08 March 2013

Digging for 'gold nuggets' in historical newspapers, specifically The Seattle Daily Times

Generally speaking, our ancestors did not live isolated lives. When they came to America, they gravitated to communities where there were other Norwegians: Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and yes, Washington. Washington may have been the primary destination for some, but often it was the goal of a second migration from the Midwest. They came in search of more land and new opportunities, and sometimes even for the prospect of finding GOLD. 

The key to immigration or second migration, either one, was communication. Immigrants sent and received numerous letters across the ocean and over the great plains. These letters contained encouraging words and sometimes pleas of homesickness. But often the 'news-print' reached for and read around the hearth of the immigrant home was the newspaper. That could be the neighborhood news gazette, or it could be the weekly Norwegian newspaper, like the Washington Posten, with its first issue published in Seattle on May 17, 1889. Equally important, however, was the newspaper of their newly adopted country. In this region that would be the The Seattle Daily Times.
The Seattle Times originated as the Seattle Press-Times, a four-page newspaper founded in 1891 with a daily circulation of 3,500. Alden J. Blethen bought the newspaper in 1896 and renamed it Seattle Daily Times.
Within the newspaper you find numerous features: news, business, sports, society, and local. In many newspapers you also find, near the back of the paper, a section dedicated to neighborhood news. In The Seattle Daily Times you would find columns from Ballard ('Ballard Notes'), Fremont, Redmond, West Seattle, and many other neighborhoods. The newspaper hired individuals to solicit, gather and report news from the various neighborhoods. Each such person was a neighborhood correspondent:
Correspondent (noun) a person employed to report for a newspaper or broadcasting organization, typically on a particular subject or from a particular country. 
In this region, the The Seattle Daily Times had an additional correspondent whose focus wasn't on a region or neighborhood, but on an immigrant heritage. Thomas O. Stine was hired by The Seattle Daily Times to establish the Normannaheimen column, which reported news of interest to Scandinavian-Americans. It first appeared on May 26, 1901 (page 9), using the first graphic (see right) as its column banner. The exact title of the column changed over the years, as did the format and style of the banner. To the right are images of the various column banners that I've found. These are some of the column titles that were used:

  • Sons of Scandia
  • Sons of Norway and Sweden 
  • Sons of Scandia Countries

In the June 29th, 1902 edition of The Seattle Sunday Times, the following notice appeared on page 36.
"All Scandinavian news intended for publication in the Sunday Times should be mailed to Thomas O. Stine, P.O. Box 599, or 1911 Sixth Avenue, Seattle, Wash. News otherwise directed may be mislaid and get too old for publication."
Stine, and others who followed in his footsteps, wrote for a particular audience: the Scandinavians who lived in the region. The information contained in the column varied widely, but typically included items like these:

  • the comings and goings of individuals, listed by name
  • new business ventures established; businesses bought and sold
  • news about what was happening in Norway (or Sweden, etc.)
  • talk about Scandinavians who went to Alaska in search of gold
  • talk of politics, who was or was not running for a public office
  • the arrival of public figures: authors, religious figures, politicians
  • births, marriages and deaths of Scandinavians, both locally and abroad
  • announcements about various Scandinavian societies
  • church news and announcements  
The correspondent might also include his own 'editorial commentary' about a particular issue, or publish a statement from someone within the community. Sometimes the person was named, and in other cases it was left up to the reader to ascertain the author.

I would encourage you to spend a little time time exploring The Historic Seattle Daily Times, 1900-1984. You can access it online at the Seattle Public Library (SPL), by going to (1) Articles and Research, then (2) Genealogy, then (3) The Historic Seattle Daily Times, 1900-1984. You can do all of this from the comfort of your home if you have a SPL library card. This resource is made possible through a generous grant from The Seattle Public Library Foundation.


What makes these newspapers even more accessible today is computer technology and a software program often referred to as OCR.
Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is the mechanical or electronic conversion of scanned images of handwritten, typewritten or printed text into machine-encoded text.
Companies and organizations have been running original or microfilm copies of historic newspapers through an OCR process, to digitize them and make them more readily accessible to the public. The OCR program does this by dividing each individual page into elements such as blocks of text, table, images, and so on. Lines are divided into words, and then into characters. Once the characters have been singled out, the program compares each of them with a set of pattern images stored in its database. It analyzes each stroke edge, the lines between the text characters, and the background. The software then makes a 'best guess decision' on what each character is. The resulting transcribed text is loaded into an 'everyword index', which contains almost every word. The index is then searchable by a 'search engine,' which makes it possible for you use a 'keyword search' to find archived pages that have particular words on them. 


I would like to pass along a couple pieces of advice for when you use a search engine to look for items in a digitally archived newspaper:
  1. Fancy Graphics and Pictures. If you type the word 'n-o-r-m-a-n-n-a-h-e-i-m-e-n' into a search engine, it won't provide results from the first image on this page. The OCR process does not detect graphics or other images - only characters (letters and numbers). So this column banner itself would not appear among your finds. A reference to 'normannaheimen' in the text of the column (or in the text of another article) would show up in the search results, however.
  2. Not all of the issues are available in this database -- some are missing. For example, in 1900 there are NO Sunday editions of the newspaper. Also, it only has one issue (December 22nd) between October 30 and December 31st. In 1901 there are only three issues of the Sunday edition: May 26, July 28, and September 8. It isn't until February 9th, 1902 that the Sunday edition begins to appear regularly in the archive.
  3. Begin with a broad search. You'll want to begin your search broadly, instead of with an individual's full name. If you get too many results, you can always narrow the search. Suggestions for searchable words include surnames, the name of a club or association, the name of a community (such as Cedarhome), or the name of a church.
  4. Be patient and give yourself permission to read the other items on the page. They often provide context for your search, and they sometimes lead to serendipitous finds. On a page that had a worn or damaged original, the OCR software might have misread "Cedarhome" as "Cederhome", for example, but your eye would find it (on a page turned up by a different search) where a literal search on "Cedarhome" by the software would not.
  5. Printing. If you decide to print out something you found, be sure to note the publication name, the date, and the page number where you found the piece, right on the print-out itself. I promise you, you won't regret this step, as you may want to refer back to the source sometime in the future.
To get you started, here are some dates and page numbers where you will find the SONS OF SCANDIA column. In future postings I hope to share some of what I've found in these columns. It can be quite exciting to think that you are now reading what your ancestors read over 100 years ago.

October 12, 1901, p. 13

January 18, 1902, p. 21

June 8, 1902, page 31

May 15, 1903, page 31

December 20, 1903, page 53

July 24, 1904, page 20

1 comment:

Barbara Holz Sullivan said...

Beautifully done, Luci, and very thoroughly researched. I can think of several ways this information will be valuable to many different groups and individuals, not just to those focusing on Scandinavian historical research.