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  • Hot Topics: Farm for Sale: Finding Family History in Early Nineteenth-Century Newspapers

    John C. MacLean

    Published Date : October 1, 2004

    A Farm for Sale” read the headline of an 1821 advertisement in the Middlesex Gazette. As readers looked through their weekly newspaper, they paused to see whose farm was up for sale. Was one of their neighbors moving? Was it the farm of someone who had died? As they read the ad, they soon discovered that it was the substantial farmstead of their recently deceased neighbor, Abner Wheeler, a local housewright who built many of the homes in the Concord, Massachusetts, area. Descended from some of the earliest families of Concord, Abner was born in 1745, the son of Benjamin and Rebekah (Lee) Wheeler. He had grown up on Concord’s Virginia Road before establishing his own farmstead on the same road in neighboring Lincoln. Today, Abner’s lands are no longer farmed, and his house and other buildings are no longer standing. Still, the 1821 advertisement continues to provide a descriptive, visual image of what his property was once like:

    “a FARM, lying in the north part of LINCOLN, containing 130 acres of good land, consisting of mowing, pasturing, tillage, and old and young orcharding, grafted fruit—a large two story house, seven rooms on a floor, all well finished, wood shed and shed leading to the two barns—together with a joiner’s shop, two stories high, and other out buildings: good water for the house and barn; it being the Farm of ABNER WHEELER deceased.”

    Years later, the January 22, 1880, issue of the Concord Freeman offered an amusing if uncertain anecdote that prior to April 19, 1775, “Mr. Abner Wheeler used [to] often brag of what he would do if the British came, but the old colored woman [from a nearby house, while out spreading the word that night that the Regulars were coming,] on her way to give warning, found him hiding in the woods.” However bravely Abner appeared on that momentous day, he later served in the American Revolution, going to Fort Ticonderoga the following year.

    Abner Wheeler was but one of the many thousands of individuals who appeared within a most interesting, but quite often overlooked source for family and community history: early nineteenth-century newspapers. Although local news was generally not that extensively covered in the newspapers of that period, perusing them can provide a strong sense of the times and of the place where an ancestor lived. While smaller towns did not have their own paper, you will generally find a newspaper from a nearby town that contained material on the surrounding communities.

    Your ancestor might be mentioned in any of the following articles: lists of individuals who had mail waiting for them at the post office; coverage of Bible societies’ Temperance activities, or political events (the political coverage often showed a strong editorial bias); shipping news in coastal papers, sometimes including information on ship owners and captains; and seasonal coverage of county agricultural fairs, perhaps listing those who won awards. Resources that are particularly valuable for family history include marriage and death announcements and the numerous local advertisements.

    Marriage and Death Announcements

    Newspaper entries are sometimes the best available sources for dating a marriage or death. That is often true for Boston, as Boston vital records were very incomplete in the early nineteenth century, while New York and other areas did not formally maintain this data as public records until later in the century.

    Similarly, if you have found marriage intentions listed in the local vital records, but not the marriage itself, you might particularly want to seek out a newspaper entry. With my own family, the vital records of Roxbury, Massachusetts, list the May 6, 1832, marriage intentions of a third great grandaunt, Louisa Bossuet, to Daniel Kyberz, but the marriage itself is not recorded. The May 26, 1832, issue of Boston’s Columbian Centinel reported their marriage in Roxbury. Taken together, these two records establish a range within which the marriage took place.

    Except for the death of a minister, long obituaries were rare in this period. Although most death notices were brief, some contain valuable details such as the decedent’s age or where the person had previously lived. By the 1830s, they would sometimes record interesting details on Revolutionary War veterans, such as the partly inaccurate death notice from Concord’s Yeoman’s Gazette of November 24, 1832:

    “In Woburn, 2d inst. [instant: the current month] Mr Job Miller, aged 82. Mr Miller was a native of Charlestown. He promptly obeyed the first call of his country, in the memorable affair of Lexington, at which he, with his father and a brother were present. On the morning of the battle of Bunker Hill his father was wantonly shot dead at his side by a British soldier, as they stood at the door of their dwelling.”

    As always, such accounts must be checked: the father, James Miller, was actually killed on April 19, 1775, and other traditions provide variant accountings of his death.

    An index to the marriage and death listings that appeared in the Massachusetts Centinel (1784 to 1790) and the Columbian Centinel (1790 to 1840) can be found in the microtext department on the fourth floor of the NEHGS, where those newspapers can also be viewed on microfilm [marriages - Microtext F73.25/A44; deaths - Microtext F73.25/A45]. Prepared by the American Antiquarian Society, the Index of Obituaries in Massachusetts Centinel and Columbian Centinel and the Index of Marriages... is also available in print or fiche form in other libraries or through Family History Centers. Other books for this period at the NEHGS Library range from the Index of Selected Obituaries: Kennebec Journal 1825-1854, Oxford Observer 1826-1828, Oxford Democrat 1833-1855 [1977, David Colby Young, F16/Y66/1977] to the Index of Marriages from Buffalo Newspapers, 1811-1884 [1999, June P. Zintz, F129/B8/Z56/1999 also LOAN], and the multi-volume Vital Statistics from New Brunswick Newspapers, which begins in 1784 [1982, Daniel F. Johnson, CS88/N43/N48 also LOAN].

    Marriage and death notices abstracted from a number of New England and New York newspapers and periodicals are found on the NewEnglandAncestors.org website. A list of those newspapers currently available to members is found here. Newspapers often reported marriages and deaths from outside their local area, and even beyond the state, so you should not confine your search to local papers alone.

    Many entries only contain basic information. An example is the 1827 death notice excerpt from The Boston Recorder and Telegraph for my ancestor: “BOSSUET, Dr. Joseph, 81, d. at Boston. Oc. 19.” In using these listings, it is important to note that “Oc. 19” was the date of the issue in which the death notice was printed, not the date of death. Joseph had died just six days earlier, on October 13, 1827, but in many cases the newspaper notice appeared well after the person died.

    Fascinating entries can sometimes be found, such as the following, also from the 1827 Boston Recorder and Telegraph:

    “DOLIVER, Joseph, of Salem, seaman on the brig ‘Crawford,’ had his throat cut by pirates and was thrown overboard on a voyage from Matanzas to N. Y. News item. Je. 22”

    Other listings provide simple, but important, added details, such as the example below, which helped to confirm that, yes, even though he is living in a different town, this is indeed my Josiah Bridge.

    “BRIDGE, Dea. Josiah, 45, native of East Sudbury and late of Lancaster, d. at Lowell. Fe. 16”

    Advertisements

    Some of the most interesting local news during the early nineteenth century is actually found in advertisements. These include listings for the sale of a house or farm, such as that of Abner Wheeler. Should you find, through probate or deed research, a date when a property was purchased or sold by your ancestors, you might want to check local newspapers for the months prior to the sale to see if there was a descriptive advertisement for that property. Even if you do not find a listing of your ancestors’ land, you will probably find advertisements for farms your ancestors would have known, a local tavern they may have frequented, their local store and its shop goods—advertisements that bring an enhanced understanding of your ancestors’ community and life.

    Another group of useful advertisements dealt with people. Many advertisements in the Boston Pilot, a Catholic publication with a broad circulation, were placed by Irish immigrants seeking to find a relative or friend; these very informative sources were originally compiled in book form, and are now available on the CD, The Search for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in The Boston Pilot, 1831-1920, which can be purchased from the NEHGS Online Store.

    Newspapers also included occasional advertisements for young apprentices in a trade, or a father might give notice that his underage son had gone into business for himself, and that the father would not be responsible for the son’s debts. In slave states, there were frequent advertisements for runaway slaves.

    Newspaper Resources

    One of the primary limitations on the use of newspapers, and the edification their advertisements provide, is an inability to access the material. The United States Newspaper Program has begun identifying and microfilming newspaper collections, and cataloging them in a national database maintained by the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), available through the WorldCat database service (contact your local library, or see the OCLC website for more information on the database).

    The leading center for newspaper research is the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. They initially specialized in newspapers through 1820, but the collection now goes through 1876. The collection contains newspapers from all fifty U.S. states and Canada, as well as other countries. Further details on their collection can be found on the newspaper page of their website, including a link to a listing of their newspaper holdings on microfilm. Some of their collections are also available at university and other libraries on microfiche or microfilm through the Early American Newspaper Series, with plans for placing digital images online.

    On the United States Newspaper Program website you can find links to state-by-state listings of other newspaper collections that have been microfilmed through the program, along with their primary repository in each state. For Massachusetts newspapers, for example, the primary microfilm repository is at the Boston Public Library (BPL). Information on the BPL’s collection is available on their website's microtext area, including a searchable listing of their holdings.

    An increasing number of newspaper images from the early nineteenth century can also be accessed online through subscription services such as HeritageQuestOnline.

    Free sites with digital images of newspapers include the Brooklyn Public Library's Brooklyn (NY) Daily Eagle (1841-1902) archive, and the Archives of Maryland site, featuring Maryland newspapers dating back to 1728. Irish newspapers are available at Otherdays.com, accessible free to NEHGS members with research memberships and above through a link at NewEnglandAncestors.org.

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