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Newspaper Advertisements: Finding Missing Relatives and Friends

by Thomas Jay Kemp, NewsBank’s Director of Genealogy Products, used with permission.

Today if we lose touch with a friend or relative we can go to the Internet and see if we can track them down on Google, Facebook or a networking site. That’s now—but what did people do before the Internet?

How did people locate missing family, or find lost relatives?

In earlier times, people would find lost family members by placing “missing family” or “lost relatives” advertisements in newspapers.

With thousands of newspapers being published in the U.S. before World War II, individuals trying to find lost family members would strategize and select the newspapers that would most likely be read by their target person, or someone who knew him or her.

These missing relatives and friends advertisements can be a gold mine for genealogists looking to fill holes in their family trees.

They can be especially helpful with Irish American genealogy. Irish Americans living along the East Coast and up into Canada read the Irish World newspaper published in New York City. If you were an Irish American, then the Irish World was the newspaper you would use to get your message out.

Here is a missing family ad printed by the Irish World (New York, New York), 19 November 1904, page 8:

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With a widespread Irish American readership hungry for news of the old country and interested in the successes and accomplishments of their fellow emigrants, these advertisements would be read with a spirit of sympathy for the circumstances faced by the advertising family, in hopes that the reader could be of help.

Look at the first missing family advertisement: searching for Patrick Reilly of Carrickallen, Ireland, a “motorman on a streetcar in New York City.”

You can almost visualize a group gathered on a lunch break or at the local diner in the evening reading these ads. The reader calls out across the room:

Sean: “Hey, Jimmy—you work on the street cars. Have you ever heard of a motorman named Reilly, Patrick Reilly?”

Jimmy: “Not sure, where was he from?”

Sean: “Carrickallen.”

Jimmy: “Where’s that?”

From two tables away: “That’s in County Cavan. John, aren’t you from near there?”

Another man at the table: “The landlady from my rooming house is from County Armagh. She knows everyone from Armagh and Cavan. I could ask her if she knows of a Patrick Reilly.”

Like a Facebook message ricocheting across the country at the click of a mouse, word would flash through this 1904 Irish American network that Edward Reilly of Butte, Montana—originally of Carrickallen, County Cavan, Ireland—was looking for his brother Patrick, a motorman in New York City that he had lost touch with five years earlier.

For genealogists these missing family advertisements are invaluable records. Look at what we learn from just this one advertisement:

  • Name: Patrick Reilly
  • From: Carrickallen, County Cavan, Ireland
  • Departure from Ireland: About13 years earlier [about 1891]
  • Last heard from: five years ago [about 1899]
  • Last known location: New York City; working as a motorman
  • Parents: Mother’s maiden name Hagan
  • Siblings: Sisters: Bridget and Mary; Brother: Edward of Butte, Montana

Another approach people took to find missing persons was to advertise in job-related newspapers.

Like emigration, the lure of the sea was another reason why people left an area and often lost contact with their family and friends.

These missing sailor advertisements are another helpful resource for genealogists. Look at this “lost sailor” ad printed by the Friend (Honolulu, Hawaii), 26 September 1857, page 70:

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This is a typical “information wanted” advertisement inserted in the Honolulu newspaper Friend that was widely read by sailors and others involved in the maritime and naval shipping industry.

The whereabouts of Charles Edwin Greene of New Bedford, Massachusetts, or Providence, Rhode Island, was requested by his mother.

She included his last known information—what ships he was sailing on and when:

  • Departed on: the Garland, which sailed from New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1853
  • Subsequently served on: the Sea Breeze, deserting it on August 1855 at Paita, New Caledonia
  • Now serving on: “some whale ship”

You immediately realize the mother’s anguish: her son had not been heard from directly for nearly four years.

Newspapers are essential for genealogical research. Often we focus our research on local newspapers to find articles about our ancestors published in newspapers close to where they lived. In both of these examples, however, we see that families advertised in newspapers across the county, believing their missing family member or perhaps some friends were likely to be reading those papers and would see the ads.

Bottom Line: Genealogists need to cast a wide net and search all newspapers for their ancestors. Don’t think your assumptions are correct, and narrow your search to only your ancestors’ local papers. If you get too many returns, you can limit your search by date range to restrict the number of search result hits you have to sift through. Just like obituaries and marriage announcements, advertisements can be critical to your research.

Huge Historical Newspaper Archive at GenealogyBank.com
One of the key sources for online newspapers is GenealogyBank.com. Featuring more than 5,700 U.S. newspapers with over 1 billion names from all 50 states, GenealogyBank is one of the most extensive online historical newspaper archives available anywhere, designed specifically for family history research.

Over 95% of our newspaper content is exclusive to GenealogyBank. By providing access to rare and hard-to-find newspapers from 1690 to the present day, GenealogyBank gives researchers the opportunity to discover unique, long-forgotten information about their American ancestors.

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