Family trees, with all the dates carefully researched and neatly recorded, tell you that your ancestors existed. But to get to know them as people–the lives they lived, their hardships and triumphs–you need to know their stories. For that kind of information, nothing beats an archive of historical newspapers, as the following story illustrates.
Tom Kemp, our Director of Genealogy Products, was doing research on the Ayres family, who lived in Westchester County, New York, in the mid-nineteenth century.
He found James Ayres (born in 1817) and his wife Ann (also born in 1817) listed in the 1850 Census for Greenburgh, Westchester County, New York. The Census also listed their three children: James H. (born in 1842), Sarah (born in 1844), and Frederica (born in 1849).
Looking at this family closely, we see that there is a suspicious five-year gap in the ages of the two youngest children: Sarah is 6 and Frederica 1. Tom, who has been doing genealogy for 45 years, knows that these gaps are often the most difficult to research–and yet often turn up the most interesting and poignant family history. He also knows that you can't rely on census records to find every member of a family–newspapers provide family history details not found anywhere else.
Death was something people in 1850 were all too familiar with. The life expectancy was only around 39 years. Infant mortality was shockingly high–roughly 22 out of every 100 live births died as infants. Is there an Ayres family tragedy that the above record does not reveal–was there a child born that had died before the 1850 Census? Tom turned to GenealogyBank's extensive newspaper archive to find the answer.
It didn't take Tom long to find what he was looking for, and a painful part of the Ayres' family history came to light. In the Dec. 12, 1848, issue of the Hudson River Chronicle (Sing Sing, New York), he found an obituary notice for the daughter of James and Ann Ayres: Lovina Ayres, who was born Aug. 7, 1846, and died Nov. 26, 1848.
And there is more. Accompanying the obituary, the family inserted this notice–and suddenly the personal connection is made, and we can feel the Ayres' sorrow:
Newspapers not only fill in gaps in census records, they provide intimate family details that humanize genealogy research. Imagine if the Ayres were part of your family tree and you found this newspaper notice. Suddenly, you've come to know something about their lives; you've shared their grief, holding onto the image of the smile on Lovina's lips as their darling two-year-old girl passed away. They've become part of your family.
"GenealogyBank's newspaper archive gives us important details about Lovina: her brief life, exact age, dates of birth/death, and even the actual poem that her parents chose to remember her by. For a brief moment we are standing there in the home–feeling the grief of our ancestors as they lived it," Tom commented. "These are details you just won't find in the census or anywhere else. Family trees are just not complete without the details available in newspapers."