Yesterday’s News is Today’s Research Gold Mine

Newspapers are one of the most versatile tools available for historical, genealogical and other types of research. Their content ranges from local to international news, serving researchers of all stripes. However, today we’re focusing on newspapers for local history and genealogy research.

Obituaries are a major source of information for local history and genealogy research. They can tell you when and where someone passed away, who their next of kin are, and information about burial arrangements, among other things.

The length and form of obituaries has changed over time. This 1891 obituary for David Shelby Walker, who served as governor of Florida from 1866 until 1868, is quite short, despite his prominence in society at the time.

Obituary for Florida Governor David Shelby Walker, July 21, 1891, Florida Times-Union.

Newspapers are also great sources of information for local happenings of all kinds. Aside from local news, you can peruse information about local businesses or scan the classifieds section. These sections are important because they tell us a lot about what people valued at a given point in history, whether monetarily or otherwise.

Although we often move past them today, full-page ads are a great source for historical information. During the Florida Land Boom, land companies entreated people to invest in their projects. Since many of these developments did not last long, any piece of evidence we can find is valuable. This full-page ad for the Pasadena-on-the-Gulf neighborhood in St. Petersburg gives you the flavor.

Full-page ad for the Pasadena-on-the-Gulf neighborhood in St. Petersburg, November 30, 1924, St. Petersburg Times. Click to enlarge.

Finally, you’ll often see columns in historical newspapers that you won’t find today. “Social and Club Activities of Interest to Women,” for example, lists dances, meetings and other events happening in Tallahassee.

“Social and Club Activities of Interest to Women,” April 7, 1940, Tallahassee Daily Democrat. Click to enlarge.

There are several places you can go to start your own newspaper research. The State Library holds most major newspapers from all over Florida on microfilm. You can use these resources at the State Library Reference Room in Tallahassee, or patrons can request individual microfilm reels through their local library.

Many historical Florida papers are available through the Florida Digital Newspaper Library, hosted by the University of Florida Libraries. An easy way to browse this collection is to type in the name of a city, then see which papers are available for specific years.

Finally, the U.S. Newspaper Directory is a handy tool available through the Library of Congress. You can navigate by state, county or city and learn information such as newspaper publication dates, which can be difficult to find.

The librarians at the State Library are glad to help you with your research. Give them a call at 850.245.6682 or e-mail them at info@dos.myflorida.com.

Upcoming Special Events at the State Archives

October is American Archives Month, and the State Archives of Florida is celebrating with special events to help you make the most of our state’s archival treasures. Are you interested in genealogy? The history of your local community? A topic in Florida’s past? Archives Month is an excellent time to visit and see how we can help!

On Tuesday, October 6th and Tuesday, October 13th, the State Archives reference room will be open from 9:00am to 8:00pm. This is an excellent opportunity for patrons with busy work schedules who are unable to visit during our usual hours of operation.

Read more »

Hidden History in Civil War Documents

During the American Civil War (1861-65), Florida faced serious shortages of many consumer items that were normally obtained through trade. Clothing, weapons, ammunition, hardware, and even salt became scarcer and scarcer as the Union Navy encircled the Florida coastline with a blockade. What limited trade items could be obtained were generally funneled to the front lines for soldiers’ use.

C.S.S. Florida

C.S.S. Florida “runs” the Union blockade at Mobile Bay. “Blockade runners” used small, fast vessels to sneak past or outrun Union blockade ships and conduct trade (1862).

These privations were tough, especially the lack of food, arms, ammunition, and metal goods. Sometimes, however, the best illustrations of history come from the tiniest details. Want to see a great example of how strapped Florida’s citizens were for certain supplies during the Civil War? Look at their writing!

The words written on a historical document are certainly very useful, but sometimes how they are written, what they are written on, and what they are written with can be just as important for learning something new about the past. Take this document, for example:

Letter from "Julius" to an unidentified friend, August 24, 1863 (MS 109, State Library Manuscript Collections).

Letter from “Julius” to an unidentified friend, August 24, 1863 (MS 109, State Library Manuscript Collections).

This letter was written August 24th 1863 by a man named Julius, who was stationed at Legare’s Point on James Island near Charleston, South Carolina. You’ll notice right off that he wrote the letter in two directions, at right angles so as to be as readable as possible. He italicized his handwriting, which also increased the readability of the letter.

Why go to all this trouble? The answer is simple – as the war grew longer, paper and stationery supplies grew increasingly tight throughout the Confederacy. This was particularly true for soldiers on the front like Julius, who were often away from towns for long periods at a time. Although there were paper mills in the South in the 1860s, most letter-writing paper still had to be imported. The paper produced in the South was generally quite coarse, almost like craft paper. With the blockade in place, good stationery was difficult to obtain. Accordingly, folks “made do” with what they had. Throughout the collections of the State Library & Archives, we see examples of “cross-writing” like that above, as well as re-using paper and even using envelopes to write messages.

Message to Wagon Master Richard Joseph Adams at Waldo written on the back of an envelope, April 24, 1863 - Richard Joseph Adams Papers (MS 1, State Library Manuscript Collections).

Message to Wagon Master Richard Joseph Adams at Waldo written on the back of an envelope, April 24, 1863 – Richard Joseph Adams Papers (MS 1, State Library Manuscript Collections).

A lack of paper wasn’t the only challenge facing Floridians and other Southerners wanting to drop a line to someone during the war. Ink supplies also ran low, which led some citizens to turn to older natural sources. Long-time State Librarian Dorothy Dodd’s papers contain recollections from Floridians who reported using nutgalls and pomegranate skins to produce ink.

Tallahassee resident Susan Bradford Eppes confirms in her diary that her family was forced to find substitutes for ink, although she reports that it blotted and faded easily. This widespread substitution likely explains why the writing in some of the Civil War-era documents at the State Library & Archives is so faded, even when much older letters can still be read easily.

Excerpt from an April 3, 1864 letter with faded ink. Contrast had to be added digitally to make the document legible (Washington Ives Papers - MS 44, State Library Manuscript Collection).

Excerpt from an April 3, 1864 letter with faded ink. Contrast had to be added digitally to make the document legible (Washington Ives Papers – MS 44, State Library Manuscript Collection).

The State Library & Archives collectively hold a wealth of information about Florida in the Civil War. Diaries, letters, government reports and documents, military records, and other primary sources are available, as are books and periodicals relating to the Civil War era. If you’re looking for information about a Civil War-era ancestor, the Library’s genealogy section is a great place to get started.

Check out our Guide to Civil War Records and our Guide to Genealogical Research to learn more, or search our catalogs.

Find Your Pioneers!

In 2014, Florida Memory digitized the returns of Florida’s 1845 statehood election. They explain who voted in each precinct, which offices each voter voted for, and whether their qualifications as a voter were challenged at the time of the election. Each return also contains the election officials’ certification of the results.

An example return from Precinct 1 (Tallahassee) of Leon County. Visit the 1845 Election Returns collection page to browse or search the entire collection.

An example return from Precinct 1 (Tallahassee) of Leon County. Visit the 1845 Election Returns collection page to browse or search the entire collection.

On the surface, that doesn’t sound like much information. To a genealogist, however, these documents can be a real treasure. First of all, voters were assigned to precincts based on where they lived. So, if you locate an ancestor in these returns, you can determine with some degree of certainty the county and precinct in which that ancestor lived as of May 26, 1845, when the election was held. Read more »