Reading the Newspapers

I’m currently working on a research problem where the answers are not jumping forward. The goal is to identify the father of a female ancestor who lived from about 1820 to 1890. The records of the research subject, her husband, and her children don’t identify her father, but I have several candidates. I’ve got the basics

  • Church and cemetery records for both candidates and their documented children
  • Census records for both candidates and their documented children
  • Probate records for both candidates
  • Land records for both candidates.

The records found provide indirect evidence, but nothing conclusive, so I’m going to read the newspaper.

Through interlibrary loan I ordered the newspaper of the town where my research subject lived, covering the period 1874 (earliest availability of the newspaper) through 1895 (after the death of my research subject, her husband, and most of the potential siblings). I’m now in the midst of reading each issue of the paper, hoping to finish as many years as I can before the microfilms have to be returned. I’m hoping to find mentions of my subject, her family, and the possible siblings and their families identifying or suggesting relationships.

So far I haven’t found the direct evidence I’m looking for, but I have been reminded of the value of this practice for areas where substantial numbers of family members lived. I’m learning about

  • Things that happened to family members that I didn’t know about. I learned about smashed fingers, burned barns, and giant radishes they grew. I learned things that put a different slant on facts–for example, a family member’s child who died prematurely was killed when a steam locomotive blew up as it came into the railroad station.
  • The weather, dry or wet, cold or hot. It’s one thing to know that your research subject’s mother died in August, and quite another to learn that she died in the middle of the hottest, driest August on record, when wells and springs were drying up, or that the baby born 15 September 1876 came into the world during the severe storms of Thursday last, with multiple lightning strikes in town.
  • What was in season. As I read the papers, strawberries, cherries, apples, plums, and melons came into and out of season, bringing with them activities like cider-making and apple butter boiling. I learned who had ice in the summer, along with popular recipes. I learned about sleighing parties, and how the sleighing conditions changed in different parts of the area. I read about who went fishing and hunting, and where, and what they caught and shot.
  • What living was like. I read about saloons, soiled doves, mad dogs, runaway horses, and sidewalks in need of repair. (Surprisingly, the sidewalks were brick.) I read about epidemics of summer fever, smallpox, and diphtheria, and who became sick and died. I read about accidents–lots of those in the mines and on the railroads. I read about fraternal organizations and temperance groups. I read about the militia and the Grand Army of the Republic, and what they did in the community. I read who had letters in the post office, and learned that there was a telephone in town in 1879.
  • What was going on in the community. I’ve been fascinated to learn that the circus came regularly to the rather small town whose newspaper I read. There were religious camp meetings in the summers. There were lectures, concerts, and balls sponsored by churches, lyceums, and bands. (Who knew that bands sponsored balls?)
  • Personalities. I got to know the personalities of the newspaper owners and editors (three, so far), and how the editor’s personality and writing style change the content of the newspaper. I learned who the editor’s friends and acquaintances were (they got lots of coverage in the paper), and who belonged to the “in crowd” (not the family I’m researching, so far). I learned who had their fingers in every pie and who could be counted on to subscribe to any civic or charitable appeal. (Some of these either were, or were about to be, part of my ancestors’ FAN club). I could see how the social makeup of the town changed as children grew up and elders became less active.
  • Behavior. I observed the editor’s attitudes toward women, disabled people, tramps, children, veterans, perpetrators of domestic violence, alcohol abusers, animals, young men hanging around on corners staring at ladies going to church, and more. I read about behavior that was exemplary and behavior that was deplorable (women driving teams too fast through town).

I love the details that are emerging–these newspapers are better than a novel–and I can’t wait to read the next installment. Even if I don’t find the answer to my research question, reading these newspapers is really enriching my knowledge of my family and the place they lived, and making me feel I know them in a whole different way.


One comment on “Reading the Newspapers

  1. David Suddarth

    Excellent post, Lois. Too many times, we just want to find “our” person, and do a quick skim or glance through parts of whatever papers we can find (or just do a quick search in a database). This post points out very well that sometimes, if we just slow down and enjoy the process instead of trying to rush to the answer, we not only enhance our knowledge of the area, the times, and the circumstances in which our ancestors lived, but also increase our chances to pick up valuable, often subtle clues (whether we realize it at the time or not) which can help further our research.