By: Carolyn L. Barkley
Columnists have contributed articles of genealogical interest to newspapers for many years. Although today we often turn to online sources first, it is helpful to be aware of printed newspaper columns, both past and present, and how they can support our research. These columns, combined with news and announcements of genealogical interest, make newspapers an important resource.
While we may know that a genealogy column appears in our local newspaper, we may not know if another is published in a newspaper in other localities of interest to our research. In addition, we may also want to learn what type of information is included in a specific column: how-to information concerning local records, local historical events, or biographical vignettes? Do they accept queries? An excellent source for the identification of genealogy columns can be found on The News Stand, which provides “information on and links to genealogical columns that appear in newspapers and accept announcements and/or queries.” Included on this site are listings for Australia, Canada, Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the United States. For the latter, a list of sixty-seven newspapers is provided covering twenty-one states. Cyndi’s List, under the topic of “Newspapers – Genealogy Columns and Columnists,” provides links to eleven such columns. For example: The Bangor (Maine) Daily News includes “Family Ties,” a column by Roxanne Moore Saucier; Kinsearching has appeared in various Texas newspapers for thirty-four years; Ruby M. Cusack writes a “Genealogy and Queries” column in New Brunswick, Canada; “Louisiana Ancestors” is affiliated with the Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans; and Tom Mooney writes a genealogy column that appears in northeastern Pennsylvania’s Times Leader.
An even more basic question is how to identify those newspapers, published in the past, that might have included genealogy columns or genealogy-related information. There are many print bibliographies of newspapers, some broad in scope, some limited to states or regions. For current publications, check the Ayer Directory of Publications (Ayer Press, annual publication) at your local library. For historical titles, both Winifred Gregory’s American Newspapers 1821-1936: a Union List of Files Available in the United States and Canada (H. W. Wilson, 1937) and John Van Ness Ingram’s A Checklist of American Eighteenth Century Newspapers in the Library of Congress (Government Printing Office, 1936) will prove helpful. Anita Cheek Milner’s Newspaper Genealogical Column Directory (Heritage Books, 1989), although now very dated and out of print, is another resource to consult.
An alphabetical list of links to a wide range of newspapers and newspaper collections, current and historical – as well as national and international–is available on Cyndi’s List, as well as Newspapers U.S. and Worldwide on Refdesk.com. A search for Connecticut newspapers on the latter website provided a list of fifty-six titles. A search for “genealogy” in the New Haven Register provided a list of 124 articles, including announcements of family reunions, a history of a North Branford farm, and a family’s military history research.
Once you have identified which newspaper you wish to consult, Google its sites and then use “genealogy” or a surname as search terms. Also, try to determine if a genealogy column is published regularly, or whether there are only occasional genealogical articles. You will not want to limit yourself only to issues published in a more current timeframe (which may be all that is available via the search function). You may wish to inquire of the newspaper if it published such information in the past and, if so, during which time period such columns might have appeared. Where is the newspaper’s archive located? Is it available online or on microfilm? State libraries, archives and historical societies often have significant collections of older newspapers. In addition, check major online historical newspaper collections such as the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America, and databases such as Nineteenth Century U. S. Newspapers and Early American Newspapers, Series I, 1690-1876, both offered free to members of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, or by subscription to a variety of online databases. Finally, you will want to consult the PERiodical Source Index (PERSI), produced by the Allen County (Indiana) Public Library, and available online at HeritageQuest (accessible only at your local public library) or Ancestry.com, which also identifies a variety of online newspaper databases.
If your local paper does not include a genealogy column, consider writing a column yourself and talk to the local editor about the possibility of doing so. Set up a meeting and bring a sample column with you to illustrate your writing skills and subject material. It will be helpful if you can describe today’s wide-spread interest in genealogy and describe why your column will be interesting to the newspaper’s readers.
The International Society of Family History Writers and Editors (ISFHWE) is an organization you will want to join if you are writing, or plan to write, a column. ISFHWE fosters excellence in writing and has established editorial standards for genealogical publishing. The society sponsors an annual Excellence-in-Writing Competition with categories including published newspaper columns, magazine articles and columns. In addition, the society’s website offers a listing of newspaper columns written by its members.
In addition to genealogy columns, both past and present, other information in newspapers will be useful in fleshing out the “rest of the story.” You will want to read birth, marriage, and death notices, obituaries, and other vital record notices, but you will also want to read the social columns to find out who was visiting and who they were visiting, as well as what anniversaries or birthdays were being celebrated; who was going away to college or who had received a business or military promotion. Stories about local events that your ancestor may have figured in, will add to your knowledge of your ancestor’s lifetime. If you know that an individual’s cause of death involved a train, automobile or construction accident, the event may have been reported with details important to your research. If you have an occasionally less than law-abiding ancestor, read the police blotter. I once solved a research problem when I located a brief police blotter item stating that the individual in question had died from a fall in jail following “an extended spree” – a story I was not likely to hear from family members! Finally, legal notices may provide information about divorce or business issues effecting members of the family.
Several reference works have compiled genealogical information from newspapers, including Robert W. Barnes’ Missing Relatives and Lost Friends (Clearfield, 2008), which includes information from advertisements for missing persons printed in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia newspapers. Such ads often included a place of birth, date and last place of residence, and relationship to the person posting the notice. State-wide collections, such as the Charles R. Hale Collection of vital records (Connecticut), can be very helpful and save time in identifying information (always go and read the original after finding a reference in a compiled search).
Newspapers, both contemporary and historical, can provide a great deal of information that will supplement our knowledge of individuals and the events of their time. They can provide helpful information on how-to research in a specific geographical area, as well as provide us with intimate views of the history of a community.