Looking for Ancestors in Newspapers

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

Newspapers can be a valuable tool in learning more about our ancestors.

The reason to use newspapers when researching is because sometimes you are able to find addition tidbits of information about people, communities and events. Prior to technological advancements newspapers needed to many times seek out information and stories to fill pages of their newspapers. For this reason, you might find a list of names of people visiting relatives or friends in a particular town paper. Announcements of births, marriages and deaths were almost always listed. Death notices in various newspapers for the same person can hold different information about the deceased. My 2nd great grandfather, Geo Steinbrecher’s death present various articles in newspapers. This was due to the circumstances leading to him being struck by an automobile and later dying from those injuries. There were various articles published about his death within the next few days, including the outcome of the court case for the driver of the automobile. This information only came to light for me thanks to the articles in the newspapers. Outbreaks in America such as the 1858 Scarlet fever and 1918 Spanish Flu epidemics sparked articles that can be found in many newspapers during those years. List of casualties of the epidemics can sometimes be found, as well articles of how the outbreak was handled within the affected communities. During the 1930s you can find several articles about America’s worst drought disaster, known as the “Dust Bowl” through several local and national newspapers. Articles can provide researchers with information that we would not have known about unless we took the time to search newspapers.

Information within newspapers have relatively stayed the same for centuries. They include event notices, obituaries, social columns, classifieds, advertisements, news articles, editorials and much more. The right side of this slide contains a property for sale notification of a home that William Henderson owned at his time of death in 1825. William Henderson is the gentleman that the Town of Henderson in New York is named after. Anyone interested in William Henderson would be interested in this notification because it gives detail of the property at Hyde Park, the neighborhood it is situated in and conveniences that are within reach of the property. This gives insight on the lifestyle that Mr. Henderson was living prior to the time of his death. Information such as this can be very important when doing research. Advertisements are also tidbits of information that can be valuable to a researcher. It can give the researchers insight on what services and goods were available to the community. I recommend not only looking at articles that contain your ancestor’s name in them. While community events or disasters might not list your ancestor’s name, there is a chance that the event may have been something your ancestor attended. Or in the case of a disaster, it could have had an impact on your ancestor. Take time to scan some of the local newspapers that would have been printed when you ancestor was alive. Your ancestor could have read the very words that you’re reading over.

A website that is completely free and will be very useful to locate newspapers is Chronicling America. The website and database are ran by the Library of Congress & National Endowment For The Humanities. The purpose of the site was to provide access to Historical American Newspapers. Some newspapers have been digitized from 1789 to 1963. Searches can be done by State, Ethnicities and Languages. Not all U.S. Newspapers within the Library of Congress have been digitized. There is a tab on the right side of the website labeled US Newspaper Directory, 1690 to Present. This database will give you information to over 150,000 newspapers printed in America. This database will tell you how you would be able to access any of the newspapers. If you have any questions or need help, there is a Ask A Librarian tab on the top of the webpage. They are great at getting back to you within a day or two.

Two popular websites with online databases of newspapers are Newspapers.com and GenealogyBank.com. I have never personally had the opportunity to use genealogybank.com due to it is a site that you need to pay to use. I have had several opportunities to use Newspapers.com because it is a part of my Ancestry.com subscription that I personally have. It doesn’t give you access to everything on the site with your Ancestry.com subscription. Therefore, you do need to pay an additional subscription fee in order to access the Publisher Extra edition that allows access to the entire database of newspapers available on the website. There is an opportunity to access Newspapers.com for Free at many libraries that also have the library edition of Ancestry.com. Not all newspapers can be found on Newspapers.com. Newspapers.com does have a database of over 16,000 newspapers from the 1700s to 2000s. They are continuing to add additional digital copies of newspapers every month. You are able to Search, Browse, Look up Newspapers and clip articles to print, email or save to your computer.

There are a variety of challenges you can come across when searching for editions of newspapers. One of the challenges is that there are still a lot of editions of newspapers that have still not been digitized yet. For those editions that have not yet been digitized the challenged will be locating where you could possibility locate a copy of an edition to view. If you weren’t able to locate newspaper editions in searches through Worldcat.org or Chronicling America databases, I would recommend contacting the local historian or historical society for the area that the newspaper was published from. Even contacting the local library in that area may be beneficial. For towns that are currently abandoned and no longer exist I recommend contacting towns surrounding that area, the state or county archives or college universities libraries. When contacting them let them know that you are trying to track down editions of the newspaper you are looking for.

Sometimes certain events and topics are printed in various newspapers and/or in more than one edition of a newspaper. A notification of a death could be located in the town they were living in when they passed away, but might also be found in a newspaper from a community that they grew up in or still have a lot of family members living in. Some stories of interest to the town might include details of court cases, accident, fires or a union strike which are a few topics among many stories that you could find throughout the newspapers. Don’t just assume that since you found one article about something that there won’t be another article in a different newspaper. Also remember that newspapers weren’t 100% accurate in all their information that was printed. These articles should really be looked at as clues to events. Be sure to check the facts with other sources. When looking through various editions of a newspaper you will begin to notice a pattern of how the newspaper printers print their editions. Such as top stories are always found on first page. Births, marriages and deaths may always appear on the 5th page. You will begin to notice a pattern when looking for certain information. When trying to look for a person, be ready for try alternate spellings. Such as William, could be found printed as Wm. By printing Wm. instead of William it saves on space and ink when printing. Names can also be spelled incorrectly or differently depending on who the informant was that gave the information.

Some tips to help when typing in keywords for searches is using wildcards and variations of spellings. On this slide you will see some examples of using wildcard characters that I used to help in my search for Steinbrecher surname in articles in newspapers. By using the * after the first part of the spelling that I know is always the same, such as Steinbr* I’m able to bring up results for Steinbr-ecker, echer and aker. To search for a name with a letter that could be an h or k, I typed in Steinbrec?er that will pull up Steinbrecher and Steinbrecker variations of the name. Another tip to keep in mind are these common letter mixups in the Optical Character Recognition searches.

Not all websites have the same resources. Some may have the same but may have better tools for viewing newspapers. Always remember to check back with websites you have visited before. Newspapers are constantly being added to the digital databases.

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