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Newspaper Notices and Genealogical Research

Learn what genealogical information to look for when perusing old newspapers.

In this article, you will find:

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Newspaper Notices and Genealogical Research

A Baby Was Born!

Some of the nineteenth-century newspapers published a special column of birth notices or mentioned them in community columns, although they were not prevalent. Columns became more popular in the early and mid-twentieth century. They were brief: “A daughter Mary was born to John and Martha Smith of Smith Twp.” Such a notice might provide you with the first name of the mother if you didn't know it (and sometimes even her maiden name), the township, or other small bits of information you did not have.

Wedding Vows

Marriage notices were—and still are—popular newspaper fodder. First, perhaps news of the engagement was published, often with photos. Next, the couple may appear in a column of wedding licenses issued. This column usually lists the name of the intended bride and groom, their ages, and perhaps other significant details. After the wedding, there may be an article with a full description of the event and, again, a photo.

The language and details or the editorial commentary in earlier newspapers was much more intimate than we see now. In a description of the wedding of one young woman, the newspaper reports, “It was intended that the father would give the bride away, but at the last moment he faltered, as it was more than he could do.”

Silver and golden wedding announcements generate news. If you have the marriage date, add 25 or 50 years, determine where they may have been living, and check the newspaper. You may be rewarded with a photo and names and residences of close family members. There may even be a bonus: a wonderful description of the attire, the presents received, details of the original wedding, and relatives who came from afar to share the occasion.

Christenings and More

If you can identify the religion of the family, watch for church columns. The baptisms, confirmations, and other church news may provide you with another source of information on your family. Perhaps your grandfather was an elder, or Grandma taught Sunday school.

Love Gone Awry

When a couple separated, the husband sometimes published a notice to absolve himself of legal responsibility for the wife's bills. We think of this as a more modern legal maneuver, but it actually was used very early. When Ezekiel Rose and his wife separated, he published a notice: “Whereas Mary Rose, the wife of me the subscriber, has left my bed and board, without any just cause, I therefore caution all persons trusting or in any manner dealing with her on my account, as I will not be answerable for any debt she may contract, or any dealing she may make, after this date.” It was signed by Ezekiel Rose in Hampshire County, March 15, 1794, and published in the Potowmac Guardian and Berkeley Advertiser of Martinsburg, [West] Virginia, now preserved in the collection of The American Antiquarian Society. Without this notice, you might assume when reading the will he made in 1818, omitting any provision for a wife, that he was a widower, though she actually survived him by 10 years.

In the late nineteenth century, in a moment of poetic inspiration, one husband submitted the following notice to The Standard of Jackson County, Ohio: “Mr. W. S. Williams of Illinois, announces that his wife, Ann Eliza, having left his bed and board without cause, he will not be responsible for any debts she may contract.”

    “Ann Eliza, Ann Eliza,
    Once I loved but now despise her,
    And So I no longer prize her,
    I will go and advertise her,
    For although I'm not a miser,
    I won't pay for what she buys her.”
Advertisement of land for sale.
Advertisement of land for sale.

Sale of Property

These notices can be charming. And explicit. The executor of an estate is perhaps advertising the deceased's property, or the sheriff is selling a tract at public auction because of debt or taxes due.

In the figure, the land commonly known as T. Rose's Old Place was advertised for sale in the Maryland Herald of Hagerstown, Maryland, on 3 March 1819. The description includes details that are just about impossible to find in other sources.

In a different matter, a lengthy advertisement was published in the issue of 17 September 1817 of the Adams Centinel in Adams County, Pennsylvania. Being sold was the following:

    Valuable Grist or Paper Mill Seat or any other kind of Water Works with 18 feet of head and fall, situated on Conowago Creek, in Franklin & Menallen townships, Adams county, three quarters mile from John Arendts Tavern, on the Road leading from Pine Grove to Gettysburg, with a LOT of 12 acres of land whereof 7 are excellent timothy meadow clear—the remainder is well covered with Timber. The improvements are a new two-story log dwellinghouse, with a back shed to it … for terms of sale, apply to the Subscriber living on the Premises.

It was signed by John Mackley. The precise description in the advertisement enabled the family to locate the piece of land.

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