Posted on

Genealogy in Old Newspapers: Virginia and Other States/Colonies

Colonial Newspapers Genealogy

Like their present-day counterparts, old newspapers are a great source of marriage and obituary notices. In fact, early newspapers are sometimes the ONLY source of genealogical information for a specific locality at a particular point in time. Since 18th- and 19th-century newspapers have not come down to us with their own indexes, it’s daunting to contemplate scouring them–whether in the original, digitized, or microfilm version–for their “buried” genealogical content. 

Fortunately, a number of dedicated genealogists have taken on the assignment of sifting through the complete run of various early newspapers to find these buried genealogical nuggets. In recent years compiler Joseph Lee Boyle has canvassed scores of 18th-century newspapers for the records of runaway indentured servants, and some slaves, who fled their masters throughout the Middle Atlantic colonies. Mr. Boyle has published those newspaper ads in no fewer than 17 substantial volumes: One for Virginia, four for Maryland, two for Delaware, two for New Jersey, six for Pennsylvania, and two for New York.  View Joseph Lee Boyle Titles

Other scholars, like Robert K. Headley, Jr. have chosen to capture all the genealogical content from various papers over a given period of time. As a matter of fact, for Mr. Headley’s magisterial work, Genealogical Abstracts from 18th-Century Virginia Newspapers, the author examined over 7,100 issues of 81 different papers. According to the author, most of the appropriate newspaper content included “marriage notices, death notices, estate sales and settlements, advertisement for runaway servants/apprentices/slaves or military deserters, and court cases. Death notices may be full-fledged obituaries loaded with data, or they may be long flowery articles saying nothing except how wonderful the deceased was, or they may be simple statements that ‘so-and-so died.’ Advertisements of estate sales can provide data on next of kin or relatives, location of property, date of death, and relative worth. Advertisements for runaways or deserters can be the juiciest of all. They can provide minute descriptions down to manner of wearing the hair, tattoos, clothing, and personality. They sometimes give place of birth, age, date imported, name of ship on which imported, occupation, and suspected destination. These records, indeed any record abstracted in this work, should be checked in the original source. There maybe very interesting and useful data that was not abstracted.”

Here are few entries from the Headley volume:

BASSTONE, Edward, hosier, born in Three Tun Alley, London, which he left about 50 years ago and was landed in Virginia and sold to one SHEPERD of Gloucester Co. for the payment of his passage; if he be living and will make application to O’Conner M’CRAMMUCK he will be informed of something greatly to his advantage. (The Virginia Gazette, 1 June 1775)

FULLER, Thomas, famous African calculator, died in Alexandria aged c. 80, he was owned by Mrs. Elizabeth COX and had been brought into this country at age 14 (The Virginia Herald and Fredericksbugr Advertiser, 16 Dec 1790)

HORTON, Tobias, capt. of a small schooner returning to Northumberland Co. from Norfolk, was murdered by two servants, Alexander JAMIESON, a Scot, and John SKERUM, Eng., on 4 Sep (The Virginia Gazette, 26 Sep 1745)

SEITZ, Frederick William, of Manheim, Germany, left London on a transport sailing for America in Aug. 1777 when he was 17; his aged father and unhappy family are trying to get in touch with him; any information is to be sent to the publisher of the Philadelphia Gazette or to Mr. Unich HENCKE, Secretary to the Amsterdam and American Post Offices in Hamburg (The Virginia Herald and Fredericksburg and Falmouth Advertiser, July 1797)

Besides the content itemized by Robert Headley, early newspapers also refer to lists of passengers, public officials, college graduates, members of committees of correspondence, and addressees of unclaimed letters, as well as other items of genealogical value. Below are a dozen other publications featuring genealogical information extracted from newspapers in North America and the British Isles. If you haven’t turned up that missing ancestor in other sources, you may just discover him or her up in one of the following collections: