Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Drowning in newspapers

From: Name Withheld
I am a somewhat new family historian having gotten bit by the genealogy bug in January of this year.  I have been trying to learn the best methods to make my research valuable instead of just collecting names.  My problem is that I can't find any advice regarding my particular problem with newspapers.

Most websites that make reference to using newspapers as a resource are encouraging people to look to local papers in the hopes of finding some mention of distant relatives. The overall feeling I get is that they are promoting papers as a place to find obituaries or, if one is lucky, another mention somewhere that might offer a rare insight into day-to-day life of an ancestor.

My problem is that I am drowning in these "rare" insights.  Most of my family settled in a small corner of northwest Iowa which was serviced by a host of small town newspapers.  (I have 12 in my source list at present.)  I not only have obituaries and wedding announcements, I have so many one-line references to their Sunday drives, birthday parties and picnics in the park.  I was excited at first, but now I feel burdened by it all.  (After my first discoveries, I even called my mom to find out if her parents were well-to-do or quite popular, because it seemed odd that they would be mentioned at least once a month in the gossip columns.  My husband compares it to Twitter today.  If anyone was doing ANYTHING, it seemed to be worth talking about.)

I guess I'm wondering what others do in this situation.  My method thus far has been to save off the image of the newspaper column.  I am using Family Tree Maker 2010 and have made a fact category called "Social" for these passing mentions of day-to-day activities.  Then I transcribe the article and put that and the image of the article in with the source citation information.  While I think others may find items about people going to the Chicago World's Fair interesting, I'm not sure that a weekly drive to the neighboring town is worth noting.  Even if I say that great-grandpa did a lot of driving to neighboring towns, I'd need to have all the references to show how I came to that conclusion, right?

And on another note, must I print them all?  Some items are literally one sentence in a gossip column.  I have just discovered your organization method and love the coffee table book concept.  With that as a goal, I suppose it makes sense to have the newspaper clippings in the notebook.  However the environmentalist in me cringes at the thought of using a page per mention.

Do you or any of your readers have any advice on dealing with this glut of information?

Thanks in advance for considering my questions.  I have already learned so much from your blog!  Thanks for taking the time to help those of us who are new to genealogy!

You are the lucky one. Ol' Myrt here should have such problems.

KEEP the scanned images of those newspaper blurbs and attach each as a media file to everyone mentioned in the newspaper article.

Even things as seemingly innocuous as a newspaper society page entry put a person in a specific place at a specific time, and often mention extended family members. These may provide clues for solving future research challenges. For instance:

This photo shows my maternal grandmother Frances Irene Goering, kneeling 1st on left, near her father Charles Henry Goering, standing third from left. These are the only two people I recognize in the photo. The writing on the back merely states "14 Oct - 50th Anniversary." My grandmother has long since passed away and I cannot turn to her for clarification.

From the Goering family photo collection, original in possession of the author.

When I search my compiled family history, neither set of Frances' grandparents were married on or near the 14th of October. Instead we find:
  • Frances' paternal grandparents Ferd and Nancy Jane (Swanker) Goering, married 10 Feb 1875 in Union County, Iowa.
  • Frances' maternal grandparents William Henry and Lousia Mae (Terry) Phillips, married 6 Aug 1874 in Marion County, Iowa.
For this to be a 50th anniversary celebration of either ancestral couple, this would date the photograph circa 1924-1925. It's a big assumption that this celebration was for either one of these couples, but I still think it quite likely. In my opinion, though, it would be stretching it to think my grandmother Frances is 19 or 20 years old in this photo.

Newspapers for the Dallas-Melcher area of Iowa, where Ferd and Nancy Goering lived for many years, would prove useful to determine if this was their wedding anniversary celebration. The place is still so small that such an event would have been big news.

Likewise, a study of the Knoxville, Marion County, Iowa newspapers for mention of William and Louisa Phillips may prove the family gathered to honor the anniversary of their marriage.

It is entirely possible that the woman in the white shirt next to Charles Henry Goering is the dreaded second wife, Elizabeth (Shafer) Griffith Goering. Charles' first wife Estelle Mae (Phillips) Goering died 11 Sept 1921 in Olathe, Johnson County, Kansas. This means it is possible the photo could be of the celebration of Charles' second wife's parents, Mr. and Mrs. _______ Shafer. In support of that theory, note the woman in the white shirt is standing closer than Charles is to the oldest man in the picture. And in my opinion, having seen my grandmother's high school graduation photo, it is more likely that Frances is in her mid-teens in this photo. I tend to believe this is the Frances step-mother's parents wedding anniversary celebration.

But who knows?

How Ol' Myrt here prays [emphasis added] to be drowning in newspaper blurbs about all these ancestors!

I agree with your husband that small town newspaper one and two line blurbs were the "Twitter" of it's day. Certainly mentioning the locals by name would serve to sell more newspapers, for one always likes to see one's name in print, except on a flier at the local post office. Our people didn't have to be famous or wealthy to get mentioned. Small town newspaper editors were smart cookies, and knew how to fill up space in a column.

And so, DearDanielle, be HAPPY you are drowning. Use technology, as you are doing with Family Tree Maker, to make it easy to store every document mentioning your ancestors. As to the coffee table books, you can place copies of many such blurbs on a single page using your photo editing software. No problem.

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt     :)
Your friend in genealogy.


  1. Danielle, I would echo Ol'Myrt's sentiments here. I would also suggest that you don't think of it as "drowning" but more like "swimming" in your ancestors day to day activities. Oh, how I wish I had such information on any of my ancestors. You are truly blessed to have these tidbits, stories and day to day activities to add to your ancestors lives. Most of us could only dream of such a thing. Collect everything you can find, document it as Ol'Myrt has suggested and most of all ENJOY!!

    Melissa Barker
    Professional Genealogist
    Specializing in Tennessee and Kentucky Genealogy Research

  2. The weekly drive to a neighboring town is DEFINITELY worth keeping in a notes file in FTM. You may discover at some point the connection to that other town ... perhaps a married daughter moved there with her new husband, perhaps a son moved there for employment opportunities, etc. etc. etc. I keep track of ALL of it.

  3. I have hundreds of old newspapers from a small town in Illinois. I rescued them from the Dumpster. I offered them to the town library and its historical society and got no takers. I don't have room to keep them, so, one by one, I am putting the birthdays, anniversaries, obituaries, etc. on the web. If I can find the family on Rootsweb or Ancestry, I try that first. If they have a page on GenForum, it also goes there. And finally the paper heads to the recycle bin. I've posted hundreds of items so far and I'm amazed at the response I DON'T get. I would be thrilled to know a tidbit about any of my ancestors, so I will continue to do it on the firm belief that what comes around, goes around and my turn will come.