Newspaper Notices and Genealogical Research
Legal Notices: The Fine Print
Among newspaper items are the legal notices, those items usually in small print. They include items directed by law to be published to notify possible interested people of the action. Those items have often been omitted among modern indexes, which is unfortunate. They can provide valuable leads in your quest.
You Are Hereby Summoned
When a defendant in a suit or heirs of a decedent cannot be located, the law normally grants permission to publish the summons or citation to give notice to the parties involved. It may be published in more than one newspaper as directed by the court. Stop to examine these. You will readily see their value.
In many areas, paper was scarce during the war years. The local newspaper may have suspended publication for the duration.
Other Miscellaneous Notices
During the gold rush to the west and other surges of expansion, the newspapers were packed with bulletins such as “John Smith, George Martin, and Gregory Morton left last Tuesday to join the train at Huntsville traveling west.” Or, “Josiah Martin finished outfitting his team and wagon and left yesterday.” The Civil War also generated many items about hometown boys who left for service, or news when they wrote home.
Those Charming Advertisements
Was your ancestor a tailor? A pharmacist? Owned a stable? Look for advertisements. They are charming. The doctor extols the cures reported from the latest herbal wonder; the tailor confidently announces that there is no workmanship that matches his own. Always make photocopies when you find advertisements placed by your ancestors. They add interest when you assemble the story of their lives, and the copies will add eye appeal when you illustrate your written account. (Remember, though, to consider copyright. Note the year of publication and determine if the copyright has run out by going to www.copyright.gov/circs/circ1.html and reading about the duration of copyright. If it has not, get permission.)
A Letter Is Waiting For …
Letters sent by anxious relatives, or others, often went unclaimed at the post office. The recipient was either unaware that the letter had been sent, or the person had moved away. The newspaper periodically published the lists; it might be the only proof that your ancestor was supposed to be in the area. In other instances, a worried relative might have written a letter to the editor of the newspaper and inquired about “my brother who I have not heard from in over five years … have your readers heard of him … please have him write to ….”
Ethnic and Religious Newspapers
If you cannot find notices, in spite of an exhaustive search of the English language newspapers, the information you seek may be in an ethnic newspaper. Was the family German, and living in a large city? The item may be there. “But I don't read German,” you may say. Doesn't matter. Watch for the name; you'll recognize it. If you find a notice, copy it and seek the assistance of a professor or student of the language at the local college or university. You can also seek assistance from an ethnic genealogical society to find others who can translate the notice for you. Some websites that offer translations can help, though personal experience with them has shown that these are not truly accurate. One that you can try is http://babelfish.altavista.com/babelfish/tr. It will at least give you a sense of what the article says, but supplement it with a true translation by someone knowledgeable.
Can the Internet Help?
You have a good chance of being in luck, at least with some of your ancestors. Many organizations are digitizing newspapers and posting the images. Some are searchable on every word. When the complete images are unavailable, there may at least be indexes, often prepared by volunteers. Some of the websites offering newspaper notices are subscription sites such as Ancestry.com. And increasingly, libraries and genealogical societies are making large databases of newspapers available to their patrons and members. Go to www.godfrey.org for a number of newspapers. Or access ProQuest's database of The New York Times 1851-1998 through your membership at organizations such as the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society at www.newyorkfamilyhistory.org. Others offering free archived newspaper access to members include the New England Historic Genealogical Society at www.newenglandancestors.org. There are many others. Start your newspaper search with www.cyndislist.com but also experiment with your Internet browser, inserting the county, state, and the word “newspaper.” See what comes up.
To locate the website of many current newspapers, try www.usnpl.com. Once there, click on the state of your choice, and peruse the links to the various websites of those of that state. Some of the current newspapers have archived past issues, though usually they are of a more recent time period.
Flavor the Times
Use newspapers routinely during your search. They offer a rare opportunity to understand the times in which your family lived. Soak up a flavor of the area: the bake sales, local pageants, and sports-event winners. A strong feeling for the people and an understanding of the community atmosphere that influenced the lives of your family will be yours after reading those pages.
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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy © 2005 by Christine Rose and Kay Germain Ingalls. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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