Feature Article: A Brief History of Newspapers in America

In some cases, newspapers may be the only surviving documentation of the daily lives of your ancestors. Daily newspapers covered the news, reported on events, and recorded the births, marriages and deaths of the people in their community and beyond. Some of the resources available in newspapers are known by most genealogists, such as birth announcements, marriage notices and obituaries, while other newspaper treasures may come as a surprise to you, such as stage coach passenger lists, local briefs, and advertisements. Newspapers are a fantastic resource for researching your family history, and have been published in America since before it became a nation.

As people settled North America and began to spread across the new land, they wanted to know what was happening back home and in the larger world around them. Governments regularly sent couriers to bring the latest news and instructions to their far-flung empires, and to gather critical news and information for the home country.

As newspaper historian Lucy Maynard Salmon wrote: "The desire to know the events of the day, to be told what distant friends [or relatives] are doing and to hear of occurrences in far off countries is an instinct implanted in human nature." (Salmon, page 2.)

The first newspaper published in British North America, Publick Occurrences, was printed in 1690, and is part of GenealogyBank's historical newspapers archive. This start-up newspaper intended, as its full name indicated (Publick Occurrences, both Forreign and Domestick), to disseminate local and international news to keep its readers informed. A second edition was never printed, because the government did not approve and quickly shut down the press and tried to destroy all copies of the first edition.

In that same year, John Campbell left Scotland and made the long voyage to America. Twelve years later, following the death of his brother Duncan Campbell in 1702, John Campbell became the Postmaster in Boston. "As part of his job, Campbell had the official task of writing letters of important information to the main office." (Sloan, page 18.) He became the key link in passing information around the growing colonies and with England. As ships arrived carrying incoming mail and newspapers from the United Kingdom and the continent, along with the passengers and crew, Campbell was in a good position to learn the latest news from abroad. Likewise, as people came to his office to receive or send their mail he was able to learn the latest local news.

As the holder of so much valuable information, Campbell wrote detailed reports in the form of letters filled with descriptions of every ship that arrived or left America's ports and the cargo they were carrying, along with the latest news he had learned. He copied these letters by hand and circulated them to "postal officials, merchants and other affluent colonists...many subscribers shared them with nonsubscribers and some letters ended up posted in taverns and other public places." (Sloan, page 18.)

Campbell could not create enough copies to keep up with the demand. Realizing there was a market for his "news letters," he launched America's next newspaper, the Boston News-Letter, on April 24, 1704. This newspaper covered all types of news, furnishing information that is of permanent interest to genealogists. Yes, it covered shipping news from Nova Scotia to Charleston, South Carolina—but also included obituaries, news reports and advertisements, starting with the very first issue. As an example see this obituary of Peregrine White, printed by the Boston News-Letter (Massachusetts) on 24 July-31 July 1704, page 2:

Captain Peregrine White (1620-1704) died in Marshfield, Massachusetts, on July 20, 1704. He was born on board the Mayflower—"the first Englishman born in New England"—when the ship dropped anchor off Cape Cod in November 1620. This obituary provides the important family information that Peregrine was the son of William and Susanna White. The paper added the personal comments that "he was vigorous and of a comly Aspect to the last" and that "Altho' he was in the former part of his Life, extravagant; yet was much Reform'd in his last years; and died hopefully." Clearly Campbell was editing a newspaper that spoke to his audience and would be invaluable to family historians centuries later.

In 1783, the year the Revolutionary War ended, there were 35 newspapers published in the United States. Fifty years later, in 1833, there were more than 1,200 newspapers! "In 1783, the American press primarily hugged the Atlantic coastal areas and consisted primarily of weekly newspapers. By 1833, the press stretched to the Great Plains and publication schedules ranged from dailies to monthlies." (Humphrey, page 155.)

Newspapers were everywhere. The nation relied on them, and as the country grew newspapers did too. Because necessity is the mother of invention, in 1884 Ottmar Mergenthaler invented the linotype machine. This revolutionary device allowed printers to set an entire line of type quickly, in a process much like typing. Before the linotype machine, the maximum number of pages that could be reasonably produced by setting each individual piece of type by hand was four to eight pages. After Mergenthaler's invention, newspaper rapidly grew in size.

Picking up and reading a newspaper became a standard practice in households across the country—just as turning on the radio, cable news or iPad is today. Newspapers told the story of old and young, announcing births, marriages and deaths, and reporting on local activities. It is essential for genealogists to understand the value of newspapers in documenting their family history, especially because information was printed in newspapers that cannot be found anywhere else.


Humphrey, Carol Sue. The Press of the Young Republic, 1783-1833. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996. 182p.

Salmon, Lucy Maynard. The Newspaper and the Historian. New York: Oxford University Press, 1923. 566p.

Sloan, William David and Julie Hedgepath Williams. The Early American Press, 1690-1783. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994. 233p.

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