Using Ancestry.com: Historical Perspectives from Abroad

by Juliana Smith

It’s now been ten years since Ancestry.com began posting searchable databases online, and for family historians, it’s changed the way we research. While sound methodology still applies, new doors have opened. Years ago, we were forced to prioritize how and who we would search for based on what was available, accessible, and practical.

Back in early May, Sherry Irvine wrote a similarly titled article for us suggesting that we expand our borders and explore ways in which international databases like the UK censuses online at Ancestry.com might help us further our research. As I was trying to think of an appropriate article to write for this week as we celebrate the Fourth of July here in the United States, I thought it would be fun to use this philosophy to explore history a bit through the Historical Newspaper Collection at Ancestry.com.

Ancestry.com members with the World Deluxe or UK Deluxe membership can also access several UK newspapers, including the titles in the list following this article. There are also several Canadian Newspaper titles available. (Note: The dates shown are not necessarily inclusive of all years and months. You can browse each database to see the exact coverage.)

What Was in the News in 1776?
I chose the Edinburgh Advertiser since Ancestry.com had issues from 1776 available. I decided to search for the term “American independence.” I was rewarded with eleven hits and settled in on the hit for July 16, which contained a rather irate message from someone (unfortunately unnamed) from the colonies.

Part of a letter from Philadelphia, dated May 28:

“We know the language of ministerial sycophants is, that independence has always been our aim. We deny it. Our independence will continue no longer than your obstinacy and cruelty. Can you blame us for this? We ask, we wish for no more than the privileges of British subjects, and we will have that, or bid you an everlasting adieu. You rob us of our birth-rights, you destroy our charters, you burn our towns and villages, you murder our wives and children, you block up our trade, and you plunder us of our property, and for remonstrating against such cruelty, we are deemed rebels.

“Believe me, my good Sir, if we are rebels (we value not the appellation your parliament gives us) we are such rebels, as England never before had to cope with. Though a Charles Stuart and a Simon Fraser, with a few undisciplined Highlanders, shook your credit, beat your troops in two pitched battles, and penetrated so far as to alarm your capital with a direct intention to dethrone the grandfather of your now reigning monarch, and subjugate Englishmen once more to hereditary tyranny; yet, Sir, such men, with all the dregs and refuse of your country that accompanies them, cannot even dismay us. Is it to be supposed that 50,000 men, composed of German mercenaries, Scotch Jacobites, Irish papists, and the produce of your gaols, are to conquer America? are to subjugate three millions of free people, whose motto is “Death or Liberty,” many of whom are such enthusiasts as to have those words painted on their hats, caps and jackets, with their own blood, who are fighting in the cause of justice, with heaven on their side, and who have 100,000 men always ready to take the field and was there necessity could arm a million? But we wish not to either bully or [puff?], and this, I’m afraid, to men who know not America, may bear the face of fiction. Such men I could wish to refer to you, as you must be sensible from your knowledge of this country, that I don’t exaggerate.

“The drum beats to arms, I must therefore conclude with wishing you better health, your King better ministers, and your country a better p____t.”

You have to wonder what “p____t” means, but I’m guessing it wasn’t complimentary.

Locating Items of Interest
In our search for historical context, too often we may overlook newspapers from areas where our ancestors did not live, but this example is a good reminder of how letters were reprinted and how news items can show up in unexpected places.

The trick is in locating them, particularly with early newspapers. While search functionality can help with those available online, particularly the use of keywords, there is typically a bit of browsing involved as well. So be prepared to sit back and enjoy the ride through time.

Things to consider include the speed with which news could travel, the distance between the event and the newspaper in question, and any geographical barriers that had to be overcome. At the time of the American Revolution, news from America to Europe or vice versa had to travel a month or two across the Atlantic and then make its way to a printer, who might not have use for it when it initially arrived.

The use of keywords and a year is a good way to narrow your search for information on a particular event, but it also has its challenges. The old print may be blotchy and spotty and from age or a poor quality printing press, and that can also cause problems. Still, I was pleasantly surprised with the results I was able to find using keyword searches and the year of 1776.

Here’s another article I was able to locate from 06 August 1776:

A letter from Virginia to a merchant in this city, dated May 30, 1776, Norfolk harbour, says:

“The original plan of Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, and others of the faction has at length taken place: The convention of this once happy colony have declared themselves “independent of Great Britain,” and have passed some resolutions for confiscating the estates of “the deserters of their country’s liberties,” (as they call those gentlemen whom they obliged to leave the colony). Mr. Corbyn is the only one from this colony of considerable property; his estate is to be sold by order of the Convention. It is truly astonishing to what an amazing height of madness they have arrived. Mr. Wormeley, one of his Majesty’s council, has been seized on account of a letter he wrote to Lord Dunmore, is confined in the public gaol in Williamsburgh; he is to be tried for treason against the liberties of America, and his whole estate is to be confiscated by order of the Convention.”

Other articles discussed troop movements and fortifications, like this one from 13 August 1776:

“While Gen. Howe was lying at Turtle bay, he despatched [sic] several sloops to New-York, Staten island, &c. to reconnoitre the situation of the American forces in those parts; they returned and informed him, that General Putnam lay at New-York, entrenched with a body of 12,000 men, besides militia; and that for 21 miles up the Narrows to New-York, round to New-England were nothing but intrenchments [sic] and forts full of men. They further informed him that they were forming an intrenchment through the middle of Long-island, to cut off any communication between him and New-York, provided the troops from England, and those under his command, should attempt to make good a landing at the east end of Long-island.”

Learn More
The subject of early newspapers is a fascinating one, as is the early politics of the United States. Two titles that I have in my collection that might interest you are:

Burns, Eric. Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism, Public Affairs, 2006.

McCullough, David. 1776, Simon & Schuster, 2005.

UK Newspapers at Ancestry.com

About the Author
Juliana Smith has been the editor of Ancestry.com newsletters for eight years and is author of
The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at: Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

A printer-friendly version of this article can be found in the Ancestry.com Library.

2 thoughts on “Using Ancestry.com: Historical Perspectives from Abroad

  1. Using the Historical Newspaper Database has been extremely helpful to me as a middle school teacher too. For example, when we have the Drug program, I take in ads for cocaine pills from the 1800′s (purported to be beneficial for the vocal cords). I also found some great articles about doctors whose lives were being destroyed–maybe because of the cocaine pills.

    Some of the cartoons are priceless for showing them changes in society, and for teaching “imply” and “infer.”

    And then there’s a very special personal use–my home town newspaper is one that’s a part of the collection (how lucky can I get?). I was absolutely astonished to see how many times my parents appear. It’s given me a new appreciation for them.

    Thanks, Ancestry.

  2. With reference to “part of a letter from Philadelphia dated May 28″, I would like to hazard a guess at the missing letters in the final word. Given the content of the paragraph – “The drum beats to arms,I must therefore conclude with wishing you better health, your King better ministers, and your country a better p———-t” – the word is most likely “parliament”.
    Not having seen the letter in situ, I don’t know how many spaces there are between the p & t, so I could be way off the mark, but it certainly fits the context.

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