Feature Article: Newspaper 'Local Briefs'—Family History Nuggets

Experienced genealogists rely on historical newspapers, tracking down obituaries, birth announcements and marriage notices to help fill in details on their family trees. However, many people don't realize that newspapers provide another valuable resource for family history research, one that is often overlooked: the humble "local brief." These aren't always about the next bake sale the local church is having—these short notices can turn up family details that appeared nowhere else in print.

Newspaper editors wanted to catch and keep their readers' interest and attention. They did that by writing about their readers' friends and neighbors, providing details about what was happening in their lives. In both small towns and big cities, readers were interested in their neighbors and in keeping up with how they were doing.

Here is a good example. This is a typical "local matters" item of the sort that routinely appeared in newspapers around the country. This one appeared in the Aug. 28, 1917, issue of the Times Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana). At first glance, it is just a simple article about a family's visits:

Looking at it more closely, we see it has key family information. It gives us the names of the family members, where they lived, and their various relationships—all great clues for piecing the family links together. It even provides details about the brother's military career.

You'd be surprised how often these local briefs supply missing details about a family's history. Don't know what became of a relative, or whom she married, or where she moved to? One of these small notices can really come in handy, providing just the right clue you need to fill in a family gap that's been stumping you.

Many newspapers ran a "Society" column, in which the news tended to be about the more established, wealthier families in town. Other newspapers labeled similar columns "Local Briefs," "Personals," "Chatter," or "Social Events," and tended to include notes on a broad sweep of the middle class.

Here is another good example. This "Social & Personal" notice was printed in the June 17, 1928, issue of the Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts):

Look at how much family history we learn from a simple announcement that a local couple travelled to attend a wedding in Virginia! For one thing, we learn both the married name and the maiden name (often a difficult fact to establish) of three different women. We glean many names and relationships from several different families, covering three generations.

This social notice was printed by the New York Herald (New York, New York) on Dec. 25, 1898:

Here we get a glimpse into a little slice of this family's life that would not appear in an obituary, birth announcement or marriage notice, yet tells us something real and concrete about their lives. These are the details that, unless an ancestor left you a letter or diary, can't be found anywhere else. These are the family history gems that make local briefs essential to your family history research.

Newspapers also routinely published news of family reunions. These can be filled with family details like: names of first ancestors to settle in the area; favorite recipes; names of the oldest and youngest attendees; names of those that came the longest distances to be there, along with the locations where they now live; favorite family stories; colorful relatives; details about the old family homestead, business or farm; and, best of all, these articles often included photographs or the old familiar etchings that appeared in 19th century newspapers.

As you can see, it's worthwhile to keep society listings, social and personal columns, and local briefs in mind when searching old newspapers—don't just focus on the obvious obituaries, birth announcements and marriage notices. This is one more reason why an archive of historical newspapers—such as the collection of over 5,000 titles that GenealogyBank features—is a gold mine of facts and stories, one you will mine again and again as you pursue your family history research.