I have decided that from time to time I need to share some of my thoughts and ideas gleaned from fifteen years of genealogy experience. I know I am still an amateur compared to many researchers, but I do hold a rather unique position, in that I investigate the history of a town and its people. Others are wise enough to stick with one or the other as their hobby! So, as I have been putting the final pages of my latest book together it occurred to me that one of the advantages of my type of research- gleaned mostly from old newspapers- is that I am able to gather much more than facts and dates. Through the events documented in the paper I can put together bits and pieces of an ancestor’s personality. I can imagine them playing cards or going to the theater with friends or working on a project with their neighbors. I love knowing that my great-grandfather was quite outspoken about politics. I chuckle when I read that Charley Ellis always kept a fresh potato in his pocket to ward off rheumatism. I sympathize with the whole town when I read of how many people died during the flu epidemic. I cheer their efforts to raise money and supplies during WWII.
If you are working on your family tree I encourage you to read about the community your ancestor resided in and to look for clues about their daily lives. You may even be lucky enough to find their names in church, school, entertainment, or sport pages. If you are using an online search system be sure to use variations of their names, especially initials. Early papers were set by hand and always short on space. They assumed everyone was well-known in their community and wrote about S.A. McCoy or I. Schaffer, or Mrs. Brown, rather than use full names. I sometimes start a search with only the surname.
Many libraries still keep microfilm copies of local newspapers even if the library is not associated with a genealogy or historical group. And don’t overlook the holdings of any colleges or museums. I would even ask friends and family about newspaper clippings. My mother kept five complete issues of the local paper (1940s) because they contained articles about our family. And she had several scrapbooks with clippings.
It’s one thing to know that according to the census your great-grandfather lived in Caddo in from 1900 to 1910. It quite another to know that he lived on Buffalo Street, testified in the Hinsley murder trial, attended the Confederate veterans’ picnic, belonged to the Masons, went to the Methodist Church, and enjoyed a masquerade dance. So don’t overlook the wonderful treasures you can find in the newspapers.
BTW, here is a list of the families included in my new book, which will be out next month: