Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary provides seven practical tips for searching hard-to-find ancestors in old newspapers.
While reading my mother’s Book of Ancestors recently I noticed she had little to say about one of our ancestors, because that person had kept himself out of the public records.
Forebears who didn’t hold public office, own property, or were married in churches or synagogues with lost or private records, are difficult to document. These elusive ancestors can also be difficult to find in historical newspapers, but sometimes they can be found in creative ways. This article gives seven search tips to help find those tricky ancestors in old newspapers.
1) Pay Attention to “Please Copy” Notices
When something noteworthy occurs such as a birth or death, news is first printed locally.
If that person has ties to other areas, then other newspapers may carry the story. Newspapers may do this either on their own accord, or at the request of the original publisher. What you want to watch out for is a “please copy” notice, which can be a valuable clue that your ancestor had ties to another part of the country where you might find additional articles or records about him or her.
In the newspaper article below from New Orleans, Louisiana, we see many examples of “please copy” notices.
- Jesse Sands, formerly of Pittsburg, and his wife Jessie M. Olmsted, passed away within two days of each other. The end of their death notice says: “Newburg, N.Y. and Pittsburg, Pa. papers please copy.” So for these two ancestors, you want to include New Orleans, Newburg and Pittsburgh in your searches.
- J. West Murphy died in Louisiana, but was described as “late of Philadelphia.” The end of his death notice says: “Philadelphia papers please copy.”
- The end of Virginia B. Harrison’s death notice says: “Philadelphia and Cincinnati papers please copy.”
- The end of John Gunderman’s death notice says: “St. Louis papers please copy.”
Because these death notices were originally published in a New Orleans newspaper, you want to search that area for more news about your ancestor. But thanks to these “please copy” notices, you are given additional locations for further searching.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 23 August 1853, page 2
2) Know Your Resource: Understanding the Differences between Small Town & Metropolitan Newspapers
Depending upon the population of a town or city, news will vary. Reasons include:
- Unless a person was well known, there may be inadequate space to present long articles in newspapers from areas of high population.
- In smaller towns this is not the same issue, so there is a tendency toward longer descriptions of events such as weddings and arrests.
- In smaller towns, you may also see more “gossipy” news.
- If a lengthy feature was carried in a hometown paper, another may feel it only deserves minimal coverage, or the opposite may be true. Minimal coverage in one newspaper may result in extended details in another.
- Some publishers may wish to sensationalize or downplay news. Once while researching a hometown newspaper, I found that a neighboring town paper was happy to publish the lurid details of a person’s arrest. It was not published in his hometown newspaper, perhaps to protect the family.
3) Name Variations
People are usually known by a variety of monikers, both formal and informal. Keep in mind that this is the rule, rather than the exception, so don’t ever limit searches to just one version of a name. Include titles, nicknames, initials, middle names without first names, and other variations. For example:
- John Jacob Jingleheimer Smith
- J. J. Smith or J. J. J. Smith
- Jacob or Jingleheimer Smith
- Mr. Smith or simply Smith
- Thomas Edison or Mr. Edison
- The Wizard of Menlo Park
- Mary Stillwell
- Dot Stillwell (her childhood nickname)
- Thomas Edison’s first wife
- Mrs. Edison
- Mina Edison or Mina Miller
- Thomas Edison’s second wife
4) Spelling Variations and Name Changes – Consider Using a Wildcard
One of the most vexing issues occurs with spelling variations, which occur all too often.
An example can be noted with my husband’s birth surname of Szczesniak. Since others were prone to misspelling it, the family had it legally shortened to Sesniak. Unfortunately, that didn’t work as typos are frequent. One of the most common is to change the ending to “ck,” rather than “ak.”
Name changes can be informal. A woman I know was named Jane. It’s a fine name, but prone to various putdowns, including “plain Jane.” Rather than be labeled with this throughout her life, she elected to change the spelling to Jayne.
We see similar variations in the given name of Mary. I use the traditional spelling, but there are many variations including:
- Mamie, Maria, Mariah, Marie, May, Meg, Merry, Merrie, Moll, Mollie, Molly, Pollie, Polly, etc.
If you wish to search newspapers and databases for similar spellings, sometimes a wildcard will work.
There are two types: an asterisk “*” which searches for any number of characters in a name; or a question mark “?” which replaces just one letter. For example:
- Merr* would query the database for any name beginning with Merr, such as Merry or Merrie, followed by any combination of letters. If a woman were named Merriweather, it would also find it.
- Sebasti?n would return both Sebastian or Sebastien.
Also see prior articles on ancestor name research tips for tips on searching for first names, surnames, name spelling variations and more.
5) Overcoming Language Barriers in Foreign-Language Newspapers
Many online collections of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, contain foreign-language newspapers. GenealogyBank, for example, has some newspapers in French, German, Italian and Spanish.
What do you do if you find your ancestor’s name in a foreign-language newspaper, but are not sure what the article is saying about him or her?
There are a number of free online translators available, where you can type in the text from the foreign-language newspaper and receive an English translation.
For example, what if you found this article about your ancestor Georg Clifforeye?
Heiratete seine Grossmutter.
CALAIS, Me., 28 Oktober. Der 18 Jahre alte Georg Clifforeye heiratete seine Grossmutter Rebecca Louise Garnett von St. Stephen N.B., Canada, und begab sich dann mit ihr nach seiner Wohnung, aber kaum war er dort angelangt, erschien Rev. Gaucher, der has liebende Paar getraut hatte und verlangte den Trauschein, wobei er ihm die $10 Traugebühren retournierte und die Heirat für illegal erklärte, wegen der…
By plugging this text into Google Translate or Bing Translator, we uncover a startling story about the young man attempting to marry his grandmother!
New Yorker Volkszeitung (New York, New York), 29 October 1922, page 2
6) Social Notices Provide Many Clues
Many newspapers carried social notices, such as the below example from the Dallas Morning News, reporting the comings and goings of many friends and relatives.
These social columns in newspapers provide wonderful research clues to track your ancestor’s activities as well as personal relationships.
Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 18 June 1904, page 10
7) Broaden Your Searches
Lastly, if you are in the habit of narrowing ancestor searches with specific dates, get in the habit of broadening the ranges.
Marriage details can extend for months, if not years. Look for engagement notices, bridal showers, banns notices, wedding descriptions, honeymoon reports and even “the happy couple has returned” articles.
Death reporting can also extend over long time periods. Right after passing, you’ll find death notices and obituaries, but some may be published long afterward. I’ve seen an obituary as long as one year after someone died. Also watch for legal notices pertaining to probate, which can occur many years after your ancestor died.
Don’t forget to think outside the box. Some reports are made in error. Even with their mistakes, they can contain valuable personal information. One of my favorite examples was addressed in my article The Lessons of Daniel Boone’s Obituary: Check and Double Check.
I hope these seven search tips will help you break through some brick walls and find those elusive ancestors who didn’t leave many records behind – but may well be found in the pages of old newspapers. Good luck with your family history research!