Small-Town Newspapers: Windows to the Past
Turn-of-the-century small-town newspapers are treasure troves of genealogical information. Offering so much more than just cold, hard facts, these small-town papers reported on the social lives of their citizens, retold the drama at city council meetings, or announced both the routine and the unusual events in the community. These newspaper articles not only confirm facts found in other primary source documents, they can add depth and character to genealogical research subjects.
For instance, I was recently researching a family who lived in the community of Bristol, Pennsylvania, for over fifty years. Three generations of this family worked, lived and died in this town, a town first settled in 1681 on the shores of the Delaware River. The local newspaper was the Bucks County Gazette and it was full of articles and little snippets about this family.
Up until that point I only knew hard facts: names, birth dates, marriage dates. With the addition of the newspaper articles, I learned that the head of the family and his son’s carpentry tools were stolen, confirming their occupations enumerated on the censuses.
From another article, I learned that a member of the family, fresh out of college, worked on the Panama Canal.
I learned that tragedy struck the family when their twenty-one year old daughter died suddenly.
I learned that one member of the family was active in the affairs of the community from a lengthy article describing a vote cast by the male members the Methodist Church, deciding if the females members should have a voice in the business of the church. The head of the family was the chairman and oversaw the rigorous debate and then the controversial vote. He voted “yea” and the yeas won.
Best of all was finding an article revealing the character of one of the family members. After sharing news of his unexpected death, the article reports: “He was a quiet, modest, unassuming man who retained the respect of everyone who knew him.” I did not get that kind of information from his death certificate.
According to GenealogyBank.com, newspapers “are likely the only surviving documentation of the daily lives of your ancestors.” That certainly was the case for the three generations of a family in Bristol, Pennsylvania. For a genealogist, the small town newspaper brought excitement and depth to the historic narrative of this family and certainly opened a window into their fascinating lives.
Here are some newspaper databases we use regularly:
For archived local news about your ancestors, try an internet search for that town’s paper. You may find something fascinating!