21 October 2012

Newspapers: Beyond birth notices, wedding announcements, and obituaries

Newspapers may provide stories of your ancestors—and clues to their descendants—even long after they have died.

The first newspaper in the 13 Colonies was published in 1690 and was quickly suppressed by the government after one edition. In 1704, the Boston News-Letter started a successful 74-year run reporting the news.

Although we don’t have a day-by-day newspaper account of the 1692 Salem witch trials, we do have eyewitness reports and court records that have been published. But since the trials have captured the American psyche for centuries, it’s not surprising that we find newspaper stories either reminding us of the past or offering new information about the event. 

Let’s use one of the more famous victims of the Salem witch trials as an example. Rebecca Nurse was one of the very few accused witches who was found not guilty at her jury trial on 30 June 1692. But when the court read the verdict, the afflicted girls renewed their fits and outcries against the 71-year-old Nurse, causing the jury to reverse their opinion. Even petitions signed by prominent society members and a reprieve from Governor Phips could not stop the escalating proceedings of the Court of Oyer & Terminer. On 19 July 1692, Nurse was hanged.
Rebecca Nurse homestead (2014)

On 19 July 1883, the Boston Daily Advertiser reported on the first reunion of the descendants of Rebecca Nurse at her old homestead located on Pine street in current-day Danvers, Massachusetts, previously Salem Village. Nearly 200 people attended, most who were lineal descendants of Francis and Rebecca Nurse, who had eight children. 

The descendants included “representatives of the Miles family of Worcester; the Tapleys and Putnams of Danvers; the Hayes family of Farmington, NH; the Putnams of Lynn; the Prince family of Danvers; the Newhalls of Peabody; the Browns of Lynn; a branch of the Chase family of Philadelphia; the Wiggins family of Providence; the Needhams of Peabody; the Maynards of Shrewsbury; the Evans family of Springfield; the Forbes family of Westboro; and branches of the Nourse family of Arlington, Berlin, Bolton, Lexington, Leonminster, Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and Salem.” This is a genealogy goldmine!

Other reunions were reported in various papers, including the 1885 placement of the Rebecca Nurse monument in the Nurse-Putnam burial grounds at her old homestead.

40 Supporters

On 31 July 1892, the New York Times reported that the Nurse Monument Association had commemorated the “brave defense of 40 neighbors and friends of Rebecca Nurse, who risked their lives to put on record their testimony in her favor” by erecting a granite tablet in their honor. It was placed near the 1885 memorial to Rebecca Nurse in the burial grounds at her old homestead in Danvers. The article recalls how Joseph Putnam—and no doubt the others who came to Nurse’s defense—truly put their lives on the line by signing the petition.

The 40 neighbors and friends listed on the granite tablet were Nathaniel Putnam, Israel Porter, Elizabeth Porter, Edward Bishop, Hannah Bishop, Joshua Rea, Sarah Rea, Sarah Leach, Samuel Abbey, Hepzibah Rea, Daniel Andrew, Sarah Andrew, Daniel Rea, Sarah Putnam, Jonathan Putname, Lydia Putnam, John Putnam, Rebecca Putnam, Joseph Hutchinson, Lydia Hutchinson, William Osburn, Hannah Osburn, Joseph Holton, Sarah Holton, Benjamin Putnam, Sarah Putnam, Job Swinnerton, Esther Swinnerton, Walter Phillips, Nathaniel Felton, Margaret Phillips, Tabitha Phillips, Joseph Houlton, Samuel Endicott, Elizabeth Buxton, Samuel Osborn, Isaac Cook, Elizabeth Cook, Joseph Herrick, and Joseph Putnam.


Even though the above examples are of a well-known historical person, it shows you why it’s important to check newspaper resources for your ancestors—even after they have died. You may find articles written about family reunions and commemorating special events. A list of descendants who attended certainly can help you fill in your family tree.


Boston Daily Advertiser, “Rebekah Nurse: Gathering of the Descendants of the 'Witch' of 1692 at Salem Village—Tribute to Her Memory,” 19 July 1883. Available on GenealogyBank (fee).

New York Times, "Worthy Witch Memorial," 31 July 1892.

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