Friday, July 8, 2011

Letting Newspapers Report Your Family Story

In one of the first posts for this blog, I mentioned that I was widowed. Today happens to be the day that reminds me of that event—and prompts me to remember all the genealogy research I did on that family line before the internet streamlined things.

A good deal of the material I found in researching that first family line still lies tucked away in those inevitable storage boxes. The convenience of “cut and paste” had yet to be invented when I first looked up my Bean, Woodworth, Sowle and Brague lines.

I did, however, have the blessing of a wonderful resource for my search: the state archives and library. Quite a few of the families in this line had been resident in California since 1850—I suppose you could consider them native sons—and that particular institution included a collection of every newspaper ever published there since statehood. While the index left a wee bit to be desired (at that time, it was still on index cards), I thumbed my way through endless names of the rich and famous and managed to find mention of my husband’s forebears despite their relative obscurity.

In newspapers from Fresno, California, I found clues as to why one of the city’s main streets bears my husband’s great-grandmother’s maiden name (her brother-in-law was head of the city’s department of highways and named the road for her father, William Shields—perhaps at the same time ingratiating himself to his in-laws), and read the sad story of the elder Shields’ unexpected demise. In newspapers from Redwood City, California, down to the pettiest details, I read the court reports of divorce proceedings for this same great-grandmother and her husband (she claimed spousal abuse and gave such evidence as when her husband threw a cup and saucer at her at the breakfast table; he retorted that this was because his wife had poured scalding coffee on him instead of the coffee cup).

Of course, there were the birth announcements, the engagement stories, the obituaries—all in one place, the state archives, I was able to find so much more than just documentation of the usual vital statistics. It was amazing to step into another era where “newsworthy” took on a totally different aura.

Whether your state maintains such a handy archival collection for your genealogy research or not, online resources have made research so much easier—and more satisfying—than the way things used to be. Don’t bypass the opportunity to discover what the local papers were saying about your ancestors.

If you are unsure of what resources are out there, or how to use them, a good webinar to check out is Legacy Family Tree’s upcoming session next month. Featuring Thomas Jay Kemp from GenealogyBank, the August 17 webinar is entitled, “Newspapers for Genealogists: Using to document every day of your ancestors’ lives.”

The goal of this webinar is to broaden your horizons in exploring the genealogical value of newspapers. Tips and techniques for mining those many personal-interest newspaper mentions will be given, as well as hints for searching other historical resources.

I’ve had a grand time, ever since my archive-searching days, gleaning little gems from local publications. These slices of history provide a clearer picture of the lives my ancestors lived, and I’m so glad to have been able to access them.

Whether you started out like I did—crawling around the bottom shelves of dusty archives in pursuit of that missing edition the card catalog insisted was really there—or from your laptop while you are flopped on your comfy couch or lounge chair, be sure to include this source-document type of research when piecing your family story together. The ease of modern computer-assisted searches makes the speed and ease of such endeavors so much easier, but whether easy or hard, it is definitely worth the effort to find your ancestors in print.

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