Finding Family: Was Your Ancestor in the News?
Finding family in newspaper stories
One fun and easy search is in historic newspapers. My 2nd great grandfather, Charles Denney, started his first job in America at the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Utah. Hired May 14, 1867 at the age of 17, he worked for a dollar a day. He swept floors, fetched copy from the telegraph office, washed rollers, and sawed and chopped wood to keep the presses’ caloric engine going. As a result of his hard work, he advanced quickly to the job of compositor (setting type) and after a 33 year career at the newspaper, he retired. How do I know? He penned a letter to the editor of the Deseret News 17 years after he retired, which included these rich details, and more. I discovered it when I searched his name in Google News, an archive of scanned historical newspapers.
Where my search led me
Charles Denney wasn’t famous. He was a regular guy, for a Mormon, and yet, I found a wealth of information in news articles that spanned his lifetime. I found Denney birth and death notices, marriage announcements, and a news story about the Denney’s Golden Wedding Anniversary. He was also a member of the Beekeepers Association and Microscope Society, was awarded ‘best shot’ in the territory, and grew Peerless potatoes on his farm, each weighing in at 3 ½ pounds. He was shot at, acted in plays, sang in choirs, was robbed at gunpoint, and protested his taxes.
Famous or infamous
You might find a tell-all story. Charles Denney served time in the Utah penitentiary. Who knew? As it turned out, he was arrested in a raid of the Salt Lake City’s Eleventh Ward on charges of cohabitation (polygamy). One of the local newspapers, The Tribune, printed a scathing story featuring my grandfather called, “The Lawbreakers”. I discovered several newspapers that followed his trial, where he was found guilty and sentenced to six months.
Where do I begin to find my family?
Were your ancestors in the news? There is an ongoing effort across the nation to digitize historical newspapers, and make them freely available, via the internet. Google News has digitized newspapers dating back as far as the year 1700. Check out “Chronicling America”, a growing archive of newspapers made available from grants from The National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP). Try the “Internet Archive”. With newspapers from all over the world, it is a great source for finding family. Follow the links I provide below, dig through a few historical newspapers online, and see what you find.
Newspapers offer a wealth of historical background and insight
What if your family didn’t make the headlines? My 3rd great grandfather from Ireland didn’t. The newspaper that served his county doesn’t once mention Henry Cliffford, however, I learned from several local news stories that folks back in the early 1800s didn’t like the Irish. Even if you don’t find your ancestor by name, newspapers still offer a wealth of pertinent historical background and insight about the area where your ancestor lived.
One more tip, or I should say warning – once you start reading old newspapers, you won’t want to stop. If you know of other places to find historic newspapers, please link them in the comment section. Until next time, have fun searching! Please leave comments, and links to sites where you’ve found family news below!
Check out these links for finding family:
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Image. Salt Lake City tithing office and first home of the Deseret News ca. 1870s. It was located on the corner of Main Street and South Temple where the Hotel Utah (Joseph Smith Memorial Building) is now. In the early years of the LDS church, members rarely paid paid tithing (1/10 of total earnings) with money. More often, they paid in livestock, dry goods, or a portion of their crop. This was all stored at the tithing office yards and distributed through the Deseret Store. Courtesy of Utah State Historical Society