06 October 2020

What Was it Like When Your Ancestors Lived Here?

We watched "I Love Lucy" so much when I was a kid that my family still speaks in phrases from the show. One favorite comes from Lucy imitating Ricky mispronouncing "soak up some local color." It sounds like "sock up some lockel collar."

Whenever a member of the family is going on a trip, we tell them to "sock up some lockel collar." We can't go anywhere in 2020. So why not use a free online newspaper to get the "lockel collar" of the town I call home?

You can do this, too. Start at a Wikipedia page listing online newspaper archives from around the world. Many are free. Many are on the Fulton History website you may know, but others are not found there.

I went straight to the New York state newspapers and chose my Hudson Valley region. That led me to Hudson River Valley Historical Newspapers.

What if we search old newspapers for our ancestor's town instead of their name?
What if we search old newspapers for our ancestor's town instead of their name?

In the 12 March 1909 edition of the "Kingston Daily Freeman" is a story about a church less than 5 miles from my home.

The headline is "THE DEVIL IN CHURCH." I'm intrigued. This is a very small chapel within steps of a main road near the border of Fishkill, New York.

The article reads as follows:

"While holding prayer meeting in a small churh [sic] at Wiccoppe [sic], near Hopewell Junction, Dutchess county, the congregation was startled by the appearance of a figure clad in black wearing horns and a black mask and a pitchfork held in his hands. One of the members made a grab for the masker but he ducked out into the street and disappeared. The affair has stirred up a great scandal in the village."

What did he do? Hop on a Model-T motoring by?

Next I searched for my town in a paper called the "Rockland County Journal." I grew up in Rockland County, and it's an hour away from me now, across the Hudson River. I chose the earliest article in the results, from 20 March 1875.

I've lived in a lot of towns without knowing details of their past.
I've lived in a lot of towns without knowing details of their past.

An article called "Bridging the Hudson" talks about some critical infrastructure in my area. There's a National Park near here called the Walkway Over the Hudson. It's a former railroad bridge turned into a walking and biking path. They completed the railroad bridge in 1889. Following a fire, they closed and abandoned it. Finally, they rebuilt it for pedestrians in 2009, and it's very popular.

The article says Boston merchants wanted New York to build the bridge. Boston is a 3-hour drive from me, and more than 4 hours from New York City. There is no other railroad bridge across the Hudson between here and New York City. The lack of a crossing isolated Boston merchants from the rest of the country.

Boston appointed a committee that, 14 years later, resulted in the bridge's completion. It also recommended the completion of a road from my little town to the city of Poughkeepsie. That's where the bridge is. That road, Route 9, is now the main artery connecting every town from here to Poughkeepsie. It's a 12-mile strip of:

  • every franchise in America
  • retail stores
  • medical offices
  • hotels
  • restaurants
  • businesses, and
  • banks.

I always complain that I can't find my ancestors in newspapers. They weren't big businessmen. They weren't socialites. I haven't even found an obituary. And in Italy where they came from, most people were illiterate in the 1890s when my people left.

That's why we genealogists may find it useful to learn about our ancestors' hometowns. We may not find their names, but we may find their neighbors. I have one branch that lived in Western New York state. Their little town is ripe for newspaper exploration.

What local news can you find that had an impact on your family?


  1. I could literally spend days just reading through old newspapers and have used them for bits of colour, local history, businesses, etc. They are a goldmine! Never mind that both my and my husband's great-grandfathers appeared frequently (both as an advertiser and as the topic of articles) - I just love to read about times past :)

    1. The only mention I've ever found of an ancestor is my great grandfather's real estate transactions. Granted, I had no one in America before the late 1890s.

    2. At least that's something...and quite a few of the times my great-grandfather was mentioned, it wasn't for a good reason...

  2. I hope to use this technique and get some flavor of my gg grandparents' home town/s. I was rather surprised that my gg grandparents' marriage didn't appear in their local paper..