The Importance of Using Newspapers for Research
Reconstructing a Family Member’s Life Story through Newspaper Research
As a family history researcher with almost twenty years of experience, I can say that genealogy research sites and online databases are better now than ever. And with all sorts of new technology designed especially for family researchers, online genealogy research definitely is here to stay. Original documents always will be the best evidence, but digital copies certainly make family research easier and faster.
One of my favorite types of online documents are digitized collections of historical newspapers. These chronicles of real life long ago offer much insight into family history. Without a doubt, microfilmed copies of newspapers maintained at local, state, and national repositories remain valuable resources for researchers everywhere. But reviewing microfilm remains a labor-intensive and time-consuming process. My personal preference is to review digital newspaper archives available online through subscription services, all from the comfort of my favorite chair. Subscription rates are relatively inexpensive, and the length of a subscription can be tailored to the specific and often short-term needs of the subscriber.
Old newspapers published throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries contain a plethora of personal, business, and social details about our ancestors. Central to the life of a community were the lives of its people, and often these lives were lived out in local newspaper articles. If a family remained in one specific area for many years, birth, marriage, christening, and death information is likely documented in local news accounts. These articles not only contain family members’ names, but names of the schools they attended, how they earned a living, and their religious affiliations. Marriage records and obituaries often contain valuable information, too, simply because names and relationships of close family members are listed. An important piece of data in an obituary is the name of the cemetery where the interment took place, a detail that may hint at the burial location of previously undiscovered ancestors. Prior to the 1990s, when cause of death became subject to various state privacy laws, obituaries routinely mentioned the illness or disease that ended the family member’s life. But changes in most state laws currently limit access to death certificates to only certain categories of close relatives.
Online research of digital newspapers is facilitated by functions that allow searching by name, date, and subject matter. One unique operation allows the researcher to navigate from page to page in the same manner that one “turns the page” of a hard copy newspaper, a feature that is particularly helpful when an article is “continued” on another page. Personally, the merits of online digital newspaper research surely outweigh the manual use of microfilmed copies. I must be honest, too, and say that all newspapers are not available online, and manual research may be the only viable alternative in piecing together an ancestor’s historical profile.
An example of developing a family profile from archived newspapers can be read on my genea-blog, Mississippi Memories, where I wrote a series of posts several years ago about Carlotta Nelson Fairchild. I first noticed Carlotta’s gravestone in the Goodman, Mississippi, cemetery where several generations of my own ancestors are buried. Although Carlotta’s maiden name was clearly identified as “Nelson,” her simple gravestone was located outside the Nelson family plot containing larger gravestones, surrounded by a substantial, century-old wrought iron fence. I soon noticed from gravestone inscriptions that Carlotta’s parents were Danish emigrants. A writer’s instinct may have caused me to “sense” that Carlotta Nelson Fairchild’s rather inconspicuous gravestone might be the ending to a story worthy of being told. With that in mind, I began to research and write a series of posts about the woman and the New Orleans widower she married.
Carlotta Nelson’s story began when she was born in Goodman in 1874, but when she married Louis Fairchild, a New Orleans cotton broker and local entrepreneur, her small-town life changed to one of wealth and privilege. Over a period of months, I researched census records and online archives of the long-time New Orleans newspaper, The Times-Picayune. As I read dozens of articles scattered among the society pages, I discovered amazing details of Carlotta’s life as a young New Orleans matron, married to an astute businessman and stepmother to his older children. From newspaper accounts, I learned that Carlotta gave birth to a daughter, Christine Nelson Fairchild, the only child from her marriage to Louis Fairchild. Additional news accounts documented marriages of the older Fairchild children and births and christenings of their children. Newspaper articles written over several years allowed me to follow the family to Waveland, Mississippi, where they spent summer vacations at their Victorian cottage near the Gulf of Mexico. Sadly, I learned that a married, older daughter died young and that Louis Fairchild died while Christine was still a child.
As I wrote the story of Carlotta and her family, I wondered how many other family stories are hidden away in newspaper articles, just waiting to be told.