Thursday, February 1, 2018
Read it in the Newspaper
When researching the lives of our ancestors, we generally head first for those landmark dates on the family timeline: dates of birth, marriage and death. After that, our attention turns to listing the children, and the whole tango starts up again. Birth, marriage and death, and then flip to the next generation.
But what about the lives lived in between those three dates? We can't really get a feel for what our ancestors were like if we limit ourselves to "just the facts, ma'am."
That's when I like to turn to newspapers—especially for those not-so-rich and definitely not-so-famous forebears. For my ancestors fortunate enough to have moved beyond New York City or other major metropolitan areas, hometown newspapers sometimes provide a wealth of knowledge—with a dose of trivia thrown in for good measure.
Now that I'm working on a photo project for someone else's relatives—I'm trying to return an orphaned photograph that I found in a northern California antique shop to the family of Forrest and Clara Barnes—I've found myself stuck with a lack of helpful details. So, I turn to the newspapers, once again.
My first goal was to find any information on where Forrest and Clara Barnes' daughter Alta might have ended up. I found out she was buried back in Cowley County, Kansas, where the family once lived, but I hadn't been able to find an obituary there.
Of course, my first step had been to Google Alta's married name, Williams. With a surname as common as that, I made no progress. Beyond that, I knew there were some other options for free resources for newspaper archives. Granted, Wikipedia provides a list of archives which are accessible online. So does Google News—worldwide.
The trouble is that some lists are so huge as to be nearly useless. And, as you probably noticed, some lists include incredibly delimited collections, such as online resources which only cover a span of ten years, for instance—not terribly helpful when the date needed falls just one year shy of the collection's offerings.
The same drawback applies to the U.S. Library of Congress' Chronicling America collection. As wonderful a resource as it is, the coverage is spotty, both by date and by location. And that's just for newspapers in the United States. A collection like that found via Elephind expands that headache worldwide.
Perhaps that's why some researchers prefer a curated list, but that often comes with a price tag. The Old Fulton New York Post Card site, for instance, has plenty of coverage—and for free, the best news—but its quirky setup and focus on the northeastern United States (and a bit of eastern Canada) can't be of help to everyone.
The comparative convenience may be what draws researchers to subscription services, like NewspaperArchive or Newspapers.com. But even here, people find that the year they are seeking is not included in the holdings, or the small town in Kansas isn't in the collection, making the investment less of a research bargain than once hoped.
I've learned to look for whatever help I can find. That's why I'm impressed with the passionate approach taken by bloggers like Kenneth R. Marks, whose newspaper research lessons take new researchers through the steps on locating targeted relatives, and whose regularly-updated 25,000 hyperlinks to free newspaper resources help convert the overwhelming into the kind of haystack where you just might find that genealogical needle.
While I do subscribe to a few newspaper archival resources, I try first to locate what I'm seeking through a free medium. In Alta's case, though, I just wasn't finding any leads. So I headed to one of those subscription resources—in this case, GenealogyBank—where I finally found what I was looking for.
Still, it was like uncovering a consolation prize. The details weren't extensive. Basically, Alta Barnes Williams died on Saturday, March 7, 1998—but where? The two named survivors were her son, by then moved to Oregon, and her daughter, who lived in Oklahoma. Besides them, there were three unnamed grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. None of them seemed to have a California connection, leaving me still to wonder just how the photograph of Alta and her two sisters might have ended up in that Jackson antique shop.