraordinary Adventures, and Sufferings by Shipwreck & Imprisonment, of Donald Campbell, Esq. of Barbreck. With the Singular Humors of His Tartar Guide, Hassan Artaz.” 1801 edition, page 260.

For more information on Campbell, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Campbell_(traveller).

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School Boys Get in Trouble at School over Diaries (1880)

After receiving a diary from his Uncle Joe, Robert Cummings documented how his days passed. After a friend was caught writing in his diary at school, the frustrated teacher threw it into the fire—making this activity all the more desirous to these young diarists.

In his first entry, Robert certainly sounds committed to keeping a diary:

January 1. This is New Year’s Day. Uncle Joe gave me this diary to-day. I am going to write in it every night just before going to bed. Every boy and girl ought to keep a diary so when he gets a man he can see what he did so when he was a boy. This is New Year’s Day, and there ain’t no school to-day, and I have played with Billy all day. Billy is my goat. I got up and ate breakfast, then I harnessed Billy and saw Uncle Joe and he gave me this diary. He says it is the best thing a boy can do to keep a diary, but he says it is the hardest thing a boy can do. I don’t see where the hard comes in.

extract from Robert Cummings's diary, Portland Daily Press newspaper article 20 March 1880

Portland Daily Press (Portland, Maine), 20 March 1880, page 1

An Account of WWI’s First Battle of the Marne (5-12 September 1914)

Although the author of this diary was only described as an unnamed “citizen of Crepy-en-Valois,” this gripping account from the French newspaper Petit Parisien was reprinted in papers across the world.

Diary of Battle of Marne, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 18 September 1914

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 18 September 1914, page 2

For more information on the First Battle of the Marne, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Battle_of_the_Marne.

As you can see from these examples, diaries and journals provide an extraordinary glimpse into our ancestors’ lives, giving us details of their everyday experiences and, occasionally, insight into important events they participated in or witnessed firsthand. Dig in and find everything from great-great grandma’s first pie to war stories from the battlefield and beyond.  Be sure to include these genealogical treasures in your family history research. True personal stories direct from your ancestors add more interest and meaning to your family tree.

Here are some online sources to locate diaries for genealogy research:

Please share reports of exciting diaries or journals you have located in your genealogy work—either within a personal family collection or online—in the comments section below.

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Rationing Thanksgiving Dinner during World War I

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post—just in time for Thanksgiving—Gena searches old newspapers to learn about the Thanksgiving dinners our ancestors had during World War I.

For many Americans, the word Thanksgiving conjures up images of family, a bountiful feast, and spending the day eating. However, Americans weren’t always encouraged to eat everything and anything on Thanksgiving Day. During both World Wars, food was rationed and families on the home front were encouraged to make do with less. So what did that mean for the traditional Thanksgiving dinner?

photo of a poster for the U.S. home front during WWI urging households to conserve sugar

Poster: sugar conservation, from the U.S. Food Administration, 1917-1919. Credit: U.S. National Archives.

Food Rationing during Wartime

Food rationing is typically associated with World War II, when ration stamps were used—but World War I had its own version of rationing—and this was especially true at Thanksgiving time. In the First World War, families were encouraged to limit some foods so that the United States could feed its soldiers and allies. Overseas, our allies’ lands were devastated by the extensive fighting, and their ability to maintain crop production was limited.

Using propaganda posters, recipe booklets, and informational articles, American women were encouraged to alter the family’s diets by participating in such endeavors as “Meatless Monday,” growing a garden, and limiting the use of sugar. The government led the way in urging Americans to think about what they ate. Herbert Hoover and his U.S. Food Administration, established in August 1917, encouraged food conservation and helped to stabilize the price of wheat.

Newspapers provided families with recipe ideas to help them compile their holiday menus. Women turned to newspapers for recipes and ideas about the type of Thanksgiving they should serve, and newspapers helped women implement these new policies to conserve food.

No Oysters or Turkey for the Thanksgiving Dinner?

What do you typically serve for the Thanksgiving dinner? While portions of the Thanksgiving dinner menu have changed over time, some of the key dishes have always been served. In this 1917 California newspaper article, readers are cautioned that they should refrain from serving oysters on the half shell, Neufchatel cheese, and turkey for Thanksgiving.

Simple [Thanksgiving] Menu; Just as Much Enjoyment, San Jose Mercury News 28 November 1917

San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, California), 28 November 1917, page 9

Readers are told: “The family can substitute chicken, pale American cheese, and other becomingly simple dishes, and not only secure the same number of food calories as in the more expensive repast, but have just as much to eat and just as good a time eating it.” The author provides some alternative menus but first adds that “…the Thanksgiving dinner can materially aid the food supply by not turning the usual feast into a gastronomic contest.”

(Note: the term “Hooverize” in this article’s subtitle—a word your ancestor would have known all too well—referred to economizing food. Since Hoover was the head of the Food Administration, his name became synonymous with this effort.)

Cutting Back on Sugar

Sugar was one of the food items that Americans were encouraged to limit. Today, in a world where much of the food we eat is prepared or pre-packaged, we don’t realize how much sugar is in a Thanksgiving meal. Cranberry sauce, gelatin salads, desserts and even sugar for coffee and tea were foodstuffs that families had to reconsider during wartime. It’s no wonder that newspaper articles like this one discouraged that old standby, cranberry sauce. As pointed out in this old news article, cranberry sauce required large amounts of sugar that seemed, during this precarious time, to be wasteful.

Cranberries Unpopular on Thanksgiving Menu, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 10 November 1917

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 10 November 1917, page 1

Use It Up, Do Without

American citizens were encouraged to plant gardens to supply produce for their meals. For those unable to plant gardens, patronizing local merchants who produced and sold food was encouraged. This was a predecessor of today’s popular “Buy Local, Eat Local” trend.

The main theme of many of the newspaper articles promoting these ideas seems to be: a true American would gladly go without. Consider this 1918 newspaper article’s closing sentence: “Turkey may be lacking in some cases, and the four kinds of pie which once closed the feast may be the only tradition of the ante bellum days, but reminiscences of much to be thankful for will dominate the Thanksgiving day of every true American.”

Thanksgiving Dinner of Home Grown Food Advocated by Hoover, Wyoming State Tribune newspaper article 23 November 1918

Wyoming State Tribune (Cheyenne, Wyoming), 23 November 1918, page 2

What did Thanksgiving dinner look like for your family during World War I? Do you have any stories about your grandparents’ Thanksgiving menu? Please share them in the comments below.

Arlington National Cemetery Removing Mementos Left at Graves

Military cemeteries traditionally have a uniform look: clean, unadorned, orderly.

photo of Flanders Fields American Cemetery and Memorial

Credit: Flanders Fields American Cemetery and Memorial

The appearance of the military crosses was immortalized in the lines of the poem “In Flanders Fields,” written by Canadian John McCrae during WWI on 3 May 1915:

In Flanders fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Now, a century later, there has been a growing trend by families and friends to decorate military gravestones of their loved ones in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia. Military authorities are reminding families that this decorating is not allowed. Photographs and mementos left at the gravesites have been removed, and the historical landmark cemetery has returned to its traditional appearance—with silent rows of gleaming white crosses.

A London newspaper ran a story on this clean-up project at Arlington National Cemetery last month.

article about Arlington National Cemetery removing mementos left at gravesites,  Daily Mail newspaper article 10 October 2013

Credit: Daily Mail (London, United Kingdom), 10 October 2013

Read the entire news story from the Daily Mail (London, United Kingdom), 10 October 2013, here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2451626/Arlington-graves-stripped-personal-momentoes-controversial-clean-up.html

Here is a copy of McCrae’s handwritten poem.

photo of the handwritten original copy of John McCrae's poem “In Flanders Fields”

Credit: Wikipedia

Lt. Colonel McCrae died 28 January 1918 while serving in France during WWI. He is buried in Wimereux Military Cemetery in northern France.

photo of the tombstone of Lt. Colonel John McCrae

Credit: Wikipedia

Here is the complete text of the poem “In Flanders Fields.”

In Flanders fields the poppies grow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

 

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved, and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

 

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Veterans Day Special: How to Trace Your Veteran Ancestors

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post—in celebration of today being Veterans Day—Gena searches old newspapers to help fill in the story of an ancestor’s military service during World War I.

As our thoughts on this Veterans Day turn to the nation’s military personnel, you may be thinking about one of your ancestors who was a veteran—and wondering how you could find out more about him or her.

Quick question: if you are researching a soldier where should you search? Your most immediate answer might include searching a familiar genealogy subscription website or ordering military and pension records. While those are important places to start, have you considered searching old newspapers?

Hometown newspapers provide information about young men and women who have gone off to war. In some cases these mentions of people can be numerous. Search for these old newspaper articles to add to the official military records you have already gathered to help tell your ancestor’s story.

As an example, let’s look at the military life of Sgt. Ernest L. Clayton from Blackwells, Georgia. Sgt. Clayton was a World War I soldier serving in France. His WWI draft registration card from 1 June 1917 indicates that he was a college student prior to his service.

Fast forward to April 1918 and we see from the local news section of the Cobb County Times that Sgt. Ernest Clayton, from Camp Gordon, spent his Sunday in town with his friends. Camp Gordon, now known as Fort Gordon, is in Augusta, Georgia, and was established in 1917.

a notice about Sergeant Ernest Clayton, Cobb County Times newspaper article 11 April 1918

Cobb County Times (Marietta, Georgia), 11 April 1918, page 4

It’s important to remember that many times these smaller city newspapers did contain short mentions of the comings and goings of community members. In those hometown newspapers you can find details of the soldier and his or her family.

Think of older newspapers as the Facebook of their time. Just as we would now share important news of our family through Facebook posts, our ancestors shared their highlights with the local newspaper. It wasn’t too long ago that newspapers even printed the letters that families received from their military-serving family members. The following article is a letter from Sgt. Clayton to his sister, and has a photo of him in uniform.

Letter from Home Folks Adds Much to Life of a Soldier [Ernest Clayton], Cobb County Times newspaper article 24 October 1918

Cobb County Times (Marietta, Georgia), 24 October 1918, page 1

As an introduction to the letter, the newspaper editor let the community know that Clayton was a part of Battery B, 320th Field Artillery, and that he fought in the Battle of Saint Mihiel on 12-15 September 1918. This introduction indicated that he was already in the military when he filled out his draft registration, having entered in May 1917.

In his letter written from France, Clayton talked about how letters from home helped keep his spirits up. He wrote: “You know we soldiers grow tired and weary and if we don’t have any greetings from home and dear old America sometimes, we feel like death would be sweet. But when we are so discouraged and ‘all in’ as we call it, a bunch of mail encourages us very much, and we feel just like singing that dear old song: ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty.’”

There’s no doubt that having a soldier fighting in a war could be nerve wracking for family members on the home front. Not knowing how their son or daughter was doing, especially in a time when communication methods were limited, was an enormous stress. Receiving erroneous news must have been even more difficult to recover from.

World War I on the Western Front ended on 11 November 1918 with the signing of the armistice in France between the allies and Germany. That day was originally commemorated as Armistice Day (it became known as Veterans Day in the U.S. after World War II).

That fateful day took on special meaning for the Clayton family after Sgt. Clayton was unofficially listed as killed in action during the last days of the war. To the family’s great relief, that news of his death turned out to be erroneous!

They received a letter (which the family shared with the local newspaper) that Clayton wrote them on 23 November 1918—after the war had ended, and after he was supposedly dead. He wrote the letter from a hotel room in France, where he was enjoying some rest after 100 days on the firing line. He wrote that he anticipated arriving back home from the war in January 1919.

Sgt. E. L. Clayton Was Not Killed in Action, Cobb County Times newspaper article 19 December 1918

Cobb County Times (Marietta, Georgia), 19 December 1918, page 1

This Veterans Day, spend some time looking for your veteran ancestor in old newspapers. Remember that military service information can be found in more than just the official government military records! You can often find much more information about your veteran ancestor in letters, photos, draft lists, pension lists and other types of articles published in old newspapers.

Genealogy Tip: Make sure to search various versions of a person’s name when using a search engine. In searching for Sgt. Clayton, I searched on just the surname Clayton, as well as E. L. Clayton, Ernest Clayton, and other variations. I also searched for the names of his parents and sister.

Harrybelle (Durant) Stark: The Last Casualty of WWI

Harrybelle (Durant) Stark (1891-1937) gave the last full measure of devotion to our country. She was the last casualty of World War I.

Born March 1891 in Pensacola, Florida, she was the daughter of Osmond P. (1856-1913) and Annette (Knowles) (1880- ) Durant.

photo of Harrybelle Stark

Credit: Stark family photograph

Harrybelle attended Saint Vincent’s Hospital School of Nursing in Birmingham, Alabama, and graduated as a nurse in the Class of 1911.

She enlisted in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps 24 August 1916, and was commissioned a lieutenant and sent overseas to serve at Evacuation Hospital No. 6, American Expeditionary Force, based in Souilly, France. It was there that she met and married her husband, Lt. George Frederick Stark (1895-1958), an Army aviator.

photo of Harrybelle Stark

Credit: Stark family photograph

WWI ended for the rest of the world on 11 November 1918—but for Harrybelle it would not end for another 19 years, until 16 April 1937.

Near the end of WWI her base was gassed by the Germans. In spite of the damaging effects of the gas she continued to serve and was discharged from the Army on 25 April 1919.

photo of a Purple Heart medal

Credit: Wikipedia

But the deteriorating effects of the gas were too much and she soon entered the Castle Point Veteran’s Hospital (Castle Point, New York) where she remained until her death

photo fo the Castle Point Veteran’s Hospital (Castle Point, New York)

Credit: VA Hudson Valley Health Care

As the last casualty of WWI she was buried 21 April 1937 at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

photo of Harrybelle Stark

Credit: Stark family photograph

Arlington National Cemetery Puts Tombstone Photos Online

Arlington National Cemetery has recently completed a massive effort to photograph all 400,000 tombstones and put the photos online.

photo of the front of Harrybelle Stark's tombstone

Credit: Arlington National Cemetery

This is a terrific genealogical resource. Genealogists can easily search for their deceased relatives and the website will display the gravestone and show you where on the cemetery map the person is buried.

Arlington National Cemetery. Search burials here:

http://public.mapper.army.mil/ANC/ANCWeb/PublicWMV/ancWeb.html

map of Arlington National Cemetery

Credit: Arlington National Cemetery

With a click you can pull up more details of the person’s military service and a close-up photograph of the front and back of the tombstone.

When you click on “Details,” it pulls up the accompanying tombstone photos with both a front and rear view. Notice the handy “Download Photo” button under each photograph. It’s a snap to download and keep these photos to add to your family collectibles.

photos of the front and back of Harrybelle Stark's tombstone

Credit: Arlington National Cemetery

This comprehensive effort by the Arlington National Cemetery is one of the best genealogy websites online today.

Jewish American Newspapers for Genealogy at GenealogyBank

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott writes about the ten Jewish American newspapers available in GenealogyBank’s online newspapers collection, and showcases some of the types of articles and information that can be found in these newspapers.

I spent a lot of my youth growing up in a small Ohio town whose lifeblood for the news was our local, community newspaper. Having this “paper route” was my first true job and other than one mix-up with an unhappy dachshund, it was a great job that gave me an early appreciation for how much people looked forward to their morning newspaper (and its timely delivery). So it is that I am pleased to see that GenealogyBank.com offers ten Jewish American newspapers in its database for all genealogists to use.

The ten Jewish American newspapers on GenealogyBank.com can be found in two locations on the website.

The following four Jewish American newspaper titles are in the Historical Newspaper Archives collection:

The following six titles are in the Recent Newspaper Obituaries collection:

One of the best features of these Jewish American newspapers is that they have a focus on local members of their respective communities. As an example, while major city dailies might skip the “breaking news” that student Arthur Feller earned his degree in engineering, the Jewish Journal covered the story.

Arthur Feller Earns Degree in Engineering, Jewish Journal newspaper article 27 September 1968

Jewish Journal (New Brunswick, New Jersey), 27 September 1968, page 10

As you can see, this is a genealogist’s delight because this news article gives us exceptional details into his life, career, education, Eagle Scout achievement, parents’ names, and even a photograph of this young Jewish man. And this is just a single example.

There are also wonderful historical insights for us genealogists to glean from these Jewish American newspapers as well. One example is this 1920 article from the Jewish Daily News, which explains that the Jewish immigrants at Ellis Island would be able to participate in Rosh Hashanah services thanks to the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society of America.

Rosh Hashanah Services for Immigrants, Jewish Daily News newspaper article 2 September 1920

Jewish Daily News (New York, New York), 2 September 1920, page 8

I was captivated by this 1917 article from the Jewish Daily News. This moving letter, written by a soldier fighting in the horrific trench warfare of World War I, gives us a sad but unique view into the meaning of Rosh Hashanah at such a challenging time.

A Jewish Soldier's Soliloquy on Rosh Hashanah, Jewish Daily News newspaper article 16 September 1917

Jewish Daily News (New York, New York), 16 September 1917, page 12

In my personal genealogy I have struggled to find information about some of my ancestors who were placed in an orphanage. Because of this, I was pleased to find several articles in the Jewish Chronicle that included names and details of some of the children living in this orphanage. One example is this 1941 article, which reported on the final preparations for a Bar Mitzvah at the Hebrew Orphanage and Sheltering Home in Newark. This article not only reports the names of the “Bar Mitzvah Boys” (Walter Levy and Abraham Feigenbaum), but also provides a fine photograph of these youngsters.

Orphanage Ready for Celebration of Bar Mitzvah Fete, Jewish Chronicle newspaper article 10 January 1941

Jewish Chronicle (Newark, New Jersey), 10 January 1941, page 1

Local, ethnic and community newspapers can be an excellent source of very specific and complete information to assist us in our genealogical journeys. I encourage you to use these ten Jewish American newspapers on GenealogyBank.com to help with your own family history research.

Here is a printable list of the Jewish American newspapers on GenealogyBank for future reference. Feel free to share this on your blog or website using the embed code provided below.

Jewish Newspaper Archives GenealogyBank

The History of the Great 1918 Flu Pandemic: We All Wore Masks

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena researches old newspaper articles to learn about the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, a three-year disaster that killed approximately 50 million people worldwide and unquestionably affected the lives of any of your ancestors living in the years 1918-1920.

Influenza is a disease, makes you weak all in your knees;
‘Tis a fever ev’ybody sure does dread;
Puts a pain in ev’y bone, a few days an’ you are gone
To a place in de groun’ called de grave.

—“Influenza,” lyrics found on American Memory: the John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip. Song sung by Ace Johnson, Clemens State Farm, Brazoria, Texas, April 16, 1939.

Earlier this year, despite having had a flu shot, I ended up catching the flu. Anyone who has had the flu knows how truly miserable it is. When you are suffering from it, you can easily understand how someone could die from its symptoms. Although still deadly, the flu does not strike the terror in people’s minds that it once did. In fact many people take a wait and see approach, frequently opting not to get the yearly influenza vaccination shot.

When many people think of our ancestors and the flu, they automatically think of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic—and with good reason. This was one of the deadliest flu pandemics in history.

What Is Spanish Influenza? Dr. Rupert Blue Tells about It, Times-Picayune newspaper article 6 October 1918

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 6 October 1918, page 1

From January 1918 to December 1920, this flu pandemic killed approximately 50 million people worldwide, nearly 675,000 in the United States alone.[i] By contrast, 16 million lives were lost during World War I, which was still ongoing during the Spanish flu pandemic’s first year. Why was this flu different from previous forms of influenza? One significant difference in this deadly strain was that young adults were affected just as much as the usual at-risk groups: young children and the elderly.[ii]

This influenza pandemic touched everyone’s lives whether they came down with the virus or not. Efforts to curb the spread of the flu disaster included requiring people to wear facemasks, and discouraging public meetings. The committee of the American Public Health Association decreed that non-essential meetings and gatherings in crowded rooms were dangerous. Some of the APHA recommendations included the closing of “saloons, dance halls, and cinemas.”[iii]

Influenza Mask Wearing Compulsory: Health Board, San Jose Mercury News newspaper article 11 December 1918

San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, California), 11 December 1918, page 1

The implementation of these public safety health precautions shows how seriously the influenza pandemic was taken. A startling example of this is described in the following article from a 1918 Washington newspaper, reporting that a public health officer shot a person on the street who refused to don a mask.

Refuses to Don Influenza Mask; Shot by Officer, Bellingham Herald newspaper article 28 October 1918

Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Washington), 28 October 1918, page 2

The vast movement of troops caused by World War I meant that an illness that would normally be quickly contained instead had worldwide consequences. While the 1918 pandemic is the one that often gets remembered, there have been other epidemics including those of a more recent nature, like the recent Swine Flu. There is no doubt that the 1918 pandemic wasn’t the only one that may have affected your family. According to the website flu.gov there have been four flu pandemics since 1918.[i]

Do you have an ancestor who had the flu during the Spanish flu pandemic? Want to learn more about the history of that outbreak? Good sources for researching historical epidemics are the books Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence: From Ancient Times to the Present by George Childs Kohn, and America’s Forgotten Epidemic: The Influenza of 1918 by Alfred W. Crosby.

Don’t forget to search for old newspaper articles about the flu on GenealogyBank. By searching on the word “influenza” and narrowing your search by date and place you will be able to find articles of how the pandemics affected your ancestor’s community and other parts of the United States.


[i] Pandemic Flu History. Available at http://www.flu.gov/pandemic/history/index.html.

[ii] The Deadly Virus: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918. National Archives and Records Administration. Available at http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic/.

[iii] The Influenza Pandemic of 1918. Available at http://virus.stanford.edu/uda/.

‘Gencaching’ Challenge: Find Historical Maps in Old Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary shows some of the unique historical maps that can be found in old newspapers, and proposes a fun “gencaching” game to find more of these maps.

Some of the greatest tools of genealogical research are historical maps—but one place we often forget to search for them is old newspapers.

Perhaps it is because we don’t expect to find historical maps in newspaper archives. Some old maps, such as the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps (published 1867-2007), and one by Waldseemüller (the first to name the continent as America), are mentioned in historical newspaper articles but not shown.

notice about map-maker Waldseemüller, Irish World newspaper article 20 February 1892

Irish World (New York, New York), 20 February 1892, page 7

However, many other historical maps were published in newspapers. So what types of old maps can we expect to find in newspapers?

Delve into GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives and you’ll note an extraordinary and unique set of cartographic images used to illustrate articles and advertisements.

These historical maps include—but are not limited to—battles, explorations, relief expeditions, and transportation routes, along with proposed and completed municipal, state and national projects. The renditions offer an exciting opportunity to further your family history research, as the majority of these maps printed in old newspapers were not published in books.

Since they were often overlooked, newspaper maps were usually not indexed or cataloged by libraries and historical societies.

“Gencaching” Game to Find Historical Maps

For me, newspaper map searching is a bit like geocaching, the popular activity of treasure hunting using a GPS (global positioning system) to find items hidden away by others—only what you are looking for was placed by the newspaper publishers of yesterday.

To extend this concept to a lineage society or genealogy friend activity, try constructing a “find and seek, or gencaching” game by using GenealogyBank’s search engine to create clues regarding map treasures, such as landmarks that are no longer existent.

If you find some unusual treasure maps, we invite you to share your “gencaching” finds on our blog page in the comments section. Historical map finds that you share with us may be the subject of a follow-up GenealogyBank blog post.

Here are some of the historical maps—and mentions of maps—that I found in GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives.

The Great San Francisco Conflagration

San Francisco suffered a massive fire on 3-4 May 1851, as noted in this California newspaper article.

The Effect of the Conflagration, Weekly Pacific News newspaper article 15 May 1851

Weekly Pacific News (San Francisco, California), 15 May 1851, page 1

This massive fire devastated an area known as the Burnt District, and articles and maps were published across the country about the disaster, including this one from a New York newspaper. In this historical San Francisco map, one sees a simple and clear presentation of the burned areas showing the specific street names.

map of the 1851 San Francisco fire, Spectator newspaper article 23 June 1851

Spectator (New York, New York), 23 June 1851, page 1

Historical Military Maps

One can find military skirmish and old battle maps published in newspapers during times of war, including this one from the American Civil War published in an 1864 Pennsylvania newspaper.

map of the 1864 Civil War battle at Spotsylvania, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 14 May 1864

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 14 May 1864, page 1

This old Civil War map depicts the “Scene of the Great Battle of Tuesday, May 10th, between Generals Grant and Lee” at Spotsylvania during the Great Virginia Campaign. Note that the basic layout shows landmarks, such as the church and old court house, along with the Po River.

This next example, from a 1918 Oregon newspaper, is a historical map of a battle line from World War I. The sector occupied by the American Army in the Lorraine region of France was noted as being close to the German border.

map of WWI battle line in France, Oregonian newspaper article 4 February 1918

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 4 February 1918, page 4

Expeditions and Exploration Maps

As our ancestors explored unchartered territories, expeditions were exciting news. You’ll find numerous newspaper articles about these adventures and explorers, including this piece mentioning the Duke of Abruzzi, Amundsen, Cook, Hedin, Nansen, Perry, and others.

Filling in Blank Spots on the World's Map, Oregonian newspaper article 23 August 1908

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 23 August 1908, page 2

So, it should not surprise us that in 1879 a ship named the Jeanette departed San Francisco Bay with 10,000 people waving and cheering. Perhaps your ancestors were in that enthusiastic crowd—or explorers aboard the ship?

If so, they saw Lt. Commander George Washington DeLong and his small crew of 33 civilians, officers and enlisted men take off for the North Pole—not knowing that only a few of those brave explorers would make it back two years later.

The jubilant sending-off of the Jeanette—and an explanation of the purpose of the voyage—were reported in this 1879 New York newspaper article.

Off to the Pole, New York Herald newspaper article 9 July 1879

New York Herald (New York, New York), 9 July 1879, page 3

Once in the Arctic, the crew became shipwrecked and suffered great hardships.

What a harrowing experience it must have been to be stuck in the ice, and even more horrifying when the ice’s crushing weight destroyed the Jeanette’s hull. They were forced to transport three small lifeboats with equipment and supplies overland, with a plan to sail for the Lena River Delta on the Siberian coast. Despite becoming separated and suffering more hardships, some members of the ship’s crew survived. During a return trip, they were able to locate important items, including the log book.

This 1881 Massachusetts newspaper article is one of many that tell the story.

The Jeanette: Her Shipwrecked Crew Heard From, Worcester Daily Spy newspaper article 21 December 1881

Worcester Daily Spy (Worcester, Massachusetts), 21 December 1881, page 1

You’ll also find numerous newspaper articles and maps pertaining to Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the first expedition leader to traverse the Northwest Passage, as well as the first to reach the South and North Poles.

Amundsen Off on Air Jaunt to North Pole, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 12 May 1926

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 12 May 1926, page 1

Civic Project Proposals

When researching civic projects read all the discussion pieces you can find in the newspapers, and complete follow-up research to verify project rejections and changes. Whenever proposals adversely affect an area, opponents typically offer counter-proposals—and you’ll find their arguments covered in the newspapers as well.

One of the advantages of project proposal newspaper articles is that they may describe earlier time periods, as seen in this 1860 series from a New York newspaper titled “Sketch of Building Operations in Progress in the City.”

Sketch of Building Operations Now in Progress in the City, Commercial Advertiser newspaper article 9 July 1860

Commercial Advertiser (New York, New York), 9 July 1860, page 1

Maps of Transportation Projects

As railroads, steamships and other transportation systems expanded, newspapers provided maps. One of the lesser-known projects was Philadelphia’s 1872 Moyamensing Avenue Railroad project, as shown in this map from a Pennsylvania newspaper.

map of the 1872 Moyamensing Avenue Railroad project in Philadelphia, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 4 March 1872

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 4 March 1872, page 7

Other Types of Maps in Newspapers

In addition to the examples of newspaper maps shown in this blog article, you’ll find historical maps showing the results of natural disasters, aerial views, reliefs, and even tourist attractions—such as this 1922 map of Pikes Peak and the city of Colorado Springs from a Colorado newspaper.

map of Colorado Springs and Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper article 20 August 1922

Colorado Springs Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colorado), 20 August 1922, page 25

The more noteworthy or unusual the event or place, the more likely it is that you will find a newspaper article with an accompanying map.

So head to GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives and start researching historical maps and articles about maps. You may wish to limit the query to the Photos & Illustrations category, and add keywords such as the type of map (aerial, relief, illustration, etc.).

GenealogyBank also offers a newspapers search page specifically for Historical Maps.

GenealogyBank's Historical Maps search page

GenealogyBank’s Historical Maps search page

Good luck with your map searches and remember to share your unique finds with us. Your map just might get featured in an upcoming blog post. Happy hunting!

World War I Articles Recall Memories of Doughnuts & Lassies

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 women volunteers in the Salvation Army during WWI, the “lassies,” who served doughnuts to the American troops on the front lines.

Do you have an ancestor that fought in World War I? As genealogists, the mention of that war brings to mind the World War I Draft Registration. Those draft registration cards provide some important clues for researchers, but one question I always have is: what was life like for our ancestors back in WWI? What was day-to-day life like for our soldiering ancestors?

To invoke a much-used quote originated during the American Civil War, “war is hell.” During that hellish time in the trenches of WWI, however, there were groups trying to make soldiers’ lives a little less difficult. For those Americans who served on the front lines in France, one good experience of the war might have had nothing at all to do with warfare. It was something that, during a time of great distress, brought back fond remembrances of home. That memory involved doughnuts.

Doughnuts?

Yes, doughnuts and the young women who served them during WWI, volunteering their time with the Salvation Army. It’s not uncommon during wartime for various organizations to step up and provide services to U.S. soldiers. During World War I, the Salvation Army sent approximately 500 volunteers to Europe who helped with everything from teaching Bible classes to playing music, providing meeting space for religious services, and cooking and serving food. These men and women followed the soldiers to the battle front and were often in danger as they served.

WWI poster of Salvation Army women volunteers serving doughnuts to American troops

Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Online Catalog

See: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/94513700/

In their 1919 book The War Romance of the Salvation Army (available on Google Books), Evangeline Booth and Grace Livingston Hill write about the World War I activities of the Salvation Army. They describe how the women of the Salvation Army began providing doughnuts to soldiers on the front lines. The story is told that the Salvation Army was serving a group of soldiers in Montiers, France. The Salvation Army women volunteers, referred to as “lassies,” noticed the low morale of the men as they endured the endless rain and hard training. The women believed that some home cooking would boost morale.

After various suggestions, it was decided that doughnuts would do the trick. That first experiment yielded 150 doughnuts for 800 U.S. soldiers waiting in line. One soldier who had a doughnut that day is said to have exclaimed “Gee! If this is war, let it continue!” While doughnuts probably were a welcome respite to the men fighting in World War I, my guess is that the fact they were cooked and served by young women probably helped sweeten the deal. A nameless, older Salvation Army worker is quoted as reminiscing that “…it wasn’t the doughnut at all that made the Salvation Army famous, but the wonderful girls that the Salvation Army brought over there; the girls that lay awake at night after a long hard day’s work scheming to make the way of the doughboy easier…” (page 77).

postcard showing Salvation Army women vounteers during WWI serving doughnuts to American troops

Postcard from the author’s collection

Serving doughnuts and coffee was dangerous work for these women, who had all volunteered to go overseas and serve—as described in this 1919 WWI newspaper article.

Make Doughnuts in Shell Fire, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 18 May 1919

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 18 May 1919, page 24

Stella Carmichael, a Salvation Army “lassie,” recollects that what she and her fellow women volunteers did “no woman in the United States thought of doing.” She notes in the article that they would work 18 to 20 hours “constantly baking doughnuts and filling coffee.” She and her fellow lassies knew the importance of their work: “every one of us did our part cheerfully. The boys needed us, and Lord, how the world needed the boys.”

This June marks the 75th Annual National Doughnut Day. Interested in making some Salvation Army doughnuts? The Salvation Army blog, Doing the Most Good, provides a recipe of the doughnuts made for soldiers in both world wars.

Has Anyone Ever Used These ‘Farm Work’ Records from Portland?

A 1918 Oregon newspaper has an interesting article about an effort in Portland, Oregon, to enlist farm worker volunteers to help save that year’s crops, due to the labor shortage caused by WWI.

500 to Push Hoes, Oregonian newspaper article 14 July 1918

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 14 July 1918, page 14

The old newspaper article reads: “Vacation helpers are going to have a big part in saving the Oregon farm crops this year.” People from all walks of life volunteered in this area-wide effort to assist local farmers in saving that year’s crops.

As the historical newspaper article reports: “More than 500 have signed up the enlistment cards volunteering to devote their vacation time to beneficial service at going wages for the kind of work they may be assigned to do.”

Hmm…those enlistment for farm work cards would be a handy genealogical resource for family historians researching ancestors from the World War I era.

illustration of farm work enlistment cards, Oregonian newspaper article 14 July 1918

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 14 July 1918, page 14

The Oregonian’s article showed the above illustration with the caption: “Facsimile of enlistment cards actually signed by well-known citizens.”

One question on the “Enlistment for Farm Work” form was: “Would you ‘rough it’ with other help on [the] farm?”

A volunteer named A. Earl Kenworthy, a 31-year-old undertaker, answered: “You bet your boots.” He was all-in to help.

Did these Portland farm work records survive? Has anyone used them for genealogy research? Where are these old farm work records now?