Tuesday’s Tip: Local History News Alerts

This past weekend, there was a huge celebration in the town of Easton, Md., surrounding the placement of a sculpture of Frederick Douglass in front of the Talbot County Courthouse. Douglass once gave a very famous address on the steps of that courthouse.

The events this weekend got me thinking about the likelihood of similar events taking place in towns across the country. With all of the patriotic holidays during the summer, there are many celebrations of local and national history throughout the country during this season.

Local newspapers tend to preview such events with articles about area history. What a great way to learn about the hometowns of your ancestors! Might your ancestor get a mention? Here’s one way to find out: set up a Google News Alert for your ancestors’ hometowns and add keywords like ‘history’ to the search string.

Use the AROUND operator to make results more relevant. When I did a search for “San Antonio” and “history,” the results weren’t what I’d hoped for. I changed the search string to ‘”san antonio” AROUND(5) history’ (meaning where ‘history’ appears within five words of ‘San Antonio’) and got much better results.

You can add other keywords to the search string too. Were your ancestors farmers? Miners? Play around with other keywords to narrow your results.

I had trouble getting relevant results from one of my searches. You can click on Advanced Search to narrow the results by source location OR by coverage of a certain location.

I tried out a Google News search for one of my ancestral hometowns, Elizabethton, Tenn. I typed ‘Elizabethton Tennessee history’ into the search bar. The results varied from calendar items for workshops at local history landmarks to an article on local sports history. I set up a news alert so that future articles about the area come to my attention.

When you set up the news alert, you are presented with a number of options that will affect the results you receive. You can have the alert cover everything from blogs to video. I usually select “Everything” from the Type drop-down menu. Likewise, I also select “All Results” under Volume.

I have dozens of news alerts set up for my day job, and I find it can be overwhelming to receive all of those emails. Since I already have Google Reader set up for keeping track of genealogy blogs, I elected to receive these local history updates in my feed there, rather than receiving still more email.

Don’t forget to navigate around the Google News results using the menu on the left. I hit Archives and found articles about presidential candidate Herbert Hoover visiting Elizabethton in 1928. Another article, from 1957, detailed the homecoming of conjoined twins (joined at the head, no less), who had been successfully separated just in time to return home for Christmas that year. Note that some of the archive hits may require payment to view the full article, depending on the publication.

None of these stories involve my ancestors, but what great snapshots of local happenings over the years.

It also pays to search for county names and not just town names. I found this article on a flood that swept through Elizabethton (spelled ‘Elizabethtown’ in this article, which is why it didn’t show up in my previous search) in 1901 by searching for “Carter County.” Surely my ancestors were affected by this flood.

Another interesting find was this reprint of a letter by Abraham Lincoln.

Another bonus to performing these searches is you may discover newspapers you didn’t know existed. This could lead to more fruitful searching later on.

Dear Mr. Lincoln, I Think We May Be Related…

In preparing a blog post involving Carter County, Tenn., I found this fascinating reprint of a letter by Abraham Lincoln, to a relative who had written him inquiring as to whether they may be related. The article, which originally appeared in The New York Times, can be downloaded as a PDF at no charge.

Stay tuned on Tuesday to see how I found this little treasure!

Wordy Wednesday: Friends Album Update

Well, I’ve done it! I’ve found a living descendant of a subject in the friends album. I haven’t contacted him yet. I’m still figuring out what I want to say.

Friend No. 12 (Ellis B. Wilson)

In the meantime, I’ll share some tidbits from a major clue that led me to the grandson of Ellis B. Wilson (I’m withholding the grandson’s name to maintain his privacy). Over the weekend, I decided to search the Hartford Courant archives to see if I could find Ellis’ obituary (previously, I found his FindaGrave memorial, which provided me with his date of death and the names of his two wives). Other records had confirmed for me that Hartford was the place to search for his obit.

The Courant’s archives delve back into the 1700s. The paper does charge users for anything besides a brief abstract of its older articles, but after failing to find the obituary through other free resources available to me (and resources that I already pay for), I decided it was worth the nominal fee to get the details that his obituary would divulge.

From Ellis’ obit, I learned he was known as “Mr. American Legion Baseball,” having established the American Legion Baseball program in Connecticut. I also learned that he died while on vacation in Treasure Island, Fla.

The obituary named his daughter and her place of residence at the time of his death. This allowed me to find more information on her, which led me to her sons including the one I know still to be living.

I think I’m going to wait until I’ve finished going through the entire album before I contact Ellis’ grandson. I’m still hoping that I’ll find other descendants of other known subjects in the album. This could lead to a dilemma. My original goal was to return the album to descendants of those pictured after I realized that many of the photo subjects belong to the same family. Now, it appears that I may identify descendants of unrelated subjects. I’m loathe to split up the album, at least right now. But if Ellis’ family doesn’t have this picture of him, how I could I not send it to them? Dilemma!

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“Ellis B. Wilson, 77, Dies; Legion Baseball Pioneer,” The Hartford Courant (1923-1984), Jan. 30, 1971, p 4: ProQuest Historical Newspapers Hartford Courant (1764-1985); (http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/courant/advancedsearch.html : accessed 26 March 2011).

It Always Pays to Re-Search

Dear Reader: Do you think you are related to the individuals listed in this post? Please drop me a note! I love hearing from cousins and others researching my family!

I’ve been through Ancestry records too many times to count, but I find that it’s always fruitful to go back and repeat searches for folks I added to my family tree ages ago. Today’s finds:

A 1904 mention in the Washington Post of a lawsuit in which my grandfather, a physician, was suing an individual, presumably a patient, for $639.42.

A 1910 mention in the Post in an article detailing the inspection of a new milk plant in the D.C. area; my grandfather was one of 100 physicians and other medical personnel invited to tour the facility.

A 1911 Washington Post blurb about recent car sales. My grandfather had just purchased a Model 35 Buick Roadster. According to the American Automobiles web site, the 1912 Model 35 sold for $1,000. An ad for the vehicle is available online.

A 1915 Washington Post announcement that my grandmother would be one of many women assisting at the College Women’s Club’s presentation of “Color in the Home.”

Another 1915 Post article about a University of Pennsylvania alumni dinner that my grandfather attended.

Alert readers will note that all of these items come from the same source. I found them by drilling down into the various categories of records returned among my search results. This helps to separate the wheat form the chaff, bypassing all of those unrelated census records, etc., that always seem to clog up the first few pages of top-level search results.

All of the above items add colorful details about my grandparents’ lives and also a jumping off point for discovering more records (especially regarding that lawsuit!).

52 Weeks to a Better Genealogy: Online Databases at Your Public Library

I’m just squeezing in this week’s challenge:

“Online databases at your public library. Search your library’s web site and see if your card grants you access to online databases. Libraries (even small ones) often have wonderful online tools including genealogy databases, historical newspapers and more! Take some time and play with these little perks that come with a library card. You just may get some help in your own genealogy research and gain some free research tools to boot. If you don’t know how to access online library databases or you’re not sure if your branch has them, ask a librarian for guidance. If you have a blog, discuss which databases (if any) to which your library subscribes.”

I constantly turn to the online databases available through the Talbot County Free Library, especially their genealogy and newspaper databases, most of which I can access from the comfort of my own home using my library card number.

Here are my go-to resources offered by TCFL:

  • HeritageQuest Online: provides access to census records, books and articles, Revolutionary War files, Freedman’s Bank records and the U.S. Serials Set.
  • Sanborn Maps of Maryland: great resource for viewing historical maps of towns across Maryland.
  • Archives of the Easton Star-Democrat newspaper via Newsbank (I only wish these went back further).
  • Archives of the Baltimore Sun via ProQuest.

I also can access the databases available through the Caroline County Public Library. When I did research in their Maryland Room, I registered my TCFL library card with them so I could access their databases too.

Their archives of the Denton Journal through Newspaper Archive are spectacular and have provided much needed clues for some of my research projects.

Obituaries: Researchers Beware

This blog post is in response to the blog prompt for Week #46 as provided by Amy Coffin at We Tree (via GeneaBloggers): “Comment on obituaries in your collection. Obits come in all shapes and sizes. Share some of the stand-outs with readers.”

My lessons learned after writing, reading and relying on the information made available in obituaries includes that they can be chock full of useful information: next of kin, parents, burial information and of course, major life events, but they are not the most reliable sources.

I am a reporter by training and have written several obituaries, both for relatives and for complete strangers*. Not all obituaries are written by professional journalists, however (and much to my chagrin, even when they are, errors can be edited in later). Many obituaries are written by relatives of the deceased — they may or may not have gone through the rigors of checking original sources of the information listed in the obit. In fact, it’s not impossible to imagine that many may gloss over some facts in remembering the life of their loved one and they may, inadvertently or not, introduce errors into the listing.

Before she passed away, my mother requested that I be the one to write her obituary. This I did, including the names and places of residence for her surviving family members, including her three younger sisters, all in the state of Virginia. Even though I typed the information for the obit and emailed it (in copyable/paste-able form) to the newspaper for inclusion, the state of residence for my youngest aunt was printed as California and not Virginia. Sigh.

Another obituary in my collection is for my great-grandmother, Della Hayes. I had always assumed that her maiden name (Crow) was spelled with an ‘e’ on the end because that is how it was listed in her obituary. All records I have found since then point to a spelling without an ‘e.’ Similarly, her mother’s maiden name also appears to have been misspelled in the obituary (Gorley instead of Gourley, as I have found in other records). Whether these spellings were provided by the family incorrectly or were printed incorrectly for some other reason, I do not know.

Of course, not all obituaries are so error-ridden and they are good starting points for finding facts that should be confirmed through further research.

*Obituaries are often the first things that budding reporters learn to write. Therefore, I found everything had come full circle during my final stint as a reporter (I decided not to pursue a career in journalism shortly after graduating from college). My final article as a general assignment reporting intern at the Viriginian-Pilot‘s Virginia Beach bureau was  the obituary for G. Dewey Simmons, a minister who hailed from that area. He had gained notoriety by performing wedding rituals in unusual places, including one ceremony underwater. On my last day in the bureau–the day the obituary appeared in the paper–I had a voicemail on my phone. It was his daughter, in tears, calling to thank me. She said it captured his life perfectly. I can’t think of a better way to end my reporting career.

Interesting side note: the major news services pre-write obituaries for major public figures so that when these individuals do meet their demise, it is simply a matter of adding the details of death before posting on the wire.  I learned of this practical, if morbid, procedure while touring the Knight-Ridder library at the National Press Building during another reporting internship in college. It’s often the newsroom librarians who compile the facts for these canned pieces, before they are polished up by the reporters.