Newspapers Help Smash a Genealogy Brick Wall

Introduction: In this article, Duncan Kuehn describes how she used old newspapers to help one of her clients smash through a brick wall blocking their family history research. Duncan is a professional genealogist with over nine years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?”

Recently a client contacted me for some help identifying the parents of his ancestor Samuel Langston (names have been changed). He had done an excellent job finding information about Samuel. He had looked for Sam in all the most likely places: census returns, vital records, city directories, etc. Impressively, he had kept detailed accounts of each record he found and the information it contained. However, he had reached a brick wall when it came to Samuel’s parents.

Photo: brick wall
Photo: brick wall. Credit: Pawel Wozniak; Wikimedia Commons.

Not one of the records he had located had provided the names of those elusive parents. The only information he had been able to find was their birthplaces, from Sam’s census returns. Supposedly, Sam’s father was born in New York and his mother was born in England.

Genealogy Tip: Keeping good research records will increase the likelihood that you can resolve a genealogy brick wall. Often the clue you need has already been found in the records you looked at. You just didn’t recognize it when you saw it. Keeping records that can be easily reviewed is priceless.

I got to work by confirming that he had located all the records possible, and discovered that two important records had not yet been found: a marriage certificate or license for Sam and his wife, and Sam’s obituary.

Marriage Certificate

I started by pulling the marriage records. The information in this record is provided by the bride and groom and would likely list the correct names of Sam’s parents. However, the marriage certificate I found only listed the names of the bride and groom and their marriage data. The witnesses were not obviously related, and no license was found.

Genealogy Tip: In the beginning it may not be obvious if the name found in a record refers to the person you are searching for or not. Don’t disregard these records. There may be clues that you find later that can confirm their identity.

Newspaper Obituary

The one good source for genealogy information that my client hadn’t exhausted was old newspapers, so I began searching GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

After finding the marriage certificate, I turned to old newspapers to search for Sam’s obituary. My client had found an obituary for Sam’s widow, Jenny, and he had ordered Sam’s death certificate. The death certificate was filled out by Sam’s son, who did not know his grandparents’ names. The obituary I found for Sam was written a few days after his death in 1927. More family members had gathered and there was an increased likelihood that someone could have provided the missing information. Sadly, Sam’s parents’ names were not recorded in the obituary either.

However, three other items of information were found in the obituary. First, it confirmed that Sam had been associated with a particular mine in Utah. Second, it agreed with the census returns in stating that Sam had been born in Illinois – and went even further by providing a birth town. Third, it provided the name of Sam’s only surviving family member, a sister, identified by initials (Mrs. J. F. Dennison). Two of these items of information were vitally important in cracking the case. And one of them was a red herring.

Genealogy Tip: Prior to the 1960s, look for women in newspapers under both their own name and their husband’s name. A woman may be listed as Sandra Smith or Mrs. Andrew Smith.

More Newspaper Articles Found

I continued to search the newspaper archives for any possible detail about Sam Langston. I found multiple articles about his business dealings with the mine. I found several about his association with a fraternal organization. I could not locate any articles that listed Sam’s parents’ names, but I did find one very short article 26 years prior to Sam’s death that mentioned a family reunion of sorts in 1901. Sam was identified by name and by his employment with the mine. Listed with him were three sisters, one of which was the Mrs. J. F. Dennison I had found in Sam’s obituary. Another sister was listed by her married name, Mrs. Abe Johnson. The last sister was a widow listed under her own name, Carrie Hatchet. Carrie’s name was the clue that broke the case open.

Genealogy Tip: Some old newspaper articles may not appear to be valuable at first glance, but become crucial later. Keep all articles that pertain to the individuals you are searching for. Many will contain small clues that can benefit your research later.

Widowed Sister’s Name Breaks Case Open

I was able to trace Carrie back through the census returns and other records to find her with her mother in northern Utah. I had found the mother’s name at last! Listed in the household were her two other sisters and Samuel. To ensure that this was in fact the correct family, I traced each of the sisters through the records to ensure that they were the same women that were listed in the 1901 reunion article I had found. Having confirmed that these three sisters were the correct people, I felt confident that the Sam who died in 1927 and was married to Jenny was the same person who appeared in the 1870 and 1880 census returns with his sisters and their mother.

Genealogy Tip: The easiest way to confirm a person’s identity is by their relationships. Historically, people could willfully or inadvertently alter names, ages, or other dates without difficulty. However, a sister is nearly always a sister.

Red Herring

So which clue was the red herring? It was the information in Sam’s obituary that gave his birth town in Illinois. As I went on to discover, Sam was not born in Illinois. In addition, his father was not born in New York – and Sam had been born a few years earlier than he stated in records after he married. Sorting through misinformation and throwing out the errors is an important part of genealogy.

With more research, I was able to prove that Sam was actually born in England, like his parents and most of his sisters. They had all immigrated to Utah in the mid 1860s and shortly after the family’s arrival, the parents had divorced – which is why it’s so hard finding records with the father’s name. As the children left home, the younger ones told the story that they were born in the United States and their father had been born in New York. It is unclear why the younger children chose to tell that story, though perhaps it was to claim U.S. citizenship.

It is also unclear what, if any, relationship Sam had with Illinois or why he claimed to be younger than he actually was. His mother had died shortly after the 1880 census and the siblings had only periodic contact. Fortunately, they did gather together in 1901 and the newspaper recorded a one-sentence announcement that led to the discovery of information about Sam’s parents.

Genealogy Tip: Don’t get stuck in the details. People lie and misremember information. People change details based on the situation and outside pressures. An underage girl may claim to be a year or two older in order to get married without parental consent. An immigrant may claim to be a native citizen. Look for trends and patterns.

Once again, information in newspapers was vital in breaking through a brick wall in my client’s research. Be sure to use old newspapers to help solve your own genealogy brick walls!

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