One underutilized genealogical source of information that can aid in extending family pedigrees is newspapers. It is well known, for example, that obituaries can provide family names and often maiden or married names of females that might otherwise be difficult to trace. However, obituaries are not and should not be the only sorts of articles sought. Newspapers in general add historical context to the lives of ancestors and report on other non-vital events – some significant, and some more mundane, but all useful. What events might have occurred which led to publication about an ancestor in local, county, and statewide newspapers? In our years as researchers with Legacy Tree, we have encountered a variety of fascinating articles in newspapers about topics ranging from injuries and accidents, lawsuits, disputed wills, birthday parties, elopements, scholastic achievements, military service, and even extramarital affairs published in the columns of local papers. Whether a positive event or not, these gems enable us to learn more about an individual’s life and to get a sense of their personality, beliefs, or challenges.
Newspapers can be invaluable in proving family connections in time periods when birth and death records might not exist. They can also show connections between two different places. Newspapers are found throughout the world. Some difficult Irish research problems have been solved by seeking ancestors in Irish newspapers. In the United States, compiled old colonial newspaper abstracts often carry information which lead to new record discoveries. Newspapers from southern states that did not require vital records until late in history, such as South Carolina, can be useful in finding family members. Evidence of a divorce can be found in the local circulars, which are crucial in states like New York where the legal divorce records can often be impossible to obtain.
In this digital era more newspapers are being scanned and placed online daily. This is especially valuable for older newspapers, which were made from poor paper and are already rapidly disintegrating. Across the world there are many projects to preserve these records for cultural and historical value.
How to Find Them
Online sites allow newspaper access without leaving home. Digital archives for newspapers are growing constantly. Some sites are free, but many are paid subscriptions. (These include websites such as NewspaperArchive, Newspapers.com, GenealogyBank, and Legacy.com, in addition to the large genealogy sites like MyHeritage and Ancestry. Obituaries at FamilySearch.org are free.) Rootsweb has free transcriptions and abstracts of births, deaths, and marriages, as does the volunteer-run USGenWeb. These transcriptions can lead research to local or regional libraries, state and county archives, and many other places where the actual newspapers might be located. Even if no transcriptions are available, online searches for newspapers can lead to several sites with finding aids. Wikipedia and the FamilySearch Wiki have listings of newspapers and the corresponding websites or repositories that host those newspapers worldwide.
Many newspapers can be found with publication starting in the 1850s. This time period was an eventful and important one to the United States especially. The westward migration, Gold Rush, tensions over slavery and new territory, and increasing industrialization all created newsworthy events regularly. Newspapers during the Civil War (and other conflicts) can be invaluable in seeking out ancestors who served or were affected, and conditions in areas where ancestors resided.
Where can newspapers be found if they are not online? In the U.S., newspapers can be found at country, state, county, town, and city levels with all kinds of records to build a family history. The Library of Congress hosts a free site called Chronicling America, and the newspapers are digitized and indexed from its microfilm holdings. County and state archives often hold newspaper collections – sometimes digitized, often on microfilm. Libraries at all levels of government and private sectors have newspaper holdings. Colleges and universities keep or host newspaper collections and databases for research. While most do not, several national newspapers even keep their own archival collection of their newspapers. The New York Times is one such example. Some of their content can be free while other content requires a small fee.
Local libraries in particular should not be overlooked. They might have unique collections of local newspapers on microfilm or microfiche that can’t be found anywhere else. This is especially true if your ancestors were from small, rural towns whose collections may not yet have been picked up by larger digitization efforts. Local and state historical and genealogical societies can also have newspaper items. Applying these same principles, newspapers can be found in country, regional, and local jurisdictions worldwide.
Being creative in seeking newspapers can lead to new information about an ancestor, and specialty newspapers should not be overlooked. There are a variety of such publications, and they cover items such as ethnic, religious, industrial, political, and agricultural topics in the region where an ancestor lived. Hispanic, German, Irish, and other non-English immigrants Immigrated to the U.S. and Canada where they formed close-knit communities and created their own newspapers, often in the language of their homeland to serve their populations. African American communities also spread information in newspapers. Many start from 1850-1900, but there are some as early as 1827, similar to other U.S. newspapers.
Local social columns are among the most valuable articles found in newspapers. They can cover family members who dropped in from out of town or discuss what was happening in lives of people who grew up in the area but moved away. These kinds of articles show migration patterns and make connections between family members living in two different areas.
If family members were politically active or prominent members in society, they will appear in the society columns or be featured in regular newspaper articles. The same is true of a family member who might be wayward. Lists of persons who were fined or incarcerated can be found in newspapers. Trials, court cases, and civil lawsuits are often covered. Administrators and executors of estates are required to post notices about estate sales and settlements. Land transactions frequently appear in brief notices. It is possible an ancestor still appears in the newspaper when no other record exists in an area for them.
In seeking to identify a family connection for the Mayflower Society Lineage Society, an ancestor, Henry, was found in the 1850 U.S. Census at age 5 in Adams County, Illinois, and in the 1860 U.S. Census at age 15 in McDonough County, Illinois. By 1880, at age 25, he was no longer listed in his parents’ household. Census records indicated he had moved to Texas and was married to a woman 13 years older than him. Thankfully, Henry was an artist and a photographer, a fairly unusual occupation for the time period, making it easier to trace him in census records. About 15 years later, he was married in Texas to another woman and was traced through several jurisdictions there. He then moved to Oklahoma. Since Oklahoma has few vital records before 1930, an obituary was located to verify his death. However, it did not provide any ties to his family. Lineage societies require stronger documentation than the 1850 and 1860 U.S. Census records to show family relationships, so more evidence was needed.
The next task was to seek out the parents and siblings of this man. They had remained in the area of Adams and McDonough Counties, Illinois, making it very difficult to tie this young man to his family. Newspaper articles and census records were reviewed. It was found that two repositories, Camp Point Public Library and the Abraham Lincoln Library which also houses the Illinois State Archives, had newspapers that might carry obituaries of family members. They were contacted with good estimates of death dates, but only one of the three siblings of this man, Charles, had an obituary. Fortunately, when it was reviewed, this article did, in fact, describe sibling connections. Charles’ sister took care of their father until his death, cementing her relationship to him. The deceased brother, Charles, named his brother in Texas (Henry) in the obituary, helping to confirm the two men were related. It was then possible through this obituary to build family relationships in other records that the Mayflower Society would accept.
Online Newspaper Archives and Links to Newspaper Sources
- Legacy.com: http://legacy.com (more modern dates)
- Chronicling America: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/
- RootsWeb: http://rootsweb.ancestry.com
- Google News Archive
- SmallTownPapers (250+ small towns, 1865-present), http://www.smalltownpapers.com/
- ProQuest – usually local libraries or institutions
Links to online newspaper archives worldwide:
- Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:List_of_online_newspaper_archives
- FamilySearch Wiki: https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/Digital_Historical_Newspapers
Links to African American newspapers:
- USC Libraries Research Guides, Historical Newspapers, African American & Ethnic Newspapers: http://libguides.usc.edu/c.php?g=234932&p=1561804
- African American Historical Newspapers Online (Cornell University): http://guides.library.cornell.edu/aanewspapers
- The Ancestor Hunt: African-American Online Historical Newspapers Summary: http://www.theancestorhunt.com/blog/african-american-online-historical-newspapers-summary#.V36d9vkrKUk
A few state-specific free newspaper sites (separate pages from Chronicling America):
- Arizona (Arizona Digital Newspaper Project): http://adnp.azlibrary.gov/
- California (California Digital Newspaper Collection): http://cdnc.ucr.edu
- Colorado (Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection): http://coloradohistoricnewspapers.org
- Florida (Florida Digital Newspaper Library): http://www.uflib.ufl.edu/fnp/
- Illinois (Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections): http://idnc.library.illinois.edu
- Indiana (Hoosier State Chronicles): http://newspapers.library.in.gov
- Missouri (Missouri Digital Newspaper Project): http://shsmo.org/newspaper/mdnp/
- Nebraska (Nebraska Newspapers): http://nebnewspapers.unl.edu/
- New York (NYS Historic Newspapers): http://nyshistoricnewspapers.org
- North Carolina (North Carolina Newspapers): https://www.digitalnc.org/collections/newspapers/
- Oklahoma (Gateway to Oklahoma History): http://gateway.okhistory.org/
- Oregon (Historic Oregon Newspapers): http://oregonnews.uoregon.edu/
- Texas (Texas Digital Newspaper Program): https://texashistory.unt.edu/explore/collections/TDNP/
- Utah (Utah Digital Newspapers): http://digitalnewspapers.org
- Virginia (Virginia Newspaper Project): http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/vnp/
- Virginia (Virginia Chronicle): http://virginiachronicle.com/
- Washington (Historic Newspapers): http://www.sos.wa.gov/library/newspapers/newspapers.aspx
- Wyoming (Wyoming Newspapers): http://newspapers.wyo.gov
Would you like your family story told? Love to know what the historic newspapers have to say about your ancestors? The experts at Legacy Tree Genealogists can help. Contact us today for a free consultation.