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From the Green Valley News, Friday 2 November 2007, page C2

Genealogy Today, by Betty Malesky

Newspapers to the Rescue (Part I)

Newspapers have played an important role in American society since colonial days. The solutions to some of our genealogical problems are often hidden in the pages of early newspapers.

America’s first continuously-published newspaper, The Boston News-Letter debuted on April 24, 1704. The first death notice ever printed on this continent is likely the sensational story in the News-Letter reporting the demise of Blackbeard the Pirate.

A native Englishman, Blackbeard had terrorized shipping lanes off the Colonies’ southern coast since 1713. Finally tracked down by the British Royal Navy in a North Carolina inlet, a brief and bloody battle ensued and Blackbeard was killed on 22 November 1718.

By the end of the 18th century most areas of the country had access to at least a regional newspaper. Subscribers eagerly awaited news of shipping, politics, crime, and local issues. Classified advertisements broadcast notices of auctions, runaway slaves, disobedient wives, sales of farm produce and livestock. Patent medicines to cure every imaginable ailment filled several inches of every issue.

A typical notice was that placed by Dr. Gaius Smith in The Vermont Gazette on 11 January 1786: "All persons who are indebted to the subscriber, either by book or note, are required to make immediate payment, in cash or wheat, or expect to account with Isaac Tichenor, Esq."

Early obituaries were one-liners, giving only name, date of death and sometimes age unless the deceased was prominent in the area. On 12 December 1794 The Vermont Gazette reported: "Died. Mr. Lorentus [Smith], only son of Dr. Gaius Smith, in the 17th year of his age." In the mid-nineteenth century, obituaries began providing more detail, especially in smaller communities.

Marriage announcements started to appear in the mid 1800s. Wyoming County, Pennsylvania did not require marriage licenses until 1885, but I found the marriage of my ancestors, Gardner Carr and Polly Vosburg on 31 December 1854 recorded in the North Branch Democrat on 10 January 1855. As photography advanced announcements included a photo of the bride, named the couples’ parents, education, and employment, and often a list of wedding guests.

Similarly, birth notices were published with the sex of the child, birth date, and parents’ names in many community newspapers. When the trend caught on, hospitals in major cities regularly notified the newspaper of all births within their facility during the previous week.

Placing birth, marriage and death notices in a newspaper has always been voluntary and until the past few years, generally free of charge. In the 19th and early 20th century such notices were inserted primarily by middle and upper class members of society. Soon announcements were published routinely because subscribers enjoyed reading about their neighbors. Society columns appeared reporting special events, birthday and anniversary celebrations, family reunions and family visitors, graduations, trips taken by locals, and other topics of interest to readers.

Next month: How to locate newspapers and find your ancestors in their pages.

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