Newspapers are a good source for genealogical research

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Having worked at a weekly newspaper for more than 22 years, I use newspapers for the majority of my research.

Newspapers can be a great source for a researcher, but they can also be a frustrating source. Some newspapers began publication early and had long lives, while others were short lived, fading away after only a few months and leaving no trace of what was printed.

In the 1800s competition was fierce between newspapers with some small towns having several publications, much like the community of McHenry in southern Stone County. During its boom era in the late 1800s and early 1900s, McHenry was home to four newspapers and that with a population of a little over one thousand.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The first successful newspaper in America was the Boston News-Letter, begun by postmaster John Campbell in 1704. Two more papers made their appearance in the 1720’s, in Philadelphia and New York.  By the time of the Revolutionary War, about two-dozen papers were published throughout the colonies. Articles in colonial papers were often of the political nature and local news was rarely, if ever, recorded. By 1850 there were 2,526 titles catalogued by the United States Federal Census and newspapers began to gradually add local content, along with illustrations, sketches and photographs.

The earliest papers rarely printed death notices, marriages, births, etc. Random articles about the death of a national figure may appear on the front page of the newspaper, but the death of a local figure, no matter how well known, was often passed without mention. After all, everyone in town would have already known the person had died.

During the 1870s, newspapers began to increase local news, especially those newspapers covering small towns and communities. Editors and publishers quickly began to realize that they would sell more papers if the reader could read about themselves or their neighbors.

Often births, marriages and deaths were published in week-by-week accounts of the comings and goings of the people in the community in “local news” columns.

Many times there was a charge to publish an obituary, unless the deceased was a subscriber, and depending on his or her financial status, the obituary could have read, “John Doe died on the 15th….,” or it could have filled an entire page in the newspaper.

Mississippi’s first newspaper was the Mississippi Gazette. Since its first publication in 1799 at Natchez, more than 2,000 other newspapers have called Mississippi home. Today there are more than 100 newspapers published throughout Mississippi’s 82 counties.

When searching for information on a particular ancestor, it is important to learn the communities and counties surrounding the area in which he or she lived. It is common to have a search subject appear in a neighboring county’s publication, as is the case with my great, great grandfather’s obituary. Daniel Webb lived his life in Jackson County, Miss., but while searching for Daniel in former and current publications in Jackson County, I could find no evidence of his existence. Once I broaden my search I found his obituary in the Democratic Star, printed in neighboring Greene County in 1889.

Researchers in South Mississippi should also search early papers in both Alabama and Louisiana. Large publications such as the Times-Picayune of New Orleans, La. and The Mobile Register of Mobile, Ala. often published news about the communities, businesses and people of south Mississippi.

Next week, I will continue with the topic of newspapers and the numerous online sources for historical newspapers and the wealth of information that can be found in them.

Editor’s note: If you are considering researching something in a previous edition of your local newspaper, your local library may have bound copies. Although, keep in mind that access to older bound volumes is sometimes restricted due to their fragile nature.

By Heather Anderson