A few people who read my last blog post asked me how John Colletta determined the weather conditions on the day his 1860 Mississippi ancestors got married. Answer: the newspaper. You can find all kinds of interesting details to flesh out your memoirs and family histories in newspapers—the smaller, more local these newspapers, the better.
For example, I’ve found my Iowa Parrett ancestors mentioned frequently in the Fairfield Ledger. They were farmers, living lives that were not particularly newsworthy, but not much newsworthy happened in rural Iowa towns in the 1800s! So reporters went out and interviewed the locals about the number of hogs they were planning to sell at the auction and whether the rainy weather had damaged their crops, gathering human interest information that could illuminate your stories about your ancestors’ lives.
I found one article that reported wooden sidewalks were being installed in downtown Batavia, Iowa. That meant an end to the aggravating dust and mud that dirtied the long skirts of ladies who came to town to shop! Now that’s an interesting detail I can use in my description of the daily life of my Parrott folks.
Some newspapers post the minutes of City Council meetings. These are great sources for “gossip” about local problems and planned solutions to situations that may be troubling to your relatives.
I enjoy looking at the advertisements in small town newspapers, enjoying the descriptions of job offerings and sure-fire cures for mysterious ailments. You can learn a lot from these ads about the culture and commercial opportunities available at that time and place.
Newspaper Archive Sources
So, how do you find newspapers from the locales that interest you? It used to be you had to go to that location and dig through the archives at the newspaper office, local library, or historical society—which, frankly, is how I accessed those Fairfield Ledger articles. But that was over a decade ago. Now those same Ledger articles are posted online! I discovered them just the other day when I was looking at what new had been added to Iowa’s Jefferson County website. Of course, not every county has as many historically minded volunteers as Jefferson County. (They’ve been good to me over the years!) But it’s worth checking outyour county through www.usgenweb.com to see what’s posted.
Both Ancestry and Footnote have searchable newspaper databases—Footnote covers over 300 local newspapers—but both respositories require paid subscriptions. GenealogyBank provides an extensive searchable collection of old newspapers for a fee–$9.95 for a 30-day trial. After that they offer a variety of subscription packages.
I recommend checking out the National Digital Newspaper Program, an ongoing project formed by a partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Library of Congress, and state projects to provide enhanced access to United States newspapers published between 1836 and 1922. The database is growing.
Cyndislist is another good place to start. Her newspaper link provides a long list of tantalizing resources.
Memoir Writers Can Benefit
This is not just for ancestral research. Those writing your own personal histories could benefit from researching newspapers from the locale where you grew up. Most of us were too preoccupied about “kid things” to be aware of what was going on in the larger community. Reading local newspapers from your time period will likely spark ideas for stories you can include in your memoir or flesh out and enrich with local color the stories you’ve already written. Maybe you’ll even discover what the weather was like that Christmas you got your Schwinn two-wheeler!
If any of you have discovered useful online newspaper sources, please let us know.