Old Newspaper Fascination

June 6, 2010 at 11:59 am 2 comments

This week I went to the Tennessee Genealogical Society to do some newspaper abstracting from a couple Tennessee counties around 1875. I had just taken some history classes in college, so I was fascinated in what was going on in this old newspaper compared to what was going on in the world at this time.

I had not read a few pages into 1875, when an article about a new school in Utah being started called Brigham Young. I had attended this college in the early 1980’s and was surprised to find an article in Tennessee about this school in Utah back in 1875. Immediately after that, it talked about the “big” organ the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints had.

Each edition of the newspaper had a “world” section. One paper talked about the death of President Andrew Johnson’s wife. She died January 15, 1876. There was an article on a ship wreck in Sicily where over 200 passengers died. One article was about a man in Virginia whose sheep were getting killed. He poured poison on the sheep and the next day 31 dogs were found dead near a dead sheep. These were things that were important to our ancestors and the editor decided to include in the newspaper. I had never thought of my ancestor’s in the 1870’s keeping up with world events, but in Tennessee they were!

Most of the time I was looking for articles that listed names that might benefit someone doing their family history. A couple of court cases I read were interesting. One man had committed murder in 1874, and now in 1875, the courts ordered his execution to be conducted. The same held true for a man convicted of killing his wife three years earlier, 1872. The orders ended in the statement, “both are to swing August 13.”

Land boundaries were documented by the beginning of one man’s land and the end of another landholder. When lands were sold in the paper, it gave the owner’s name, the lot being sold, and those landowners the lot was bordered by. Tax lists gave the year of the county tax taken and who paid. The society page had short clips on birthdays, marriages and deaths. Parties were mentioned and those who were in attendance were named.

Another part of looking at this old newspaper that fascinated me was looking at the advertisements. It was interesting to see the types of things being sold and for how much. Lawyers put ads out about their court cases coming up, lands going for sale and laws being enacted. Information on current agricultural events were done in ad format as well. Some items commonly found in ads were bottles of tonic to make you healthy and treat epilepsy and the sale of sewing machines. In fact, it seemed to me the paper had more advertisements than actual articles. You got a feeling for who was important in a particular county as their names seem to repeat week after week in the paper.

A great project, especially to do with your children, is to find ancestors in your family and make note of the year they lived. It really does not matter if you are in the actual county they resided as world events were written about in most counties of the United States. Go to your local library or genealogical society that carried older newspapers. There are also databases online that have old newspapers. Look up newspapers that were during the time of your ancestor and see what was going on in the world at the time they lived. Think about the impact it may have had on your ancestor. Do you think they sat around the table during dinner and talked about world events? It is interesting to think and learn about the things going on years ago during our ancestor’s life.

See my previous article Using Newspapers for Genealogy for more helpful information.


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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Nancy  |  June 14, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    When I first started using newspapers I searched for only and exactly what I wanted to find – usually obituaries, sometimes marriages or accidents. Lately, though, I’ve started reading other sections — and it takes me forever because I always find at least 18 interesting articles in every edition. I was surprised to see some articles about the Saints in Utah. One told about the tabernacle being built. Another article published years later in the summer, announced that the prophet said it was fine for men to wear shirt sleeves to church, that a suit was not necessary.

    I especially like your suggestion that world events were the same no matter the city or state where an ancestor lived, so no need to search only the hometown newspaper.

    Great post. Thanks.

  • 2. Deborah Andrew  |  June 27, 2010 at 9:48 am


    I am not a regular follower of your blog but found you from Sheri’s posting at http://sherifenley.blogspot.com/2010/06/its-good-to-be-witch.html. I find your posting very interesting and can relate to it a lot.

    I have a 2nd great-grandfather that “eloped” from Green County, Kentucky with his wife’s sister to parts unknown in 1872. Growing up I had heard this story numerous times, but when I started doing research I found out that it had made a paper in Louisville. Not really surprising because of how close the areas are and reporters of the time trying to fill space.

    However, I was shocked to find that his exploits had actually made the newspaper as far away as California!

    Possibly another reason the story was shared so far away is the scandal that was involved. Because he not only left a wife, my 2nd great-grandmother but their 7 children and she was pregnant with twins, one of which was my great-grandfather.

    Anyway, I just wanted to add a note of how far a news story could travel “back in the day.”

    I really enjoy your writing style and will count myself as one of your followers.

    Keep up the great work.


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