Small Town Newspapers as Pseudo-Directories

One of the challenges researchers in rural areas of the United States have is the dearth of directories. Many urban areas beginning in the 19th century have extensive runs of yearly directories. While these publications have their pitfalls (generally only listing “heads of household” and working adults in the household), at least they exist and they are generally alphabetical in nature making searching for specific individuals somewhat easier.

One way to potentially make up for this gap is to use small-town newspapers, using mentions in the correspondents’ columns to infer residential clues. The difficulty is that locating these items in unindexed newspapers is tedious and time consuming. That’s changing as more and more newspapers are online in digital format with full-text search capabilities.

The two biggest caveats about using these items is that not every small town resident appears in these columns and digital indexes are far from perfect. But one may be surprised how often some people are mentioned in these small town columns–often people that might not be thought of as social butterflies.

In December of 1959, there was a surprise birthday party for my grandmother’s sister in the big city of Loraine, Illinois. The event was mentioned in the Warsaw [Illinois] Bulletin complete with names of attendees and residences. In this case the locations were not a big surprise to me, but in some situations they could have been helpful. Sometimes even knowing a person has moved from one part of the county to another can be helpful. As in most research situations, whether a piece of information is “helpful” really depends upon your problem.


My uncle Herschel Neill was a career military man from World War II through the 1960s. He frequently returned “home” for family reunions and various other functions when he was able. His city of residence was often listed in these references. While he does appear in city directories in many of these more urban locations, the references in to him in his hometown newspaper help me to confirm that I have the correct person. Admittedly the name of Herschel Neill is not common and connecting the dots is not difficult. For names that are more common, references  to him with a city of residence in his “hometown” newspaper would have helped in making certain I had the correct person.

Note: Our citations on these images are short, but we’re still trying to leave enough detail that a citation in the spirit of Evidence Explained  can be crafted. It is possible to create citations and not worry about commas and semicolons.



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