Fact or Fiction?

I have always been fascinated by family stories. It’s those quirky, little-known anecdotes that keep my nose buried in antique newspapers for hours, looking for little tidbits of information to ground those stories in fact – or not.

One collection of stories revolved around my great grandfather, Harry Hamilton. My dad regaled us with tales of Harry and his friendship with Henry Ford, his invention of the vacuum windshield wipers, and even a car, the Hamiltonian. These are grand ideas, but was there any truth to them?

Going on a search in newspapers in the early 1900s for Harry and his Hamiltonian led me to many amazing discoveries about my great grandfather and the time in which he lived. Better yet, some of the stories were even news to my dad!

Newspapers can help tell the stories of your ancestors. It’s one thing to find a census record with your ancestors and their address, but the story becomes richer when you find newspaper articles to make the story more complete. I was able to find the corner address of the home my great grandparents were renting in 1904, along with the person that rented it to them.

Another article from 1908 told the tale of the “landmark” being torn down to make way for my great grandfather’s new “up-to-date, first-class auto garage” for his car business.

Because of the span of time between census records, your ancestors may have moved, and you didn’t even know it. I found Harry in Des Moines, Iowa; San Francisco, California; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Detroit, Michigan. The only one verified by the census was Indianapolis.

The stories you find in newspapers inevitably lead to more stories to investigate. Harry did indeed invent and build a car called the Hamiltonian and started the Hamilton Auto Car Company, which he later sold to pursue other interests. I did not find any information regarding a friendship with Henry Ford or the vacuum windshield wipers, but I found other inventions by Harry. He invented and received a patent for a gas generator. I was able to use Google to find patent information and found the actual patent application and drawings, along with many other inventions and patents by him.

Harry died in 1923 at the young age of 40. I had no idea of the slow (and what had to be painful) death my great grandfather endured. He was hospitalized in June 1923 while on his way to visit the Mayo brothers in Minnesota for a consultation. While in Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, he received radium treatments for enlarged glands and throat issues.

He was able to return home but succumbed to the “malignant sarcoma” in late September. Because he was quite well-known in the automobile industry, his obituary was featured in the Indianapolis Star.

The newspaper stories of my great grandfather currently take up five pages of a Google Doc. Five pages! I haven’t yet exhausted my search, and I have an incredible springboard to continue the investigation into Harry’s life story.

The moral of my story: Do not overlook the power of newspapers. Periodicals of the past contain snippets of our ancestors’ lives not available on census records, birth certificates, and other typical family history “tools.”

To start digging into the past of your ancestors, try a 7-Day Free Trial at NewspaparArchive.com today.

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