Illinois Ancestors: Newspapers full of research data

Illinois Ancestors: Newspapers full of research data

Many researchers seek old newspapers mainly for the obituary notices they provide. Such publications should also be sought for the other important family data they offer, as well as the clues they supply for further research.

As mentioned in Emily Anne Croom's "Unpuzzling Your Past," (Genealogical Publishing Co. Inc., 2010 reprint), "Some of the most entertaining historical and genealogical information comes from the gossip columns, social and personal news, advertisements and editorials of local newspapers. ... Even a mention in advertisements, commercial news, hotel guest lists, news of out-of-town visitors, real estate notices and court cases summaries places ancestors in a given place at a given time."

On a personal note, the death notice for my ancestor, Sarah Ann (Hunt) Porter Layden Bush, simply mentioned that she died as an inmate of the Soldiers' Widows Home in Wilmington. However, the news on the front page of that newspaper told of an investigation into the terrible physical conditions at that institution — thus leading to further research into her own circumstances there.

Locating Illinois newspapers was made easier with the Illinois State Historical Library's free 1998 publication, "Newspapers in the Illinois State Historical Library." That library's newspaper holdings — with more than 5,000 titles contained on 77,000 rolls of microfilm — are now housed in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. Microfilm copies are available for use by visiting the library or through interlibrary loan.

The catalog mentioned above can now be accessed online at http://www.illinoishistory. gov/lib/newspaper.htm. There, one can read/download the list of Illinois newspapers by city, Illinois newspaper indices by county, out-of-state newspapers, foreign newspapers and Civil War newspapers holdings 1861-65.

For example, a search for newspapers in the city of Danville resulted in a listing of 29, including one written in German (1907-12). The earliest Danville newspaper, the Enquirer, began publication in 1833. It is important to note that Champaign County did not have a newspaper until 1958 and depended on Danville papers for news and legal notices until then.

Researchers would be wise to read local newspapers published during an ancestor's lifetime to obtain a better understanding of the times in which that individual lived as well as to find helpful clues for further research.

Civil War newspapers

The listing of Civil War newspaper holdings at the Lincoln Presidential Library includes several states outside of Illinois that mention Illinois units. For example, an 1862 Harrodsburg, Ky., newspaper cites "Soldiers' Letters of 96th Illinois Volunteer Infantry;" a Stewartville, Mo., issue in 1862 is titled, "Illinois Fifty-Second." (This website can be accessed directly at

Dick Eastman announced in 2011 in his online genealogy newsletter that Virginia Tech had launched the first Civil War Newspaper website at At that homepage, one can read about the collection and also how to "find objects in the repository."

The goal of this project has been "to select a representative group of journals to index, with digital images of the newspapers themselves, for use by students and scholars." Searches can be made using keywords or by choosing the browsing options. For example, a search for "Illinois infantry" (without quotation marks) produced 180 "hits."

"Harper's Weekly Original Civil War Newspapers" can be found online at and claims to be "the most popular newspaper during the Civil War" with illustrations and in-depth stories on people and events during that war. (At present, this website is still being expanded; 1861 through 1864 are complete, as well as January through May in 1865.)

Penn State University also has a helpful website containing newspapers of the Civil War era. At, the newspaper collection contains "all the words, photographs and advertisements from selected newspapers published during the pivotal years before, during and after the U.S. Civil War."

Searches are easily accomplished and the images are readable. For example, a search for "Sultana disaster" (no quotation marks) resulted in 27 interesting articles, one of which included information about a family Bible that had been found, that had belonged to Samuel Spike, who married in 1837. A search for Illinois resulted in hundreds of articles, some of which named Illinois Civil War casualties.

The importance of newspaper research cannot be overemphasized.

Queries, genealogical questions from researchers and genealogical materials readers would like to share will be printed in this column free. Joan Griffis may be reached via email at or by sending a letter to Illinois Ancestors, c/o The News-Gazette, P.O. Box 677, Champaign, IL 61824-0677.

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