If you are conducting historical or genealogical research, you may be doing yourself a disservice if you aren’t researching old newspapers. In recent years, many old newspapers have been digitized and are accessible online. Check out FamilySearch’s list of online newspaper databases here. Newspapers can enrich your family stories by painting a fascinating or revealing picture into your family members’ lives – stuff you can’t capture from census or vital records. Here’s an example.
A branch of my family resided near Jackson, Mississippi after slavery. My father’s great grandfather, John “Jack” Bass of Warren County (Vicksburg), Mississippi, his mother, Beady Bass, her children, and at least three of Grandma Beady’s brothers had all been transported to Jackson, Hinds County, Mississippi from North Carolina. Two of those brothers were named Jackson Bass and Seneca Hatcher. They chose different surnames because in 1830, their former enslaver, Council Bass of Northampton County, North Carolina, had bequeathed Grandma Beady and Uncle Jackson to his daughter, Elizabeth Bass, who had remarried to her second cousin, Jesse Bass Jr., in 1828, and moved to Hinds County. Council had specifically bequeathed Uncle Seneca to Elizabeth’s daughter, Eliza Coggins, who married Jackson mayor, Rhesa “Reese” Hatcher.
Eliza Hatcher died on Wednesday, 24 July 1895, in Jackson. The following newspaper announcement about her death was published the same day. It revealed that she moved to Mississippi in 1843. This was likely the time when Uncle Seneca, her inheritance, was transported to Mississippi before the rest of his family, namely Grandma Beady, her children, and Uncle Jackson Bass, had arrived about six years later, around 1849. They had been purposely held back in North Carolina after Council Bass’s death in 1830, due to the instructions from his will.
Eliza’s late husband, Rhesa Hatcher, who was Uncle Seneca’s last enslaver, had died in Jackson on 14 September 1873. This 18 September article was published in the Clarion Ledger.
After slavery ended in 1865, Uncle Seneca Hatcher and Uncle Jackson Bass remained in Hinds County and resided adjacent to each other in 1870. Per the 1870 U.S. Federal Census, in Uncle Jackson’s household was his daughter, Emeline Bass, who was the topic of another revealing newspaper article.
Nine years later, another newspaper article revealed that Uncle Seneca Hatcher decided to leave Mississippi for Kansas in 1879. He undoubtedly had heard a false rumor that the federal government had reserved Kansas for former slaves. He was an Exoduster, a name given to African Americans who migrated from states along the Mississippi River to Kansas in 1879. Approximately 40,000 Exodusters left the South to settle in Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado to escape racial violence. Also, in the post-Civil War era, many Southern whites had effectively sought to keep African Americans disenfranchised, socially and economically.
Uncle Seneca and others in Jackson had had enough and packed their bags. Because of the rumor, they believed that the West would be their promised land. This newspaper article revealed that he, his wife, and children, as well as 20 others, boarded the train on Monday, 28 April 1879, headed to Kansas.
However, on 3 May 1879, the next newspaper article revealed some trouble in the family. Apparently, when Uncle Seneca and his family boarded the train, Uncle Jackson’s daughter Emeline went with them without her father’s knowledge or consent. He was angry! He then went to the authorities to report his daughter’s alleged abduction.
However, I can’t help but wonder if Cousin Emily aka Emeline thought that she’ll have a more pleasant life if she accompanied her Uncle Seneca to Kansas. The next newspaper article revealed that Uncle Jackson may have had anger management problems. He was jailed several weeks earlier, in April 1879, for “assault with intent to kill.” This announcement didn’t state who he assaulted and why. I hope it wasn’t Uncle Seneca.
Hopefully, Uncle Jackson Bass got a chance to see Emily again before he passed away three months later, on 30 July. The City Sexton’s “Colored” report in the Clarion Ledger newspaper revealed the date and cause of his death. He died of “pneumonia typhoides,” which may have been typhoid fever. The newspaper reported that he was 69 years old.
When Uncle Seneca Hatcher got the “hell outta Dodge,” he apparently didn’t care that he left his plot of land in Jackson. The thick cloud of racism in Mississippi was understandably too much to bear for him. This 20 February 1875 newspaper tax list revealed that he owned two acres in Lot 1 of Clifton Survey.
I currently don’t know if Uncle Seneca and his family made it to Kansas after all. On 26 June 1880, he was recorded in the 1880 U.S. Federal Census, residing in the town of Cairo, Illinois, in Ward no. 4. His occupation was noted as “works on farm.” Interestingly, his niece, Emeline Bass, was also in his household. She had successfully escaped. Many African Americans who left Mississippi for Kansas in 1879 got stranded in St. Louis for months before reaching Kansas. Perhaps Uncle Seneca and his family were among the stranded ones and then they decided to settle in Cairo instead. His oldest daughter Fanny and her husband, Armstead Robinson, made it to Topeka, Kansas, per the 1880 census.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also research the Cairo, Illinois newspaper to see what I can learn. I thought that the 1880 census would be the last record documenting Uncle Seneca’s existence. It was not. On 12 March 1882, the Cairo Bulletin published a “List of Letters Remaining Uncalled for in the Post Office at Cairo, Illinois.” Uncle Seneca needed to go to the post office to pick up his mail. I wonder who the letter was from and what information it contained. That’s likely something I’ll never know. Nonetheless, this newspaper research revealed interesting details in my family’s history than any census or vital record would have revealed.