Newspapers are a wonderful genealogical source, we all know that, but one of the main reasons I suspect they still remain untapped for many of us is how difficult and cumbersome they are to research. Although commercial enterprises like GenealogyBank and public efforts like Chronicling America aim to make newspapers more accessible, I must say I often find trying to sort through the digital morass just as much of a struggle.
I luckily (or crazily?) have a microfilm reader in my home that I purchased from Ebay years ago and newspapers are one of the types of time-killing resources that benefit from this. I purchased several reels of microfilm of the local paper (the Savannah Courier) from the Tennessee State Archives. This paper covered Hardin County, TN, one of my research areas.
I thought I’d post examples of the variety of genealogical jewels that I’ve found in the pages of the Courier. There are things that you simply won’t find anywhere else.
There are the expected death and marriage notices, well before state mandated vital record-keeping, but there were lots of other things that stood out to me as I perused the pages. This is a small, very rural farming Southern community, and I was surprised to see things like a regular column on high fashion and periodic articles on international news–even serialized fiction stories. The ads are in and of themselves a telling source of social history–you see all the medical potions and crack “cures”, stoves and sewing machines, the local country stores and their wares and the schedules and prices of the steamboats that plowed the mighty Tennessee river. As you travel across time (1870s-1930s in my case) you see the changes in life brought by the advent of the car and other technological advances (especially the car–people crashed all the time!). Farming was a major theme, with articles on animal husbandry and the latest crop techniques.
Local news was big–seemingly every action a person took was “monitored” by the paper. Short trips people took (“Tom Jones went to Paducah today for a week to visit his mother”) illnesses (“John Reed is stricken with small pox and has been quarantined”) and even visits to the city of Savannah (“Mssrs. John Holt and Sol Bradley were in town today.”). I suppose the nature of a small town is just that–you pretty much know everything everybody is doing. If not, the paper will sure tell you;).
The quality of the copies varies, but hopefully, taking a look at some of these article clippings (and yes, this post is LONG) will inspire you to check your local newspaper if you haven’t yet. I suggest giving yourself a timeframe (perhaps an hour at a time) as not to destroy your eyes. I also recommend my friend Tim Pinnick’s excellent book, “Finding and Using African-American Newspapers“, and be sure to subscribe via his website to his new email newsletter on using Black Newspapers.
Savannah Courier Clippings (the year of each post is stated in the caption)
I found postings from local courts that I used to locate court documents. This also illustrates that if your locale had fires that destroyed records, newspapers can still provide some of that information:
Look at all the black organizations I found evidence of. I couldn’t find data on these anyplace else:
There were short periods of time where very small articles covered the black community. I would expect this to be different for different locales. In Savannah, one of the black areas was called Newtown–thus the Newtown “Dots”:
While deaths of white locals were almost always covered, only periodically were deaths of blacks noted:
Fairs were always a big deal in rural areas, and the “colored” fair was no different and was noted every year:
Hints at emigration can be found in the paper. This one I believe included some of my collateral ancestors–I wish it would have stated names!:
As can be sadly expected, lynchings were often noted and the period of the late 19th century was particularly brutal. The first one is my gggrandfather’s brother. Notice how they said it was a “suicide”:
And this ominous editorial snippet in the paper reads to me like a threat:
By 1908, at least some on the community were obviously not in agreement with the methods of the “Night Riders”, but the very fact that it shows up so much as a topic tells me it was a problem:
The crash of the titanic was a huge story in 1912. It was interesting to read this story after having seen the movie:
This snippet hinted at the possibility of a semi- interracial celebration in 1919 for World War I soldiers. Everytime I read this I wonder if my great-grandfather Lawson Holt was there. It also notes the ‘Holtsville’ glee club, Holtsville being a school started by my ancestor John W. Holt.
I found lots of information on black teachers and black schools every year:
By the 1930s, they were printing lists of people who had lost their land to tax sales. How useful is that for us!:
Indicative of the times, minstrel shows were a big part of entertainment:
A few were pretty humorous to me, with my 21st century sensibilities. This one talked about the nuisance of people letting their hogs run loose in the city:
And my personal favorite–this poor man, a minister, has to announce that his wife has left him:
There is lots of other information I found on the black community (on churches and ministers, for example) but I hope what I have posted has encouraged you to take that dive into these valuable records.