FamHist Blog

Family History Research Hints and Tips

The Execution of Small Town Newspapers

If your part of the world is like ours, less ink and paper is being published that has any resemblance of the community that existed in small town newspapers of days gone by.   Electronic media is probably the main culprit but coupled with corporate greed (need?) to ever increase the bottom line, their demise has been assured.

Scene18 Newspaper organizations are laying off employees, reducing the number of pages in print by half and are becoming generic given that here only seems to be ten or so newspaper journalists remaining in the world.  Everything on the page seems to come from a common pool of articles created by one or two news organizations.   Pool all the daily and weekly articles together and the price per word goes down when you shop from the same trough.

Today, we rarely read about weddings, golden anniversaries, missionaries and who visited whom.  Instead, the news organizations have created “Community Posts” sections on their websites.  These sections were supposed to replace the hard copy weekly publications that we’ve loved for generations, but alas, they are nothing more than headline grabbers from the normal paper sprinkled with an occasional community concert, play or scout activity notice.

Gone are the papers we loved for generations.  Gone are the informative articles that were like manna to genealogists.

Looking back through my own research, almost all of the ‘knowledge’ about the lives and personalities of my ancestors came from small town papers.  At first glance, I thought that their surviving letters and notes probably had the edge, but on closer inspection of my files, it quickly became apparent that my memory was wrong.

I love touching my collection of letters and notes because my ancestors touched and created them.  That alone has a big impact on how I perceive them as data mines and probably biased my thoughts that they provided the majority of the personality facts about my ancestors.  In truth, most of my knowledge about them came from the thousands upon thousands of small town newspaper clippings in my files.

My mother was a perpetual newspaper article clipper with a determined focus on any that contained information about family and friends, near and far.  A few years before her passing, she asked what I wanted from her estate.   The answer was easy.   Her genealogy and the newspaper clippings.  In my opinion, nothing else had value by comparison.  The clippings were significant additions to my own family history research documentation.  The smell of the clippings has gifted the atmosphere in my office and genealogy library rooms in our home with the patina of old newsprint and documents.  The hard core genealogists among us know that we’d rather smell that scent than the most expensive French perfume.

Knowing that the pages of the small town papers were dripping with much more information than mom had collected, I called the editor of the small town papers in our area a couple of years ago hoping to wrangle access to their storage library.  With some vehemence, he related that the new owners, a national chain of mid-sized newspaper titles across the country, had ordered all of the old papers be trashed.  Gone were the 100 plus years of the American Fork Citizen, the Pleasant Grove Review, the Lehi Free Press.  “Trash the ‘d___’d” things right now while we watch.  We need the room for other things”.  He was still as sick at heart as I now felt.

I argued the act was a capital crime in my book – that I’d have stored them myself – that I’d have digitized them for posterity out of my own pocket.  How could anyone be so blatantly stupid to destroy them?  Pound for pound, page for page, the small town newspapers contained the richest content in that medium for a genealogist.  Now the old brittle yellow pages have turned to compost at the local land fill.

Small town newspapers of old will never be recreated in the modern world.  Our times are too full of identity thieves, privacy laws, and the sons of Satan who feed on society through theft and deception.  A current day recreation of the folksy articles in the old papers would be too inviting to these miscreants.  We already have to guard homes during funeral services for family members because the bad guys know that the family will be gone at a set time and date.  What would they do with the details found in stories of days-gone-by in a current day setting?

Fortunately, not all of the old papers have been lost.  Many colleges and other entities are digitizing some of the old papers and making them available to us through the web, libraries and other similar venues.  If you haven’t taken the time to find them and explore their content rich pages in your own ancestral quest, today would be a good day to do so.  Don’t just read these words and nod in agreement.  Dive in and find the genealogical Gold that awaits you in their pages.

In an earlier post I wrote about making the ‘Essence of New Mown Hay”.  I wish someone would create the scent of yellowed old newsprint.  A puff or two during our electronic forays into the old papers would add the aroma required to enhance the research experience.  Add a weathered old page or two of a current day newspaper for texture, turn the lights low and clutter your office.  Ahhh…. the cozy feel of researching old newspapers like it used to be in “the good old days”.

15 April 2009 Posted by | Digital Newspapers | , , , | 1 Comment

Finding Thomas Farrar ~ Attacking a Brick Wall

Little was known about my 2nd great grandfather, Thomas Farrar.  Time and location had separated his descendants.  Family stories and memories died over the generations. 

A cousin recorded a few notes about Thomas that she’d heard over the years and passed them on to my mother.   She related that he was from England, that his wife had died while still young and he had moved west to Copperopolis, California bringing his two small daughters with him in the mid-1850’s.  End of story.

When I visited my great grandmothers grave in Copperopolis, California, I noted the inscription on her tombstone said that she was a native of South Carolina.  I had a reference point to start the search.  The stone said that Grandma Helen Farrar Drew was born in 1851 and I knew she was age ten or younger when grandpa Thomas Farrar took Helen and her sister, Julia, west to California.   The 1860 census for South Carolina probably wouldn’t provide any help in finding the family and that quickly proved true.

1850 Census and Town History

Did Thomas and his wife, Mary Tirrill live in South Carolina in 1850?  After a long search, I found them there in Lexington.  The census entry said Thomas and Edith Farrar.  Edith?  Her name was a mystery for a quite a while, until I found a book titled “History of Bristol, Grafton, New Hampshire” by R. W. Musgrove.  In it, Musgrove listed Mary as a child in the family of Seth and Azuba Chandler Tirrill.  Her full name was Mary Adith Tirrill and her family lived in far northern town of Farrar Thomas 1850 Census Lexington County South Carolina2Stewartstown, New Hampshire.  

The ear of a southern census taker no doubt heard the New England accent of Mary or the English accent of Thomas pronounce grandma’s name as Edith.  This census record told me that she went by her middle name … at least at that point in time. 

Thomas was listed as coming from England.  Importantly, the young couple were living with Jno. and Sibla Farrar and their four children, William, Alfred, Sarah and Samuel who were also born in England.   Were they Family?  I assumed “Yes” and knew that Jno. = John, so I had more clues. 

Thinking that the family emigrated together, I now had six more match points for ships passenger records.

Ship Passenger Records

Occasionally, researchers are lucky and find their ancestors listed in passenger records with no misspellings.  I was looking for a pre-1850 record, which always proves to be a more difficult search.   Ellis Island hadn’t been created as an immigration point yet, so I looked for records on the Castle Garden site which lists information on immigrants through New York from 1830 – 1892. 

Success … but not until I looked at the data with an open mind.   Thomas along with John and Sibla’s family did travel together, however, their name was listed as Fanin not Farrar.  I knew that I had to search for spellings other than those I was familiar with and that proved true yet again.   Traveling to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, I found them listed on a CD of ships passengers records but this time listed as Farran.  Because of the numerous match points of first names, I knew that this Thomas was my Thomas Farrar.  They had traveled on the ship Columbine from London.


The History of Bristol, New Hampshire book said that grandma had died in Walworth, Wisconsin.  I never would have looked for the family there without that information.  What were they doing there? 

The answer took a lot of research effort.  I had to find records on most of Mary’s family and cousins to find the clues.  Other than some lumbering and sawmills there wasn’t much industry in Stewartstown, New Hampshire to support a new ‘crop’ of young men needing to start their adult lives and support their families.  Many of them migrated westward in search of their fortunes or at least in search of the opportunities offered on the ‘frontier’.  Several of Mary’s brothers and some cousins moved to Wisconsin with that thought in mind.  I surmise that Thomas Farrar heard of their plans and related them to his brother John, because they moved there too.

Another trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City provided great rewards in my quest.   I found the naturalization applications of both Thomas and John Farrar in Walworth County.  Thomas’ application stated that he was born in England in 1820 and had arrived in America in 1847.  The arrival date matched the ships passenger record information. 

The day at the library provided further rewards.  The Walworth County Historical Society had inventoried the cemeteries in their area and their publication had newly arrived at the library.  Looking through it, I found the burial listing for grandma Mary Tirrill Farrar, her son, Thomas and her mother-in-law, Elizabeth Farrar in the Brick Church Cemetery.  After three decades of looking, I’d found gold.  I contacted a member of the society and shortly thereafter had photos of their tombstones to add to their records.

Hopping the Pond and Tombstone Records

I could trace Thomas forward in time in California until he disappeared after moving to Sacramento after 1870.  How was I going to trace his lineage in England?   The passenger information and naturalization Farrar_Burials_Brick_Church_Cemetery2smrecords told me that he was from England and had left from London.  Wonderful! …. There were thousands of Farrar’s in and around London.  Thomas and John were very common names.  How could I find ‘my’ Thomas in that group?

I’ve had to make an ‘assumption’ that I still hope is correct today.  In the Brick Church Cemetery in Walworth, all of the Farrar’s are buried  next to each other.  In fact, one of the burial spaces next to Mary and young Thomas is empty but in the name of Thomas Farrar.  He’d obviously purchased a burial plot for his family when his wife and son died within months of each other.  Adjacent to their graves is the grave of Elizabeth Farrar.  Her tombstone says she was born in 1795 and died within weeks of Mary and young Thomas AND that she was the wife of Eli Farrar.  My assumption is that Elizabeth is the mother of Thomas and John Farrar and that she died from the flu epidemic that killed her daughter-in-law and grandson.  Elizabeth was old enough to be the mother of Thomas and John.   Unfortunately, I have not found any additional evidence of her existence other than the tombstone.

After a few weeks of research, it was obvious that I had to look for another way to find the Farrar family in England.  Fortunately, John Farrar married a woman with an ‘unusual’ first name.  I found John listed in the 1870, 1880 and 1900 censuses in Macon, Missouri.  His wife was listed as “Selina”.  The passenger record listed her name as “Sibla” as did the 1850 census record in Lexington, South Carolina. 

Additional research on the Internet provided a link to obituaries in Macon, Missouri, that had been transcribed into a book that was placed in the Macon library.  I contacted a very sweet librarian there and was sent a copy of all of the Farrar obituaries in the book.  Selina Farrar’s obituary revealed that she was born near Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England and that she and John were married there.  Wow!  I’d been looking in Huddersfield England mapLondon when they were actually from far north Huddersfield.  Looking at the Free BMD records on RootsWeb, I found their marriage entry in Huddersfield and have assumed that John’s family was from that area.

I still haven’t found “my” Farrar ancestry in Yorkshire.  The location seems to have been home to a huge group of Farrar’s, so I’m spending my time transcribing all of the Farrar census records in and around Huddersfield hoping to find enough clues to punch through the Brick Wall that is blocking my ancestral knowledge.

As time goes on, I’m confident that with enough hours spent in research, keeping an open mind and distrusting any of my ‘assumptions’, I’ll push through the wall.  It may be one brick at a time or I may find one keystone bit of data that causes the entire wall to collapse …. but that wall is going to come down.  Failure is not acceptable.

When you run into brick walls in your own research, remember to open your mind and look for spellings and locations that you’d never typically consider.  Assemble your known facts and review them constantly for clues that you haven’t explored.  You probably know a lot more than you think, but aren’t recognizing the clues in your hands.  Put on your Sherlock hat and assemble your thoughts on paper.  Draw a vertical timeline and add your discoveries along its length.  Then review everything you have found repeatedly over time, looking at the data through a different “window” every time.  Eventually, with focused effort, you’ll probably destroy your brick walls.  Here’s to success in all our own ancestral quests.



10 April 2009 Posted by | Cemetery Records, Census, Naturalization, Obituaries, Vital Records | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Kindness of Alexander Duff

Not all of the life of my 8th great grandmother, Jane O’Laggan, was perfect.  Born near the Glenlivet River in Laggan, Morayshire, Scotland to James O’Laggan, she married David MacWilliam of the Stewart Clan when she was eighteen.   The young couple were not rich, but David was able to make their lives comfortable with the earnings from his mill and a home at Pittyvaich, Morayshire

The land produced few crops but there was enough feed for the family to own some sheep and several cows.  Winters were especially hard but the residents of Dufftown were Pittyvaich Morayshire Scotland Mapresilient and hundreds of generations had passed down the skills to survive in the ofttimes difficult climate.

The MacWilliam’s had a growing family of young children when disaster struck.  David became ill and died, leaving Jane with little income and in debt.

After struggling for a short time, David’s cousin, Alexander Duff, turned his eye to the family.  

Cousin Alexander was a rotter, according to a rare document that I found on a shelf in the basement of the Banffshire Field Club, titled “The Gordon’s of Laggan” written by John Malcolm Bulloch.

The document covers my Gordon ancestry and associated lineages.  The ancestral research was commissioned by my 5th great granduncle, Cosmo Gordon.  The MacWilliam branch of our family notes that there were two David MacWilliam’s in succession.  Reading from the entry for David MacWilliam Sr., a sad commentary spills off the page.

“David, his son, married Jane, daughter of James O’Laggan, and died while a young man, leaving her a widow with several children.  She was prevailed upon to dispose of Pittyvaich and the mill to Alexander Duff of Braco, her husband’s cousin, in terms as little creditable to him as disreputable to herself, it being constantly reported in that part of the country that she sat down in the mill dam to stop the mill that he might take infeftment of it, the miller refusing to do it.  Be this as it may, her children were reduced to great distress, for which Braco appeared perfectly indifferent, being a man callous to humanity, as well as natural affection, if he could by any means gratify his thirst for the acquirement of lands.  The daughter (Jane O’Laggan) then married John Forbes of Keithack, son to Gordon Arthur Forbes, and left several children.”

With no thanks to Alexander Duff, the MacWilliam children survived these deep impacts on their lives.  One of the daughters, Anne MacWilliam, is my seventh great grandmother.  Anne married James Gordon of the Gordon family in about 1712.   James was born in Achlochrach, Morayshire and the couple were the grandparents the above mentioned Cosmo Gordon and my fifth great grandmother, Elizabeth Gordon.

Once again, history has recorded the bad deeds and avarice of man.  He couldn’t take any of his lands and properties with him when he passed but in their place left a sad story that will ne’r be forgotten.



4 April 2009 Posted by | Histories | , , , , , | Leave a comment