Tools of the Trade: Newspaper research

Tools of the Trade: Newspaper research

Local notes from the Spanish American newspaper (pg 12; February 6, 1905, Roy, Mora County, New Mexico)

MyHeritage’s US genealogy advisor, Schelly Talalay Dardashti, describes how historic newspapers add life to our family trees.

Old newspapers are treasure troves of family information. If your family lived for a long time in one location, then local papers likely hold information about your relatives.

Such details include birth, marriage and death announcements. If your ancestors owned businesses, there may be legal records or advertisements. Social announcements, real estate records, school graduations, athletic events and even the costs of consumer goods at the time can provide a glimpse into your family and also provide a backdrop as to what life was like for them at a certain point in history.

In the Spanish American (published in Roy, Mora County, New Mexico) page 12 of the February 6, 1906 edition offers local notes such as these (see left). We learn who went where and why, business announcements and who was sick. If your family is one of those mentioned, here’s a very personal look into what happened around that time.

No matter where you live around the world, local historic newspapers provide fascinating information available nowhere else.

Although current events and major historic events are of great interest, it is the personal and cultural reporting that may be of more interest to family historians. Consumer goods are only one area of life detailed in historic newspapers, and those published in major ports (such as San Francisco and New York City) published ship arrivals, the cargo carried, as well as passengers.

In the San Francisco Call of December 10, 1905, a large display ad for Dragers department store, at Market and Jones, indicated they were selling cushion covers, Christmas post cards, slippers, gift handkerchiefs, toys, holiday silverware, gift glassware and even groceries (Kona coffee, 19 cents/pound, maple syrup, 63 cents/half-gallon, the best sweet Washington navel oranges, 30 cents/dozen).

For $15, a modern woman – perhaps one of your own relatives – could purchase a suit described as: “Coat 32 inches long; strictly tailor-made; collar, cuffs and pocket trimmed with velvet and braid, buttons to match; loose back; lined with satin; plaited skirt; blue, red, green and plum; sizes 12 to 40. This is the suit at left; the other was $18.50.

What the well-dressed woman wore in 1905. (San Francisco Call; December 10, 1905)

Let’s look at the same paper five months later, a few weeks after the major 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The May 10, 1906 edition contains columns of personal notices where people from other cities and states are looking for missing relatives or business associates. Many organizations ask their members to send in changes of address. And, as to be expected after a major life-changing event, there are ads for furniture, rooms/houses for sale or rent, the repairing of gas lines, and more notices giving the new temporary offices for many businesses.

On page 4, Professor John Milne, described as the inventor of the seismometer, is spotlighted. The article described an interview with him on the Isle of Wight, how his machine works and that the tinkling of the machine’s bell woke him and he knew about the earthquake in California hours before the London papers. Additionally, genealogists looking for death certificates will note an article revealing that the city’s mortuary clerk will enforce burial laws, requiring burial certificates be made out on the proper form.

This edition also included the various rumors surrounding the major earthquake. The first report received in Panama on April 18 by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company manager R. P. Schwerin, said that there had been an earthquake and tidal wave and that 5,000 lives were lost.

A later cable reported that San Francisco had been destroyed by an earthquake; 200,000 lives were lost; commercial areas had been swept by a tidal wave and that part of the surrounding residences had been destroyed in a fire. It also reported that Chicago was in ashes and that New Orleans had disappeared beneath the waters of the Mississippi River. Even then, rumors were presented as news!

We learn on page two that fire was the principal cause of city damage, that no properly constructed building was damaged more than 10%, and that buildings constructed on stable ground before the previous earthquake of 1868 had no evidence of damage after the 1906 event.

Page one stories reported that most city bank vaults withstood the quake. However, the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company’s vault of insurance business records was destroyed when a huge steel girder fell and broke the vault’s corner, allowing fire in to destroy the records.

The extraordinary work of the Signal Service Corps which began fixing communication lines immediately after the quake is detailed on page three. In a general atmosphere of chaos – and because most bank vaults were undamaged – more than 1,000 individuals and companies paid to rent steel boxes in the surviving bank vaults to store important documents and assets.

Digitizing programs for historic newspapers are underway. One great resource is the “Chronicling of America” at the Library of Congress, which is helping researchers learn more about their ancestors’ lives. Newspaper articles are also available here at MyHeritage via Record Matches.

For information on “Chronicling America,” click . To see what historical newspapers (listed by state) are online, visit the University of Pennsylvania site,

In addition to the New York Times and the Washington Post, digitized papers include the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (“the first newspaper West of the Alleghenies”) and the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph, published continuously for 244 years – the oldest paper in North America.

Have you accessed historic newspapers in your research? What details have you located about your ancestors? Share your discoveries in the comments below.

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  • David Lee

    September 11, 2014

    I have been using historic/old newspapers for research ever since I first commenced researching my family tree, and they have been an invaluable source of information, including, births, deaths marriages, and other news items that I`m sure some relatives would prefer to remain in the past .Such as Court appearances for various misdemeanours and crimes. TROVE in Australia, and PAPERS PAST in New Zealand are excellent sources for anyone researching in these countries.

  • Paul Brower

    September 13, 2014

    The richest for genealogical data are typically obituaries that mention place and date of birth, parents, and marriages; identify siblings and children; give the time and place of death and the burial site. They often say much about religion and may identify occupation.

    It is all worth more if it dovetails with other data, as from the Census and death certificates. It can prevent confusion; “William Smith the dentist” is unlikely to also be “William Smith the drayman”.

    Be careful, though, about one commonplace statement: that someone “converted to the Christian faith”. Jewish ancestor? Not likely even with a Jewish-sounding given name, as there were practically no Jews in the area at the time. It was most likely from one form of Christianity to another.

    Another: beware of glowing testimonials to the goodness of the
    Dearly Departed. Do you expect an obituary to announce that a recently-deceased scoundrel was a violent drunkard who beat his wife and children mercilessly?

  • Heather Clark

    September 14, 2014

    The 2 towns that my family lived in for literally hundreds of years do not have papers available on-line. As far as I have been able to find anyway. If anyone knows where they can be found on line, please let me know! Lawrence, MA, Lawrence Eagle, I believe. About 1845 to 1945. Cambuslang, Scotland, 1700 to 1885. Thanks:-)

  • Cindy

    September 14, 2014

    There was confusion about an Uncle of mine, whether he was born alive or stillborn. I was able to find a notice in the newspaper of him living only a few hours. That enabled me to obtain a death certificate. It was great to clear up that question with the help of historic newspapers.

  • Denise Hibsch Richmond

    September 15, 2014

    Newspapers have certainly added a new dimension to my ancestor’s lives and helped support information found in other sources. In addition to the resources Schelly mentioned in her article, blogger Kenneth Marks has identified online historic newspapers by state on his blog “The Ancestor Hunt”.

  • William Bale

    September 15, 2014

    My grandfather was a lecturer who traveled throughout the US and Canada. Through research of newspapers, I have tracked him to most of the 48 contiguous states and a couple provinces of Canada. I have also determined several full-time teaching positions from similar articles. They provide very rich support for his biography. Bill

  • Ms. Carolyn Eigel

    September 15, 2014

    I would like to find a copy of an article in a Memphis, Tennessee paper about early 1867 describing the demise of the S.S. Morgan
    I believe possibly on the Red River in Louisiana. It was headed up the Red River hauling a load of cattle when it ran aground in late 1866. On my return trip from either St. Louis or Tucson, I didn’t get to stop in the archive building in Nashville to look up this article.

  • Jill Davy

    September 17, 2014

    I use Trove Australia all the time and have found articles regards weddings, death notices, advertisements which give occupations, reports of court cases and shipping arrivals which add to the official documents. A great resource.

  • Barbara Thomas Fazzolari

    September 18, 2014

    I have been trying to find an article on my uncle William (Bill) Thomas who died from an accident at work in Chicago, Cook, Ill I 1949.

  • becky hild

    September 22, 2014

    is there a seperate Jewish geneology board?
    my mom thought we were german jews. I know my grandfather went to some barmitzfah when she was young. He graduated from the Unov of Berlin with a mathmatics degree at age 19. His brothers were all doctors and lawyers and a family cousin was Krups(krupps) and owned a munitions factory. When jews were persicted on fleed germany…….I think he was born around 1889?

  • Linda Regalado Jones

    October 6, 2014

    I have found various newspaper articles with lots of previously unknown details about various ancestors. Some good, some funny and some not so good stories. One involves Eugene Aine who was wrongly shot and killed by vigilantes in Virginia City, Nevada area in April, 1864. I have found articles in the Territorial Enterprise, Gold Hill News, Stockton Daily Independent and others about this. One thing I have not been able to find is any information on the trial that was held later. I’ve searched through many newspapers to no avail.
    Any ideas would be greatly welcomed!