What if you found out your ancestor was a female mining prospector in the 1800s, made a fortune but then lost it all, and later won a lottery and died a wealthy woman? That’s exactly what Lynzi Coffey discovered as she pieced together her family’s story using Newspapers.com. 

Lynzi Coffey

We wanted to share Lynzi’s story, and others from time to time, to show how our members’ research techniques and tips can inspire you in your own genealogical research.

Lynzi had census records for her ancestors and knew they traveled across the country. Plotting the locations where she knew her ancestors lived, she searched newspapers along the route between locations. In the process, Lynzi pieced together the amazing story of her 2nd great grandfather Michael O’Brien and his wife Mary Helde.

Finding Michael in the newspapers required time and patience. O’Brien was often misspelled. Sometimes the “O” was left off, or the apostrophe dropped, and papers spelled “Brien” in a variety of ways (click here to learn how to search for common misspellings using wildcards). Lynzi’s persistence paid off and she found newspaper stories that mentioned his Irish hometown, an employment history, and his family history. She even discovered that Michael was present at the Golden Spike Ceremony in 1869 and found his face in the familiar photo of the rails joining in the Utah territory. It was the resiliency of his wife Mary that really inspired Lynzi.

Michael O’Brien at the Golden Spike Ceremony

Mary Helde was already married when she met Michael, although she did not live with her husband. Through newspapers, Lynzi learned that not only did Mary lose three daughters in their early infancy, but she also had two sons that died tragic deaths. Mary operated a boarding house in Cheyenne, Wyoming when she and Michael crossed paths. She was already independently wealthy having purchased a number of mining claims that apparently paid off. One clipping described her selling her assets for $30,000 in 1866 (about $475,000 in today’s dollars).

Mary left Cheyenne, sold the boarding house and all of her possessions, married Michael, and accompanied him to Nevada and later Utah. Mary described herself as having a “speculative disposition,” and Lynzi realized how true that was when she found clippings of Mary’s numerous mining investments. Sadly, it appears that Mary’s speculation led to a loss of her fortune.

When news came of mining claims opening in North Dakota, Michael left for the Black Hills. Mary joined him about a year later, but their marriage faltered. In 1891, Michael reportedly drowned while swimming, leaving Mary a penniless widow. Unbeknownst to Mary, however, Michael was very much alive. He’d conspired with some friends to stage his accidental death and left town, a fact Lynzi uncovered in Michael’s Civil War pension file.

Alone and broke, Mary decided to take her last $20 and enter the Louisiana State Lottery, where she won $5,000! She then organized a group of women to invest in mining and once again grew her fortune. When Mary died in 1912, she had no heirs and divided her estate among friends who had helped her during difficult times, a children’s home, and her church.

The colorful story Lynzi uncovered on Newspapers.com shocked her. Her tips include searching for alternative spellings, plotting your ancestors’ locations and checking all the papers along the way, and exhaustive searches! “Discovering records about my ancestors helped me plot points in their lives, but finding them in Newspapers.com helped me bring their story to life,” said Lynzi. Have you discovered your family’s story? Try using Lynzi’s tips and start searching today on Newspapers.com.

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12 thoughts on “Newspapers.com Success Stories

  1. Mary was a gutsy and creative woman to have accomplished what she did in that time period. Newspapers.com contains a very large amount of historic newspapers from which I have been able to put together family histories and accounts of daily lives for several family lines. A few times I called to request newspapers from particular areas/towns and before long I found they had been added. Thank you for listening to us.

  2. Great story, but it does raise a pretty fundamental question.

    If she had NO heirs, how could she be anyone’s 2nd great grandmother? Or was she a step-great grandmother or a former wife of the 2nd great grandfather? Accuracy is so important when telling tales.

    I have no living children, that produced children of their own. I will never be anyone’s 2nd great grandmother.

    My husband however, did have children and he will be a 2nd great grandfather. I will be a note in the family tree and that is fine. It still does not make me a 2nd Great Grandmother.

    1. Perhaps she did have other children who lived to marry and have children but the pre-deceased her.

      1. Then she would have had heirs. You heirs are not limited to your children or even your grandchildren. An heir is a person who is legally entitled to inherit some or all of the estate of another person who has died without legal will and testament. If a person dies intestate, without a valid will, their heir receives property according to the laws of the state in which the property is probated. A niece, a nephew, a friend, her church, etc can be an heir but she had no heirs per the paper.

        All I am saying is that they left out the connection, accuracy does count especially in genealogy.

  3. I don’t believe Mary was referred to as her 2nd great grandmother. She was just referred to as Michael’s wife.

    1. Mary Jane Clarke was right. Michael was the 2nd great grandfather, Mary Helde was his wife but also it said Mary had had two sons that had tragic deaths. Since age at time of their deaths was not given there is the possibility they could have had children. But I believe that the ancestry that was being followed was Michael’s. This is fascinating reading and helps to make these historical stories feel alive. Thank you for all the input.

  4. Discovering the story of one’s relatives in old newspapers can be time consuming, fun, and she opening. The stories handed down by 3 or 4 generations can change dramatically. I was told that at one time my mother’s family was cheated out of 7 million dollars. The money was an inheritance left by a rich ancestor with instructions to contact the family after 40 years. If the family could not be verified and authentication made after 7 years, the money would go to the Catholic church. I found the true story and am quite sure that someone must have drank a barrel of hootch to spin that yarn. What actually happened was a stranger in town had fell ill and died. He had about $700.00 dollars on him and left no clues as to his identity. Some of my ancestors had cared for him along with a local priest. The man gave the money to the priest and the priest have it to the church. The relatives felt the man owed them for the card given. By the time my mother heard the story, $700.00 was now $7,000,000.00. The money all stolen by lawyers working for the Catholic church. In reality it was just another brick In the wall my grand mother built against the Catholic church and the pain caused by her father.

  5. Mary Jane Clarke was right. Michael was the 2nd great grandfather, Mary Helde was his wife but also it said Mary had had two sons that had tragic deaths. Since age at time of their deaths was not given there is the possibility they could have had children. But I believe that the ancestry that was being followed was Michael’s. This is fascinating reading and helps to make these historical stories feel alive. Thank you for all the input.

  6. That’s a great story.
    What makes it so amazing is that she did it with a difficult search engine that limits the amount of search terms you can use.

  7. I have heard story’s about my Aunt Sarah on being shot . I found the articles and I wasn’t even born when she was shot and the stories I heard was nothing compared to the articles I read .. The newspaper is worth the money . I do a family tree and love all the information I find .

  8. My father , who was born in 1914 and married at 18 had the misfortune of his mother dying in childbirth with her 9th child at 52 years old. His father was not allowed, by draconian laws in force by the state of Ohio and endorsed by our federal government, to keep minor children. A wife could alone, but not a surviving husband…not a proper parent. One child, a little girl who was five was adopted by an aunt, my father – adopted his eleven year old sister. He adopted, around the same time, another girl; a young street urchin in the small town in WV where he lived with his young wife. This was as an act of decency and also to give his sister a companion in the same grade.
    I of course refer to them as my sisters, even though I was not born until 1950 and am a natural son. I married the daughter of the street urchin, my niece, who is not related by blood. My wife calls her father-in-law, “Granpa.” Figure out the other relationship’s for yourself. Yes, I called my sister both Sis and Mom in letters. How will the future investigators look upon that? Lots of kids got adopted, legally or not, and raised as family members. Blood is overrated. So are legal adoptions. My aunt is my real mom, my mom is my aunt (identical twins and I’m quite sure my Dad was not confused, the sister just more accomodating.) For reasons of propriety I was raised with my aunt (the “not real mom”) and Dad (they were married.) Good luck on your searches – just don’t get too hung up on your absolute definition of what is family. …and family trees. Mine, as you might well imagine, looks like a broomstick!

  9. Adnan,
    Just relax…you will know your friends when you see them. Sounds like you might be trying just a little too hard. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln’s famous book review, “..for those who like this kind of a friend, this is the kind of a friend they will like.” Just as we all have a very personal taste in art, also do we in friends – most of us only ever have one or two really true friends in a lifetime. Sometimes we don’t make them till late in life. Don’t expect too much of others and you will never be disappointed, don’t expect too much of yourself and you won’t feel inadequate. Just be honest to yourself and others and try to leave this planet a better place for your having been here; that will be enough.

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