Consider newspapers a portal to your ancestors. If you are both patient and curious (or just plain nosey) you can use newspapers not only to find elusive ancestors, but also as windows into their lives. Articles can provide clues to where they lived or, if you’re lucky, give you fuller details about what they did and who they knew. A well placed article may talk about a church picnic, listing attendees. You spot one or more of your ancestors there Now you can check church records too. Are they listed in school graduations? Town meeting news? Local events or celebrations? Legal notices?
Of course your first step is to find proof of where they lived. I’m not sure how useful newspapers will be if you don’t have a clue to your predecessors’ location. But if you have a general idea of the vicinity, newspapers can help. When birth, marriage and death records prove elusive, you may be able to find newspaper announcements. First you need to check for digitized local newspapers for the period you think your ancestors lived in a particular place. If your lucky, you may even find an index done by a local library or organization. If there is no index, check any computer search function available to find your ancestor. Once found, stop and take a look through the newspaper they appear in. You find more details about the town and may find more information on your ancestors that the search function or indexer missed. Local social news can be especially helpful. I once found my grandmother and here three small daughters (my mother and my two aunts) mentioned in a note about a local birthday party. As you skim a newspaper you absorb some of the people and stories that were part of your ancestors’ lives.
Pay particular attention to geography. Does your family live near a county or state border? Are you looking at a small town near a larger city? You may have to look outside your specific town. I knew the family I was researching lived in Seekonk for generations. I wasted time when I limited my newspaper searches to Massachusetts. I found very little. Seekonk is right next to the Rhode Island border. Parts of Seekonk were disputed territory between the two states and were actually considered part of Rhode Island at one time. When I broadened my research to Rhode Island I struck paydirt. It turned out that most of the articles where the family appeared were in Pawtucket and East Providence newspapers!
At this point I would normally urge you to think about all the types of information that you read in newspapers. In this day and age, however, I cannot assume that any of my readers have much exposure to current newspapers. And if you do, have you noticed that many papers are carrying less and less useful information. When I was growing up in the 1950s, cities and large towns had multiple newspapers, even with the competition of radio and television. I grew up with several generations of newspaper readers. I’m not sure what future generations are going to do who have to rely on social networking like Facebook and Twitter. But that’ s another discussion, and genealogists always do seem to find a way.
So what can you locate in digitized or microfilmed historic newspapers. Of course there are obituaries. This is the first thing everyone thinks of. But remember, not everyone gets an obituary. I remember looking for an obituary in the Newton Graphic (microfilm) for a man who died in the 1930s. No obituary. But when I was looking at the front page, there he was with all his family information. His death was on the front page because he had been killed when he was struck by a car. This is why it is important to look through a newspaper. The information may be there, just not where you expect it to be.
O.K. So what else can you find in a newspaper. The next thing anyone thinks of who has been exposed to newspapers are wedding and birth announcements. What they might not think of is that events like anniversaries and, yes, family reunions might be covered. And local news does not just cover accidental deaths. Newspapers covered business news, church functions, community groups and projects, farm news, fund raising events, club and Lodge news, military service and veterans groups news, political news (of course), school events, and special event announcements. Look for a newspaper’s social column. There can be a ton of useful information there.
And then there are the listings for unclaimed mail. Unclaimed mail? Why would that be important? Up until July 1, 1847 it was the people who received a letter who had to pay the postage. Often a newspaper would list the people who had unclaimed mail waiting for them at the post office. People who lived in outlying areas often did not make it into town frequently. For good or ill, people who lived in the same area knew each other and tended to know each others business. Eventually a person would see their name listed in the newspaper or would hear about it from one of their neighbors. If curiosity didn’t get you into town, the fact that your neighbors knew about it could overcome an unwillingness on the part of some to pay the postage. So why is this important to you in the 21st Century. If you find an ancestor in these lists, it helps establish where they lived. It’s a clue that might convince you it was worth doing more research in additional newspapers or other records covering that particular time in that specific location.
When you are researching newspapers, you may start noticing that in the 1880s newspapers were considerably longer, with more pages and more stories, than they had been earlier. Before then, most newspapers were limited to about eight pages or less. What happened? Before the mid-1880s, the pages of a newspaper had to be set letter by letter, space by space, punctuation mark by punctuation mark. It was time consuming and limiting. In 1884 the linotype machine was invented. Linotype literally means “line by line.” Newspaper pages could be set up line by line much more quickly than letter by letter. In 1886 the New York Tribune was the first newspaper in the United States to use linotype machinery. Improvements kept being made both to the process of printing type and illustrations. You can thank these inventors for all your family information you are able to find in these historic newspapers.
Now, if you are ready to start looking for newspspers, click one of the links below. It will take you to a printable list of some of the larger resources for online newspapers. Below the links to newspapers online, you will also find articles on how to use them. As usual, I am including both a Microsoft 2010 version and a pdf. Best of luck.
Where to Find Newspapers (Microsoft Word 2010)
Where to Find Newspapers (pdf)
I just discovered a posting from the One Rhode Island Family blog about yet more family information you can get from newspapers. I am including a link because I think you not only will enjoy the entire article, but the entire blog. Take a look at Diane Boumenot’s other postings. In my not so humble opinion it is the best example of a blog that does two things extremely well. It covers a local area and specific ancestors while at the same time explaining basic concepts of research through the material she is presenting. Everyone benefits from this blog. Take a look. (I have an added benefit. Her blog covers my neck of the woods.) http://onerhodeislandfamily.com/2013/06/10/rhode-island-newspapers
Library website: http://www.newtonfreelibrary.net
Genealogy blog: http://thecuriousgenealogist.wordpress.com
Genealogy LibGuide: http://guides.newtonfreelibrary.net/genealogy