Opinion

Old news notices

By Nancy Battick

You’ve undoubtedly used newspapers in your genealogical research for articles on major life events such as marriages or obituaries. But there’s more to be found in newspapers than these. The smallest of items can reveal what was happening in your ancestor’s life. I’m referring to legal notices.

Today we think of legal notices as primarily property-related and that was also true in the past. You might well find an ancestor’s farm was foreclosed or that someone was being evicted from leased property. These are sad tales of hardscrabble battles for survival. Small farmers often suffered failures due to poor harvests, rocky land and other factors. It can be heartbreaking to read some of these, but they will give you a window into an ancestor or relative’s life.

There are numerous other notices that can be of value to researchers. For example, it was not at all uncommon to find notices from a local post office listing names of people who had letters waiting to be picked up. Except in large cities or towns, post offices were usually combined with general stores, and in rural areas people didn’t visit their stores very often. If a letter arrived, it might linger gathering dust for weeks or even months. While people might not have had access to newspapers unless they visited the store itself the postmaster would list their waiting mail. You may well find a missing relative listed as receiving mail at a certain post office. This can help narrow down a location to begin your search.

Also, notices of runaway slaves or apprentices were routinely published in local papers along with descriptions and names. These notices were found most frequently in the South, but not exclusively. Runaway apprentices who had a contract to serve their master for a certain number of years were held to strict account. It was a binding legal arrangement. Should an apprentice run away, the craftsman was likely to attempt to reclaim his contracted laborer. 

You can also find divorce proceedings listed in notices. This often happened when one party seeking a divorce didn’t know the whereabouts of the other party involved. A lawyer would thus routinely purchase a legal notice which would satisfy the requirement that the other party to the divorce action receive notification. These divorce notices would sometimes list the last known residence of the other party. 

You can also find missing person notices as well, particularly in ethnic newspapers and usually in large cities where immigrants arrived in the U.S. separately, only to find their relatives were no longer at their last known address.

“Posting” was also common into the mid-19th century. Husbands whose wives had left them would issue a legal notice that they would no longer be responsible for any debts incurred by their absent wives. Sometimes these were quite detailed and dripping of venom, which gives you a window into the relationship. Town gossips loved these notices.

Don’t neglect reading the notices in old newspapers. They can be eye-opening.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft 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 an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com.

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