Friday, November 26, 2021

A Rant About Really Old Newspapers


Why can't archived newspaper collections contain the complete holdings of a given newspaper? What's up with gaps in publication dates? Why does the very date I want happen to fall in the cracks of those missing editions? And more to the point, what do you do when you are researching a name as common as Martin Williams, and run into not one but two conflicting reports about death—but can't locate the original report to provide confirmation? 

Here's the situation. One helpful Find A Grave volunteer indicated there was a Martin Williams buried in Elk Point Cemetery, South Dakota, after his supposed death in 1882. A record of the order for a headstone for this Civil War veteran reported "M. M. Williams" had died on April 1, 1897, and sent the completed marker to the same Elk Point Cemetery.

As if to clear the air on this research dilemma, yet another Find A Grave volunteer transcribed an obituary for a Martin M. Williams who had died in nearby Hand County, South Dakota, but was buried at Elk Point Cemetery on February 3, 1896.

If all three of these entries were concerning the same Martin M. Williams, which date was correct? My tendency was to go with the newspaper report, but we all know how easily editorial errors can slip into newsprint.

The solution? Find the actual newspaper edition to see for myself. That, however, is easier planned than executed. The trouble with archived newspaper collections is that no one repository seems to have the entire breadth of a publication's history.

My first stop was to check Chronicling America, the U.S. Library of Congress collection of newspapers published across the nation throughout its history. Using the website's search engine, I could locate the publication in question easily enough—I was looking for The Pioneer Press, printed in the city of Miller, county seat of Hand County, South Dakota.

The problem was, I couldn't isolate the specific edition identified by the Find A Grave volunteer, printed on February 6, 1896. Smart me: I thought I'd experiment with using the website's advanced search function, but it told me the one thing I've become accustomed to discovering.

That date was not in the Library of Congress collection.

I could, of course, go one by one through each of the companies I subscribe to for archived newspapers—not to mention the resources for accessing newspapers for free—but I've done that before and know how frustrating it can be. So I cut to the chase and brought my question to Google—the search engine, not the newspaper collection. No more navigating gaps in collections for me.

As it turned out, GenealogyBank provided my answer, confirming the wording of the text added to Martin Williams' Find A Grave memorial. In addition, I found a "Card of Thanks" inserted below Martin Williams' obituary, signed by Mrs. Williams and Mrs. Beggs, stating

We tender our sincere thanks to the many friends who have so kindly rendered assistance and extended their sympathy during the last sickness of our beloved husband and father.

The one regrettable detail in finding Martin Williams' obituary—and confirming it with the digitized image of the original publication—was to see the list of his survivors. According to the Pioneer Press, Martin Williams left "a second wife, a son and daughter to mourn his loss." While the article never mentions the son's name, nor Martin's wife's name—that, supposedly, would be improper to do during that era—it does inform us that the daughter was a "Mrs. Beggs of Chicago."

Whoever that "Mrs. Beggs of Chicago" turns out to be, she becomes the key to confirming whether this Martin Williams was one and the same as the father of Eugene Williams, maternal grandfather of our Maude Williams Woodworth.



  1. I want to know how you searched Google to find who had the newspaper issue? What were your search terms? I have this probably all the time. I think, with really old newspapers, the missing years are just that--missing, before they were ever microfilmed. It is so common in the south. Were these old papers used as tp?

    1. Used as tp? Lisa, you have a creative mind!

      For the search terms on this one, I already had the details laid out for me by the Find A Grave volunteer who carefully listed the original resource, so that is what I used for the search terms. Also, let me say I am in love with using quote marks to delineate exact phrases. So, in this case, my search terms were "Pioneer Press" "Hand County" "Martin M. Williams" (and maybe I also threw in "South Dakota" in case there were other places called Hand County). I didn't specify any one website resource because I didn't want to limit the search any more than I needed to. And it came up as my first hit. Talk about convenient. If it weren't for being spoon fed the actual obituary transcript, I probably would have had to play around with search terms (like "Martin Williams" with and without the middle initial).

  2. Really helpful - both the post and the answer to Lisa Gorrell's question.

    1. Lisa, glad you found it helpful. There is a world of information out there, tucked away in cyber-nooks and crannies. Sometimes, search engines are the only way to find those treasures.


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