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The Joy of Newspapers – Obituaries

My father had the local Fort Frances Times newspaper delivered daily. The thick, heavy Wednesday edition was filled with vital news from the province, and the district including court news that let us know who was charged with what.  I know they were heavy because I delivered them. Copies of the Wednesday edition had to be squeezed into my bag, unlike the regular, thin daily editions.

It was exciting to get your picture in the paper. Copies of the picture would be cut out by Mom and put into her scrapbook. Now, we love looking at those pictures and articles. My favourite newspaper photo is of me skeet shooting. The local Sportsmen’s Club held a fun day when I happened to be visiting. Dad was involved in organizing the event and I went to support him. I got to try skeet shooting. Just so you know, I have no hand-eye coordination. It took me 45 minutes to nick just a little chip off a skeet. The picture is of the patient trainer with me holding the gun. I look like a professional. Unfortunately, the copy from paper does not scan well so I cannot post it.

James Cranston sailed the Great Lakes while his wife worked the farm

Local newspapers are a resource for family historians. We often go to newspapers to look for obituaries. They may contain information on our ancestors that cannot be learned from census or vital records. The inferred stories can be fun. The best obituaries list children or siblings and where they live. If you are really lucky, it will list names of parents. I was unable to find a few of the children of John and Catharine Young (my 3 great grandparents) after they left home. These kids moved to mysterious locations. The obituary of Ann, who died close to home, told me her brother James was in London, Ontario and she had a sister in Wisconsin. That was information I didn’t have and now can look for more records.  

The model farmer, Henry Miller with his model wife, Margaret McColl Miller and children

Something I love about obituaries is the stories that can be inferred from them. I have the obituary for my 3-great grandfather, James Cranston. It states where and when he was born – 1808 in Donaghadee, Ireland. The obituary says he sailed the Great Lakes in the summer to earn money to provide for the family in the winter. He did this until he was in his mid-fifties. Think about it, if he was working on the lakes in the summer, that meant his wife was doing all the farm work.  Women already worked hard canning and preparing food for the winter. I couldn’t imagine her having to add taking care of the fields and animals to already busy days. In the early years, the children would not have been old enough to help. I decided to check the agricultural census records. In Canada, agricultural census records were taken in 1851, 1861, and 1871. Since James married Hannah Rhodes in 1850, I was able to check them all. I was surprised! James never cleared and cultivated more than 10 acres of land. I infer from the obituary and agricultural censuses that James was not a farmer! He was a sailor. His wife was alone all summer and responsible for the animals and crops. Hannah worked hard, but since most of the 10 acres was fodder for the animals it is not as hard as I first envisioned.

Another obituary, one of my gg-grandmother, Mary Smith McColl makes me smile when I read it. I’m guessing Maggie Miller it. In it, she praises herself and her siblings – although the siblings are not praised as highly. The family seems a little bit too perfect. It is a delightful obituary. Here is part of what she said,

Maggie McColl married the model farmer, Harry Miller and made him a model wife. The Miller home is one of the show places of La Vallee.

The Fort Frances Times, March 13, 1924, page unknown

Some newspapers are digitized and found online. Local libraries, historical societies, or museums may have copies of newspapers or indexes. Copies of some papers no longer exist or are badly damaged and only portions of them exist. There are websites that have links to digitized and indexed newspapers. The one I like to use is The Ancestor Hunt. Google newspapers also has digitized papers, although they no longer add editions to their site. There are also subscription sites that charge you to view newspapers. One to find the name of the local newspaper is to contact the local library, or historical society. Someone will know the name of the paper, if it exists, where to find copies of it and if it is indexed.

Obituaries are created at sad time in a family’s life. Because of grief, desire to look better, or unproven family stories can make them inaccurate. As with all sources, you will have to confirm what they say. They may be only a notice of the death with the funeral details or if you are lucky, may tell stories about our ancestors lives and hopefully, reveal a bit about their character.

Sources

1851 Canada Census; James Cranston Household; Tilbury West, Essex, Ontario, Canada West; sub district 63; page 4, line 1; Microfilm Reel C-11720; Library and Archives Canada.

1861 Canada Census; James Cranston Household; Tilbury West, Essex, Ontario, Canada West; page 22, line 12; Microfilm C_1021; viewed May 13, 2016; www.ancestry.com; [database online], Provo, Utah; citing Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

1871 Canada Census; James Cranston Household; Tilbury West, Essex, Ontario; District 1; Subdistrict N-1; page 27, line 12; Microfilm C_9890; viewed May 13, 2016; www.ancestry.com; [database online], Provo, Utah; citing Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Death, Obituary, James Cranston; The Amherstburg Echo, November 7, 1890 – pg. 6; viewed May 15, 2016; http://ink.scholarsportal.info/search/site/%22cranston%22?f%5B0%5D=itm_field_year%3A%5B1819%20TO%201904%5D&f%5B1%5D=sm_field_tyear%3A1890

Death, Obituary, Mary McColl, The Fort Frances Times, March 13, 1924, page unknown. (The Fort Frances Museum and Cultural Centre has indexed the obituaries and has copies for a fee)