Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.

Using Digital Newspapers to Explore American History and Culture

In 1800, the population of the U.S. was five million, but it was about to explode. By 1820 it had doubled. The population was not only growing, but moving: in 1820, eight million Americans lived east of the Appalachians; by 1860 the population was more than thirty million, but half of them lived in the West.

Newspapers themselves grew dramatically during this period—from fewer than 200 in 1800 to more than 3,000 by 1860. Like no other primary documents can, American newspapers published during the first half of the 19th century vividly capture this dramatic expansion of the nation and movement of its peoples.

During the early 19th century, the first "penny papers" were published, ushering in a democratization of the industry that would open new windows onto all levels of society. Widely regarded as the greatest of these penny-paper dailies, the "New York Herald" had the largest newspaper circulation in the world for many years in the 19th century.

Science and technology played a large role, too, in the ability of newspapers to capture 19th-century life in ever more detail and frequency. Steam ships now brought European newspapers to the East Coast every day; railroads took them west overnight.

Then, in 1846, the telegraph made possible the instantaneous delivery of information. This, alongside the formation of the Associated Press, transformed the news industry as never before. It was also during this period that newspapers themselves began to change, in the process opening up significant new avenues for research into gender, race and society in general.

Using Digital Newspapers to Explore American History and Culture

Reading the Lives of Women through Their Obituaries: With Tips for Searching in Historical Newspapers

"In the management of her household, she displayed every good quality necessary to form a prudent and beloved Mistress of a family—regularity and order, neatness and exactness," said the Pennsylvania Gazette about Ann Ross, who died in 1773.

Historical obituaries record what society deems to be of value in a person's life. Death may be the great equalizer but class and gender shape what is remembered and valued. Frederic Endres suggests that studying obituaries "may tell something about the cultural values of a given society, as well as something about the values and attitudes and vocational socialization of the editors who wrote and published the obituaries." [1] Although women's obituaries are generally shorter than men's and are shaped by gender stereotypes, they are one of the few sources that allow insight into the lives of women and their changing roles over time.

In the late 18th century, women were described mostly in terms of their domestic attributes and Christian virtue. Women were judged primarily in terms of three categories: as wives, mothers and as domestic managers. If a woman had a role outside of the home, it was primarily through church activities. It is common to find many obituaries where women are pictured as being blessed with many children, faithful, as a dutiful wife or daughter and praised for their regular church attendance.

Reading the Lives of Women through Their Obituaries: With Tips for Searching in Historical Newspapers

"Out of the Jaws of Death! Out of the Mouth of Hell!" - Dispatches from the Front during the American Civil War

"We are in the midst of the most terrible battle of the war—perhaps history." 1 So wrote General George McClellan to Chief of Staff Henry Halleck and President Abraham Lincoln before the telegraph wires went dead the morning of September 17, 1862. The wires would remain dead all day, as the battle of Antietam consumed the lives of 6,000 men and the fate of the nation lay in the balance.

Indeed, the first report of Antietam's outcome to reach Lincoln would come not from his generals, but from a reporter, George Smalley of the New York Tribune. Smalley had guessed where the two massive armies would converge, and was there from the beginning, joining General Hooker on horseback. During a crisis early in the battle, Hooker's attention was drawn to Smalley, who was gazing at the battle around him with cool aplomb. "In all the experience which I have had of war," Hooker would later write, "I never saw the most experienced and veteran soldier exhibit more tranquil fortitude and unshaken valor than was exhibited by that young man." 2

Early in the fighting Hooker turned to Smalley and enlisted him as his official messenger to his officers, which put Smalley in one of the most dangerous and important roles on the battlefield. Smalley had two horses shot out from under him, but lived to not only deliver Hooker's orders but to observe the entire battle so keenly that his published report in the Tribune came to be known as the standard against which all battlefield reporting would be measured.

That Smalley managed to do this at all is surprising enough, but that he did it so well almost defies belief. A sample:

"Out of the Jaws of Death! Out of the Mouth of Hell!" - Dispatches from the Front during the American Civil War

Slinging Mud and Talking Trash: The Gutter Age of American Journalism

The Golden Age of America's founding was also the gutter age of American journalism. It seems a remarkable paradox. And the Founding Fathers were both the perpetrators and the victims of this brand of journalism.

The Declaration of Independence was literature, but the New England Courant talked trash.

The Constitution of the United States was philosophy, but the Boston Gazette slung mud.

Its chief mud-slinger was Samuel Adams, whose name has become far more credible as a brand of beer than it ever was as a brand of reporting. Adams wanted the colonies to be free from British rule—legislatively if possible, militarily if need be. And toward that end he not only wrote lies about egregious behavior on the part of British soldiers and diplomats stationed in Boston, behavior that never happened, but urged violence to punish them.

In at least two cases, the violence was carried out: against Andrew Oliver, who was appointed to collect taxes in Boston under the Stamp Act, and against Thomas Hutchinson, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, whom Adams accused, falsely, of being one of the architects of the Stamp Act. Adams seems as well to have been one of the organizers of the Boston Tea Party, and it was probably in the back room of the Boston Gazette that the colonial marauders applied their Indian makeup and took their bows to one another when the tea had been dumped into the harbor.

Other newspapers took their cue from Adams, the Pennsylvania Journal publishing a list of punitive measures being considered by Parliament in the wake of American opposition to the so-called Intolerable Acts. None of it was true; all of it was incendiary, Sam Adams-inspired journalism for the purpose of rousing public opinion, not reporting the facts.

Slinging Mud and Talking Trash: The Gutter Age of American Journalism

Puritan Amnesia and Secular Attitude: Newspapers and National Identity in Revolutionary America

For many, the American Revolution represents the beginning of our history as a society. In the public memory of the past, the preceding colonial years are relegated to Puritan pre-history, as if only after 1776 we began to walk upright. This assertion of public sentiment can be traced through diverse sources, including civic commemorations, historical fiction and America's early newspapers.

This pre-history was not akin to a period of prelapsarian innocence. There is evidence that America's newly minted citizens were reluctant to embrace their Puritan heritage. A unique feature of American newspaper accounts in the years between 1776 and 1784 is the absence of any allusion to that biblical and metaphorical "city on a hill" invoked by John Winthrop, incoming governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in his 1630 sermon preached on board the Arbella bound for New England. "The eyes of all people are upon us," Winthrop said, and warned that if the Puritans made a mess of things, they would become global laughingstocks. 1

If the "eyes of all people" were upon the colonies in 1776, the colonists—at least those whose letters and opinions appeared in the papers—were not interested in having that gaze cast backward at their Puritan forebears. Francis J. Bremer, who detected a similar evolving pattern of Puritan neglect in Boston's civic commemorations, concluded that "the first symptoms of Winthrop amnesia emerged as early as 1905." 2 Judging from the manner in which Winthrop and the Puritans were treated—or not—by the revolutionary press, amnesia set in significantly earlier than that.

Puritan Amnesia and Secular Attitude: Newspapers and National Identity in Revolutionary America

Pursuing Democracy: The First Hispanic Newspapers in the United States

In 1807, French intervention in Spain and Napoleon's puppet government in the Iberian Peninsula propelled many Hispanic intellectuals to the young American Republic. There, they translated into Spanish the U.S. Constitution and the ideas of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. These translations were published by early American printers in Philadelphia, and their own ideas about democracy were disseminated to Spanish-language newspapers published in New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere. From the United States, the newspapers were often smuggled back to homelands across the Atlantic and the Caribbean. It was this publishing foundation that enabled the fathers of Spanish-American republics to interpret American liberalism and democracy, in order to envision what their own governments could and should become once independence was achieved.

Because Hispanic intellectuals often went into exile in New Orleans, Philadelphia and New York, early Hispanic newspapers were founded in those cities. The first Spanish-language newspaper published in the United States was El Misisipí, founded in New Orleans in 1808 to advocate the independence of the Spanish colonies in the New World. Likewise, the first newspaper to be issued in what is now the U.S. Southwest was La Gaceta de Texas (1813), which supported the independence of northern New Spain. Largely through such newspapers, patriots, founding fathers and philosophers from as far away as Buenos Aires and Lima participated in political movements from U.S. shores.

Pursuing Democracy: The First Hispanic Newspapers in the United States

On the Trail of Crispus Attucks: Investigating a Victim of the Boston Massacre

If American history students can name any victim of the Boston Massacre, it is almost certainly Crispus Attucks. He became a symbol of African-American patriotism for the Abolitionists of the 1800s and for civil rights activists of the 1900s. Yet Attucks' name doesn't appear in the first newspaper reports about British soldiers shooting into a violent crowd on March 5, 1770. That's just one of the mysteries that students can explore by using the Archive of Americana to examine the Boston Massacre.

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In colonial Boston, some newspapers were published on Mondays and some on Thursdays. Because the shootings on King Street occurred on the evening of Monday, March 5, the first press reports didn't appear until Thursday, March 8. The Boston Chronicle stated that among the dead was "A Mollatto man named, Johnson."

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The same day's Boston News-Letter provided more information about this victim:

A Mollatto Man, named Johnson, who was born in Framingham, but lately belonging to New-Providence, and was here in order to go for North-Carolina, killed on the Spot, two Balls entering his Breast.

On the Trail of Crispus Attucks: Investigating a Victim of the Boston Massacre

Cultural Conflict and the Battle of the Sexes in Hispanic American Newspapers

Among the various types of writing in early-20th century Hispanic American immigrant newspapers was a genre essential in forming and reinforcing the attitudes of Hispanic communities. It was the crónica, or chronicle, a short, weekly column that humorously and satirically commented on current topics and social habits. In Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, the crónica had already been cultivated extensively and had helped to define national identity over the course of the 19th century.

In America, however, the crónica came to serve purposes never imagined in Mexico or Spain. From Los Angeles to San Antonio and even up to Chicago, Mexican moralists assumed pseudonyms (in keeping with the tradition of the crónica) and, from this masked perspective, wrote scathing satirical commentaries in the first person. As witnesses to both American and Mexican culture, the cronistas were greatly influenced by popular jokes, anecdotes and speech, and in general, their columns were a mirror of the surrounding social environment.

Cronistas battled with religious fervor to protect Spanish language and Mexican culture against what they saw as Anglo Saxon immorality. This was done not from the bully pulpit but rather through sly humor and a burlesque of fictional characters.

Cultural Conflict and the Battle of the Sexes in Hispanic American Newspapers

Creating the Fourth Branch of Government: The Role of the Press in Pennsylvania's Constitutional Debates

The views expressed in this article are the author's and not necessarily those of the Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, or the United States Government.

When the meeting of the Pennsylvania State Assembly received the Federal Constitution in September 1787, the idyllic excitement that had emanated from the Federal Convention shattered. The leaders of Pennsylvania—the first state to witness a large and heated public deliberation over the Federal proposal—quickly turned to the press to gain public support. Historians have typically acknowledged Pennsylvania as a leader in the ratification debates, setting the blueprint for state campaigns to come. Historian George Graham summarized the dominant historiographical argument when he wrote, "In practical terms, Pennsylvania was the heart of the new nation both socially and economically. In symbolic terms, it was its political center. During the ratification process, this symbolic status proved to be in many ways the most significant."1 While correct in identifying the state's leadership role, Pennsylvania's most significant contribution came through its use of the press.

Pennsylvanians had long argued over many of the issues addressed in the Constitution, including representation, taxation and others. However, by its very nature, the Constitution raised the stakes of t hese debates and further polarized the citizenry. Each faction then relied upon the press to spread and court public support. George Washington confirmed the influence of the press when he commented to an associate that "[ratification] will depend … on literary abilities and the recommendation of it by good pens."2 Pennsylvania's ratification debates reveal the transformation of early American political life from one primarily dictated by personal reputation and influence to one controlled by print.

Creating the Fourth Branch of Government: The Role of the Press in Pennsylvania's Constitutional Debates


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