Newspapers' Value in Research--and Beyond

Newspapers may just give us the "story behind the story!"

Those looking to find out more about their forefathers can empower their genealogy search with newspapers,  Newspapers can inform and guide.  As we come to understand the times in which our ancestors lived--the social issues and political climate, etc.-- we begin to understand the stories behind our ancestors, their decisions, their struggles, their joys and their sorrows!

Many years ago, I was commissioned by a client to help him find his birth certificate.  He was about to retire and had never had a birth certificate.  In fact, he knew little about his family.  But he wanted to collect Social Security payments, and he also wanted to travel abroad.  These goals required that he have a birth certificate to apply for retirement payments as well as to obtain a valid passport. 

All he knew was that when a young lad, he had been placed in an orphanage in Macon, Georgia, United States of America.  He also thought that other familiy members were there, as well.  On one particular day, he and what he termed "other relatives" were told that they needed to prepare and be on their best behavior because "family" was coming to get them.  He told of his great excitement that he would now be able to be with "family" and not be a ward of the orphanage.

As I recall, there were two others who were girls.  As they were ushered to the front of the orphanage, apparently an automobile was waiting for them and they excitedly hurried toward their "passage" out of the orphanage.  As they approached the vehicle, someone shouted, "Just bring the girls, we don't want him!"  Can you imagine how this would break the heart of a young boy?  The girls left the orphanage and he was escorted back to spend some years at the orphanage.  He didn't know if he had been born in Georgia, or if his birth was in another place.

I was unable to get any information from the orphanage, and court records of Macon, Georgia did not give any information either.  After searching the logical records, e.g. guardianship, orphanage, birth records, etc. and coming up with no new information, I decided to write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper in Macon. 

The article was published, and time passed--over a year went by without any answer.  Then an incredible thing happened.  (Personally, when it comes to family history, I do not believe in serendipity.  Things do not just happen by coincidence!)  I received a short letter from a person who said that she had saved many of the Macon newspapers, and had put them in a camper that was parked in the backyard.  Over a year after the particular newspaper where the letter to the editor was published, as she was getting ready to throw them out, the page opened up and somehow caught her eye.  She read the published letter and the circumstances seemed familiar, as did the name of my client.

Her letter when on to say that she thought that she was the half-sister of my client.  Times were very difficult and her mother had decided (before the correspondent was born) to place her son in the orphanage (and it may have been that the two girls were cousins of my client--I don't recall the actual details).  A relative came for the girls, and the boy had been left at the orphanage.  The writer of the letter said that her mother had wondered whatever had happened to her son!  And then came the "bombshell".  She said that her mother was still living and was over ninety (90) years old.  She was with another daughter in Ohio!  Finally, the information regarding my client's birth took us to Dade County, Florida where a birth certificate was, indeed, on file!  Our patience and searching had paid off.

But the rest of the story was even more important and poignant.  My client had been able to make contact with his birth mother, and said that every Saturday morning at 10am they were able to communicate by telephone.  He was able to travel to where his mother lived with one of his half-sisters, and the local newspaper did a photo story on the pair.  He shared with me that he was amazed at how much resemblance there was to each other!  As I received a photocopy of the news article, not only did they look alike, but they could have been twins, so similar were their facial features!

These events occurred before the advent of computers, email, listservs, and the like.  Today, there are many websites that have developed databases of old newspapers.  These newspapers are filled with news of the times in which they were published.  Obituaries, reports of social events, even travels and visits (particularly in small community newspapers), marriages, etc. are not only valuable, but in many cases they are priceless in the information they convey.  Not only do we get clues for future genealogical research and learn more about the times in which our ancestors lived, but they just may also give us the "story behind the story" as my client found.

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