One of the most underutilized, yet most readily available sources in American genealogical research is the local newspaper. As the American newspaper approaches its 300 year anniversary (the first regularly issued newspaper began in Boston in 1704), it is time that family historians paid more attention to these daily and weekly diaries of local and national events.
Newspaper Research Beyond Obituaries
Unfortunately, most family historians think only of obituaries when they consider newspapers in their research. Of course, we have already discussed using obituaries to track immigrant origins in a previous lesson. However, there are many other ways in which newspapers can help us in our research, and yes, even in learning more about our obscure immigrant ancestors including:
- Finding lost relatives
- Learning more about "Chain Migrations"
- Advertising for friends
- Obtaining copies of passenger lists
- Tracking down servants
- Departure lists in foreign newspapers
- Biographical details from supportive documents
Throughout their life in their new country, immigrants may well have been mentioned in the local newspaper for a variety of reasons. Usually they did not initiate the mention of themselves. Rather, other persons were looking for them.
Perhaps they were trying to find family or friends who had arrived earlier. Others were trying to locate a servant or apprentice who had escaped. Sometimes lists of newly arrived passengers were published.
These kinds of notices are not unique to this time period (middle nineteenth century). Rather, such notices are found at anytime a newspaper was being printed near where immigrants lived. Particular attention has been paid to colonial newspapers, perhaps because of the difficulty of colonial research, or the smaller number and size of such newspapers. However, the lack of other helpful sources during the time period currently being discussed, makes them especially useful if your immigrant arrived during this pre-Civil War period.
As we have discussed earlier, most persons who immigrate to a new country chose to move to that country because they had heard good reports from previous settlers. This created what is usually called a process of "chain migration." Thus, over the period of years, and even decades, friends, family, and neighbors from the same town or district came to a locality in the New World. Once arriving, they naturally wanted to find their former associates. Often they knew where they lived, or at least thought they did, after all, this was one of the reasons they emigrated.
However, North America is a land of great opportunity. Sometimes new immigrants, upon arriving at their destination, found that the very people they hoped to meet, and who would have provided them with shelter and perhaps even work, were not to be found. They had moved on. During the early nineteenth century, the communication network was not as developed as it became after the Civil War. Indeed, by the time of the Ellis Island passenger lists (1890s), immigrants had often had frequent contact with their "sponsor" in America.
In earlier years, that was not always the case. What is an immigrant to do after arriving in a large city, such as Boston, and not knowing where to find that friend or relative? Many persons took out advertisements in the local newspaper, seeking their friends. These advertisements described the missing persons in some detail, often indicating the town in the old country where they came from.
Advertisements for Friends
Thus newspapers, a common genealogical source for vital events, such as deaths, may also become a source for information about immigrants and their origins. The growth of published abstracts of newspaper items also includes volumes abstracting advertisements for friends and relatives who disappeared into the growing population of America. The most significant collection is likely Ruth-Ann Harris and Donald M. Jacobs, (later B. Emer O'Keefe), editors, The Search for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in the Boston Pilot (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1989--1996) whose five volumes covering 1831-1865 list about 25,000 Irish persons once thought to reside in the Boston area.
A smaller collection for Pennsylvania-Germans is Edward W. Hocker, Genealogical Data Relating to the German Settlers of Pennsylvania and Adjacent Territory (1935 rpt. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1981), although not all of the references in this source pertain to immigrants.
Sometimes these sources are included in collections of information from many other sources. Such is the case with Donald M. Schlegel's Passengers from Ireland (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1980) which includes many references of death notices and advertisements placed in early 19th century newspapers, along with more traditional passenger lists.
In some ports, the arrival of a ship full of immigrants from Europe was important news, so some newspapers printed passenger lists. Sometimes no official passenger lists survived, so these accounts may be the only record of arrival. If the local foreign population was great, this may be a featured part of the newspaper. For example, the New York City Irish newspaper, The Shamrock often made note of ship arrivals with Irish passengers (until the volume of arrivals became too great). A collection of such lists, accounting for 500 passengers who arrived between 1810 and 1812, was published in a 1982 issue of The Irish Genealogist.
Some immigrants were mentioned in newspapers because they had left certain obligations, notably servitude. Many immigrants paid for their way to America by selling themselves into an indentureship, a promise to work for a patron for a certain number of years, if he paid for their passage. Once in America however, a small percentage found their indenture not to their liking and tried to disappear into the growing population of the new country.
The persons for whom these servants worked wanted to get full value for the price they paid. Therefore, they were interested in getting these servants back, to complete their contract. In an effort to find these missing servants, the owners took out advertisements in the local newspaper.
Of course, not every servant ran away, and not every servant was an immigrant. However, a large number of servants in the Colonial and Early American time periods were immigrants. Therefore, such lists can help identify an immigrant. Farley Grubb's Runaway Servants, Convicts, and Apprentices Advertised in the Pennsylvania Gazette, 1728-1796 (Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1992) does not focus just on immigrants, but most of the servants and others mentioned in the advertisements were immigrants.
Kenneth Scott published a series of four articles in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (1976-1979) which excerpted information from the Pennsylvania Gazette (1775-1783) advertisements for runaways, deserters, missing indentured servants, slaves, and apprentices. Almost all of these persons would have been immigrants.
Of course, a newspaper announcement about someone who has deserted or run away from a contract is not likely to identify the immigrant's home town (even if the runaway was an immigrant). However, it will likely identify the person's country of origin, and at least place the immigrant in a specific place and time, and with a specific family.The following is an outstanding example from the Virginia Gazette of 21 July 1775 which provides significant detail, and in this case, does mention the immigrant runaway's home town:
"John Ecton Ducrect, a native of Berne in Switzerland, who speaks very good French and tolerable English and Italian. He is about 5 feet 9 inches high, pitted with the smallpox, and very swarthy, almost as dark as a mulatto; wears his own hair, with a false tail, and is generally powdered, being a barber by trade. . . . He has been used to travel with gentlemen, and will probably try to get into employ that way, or with some of the barbers in Williamsburg, as he was seen at doctor Todd's tavern, on the way there, the 22d ult. . . . Whoever secures the said convict so that I can get him again shall be paid the above sum [$20.00]."
Departure Lists in Foreign Newspapers and Magazines
Newspapers in foreign countries also can be very helpful. Especially during the nineteenth century, they often listed the local persons who departed for America, or other destinations. One outstanding example is the Luxemburger Gazette which, from 1871 through 1918, published lists taken from the local emigration agency. These published lists (later compiled into a book) include the name of the emigrant, age, town of residence, and their destination, as well as the ship and departure date. The tens of thousands of names preserved represent the vast majority of emigrants from that small country.
Clifford Neal Smith has been very active in searching German newspapers for mention of emigrants who had recently departed. For example, one of his many monographs lists about 1,000 young men taken from an 1807 Wuerttemberg government information sheet (like a newspaper). These men were declared missing, and it was assumed that most of them were clandestine (illegal) emigrants to America.
Many foreign regions publish magazines about their locality. On occasion, articles appear in these magazines listing local persons who had emigrated in past years. For example, the Zeitschrift des Bergischen Geschichtsvereins [Magazine of the Bergische (Wuppertal) History Society] included an article in its 1930 volume which named 61 emigrants, as well as many of their relatives.
One of the largest sources of such information is probably the Germanic Emigrants Register (Diepholz, Germany : Germanic Emigrants Register, 1992 and later). This is actually a microfiche index to a private database with a variety of emigrant records, and has more than 240,000 entries. Most of the entries appear to have been taken from newspaper emigration accounts.
Every family historian wants biographical details about their ancestors, but they usually settle for what is recorded in the major sources they use in their research. Often, when they have found a person's birth, death, and marriage dates and places, they push on to the next generation in their search.
Failure to search other sources, to learn more about our ancestors deprives us of truly learning about them, and of finding hidden clues to additional generations. Such research is especially crucial when dealing with immigrants, since we never know what source might mention a foreign home town. Newspapers can provide excellent detail about our relatives. Often they report on the same events (death, marriage, etc.) that we find in other records, but they may provide more biographical detail. This is why obituaries are such an important part of research for any ancestor. However, even other events noted in newspapers may provide important information.
Early in the 20th century, the Spokane, Washington Spokesman Review regularly published lists of marriage licenses, which included the origins of the bride and groom. On 25 June 1910, they published the license of Joe Kambich, a local boy, whose bride was Katica Frankovich, from Glavica, Austria.
Other newspaper abstracts or indexes may mention immigrants without specifically focusing on that group. For example, Jeffrey G. Herbert's Index of Death and Other Notices Appearing in the Cincinnati Freie Presse 1874-1920 (Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 1993) was not designed to locate immigrants, but as this was a German newspaper in a heavily German city, one would expect that a large number of the 38,000 entries pertain to German immigrants or their family members.
Gleanings from Maryland Newspapers
by Robert W. Barnes, in four short volumes covering 1727-1795, includes birth, marriage, and death notices. Many of them also provide evidence, sometimes including their date of arrival, that the person named (or his parent) was an immigrant.
Any number of circumstances may generate mention of an immigrant in a local newspaper. He may be elected to office, be accused of a crime, or be due an inheritance in the old country. In these and dozens of other situations, the newspaper, in its story about the subject, will often mention the person's immigration. They may, or may not, indicate the immigrant's home town, but until you find that reference, you won't know!
Locating Newspaper Accounts
Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive listing of newspaper abstracts which publish immigration information. Indeed, there is not even a good listing of the growing number of published newspaper abstracts. And further, while the publishing of newspaper abstracts is growing perhaps as fast as any aspect of genealogical publishing, the existing volumes are only a drop in the bucket, compared to the vast amount of information published in America's newspapers over the past 20 years.
This is one aspect of research that can be done by using your public library system. Often, the larger the library, the better the results. By starting at your own public library or local college library, you will need to obtain from your reference librarian a finding aid for newspapers. The goal is to find a library where your immigrant ancestor lived. Does this finding aid indicate who has back copies of the local newspapers on microfilm? What years are covered? Was it a daily or weekly publication and can your personal public library request a copy through Interlibrary Loan? Most newspaper research, for immigrants or any other topic, is accomplished by searching through copies of the actual newspaper. The vast majority of American newspapers are now available on microfilm, and you may be able to borrow a copy through your local library.
Does the finding aid list the ethnic newspapers for your immigrant's ethnic group? If the finding aid does not give you the answers to your questions, write a letter to the local libraries in the areas where your immigrant ancestor lived and ask them the same questions. You can also contact local genealogical and historical societies as well. Also ask if any newspaper abstracts were put together from those older issues and what years were covered. Many genealogical societies, historical societies, and public libraries with local history collections prepare indexes on cards or on computer relating to local newspaper abstracts. Is this the case in your area of interest?
By the time you have all of those answers, you'll know exactly what you want to look for. It doesn't even have to be for an immigrant. Now you can determine exactly what you want to look for and what events might be mentioned in these sources. For example, a local history may indicate the years when most immigrants arrived in that town or county. This could suggest a span of time for you to search.
But, where do you begin? Most persons begin with an obituary, but there may be other events. If you know your ancestor was an indentured servant, seek information during the time of his or her servitude. If relatives came to America after he did, look for their advertisements seeking him shortly after their arrival.
There may be an index to the local newspaper. Many such sources are noted in Anita Milner's Newspaper Indexes: A Location and Subject Guide for Researchers (3 vols., Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1977-1982). This source should be in a nearby research library.
Only a small percentage of immigrants can easily be found in published, indexed, newspaper abstracts, and many students may not have easy access to those publications, however the value of the information surrounding your immigrant may be as important as finding the actual immigrant. For more information about using newspapers in your research, read James L. Hansen's chapter "Research in Newspapers" in The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, edited by Loretta Szucs and Sandra Luebking (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1997).
- Contact the local library where your immigrant ancestor lived.
- Inquire about published newspaper abstract books, and also about back copies of the local newspaper on microfilm.
- Ask about the years covered by any abstracts, as well as the newspaper run.
- Find out if they have an index (on cards or computer) to local persons in the newspaper.
- Learn if it was a daily or weekly, and if the public library in your town can request a copy through Inter-library Loan.
- Ask if there were any ethnic newspapers for your immigrant's ethnic group.
- Decide who you want to look for, and what events in their life may have triggered mention in the newspaper.