Desperately Seeking: Locating Lost Family in Newspaper Advertisements

In the 19th and early 20th centuries the mass migration of people meant that many families were divided, with some members moving, often thousands of miles away to foreign shores, and some members left behind in the home country. The unpredictable and slow-moving postage system meant that extended family members could go months and years without hearing from their loved ones. By the time letters arrived, the family member may have moved on and many times, communication between the family members was lost.

Advertisements placed in newspapers give testament to how many families lost contact with each other. Newspapers carried numerous advertisements in each edition from family members pleading for information on their lost siblings, parents, and other relatives. It was often a last resort in an attempt to locate the missing family member.

How can these advertisements help in our research?

These newspaper advertisements can help fill in missing information on our family trees. They may point to unknown relatives or to a location where a family might have moved to. That may give us a starting point in our search to find a family when other resources have come up blank.  Some will even provide information like a maiden name, a date when the person left his homeland, the emigrant ship name, the parish and county they come from, and even military service details.

In 1895, Anna Hartman, placed an advertisement in the Deseret Weekly, looking for information on her siblings who had left Illinois, supposedly for Utah.

Deseret_Weekly
 “Information Wanted”, Deseret Weekly, 20 April 1895, Page 5 via https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu.

This small advertisement provides quite a bit of information:

  • It states that Anna Hartman is looking for her siblings with last names Judd and Fuller. If her brothers are Fuller’s then this gives us both Anna and her sister, Lisania’s, maiden name.
  • It gives us Anna’s married name (Hartman)
  • It gives us Lisania’s married name (Judd)
  • It gives us Anna’s current location at the time of writing the advertisement (Peoria, Illinois)
  • It gives a supposed location that her siblings were expected to be in (Utah)
  • It states where the family was reared (Warsaw, Hancock, Illinois)
  • It also gives us some background to the previous contact between the siblings (many years without contact).

It’s good to remember that these are only clues and the information in the advertisement is what the person placing the ad remembers or thinks. It may not always be accurate.

Here are a few more advertisements from all across the U.S.  Each one has different information and varying clues to follow-up on. If Daniel Cunningham were our ancestor we would be fortunate to find this advertisement giving military service details.

Irish_American_Weekly_military
“Dublin” Irish American Weekly, Saturday, Jun 14, 1879, New York, NY, Page 8.

Woodburn Mulford simply wanted to go lie in the shade of a palm tree and be soothed by the songs of beautiful maidens. Postmaster Mulford, his brother, placed this advertisement in the Territorial Enterprise of Virginia City, Nevada in 1879. It doesn’t appear that the postmaster was too impressed with his brother’s choice.

Territorial_hono
“Information Wanted”, Territorial Enterprise, Wed. Nov. 5, 1879, Virginia City, Nevada, Page 3.

Occupations, physical description, marriage date and location, name and birth date of a son, and travel plans were all included in this short advertisement in the Honolulu, Hawaii Friend in 1872.

Friend
Friend, Thurs. Feb. 1, 1872, Honolulu, Hawaii, Vol. 21, Issue 2, Page 13.

A few research tips:

  • If you are researching an Irish-born ancestor who came to the U.S. you will find that newspapers, especially those published on the East coast in the 18th and early 19th centuries, are full of advertisements from Irish families trying to locate their missing family members.
  • Don’t limit yourself to the local newspapers where your ancestor lived. Start with a country-wide search and narrow results by date. Families would often put advertisements in newspapers with wider reaches hoping to catch the eye of their loved one or a friend who might know them.
  • Using a search term such as ‘Information Wanted’ will result in hundreds of items to look through. If you are just browsing to get an idea of the kind of advertisements you will find, then this works. However, if you are searching for a specific person, try ‘Information Wanted’ + ‘the person’s name’.

Good luck! I’d love to hear if you’ve had any great breakthroughs using these types of newspaper advertisements.