Public Announcements and Advertisements

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Using Newspapers in Family History

This article is part of a series.
Overview of Newspapers in Family History
List of Genealogical Information in Newspapers
Vital Statistics in Newspapers
Local News
Biographical Sketches in Newspapers
Legal Notices in Newspapers
Public Announcements and Advertisements
Immigration Information in Newspapers
Slave Information in Newspapers
Reunion Information in Newspapers
How to Find Newspapers
Searching Newspapers
Religious Newspapers
Ethnic and Foreign-Language Newspapers
List of Useful Newspaper Resources

This article originally appeared in "Newspapers" by Loretto Dennis Szucs, FUGA, and James L. Hansen, FASG in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy


Paid advertisements, common from the beginning of newspaper publication, chronicle the products, housing, transportation, dress, and reading habits of our ancestors. Particularly relevant for the genealogist are advertisements about insolvent debtors, forced land sales, educational opportunities, and professional services.

Early newspapers frequently carried touching advertisements from worried relatives who had lost contact with loved ones. These ads often provided the missing individual's personal description, clothing description, last known whereabouts, and the destination, if known, of a lost traveler. For example, the Pensylvanusche Berichte of Philadelphia, on 22 June 1759, ran the following notice in German. This translation comes from Hocker's Genealogical Data Relating to the German Settlement.

Nicholas Emrich, Allemangel, Albany Township, Berks County, inquires for his two sons, and one daughter. The older son, Valentin, is married; the other son Friedrich, is single.

These notices were particularly common in papers that were directed to a particular immigrant group. For example, the New England Historic Genealogical Society has issued several volumes of The Search for Missing Friends; Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in the Boston Pilot, covering the period from 1831 to 1876 and an expanded CD version covering the years 1831 to 1920. In a similar project, the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society published Voices of the Irish Immigrant: Information Wanted Ads in the Truth Teller, New York City, 1825'1844 in 2005. Transcribed and indexed from New York City's first Catholic newspaper by Diane Haberstroh and Laura DeGrazia, the Truth Teller ads mention names of several thousand immigrants living all over North America and nearly 1,000 places of origin in Ireland.1

The following is an example from the Boston Pilot of 9 February 1867 and excerpted in The Search for Missing Friends:

Information Wanted: Of Mrs. Mary O'Connor (maiden name Mary Shanahan) and her sister Catherine Shanahan, who came to this country about seventeen years ago; when last heard from about 9 yrs ago, was living in New Orleans, LA. Any information of them will be thankfully received by their sister, Margaret Shanahan, who came to this country in May 1866 and is anxious to hear from them. Address Margaret Shanahan, Holyoke, MASS.'New Orleans papers please copy.' An advertisement of 16 February 1867 adds that the sisters were 'natives of the parish of O'Dorney, county Kerry.'

Common, too, were notices that horses and other property had been lost or stolen, claims against estates, and even announcements by irate husbands like this one in 1776:

Whereas the Wife of Joseph Cartwright having eloped from him sundry times, he requests all persons not to trust her, as he will not pay any debts she may contract.
Joseph Cartwright

One wife defended herself vigorously in the Boston Evening Post in 1762:

I find in your last Monday's Papers that my husband informed the Publick That I have eloped'and that I run him into Debt, and has given a Caution not to Trust me on his Account. Although I am very sensible that neither he or I are of much Importance to the Publick, for he has no Estate to entitle me to any Credit on his account; yet I desire you to be so kind to me, as to let the Publick know That I never run him in Debt in my Life, nor never eloped, unless it was to Day Labour, to support me and the Children, which I am of necessity Obliged to do; and shall be ever glad to do my Duty to him, and wish he would for the future behave to me in such a Manner that I may do it with more Ease than heretofore.
Mary X. Wellington

In some cases, stories like that of Mary Wellington may lead to court records, but even when they do not, news items of this nature can shine a light on the circumstances under which our ancestors lived.

Historical Perspectives in Newspapers

Whether or not you have an interest in genealogy, old newspapers are a fascinating source for reading about life as it was in another time and place. Headlines easily lure us into every part of a newspaper page, making it very hard to stay focused on research goals.

Most newspapers, large and small, included news from other places, especially as it related to the interests of the local population. An interesting example is from the Adams Sentinel (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania), published 13 September 1826.

According to the population returns of Ireland for 1821, there were 820,757 children between the age of five and ten; and between the ages of five and fifteen, 1,748,663. According to the education returns, there are 569,073 children receiving the advantages of instruction. If we suppose the scholars to be confined to the ages between five and ten, there must be, therefore, 351,684 children totally deprived of its benefits; or, if we suppose the pupils to be confined to the ages between five and fifteen, there must be 1,179,590, or more than two thirds of the whole number. In Massachusetts, according to the recent returns, there is only one in two thousand of the adult population who cannot read, and in Connecticut the proportion is nearly if not quite as favorable.

Another interesting example comes from the Ohio Repository (Canton, Ohio) 4 April 1849. Although the article does not name individuals, it alerted readers of a potential problem with forged land warrants'a problem that carries forward for those now researching the same historical warrants for genealogical purposes.

FORGED LAND WARRANTS.'The Philadelphia American says that the number of forged bounty land warrants now in existence, it is asserted by one who has some acquaintance with them, is extremely great, and there is need of caution by those who purchase them.

Almost every newspaper contained articles boasting of the very latest in technological advances. A sample from the 18 July 1853 edition of the Adams Sentinel (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) included this item.

On Friday last, at 4 1/2, p.m., Samuel Lawrence, Esq., was in Boston, having left Lasalle, Illinois, at three o'clock, Wednesday, p.m., preceding. He came by way of Chicago, looked in upon Cleveland, called at Buffalo, was sped over the plain by the '˜lightning express' train to Albany, and whisked over the Western and Worcester Railroads to Boston! Once, and within the memory of the middle-aged man of this day, Buffalo was considered quite '˜out west.Chicago, but yesterday, was a '˜far-off-land.' Now, a merchant shakes hands and bids good-bye to his customers 180 miles west of that, and in two days and one hour and a half'greets his friends in Boston! It is in fact only eleven hundred and fifty miles!

Even very early newspapers contained fascinating information about groups and individuals. Published within a quarter of an inch of each other, three brief items from the Ohio Repository of 18 June 1819 contain clues for the family historian. The three sentences show emigration patterns that may help determine future search strategies.

On the 21st ult, a caravan consisting of 11 covered wagons, 2 coaches, a number of single horses, and about 120 persons, under captains Blackman and Allen, crossed Powles Hook Ferry, on their way to the state of Illinois.
In one week there arrived at St. Andrews, Maine, two vessels, with 600 passengers from Ireland.
Upwards of 200 passengers lately arrived at Quebec, from England; and 320 arrived at St. Johns, N.F. from England and Ireland.

Newspapers in later years often provided personal details about locals who were visiting or had moved to another place. After the San Francisco earthquake, a headline in the Brooklyn Daily Standard Union of 22 April 1906 noted: 'William Gray's Family is Safe'Receives Telegram From His Son, Who Is in the Stricken City. Has 27 Relatives There.'

Not all useful newspaper information was published immediately after an event. Historical features, columns, and articles that describe events of the same date ten, twenty, or fifty years previous can all provide useful information. Frequently, papers published special historical issues to commemorate both community milestones and notable anniversaries of the paper itself. These special issues frequently contain a wealth of historical information gathered from many sources. For some communities, they are the only published history.

Just as useful may be the regular historical column published over several years by a dedicated local historian. These columns, which often range widely, frequently contain biographical and historical information recorded nowhere else. Sometimes local libraries or historical societies, recognizing the importance of such a series, will have clipped the columns and organized them in scrapbooks; sometimes they have been gathered and published in books or pamphlets. When using these columns from a secondary source, it is wise to check the newspaper files to be sure all of the columns were included.

The 'ten, twenty, or fifty years ago' columns are also worth reading. In addition to providing reference to otherwise unconsidered events, they sometimes preserve information from newspaper files that may have later been lost. One such item that appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Standard Union on 24 June 1906 included a history of the First Reformed Church. The article tells 'the remarkable story of the old Dutch landmark in Flatbush, naming many of the people who played prominent roles in its establishment and early years.' The article moves on to the churchyard and epitaphs therein, some of which were etched in Old Dutch. As the few newspaper transcriptions were made a hundred years ago, it may be that the stones themselves are no longer legible. The birth and death of a young girl are expressed in Dutch in a way, the paper says 'which characterizes that somber grace and tenderness which has forever passed away.'

The Ohio Repository on 19 May 1852, had a 'Looking Back' column that took stories from old timers. Some of these old timers' recollections are priceless. First hand accounts of people who witnessed history are preserved in newspaper stories from the earliest times, and continue to this day in all parts of our country.

Under the heading of 'Pioneer History,' a lengthy column recalls the fascinating events of a criminal trial that took place under the most primitive conditions. 'The first court in Painesville was held in Captain Skinner's barn, in 1801, sometime after it was removed to the opening, now Painsville, where there were but a few houses.' The story recounts a number of most unusual circumstances of the trial and how the jurors retired to the woods to agree upon their verdict. Except for the newspaper account, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to understand the judicial process that played out in the earliest years of the country's history.

Military Draft Information

In certain places, during certain wars, some newspapers published military draft information. As more and more newspapers are indexed, digitized, and placed online, the chances of finding these gems are greatly increased. When individuals do not show up in other military sources, newspapers may provide the only way of understanding why. Those who were exempt for disability, were over age, or who furnished substitutes and others can sometimes be tracked through newspaper accounts.

An enormous project of the volunteers of the Brooklyn (New York) Information Page is the posting of newspaper items from old Brooklyn newspapers. This group has worked for years to transcribe several of the daily papers there. A posting from the 19 November 1863 issue Brooklyn Daily Union that can be found in the archives of that site included a sample of a Civil War clipping. Under the heading of The Draft in the 3rd District, the following decisions by the Board of Enrollment were reported:

Held for service'Hy. C. Burr, and John ML Stueinger
Furnished Substitutes'Wm. A. Huggins furnished John J. Riley;
John Dimons furnished R. Durheim,
John M.S. Stenrinzer furnished John Fritz
Exempted by Disability'Thos. Brambick
Over age'J. Hood, Ed Hackett, Dan Mullen
Paid $300'E.R. Thomas
Non-resident'G.F. Cook
In Naval Service'Henry Foster, Phil Ketten
Aliens'David Barry of 83 Gold Street; Thomas R. Gagot, 163 North 2nd, Garrett Moote, 91 Gold Street.

How many of us would have ever thought to look in newspapers to find out which of our ancestors were eligible for the draft, and which ones paid $300, or furnished someone else to serve in his place?


Coming soon...

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