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Genealogy and the free press

It wasn’t the first newspaper in America, but it was the first daily newspaper in America.

It was called the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser, and it began publication in Philadelphia on September 21, 1784 — exactly 234 years ago today.1

The Pennsylvania Packet

At first glance, it doesn’t seem that that first issue was filled with personal details: there are an awful lot of commercial snippets, ship sailings and the like.2 Not much, someone might think, for a genealogist to use.

But The Legal Genealogist knows better — and you do too:

• If you’re descended from Thomas Procter, the sheriff of Philadelphia County, wouldn’t you want to know that he was standing for re-election in October 1784 and was seeking the support of “the Respectable FREEMEN, ELECTORS for the City, Liberties, and County of PHILADELPHIA”?3 Or that his adversary in that election, Joseph Cowperthwait, also wanted the support of “the Free and Independent ELECTORS of the City, Liberties, and County of Philadelphia”?4

• Have any ancestors who were Masons in Philadelphia then? You’d surely want to know that the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania was meeting on Monday the 27th, according to a notice by Joseph Howell, the Junior Grand Secretary.5

• Related to the Ash family? This issue of the newspaper will tell you that Joshua Ash, a victualler from the Northern-liberties of Philadelphia, had died, leaving no will, and Abigail Ash, Thomas Britton and Aaron Oakford were the administrators of his estate.6 Oh, and that his house was in Darby Township, Chester County, and he owned “a number of blooded mares and colts … working oxen, milch cows, and other cattle,” plus a variety of farming products and tools.7

• Louis D’Orfiere had dissolved his partnership with Mr. Quesnay, but was going to carry on his dancing school anyway, but would “take none into his school but persons known by their good behavior, and he will take care that good order and decency is maintained in it.”8

• Jacob Baker had all sorts of superfine and second broadcloths and much more for sale at his store “in Market-street, between Front and Second streets, opposite Laetitia-court, which he will sell by the Bale, Package or Piece, on the most reasonable terms.”9

• On 17 September, the store of William Poyntell near the Courthouse in Philadelphia was broken into and an iron chest removed, containing $896 in notes. Other items taken were $150 in gold and silver, shoebuckles, jewelry and more.10

• Isaac Hazlehurst had a store on the east side of Second-street, between Arch and Race streets, and what he had for sale! Genuine Madeira wine. Rhenish wine of the vintage 1766. Holland geneva in cases of 12 bottles. Snuff. Pepper. Window glass and looking glasses. Gloves. Mitts. Death head buttons. Printed handkerchiefs. And more. 11

There’s so much we can use in these very earliest newspapers, even with their commercial focus. We just have to dive in and find and use them. And there are a lot of options, paid and free, to find that one newspaper we need:

Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, from the Library of Congress

Old Fulton NY Post Cards, not just New York despite the name

Google News Archive


GenealogyBank (available to FindMyPast subscribers)

And that’s not all. There are so many other possibilities to find newspaper collections. Most states have a digitization project (use your favorite search engine and the search term “newspaper” with qualifiers like “historic” or “digital” or “project”). And it’s always a good idea to check Cyndi’s List and entry portals like Elephind, The Ancestor Hunt, and Online Historical Newspapers.

Oh, and the first newspaper ever published in America? It was Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick. It was “printed by Richard Pierce and edited by Benjamin Harris in Boston on September 25, 1690. It contained three printed pages and one blank. The pages were about 6 x 10 inches in size in a folded sheet of paper.”12

That, by the way, was the only issue ever published–it was shut down four days later:

Four days after distribution, the Governor and Council issued a statement disallowing the publication, claiming it had been issued “Without the least Privity or Countenance of Authority.”

Declaring “high Resentment and Disallowance of said Pamphlet,” the government ordered that Publick Occurrences be “Suppressed and called in.” It was further ordered that nothing would be set to print in the future without prior authority.

Ultimately, the first newspaper published in America became the first to be suppressed by the authorities.13

Note: Yes, I’m aware that the website appears to have lifted what looks like the entirety of the website (including my own photos and photos of my family members), has watermarked them and is passing this off as its own work. There is no site owner identified on the site; it’s apparently hosted in Cyprus; the associated phone number is out of Florida. This sure looks to me to be a copyright violation as to every contributor of original photos to as well as the compilation copyright of, now an Ancestry property.

The official statement from Ancestry is: “Ancestry recently learned about, which appears to improperly feature user-submitted copyrighted material that was sourced on Ancestry’s FindAGrave website. We take this issue seriously and will take the necessary action.”

We’re waiting…


  1. See “The Nation’s First Daily Newspaper Began Publication September 21, 1784,” America’s Story from America’s Library, Library of Congress ( : accessed 21 Sep 2018).
  2. Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, 21 Sep 1784, pp. 1-4; digital images, ( : accessed 21 Sep 2018).
  3. Ibid., p. 1, col. 2.
  4. Ibid., p.1, col. 3.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., p. 1, col. 5.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., p. 3, col. 4.
  10. Ibid., col. 5.
  11. Ibid., p. 4., col. 2.
  12. The First Newspapers in America,” PaperAge (Nov-Dec 2004): 52-55; PDF, ( : accessed 21 Sep 2018).
  13. Ibid.
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