Looking beyond the headline can pay off
Most genealogists know that historic newspapers can help in their research. Most hope to locate a birth, marriage, or death record and are disappointed that many local papers didn’t carry much in the way of genealogical information.
Researching historic newspapers is different from researching today’s papers. For instance, early obits were usually only for the most prominent. Others received a brief death notice or a paragraph at most. And, the information given can be sketchy.
I found one of my relative’s death recorded with name, death year, and a notation “died at Chagres.” Research showed Chagres in Panama, the year during the Gold Rush, and the cause of death likely yellow fever or some other tropical disease.
The other frustrating thing about researching old newspapers is that the information isn’t grouped as it is today. You won’t find a page of marriages for example. Instead they’ll be tucked wherever the editor could squeeze them in so you need to research carefully.
But, there’s a great deal to be found in newspapers. Until recent years newspapers tended to publish what we’d call gossip columns today, with correspondents scattered throughout the towns they covered. For example when you look at old issues of the Piscataquis Observer you’ll find sections such as West Sebec or North Guilford. The area correspondent wrote about happenings in the neighborhood — who had a visitor or a new car, who shot a deer, or whose cow produced great quantities of milk.
While we may chuckle at some of these entries they tell us details of daily life that make our ancestors interesting, but which are difficult to find in formal records. They also offer valuable clues.
When you find an entry such as “Mr. Smith’s sister, Annie, and her husband Paul Jones of Farmington, called on Sunday with children Thomas, William, and Jane” this can be a great help in identifying who your grandmother’s sister married, the names of children, and where the family was living. With all that you are ready to expand your research.
You might also learn your ancestor recited a poem in a school or church program or was working that summer at a resort.
Old newspapers can also tell you a lot about the town itself and fill in background on activities, stores, and cultural events your ancestor may have known.
Where do you find newspapers? Start with your local library and historical society to see if they have papers archived. The University of Maine in Orono has a great collection on microfilm free to use and print out. Online sites that specialize in newspaper collections from around the country include GenealogyBank.com (fee site). Or try Family History centers to see if they have access to newspaper collections online. Sometimes newspapers have some of their back issues online for researchers.
Try a search engine such as Google with the town name or newspaper and see what pops up. You never know what you might find.
Nancy Battick is a Dover-Foxcroft native who has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft. Nancy holds a MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. You can contact Nancy at firstname.lastname@example.org.