Civil War-era newspapers get 21st -century treatment

WVU official: Digitizing project will bring a revolution for researchers, amateur genealogists

MORGANTOWN – When John Cuthbert scoured the state’s newspaper archives for his 2000 book, “Early Art and Artists in West Virginia,” he had to give individual pages a top-to-bottom look for news about museum acquisitions, painting purchases, artists’ receptions, art exhibits and the like.

[cleeng_content id="703422996" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]The effort took more than a decade.

But a new project that’s digitizing Mountain State newspapers from the Civil War era will allow anyone to type in key words and conduct a thorough search in just seconds, according to Cuthbert, the director of the West Virginia and Regional History Center at the West Virginia University Libraries.

Writer and researcher John Cuthbert is overseeing the digitizing of historical Mountain State newspapers. He is the director of the West Virginia and Regional History Center at the West Virginia University Libraries.

Writer and researcher John Cuthbert is overseeing the digitizing of historical Mountain State newspapers. He is the director of the West Virginia and Regional History Center at the West Virginia University

“When this is all done, it’s going to be absolutely revolutionary,” Cuthbert said in a phone interview this week. “It’s an unbelievably exciting development, both for professionals who conduct research as well as for those just interested in learning more about their family history.”

The work – part of the National Digital Newspaper Program – is being made possible by a $266,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The NEH and the Library of Congress are partnering with libraries and institutions from around the nation to make history-rich newspapers from across the United States more accessible.

Instead of the old way – “years spent poring over countless pages looking for a needle in a haystack,” in Cuthbert’s words – research now will be possible from anywhere and in a fraction of the time. “The ability to do online full-text searches changes everything,” he said.

So far, the West Virginia digital collection includes some 11,000+ issues of newspapers printed in Wheeling between 1859 and 1898. The papers are available online at Chronicling America,

A handful of other West Virginia newspapers will get the digital treatment, Cuthbert said, and next up is the Spirit of Jefferson, from its start in 1844 through 1899.

“We looked at both politics and geography,” Cuthbert said in explaining how the papers were chosen and why the Wheeling and Charles Town publications won priority. “The Wheeling collection is important because it was the only daily newspaper published in western Virginia at the start of the Civil War and it took a pro-Union, anti-slavery stance. The Spirit is in the eastern part of the state and at the time was a pro-Confederate voice, so we wanted to offer that perspective, too.”

Work on digitizing the Spirit is already underway, Cuthbert said, and will be complete and available to the public in a year or so.

Other papers that will be digitized are the The Weston Democrat, The Weekly Register in Point Pleasant, the Kanawha Valley Star in Charleston, the Star of the Kanawha Valley in Buffalo, the Monongalia Mirror and American Union, both Morgantown, and Cooper’s Clarksburg Register.

Thousands of existing issues of the Spirit and the other papers from the key years before the Civil War through about the turn of the century are stored on microfilm at the Center and will be made available online, Cuthbert said.

Center officials note that the Spirit’s archives will offer insight into how news of the day such as John Brown’s 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry was seen. Researchers also will have access to other important topics from the period including the schism between eastern and western Virginia, the movement toward statehood, the creation of the state constitution, the selection of Charleston as the capital and more.

Beyond the implications for scholars studying the Civil War and its aftermath, the project also will prove a boon for amateur genealogists, Cuthbert predicts.

“Many of us, particularly as we get older, find we want to know more about our ancestors,” he said. “With all this new information online, it’s becomes so much easier to search by name for information related to your family.”

“Now a search that would have taken months or years will be possible from the comfort of your home and will be done in just seconds,” Cuthbert said. “It’s pretty staggering to think about.”


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