Deseret News archives
Volume 1, Number 1, of the Deseret News, Utah Territory's first Newspaper, from June 15, 1850.

Local historical newspapers are one of the most productive and colorful sources for stories about your ancestors. The stories from where your ancestors lived may range from trivial or even funny to tragic. The increasing availability of digitized copies of local newspapers from free online websites can help your family history come alive. Here is a sample of a story transcribed from the Southern Utonian for Sept. 21, 1883, that mentions my great-great-grandfather, Sidney Tanner:

“Some sneak thief, or thieves, killed and dressed a six month’s old calf one night last week, on the town lot formerly owned by our respected citizen Allen Tanner. Said calf was the property of Mr. Sidney Tanner. The head and entrails were left on the ground. It is pretty well understood who the thieves are, and they have been spotted for some years, and now that they are becoming emboldened their detection is only a matter of time.”

Apparently, long ago in Beaver, Utah, the wheels of justice rolled very slowly. This quote comes from a huge online digital collection of Utah newspapers called the Utah Digital Newspaper Project containing over a million pages of historic Utah newspapers. The Utah Digital Newspaper Project is funded in part by the much larger Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers project on the Library of Congress website and by the National Endowment of Humanities.

Family history is much more than a collection of names and dates. Some of the stories from the old newspapers give a glimpse into what we might consider a simpler time, but there were challenges nonetheless. Here is another short story from the Southern Utonian for June 6, 1884:

“On Wednesday night clothes were stolen from Messrs. Sidney Tanner’s and John Swindlehurst’s premises. It is to be hoped that the thief or thieves will be caught and punished. It is also to hoped that our citizens will not leave their clothes hanging on the lines over night to tempt the despicable thieves.”

Not all the stories deal with criminals. Some of the stories can give interesting and even amusing insight into the daily challenges of living on the “frontier.” Here is yet another story from the Southern Utonian of June 27, 1884, about Sidney Tanner and his wife, Rachael:

“On Wednesday forenoon while brother Sidney Tanner and his wife Rachael were attempting to cross North Creek at their farm in the West field, they came near being drowned. The team went down a steep bank into the stream and were unable to pull the wagon up the opposite bank. The water swayed the wagon round and brother and sister Tanner jumped out into the water on the upper side and the wagon upset. The horses were saved by butting the tugs, thus releasing them from the wagon. In the meantime parties laboring nearby helped the worthy man and wife out of the water saved them from a watery grave. The wagon was badly broken and cost about two hours hard labor, to get it out by peace meals. Brother Tanner lost his coat, spring seat, shovel, monkey wrench and pitchfork. Bro. and sister Tanner seem none the worse for their risky bath. They desire us to tender their sincere thanks to the parties who so kindly rescued and assisted them in the hour of peril.”

This story would seem to be unremarkable except for the fact that Sidney Tanner was 75 years old when it happened.

The digital newspaper collections give family historians the ability to search the entire newspaper, word by word. No event was too trivial to report. Many of the news stories give details about social events and are careful to report all the participants and especially to note those from out of town. Here is an account of a surprise party in Beaver, Utah, from the Southern Utonian for Sept. 14, 1888:

“The older members of the First Ward S. S. and a few friends convened in the Assembly Hall on Monday evening last in honor of the 39th birthday of Bishop C. D. White. Singing, dancing, instrumental music and other exercises were had. The bishop not understanding the nature of the gathering had failed to put in an appearance and the delegation was dispatched after him. Upon his entrance into the house he was greeted with a thunderous round of applause at the close of which he was presented with a large framed steel engraving of Brigadier-General Joseph Smith. The presentation was made by Supt. R. Maeser in behalf of the School. The bishop responded in a neat little speech. The occasion was one long to be remembered, and the Utonian joins in wishing Bishop White many such happy returns of his natal day.”

Some of the accounts are not so detailed. Here is a shorter one from the Richfield Reaper dated Aug. 6, 1925:

“Mrs. Binning Goold entertained Wednesday complimentary to her sister, Mrs. C. M. McGinnis of Los Angeles, Calif. A pleasant chat with a sumptuous luncheon were the diversions.”

The early newspapers are also full of the usual birth, death and obituary announcements. When my great-great-grandfather Sydney Tanner died in Beaver, obituaries of his death appeared as far away as Ogden in the Ogden Standard of Dec. 7, 1895. This was only two days after his death in Beaver, 235 miles away from Ogden. It is important to realize that accounts of our ancestors are not necessarily confined to those newspapers near the place where they lived. Death notices and obituaries are a valuable source of very specific information about an ancestor’s family, but may also contain stories and details that help to bring them alive in our day. Here is a transcript of the death notice cited above:

“Death of an Old Pioneer.

Beaver, Utah, Dec. 6 — Sidney Tanner died here last night, at the ripe age of 86 years. He was a very prominent man in the early history of Utah, having joined the Mormons in 1832, at New York, where he was born. He followed Joseph Smith to Kirtland in 1835 and in the fall of 1845 arrived in Utah. From Utah he went to California where he lived eight years and has since lived in southern Utah. He leaves a large family and is widely related throughout the territory. His life has been one of activity and he has always been noted for his sterling qualities as a man."

A word of caution: It is important to check any of the dates mentioned in news accounts. Although the date of death is essentially correct in this news article, it is doubtful that Sidney Tanner arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1845, two years before the first pioneer company.

Almost every town had its local newspaper. Many of these local newspapers have been digitized, and there are dozens of websites large and small containing searchable copies of the newspapers. Some of these sites require a subscription that may be available for free through local libraries. If you take the time to search, you may be rewarded with some choice insights into your ancestors’ lives.

James L. Tanner has more than 32 years of experience in genealogy. He blogs at Genealogy's Star and Rejoice, and be exceeding glad … . He presently serves as a missionary at the BYU Family History Library.