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Newspapers in Genealogy and Local History Research: Biographical

Biographical

Biographical information gives life to genealogy data: anecdotes, milestones, major events, personal and professional activities, etc.  Local newspapers might focus on particular inhabitants of a neighborhood locale: a business owner, long-time resident, sports figure, contest-winner, maybe a witness to a crime, or perpetrator of a crime. This information can be slapdash and the research very hit or miss, or circuitous - research methods especially demand open-mindedness and creativity. The results merit the effort. 

Black Falcons

Newspapers often publish the activities of social clubs, charity organizations, fraternal organizations, church groups, occupational guilds, community associations, civic groups, or groups devoted to a specific subject, activity, or hobby, like music, or figure-skating, or collectors of antique microscopes. This is where the stature or fame or prominence of an individual plays no part in why they might end up with their name in print.

Local news is the “known unknown” of genealogy research. Researchers know that they may not know what they may find out about the subject of their research in the newspaper. The more local the locale, the more local the local news. The New York Times is not going to publish an announcement about the new janitorial supply shop that just opened in the neighborhood - but the local Verona-Cedar Grove Times in Essex County, New Jersey will.

Basically, anything that happens: stuff about businesses; crimes; gossip; sports reporting; accidents; etc.

Newspapers in the 19th and 20th century were used as a tool of communication for purposes other than "news." Such "announcements" can take numerous forms, from a paid advertisement, to a posting about a missing person. There may also be cross-over with local news - each are somewhat loose definitions:

  • Advertisements
  • Classified ads
  • Personals
  • Movie Times
  • Music Listings
  • Coupons
  • Professional Services
  • Charity
  • Military | Draft | Casualties
  • Illness / Health Information
  • Promotions
  • Contests

Slavery

  • Following the end of the Civil War, it was common that advertisements for missing family members were posted in newspapers by formerly enslaved men and women. Last Seen is an ongoing digital indexing project that make these ads keyword searchable by name and other details included in the ads. A project coordinated between Villanova University and Mother Bethel AME Church, the database makes available 1,700 post-emancipation ads in 127 Newspapers between 1863 and 1902.

Immigration

  • In the 19th century, immigrants lacking resources for long distance communication placed ads in newspapers in order to locate family members. These columns would print details of family relationships, dates of arrival, ages, physical descriptions, and other data useful in genealogy research. One notable resource, focused on Irish immigration, is the print index The Search for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in the Boston Pilot. In general, first note the place of birth, then determine publications in your date range that might have been published for a specific ethnic audience in the locale you are researching, and then browse pages for any recurrring people-finding columns.

 

 

Southwestern Christian Advocate (August 10, 1882)  

Historical business records often do not exist; if no one associated with the business saved them, or donated them to a research institution, they likely would have just been thrown out.  But information about historic businesses, when cross-referenced in city directories, trade journals, or property records, might be found in newspapers. Keyword searching is very hit or miss and it helps to have names or addresses associated with the business.  There are many reasons a business might be mentioned—an advertisement, the grand opening, incorporation, closing, a notable event associated with the business, management or employee mentioned in an article or announcement and the business is named; financial information, etc.

It is also recommended to explore the resources and research methods in our division's guide: How to Research A Family Business.

Reference Librarians

Contact:
The Irma and Paul Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History, and Genealogy
New York Public Library
476 Fifth Avenue (W. 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue)
Room 121
New York, New York 10018