Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Digging in Newspapers for Context

While you can find all sorts of interesting tidbits about your ancestors in newspapers, don't forget to look for other topics that you can use to find out more about their lives in general. Were there any natural disasters that struck your ancestors' town? What might they have done for fun? The county fair seems to have been a big draw in Kalamazoo, as were the horse races. The circus came to town a few times. There were also 4th of July celebrations every year.

Several of my ancestors served during the Civil War. In the course of searching for other items, I found that there were many old soldier reunions for particular regiments as well as for Michigan soldiers in general. When they met, they often set up a large camp, drilled and even held mock battles.

One of my people, Ada (Wallace) Hoard Alger Miner Nelson Carr enjoyed dancing in the early decades of the 20th century. By searching in the paper I found articles about dancing ordinances that were enacted. Certain dances were even banned.

Henry Harrigan, my bad boy distant cousin, enjoyed gambling years before he killed a man in New York City while there gambling on the horse racing circuit. I found that “Gentleman Hank” decided to close his gaming establishment in Kalamazoo to move to the greener pastures of Chicago out of the goodness of his heart (his story, not mine). He claimed that he felt bad that men struggling to feed their families spent their hard-earned cash gambling. He denied that it had anything to do with the recent kerfuffle (and lawsuit) with a prominent Kalamazoo doctor over gambling losses. After a bit more searching I even found the gambling laws of the time published in the paper.

Don't forget about the times your ancestors lived in. Many things we take for granted began to impact them during the years covered by the Kalamazoo Gazette (as found at GenealogyBank). Electric street lights were introduced in a few locations in the early 1880s. Another important advancement was street paving, originally done with wood. Just imagine trying to move a horse and buggy down a street mired in mud after a heavy rainfall. Speaking of horses and buggies, the introduction of the automobile changed lives. One of my people actually died in 1911, months after sustaining injuries when she was thrown from a buggy after the horse drawing it was startled by an automobile.

The sky is the limit when you are looking for context. Almost any search term will yield interesting results. To start you thinking of your own list, here are some of the search terms I looked for: circus, gambling, horse racing, celebration, reunion, soldiers, flood, tornado, disaster, base ball, county fair, produce prices, dancing, street car, trolley, diphtheria, tuberculosis, etc.

Happy hunting!  To see what else you might find in newspapers please see:  Casting a Wide Net in Newspaper Searches, Digging For Dirt in Newspapers and Search Tips & Tricks

1 comment:

  1. I love looking in newspapers for my ancestors. You can find so much more than just names and dates. I found out that when my ancestor was about 8-9 years old in the 1870s, she was badly bitten by a dog. Another ancestor was giving the local police trouble when he drank a lot. Civil War items were also very popular. You can find even the lowest private mentioned sometimes.

    I recently wrote about what I found in newspapers about my ancestors in a blog of my own.

    Regards, Jim