Find Your Ethnic Ancestors with Historical Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena provides some search tips and advice to help you research your ethnic ancestors.

Are you searching for your ethnic ancestors and not having much luck finding information about them? Historical newspapers are a great resource for this type of family history research because they are the great equalizer. Whether for good or bad, depending on the time period, your ancestor could have been mentioned in the newspaper.

But, finding an ethnic ancestor isn’t as easy as conducting a singular search and then you’re done hunting your heritage. No, sometimes tracing your ethnic roots takes a little more than entering a name in a search engine. Consider the following tips to enhance your ethnic ancestry research.

GenealogyBank's search page for its African American newspapers collection

Search in Ethnic Newspaper Collections

Often when we are doing newspaper research we focus on a specific newspaper that we know existed in the city where an ancestor lived. But the reality is that there could have been multiple newspapers that reported on an area. In the city where I live, there are at least three major newspapers reporting on our area—and that’s not counting the numerous community and ethnic newspapers that also report our local news.

Ethnic communities often had their own newspapers, making them a valuable resource to trace your immigrant ancestry. Because of possible immigrant and racial prejudices, you may have a better chance of finding news about an ethnic ancestor in an ethnic newspaper than a generic area newspaper. For this reason, make sure that you don’t limit your search to just one newspaper. For each place your ethnic ancestors lived in the United States, look to see what ethnic newspapers existed for that time period.

a graphic promoting GenealogyBank's French-language newspaper collection

GenealogyBank houses various special ethnic newspaper collections and foreign language newspapers:

GenealogyBank houses various special ethnic newspaper collections and foreign language newspapers:

a list of GenealogyBank's German American newspapers

Because GenealogyBank is constantly adding to its online collections, it’s important to check back often with the GenealogyBank Blog or the Newsletter Archives section of the website’s Learning Center. Click here to search GenealogyBank’s complete newspaper title list.

How to Search for Your Ancestor

How do you search for an ancestor? The first obvious way is to search by your ancestor’s name. As you do this search, don’t forget all the possible combinations and misspellings of your ancestor’s name. Obviously if their name is terribly misspelled you could miss articles that document their lives. Keep a list of variations of their name and try each and every one. This list should be an active document that you add to as you find new “interesting” way to spell your ancestor’s name. Also, try searching on your ancestor’s name using wildcard characters such as an asterisk. See our other post about ancestor name research for additional tips.

a graphic promoting GenealogyBank's Hispanic American newspapers collection

In addition to their name, what other ways can you search for an ancestor? Instead of searching on an ancestor’s name only, combine your name search with various keywords and keyword phrases with dates. (A keyword or keyword phrase may be something like “railroad,” “St. Mary’s Catholic Church” or “Victoria Middle School.”)

In fact, on GenealogyBank’s search page you do not have to search with an ancestor’s name at all. You could focus your ancestor search on just keywords and dates. You can even exclude certain keywords from your ancestor search in order to narrow down your results.

GenealogyBank's search page for itsHistorical Newspapers collection

Think about alternative ways to search for an ancestor, like the name of an event, the name of the school or church they attended, or the name of their occupation. Even searching the names of their associates might help to uncover articles where they are mentioned. Make a timeline of the events they participated in and consider using some of those events as keywords for your search.

Get to Know the Newspaper

Probably one step we all tend to skip in our genealogy research is learning more about the resources we use. By learning more about that resource, you can better learn how to search it.

How do you get to know a particular newspaper? Take some time to read it, page by page, during the time period your ancestor lived in that area. What columns existed? In what sections are community members mentioned? What community groups are regularly discussed? Can you find specific news articles on certain days? What pages feature the obituaries and vital records announcements?

Reading and understanding the whole newspaper, not merely searching it out of context, can provide you not only with important information to help you search for your ancestor—it can also give you important social history information. Mentions of events or activities that went on while your ancestor was alive might give you some ideas for additional documents to research. Social history information can also be integrated into your family history narrative as you tell the story of your ancestor’s life.

search page for GenealogyBank's Irish American newspapers collection

Don’t Give Up

Ancestry research isn’t always as easy as simply entering a name and pushing the search button on the largest newspaper where your ancestor lived. Sometimes you’ll need to think in terms of your ancestor’s community and the times they lived in, to help you narrow down possible events and activities they took part in. Keeping a list of all possible variations of a name, and adding to that list, can help you not miss important articles. If you’re searching for an ethnic ancestor, see what ethnic newspapers were published for the time and area where your ancestor lived, and search those papers thoroughly.

a list of GenealogyBank's Jewish American newspapers collection

One of my favorite sayings is: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” I firmly believe this is true for genealogy research. Because we can’t know everything that may exist for an ancestor, be open to incorporating differing search strategies, enhance your family history research by studying your ancestor’s community, and search ethnic newspapers—and you will be closer to finding the information you need.

Related Ethnic Blog Articles

102-Year-Old Ex-Slave Once Shook Abraham Lincoln’s Hand

I ran across this interesting obituary in an old newspaper today. It ended with this line: “She once shook hands with Abraham Lincoln.”

In 1912, or even today, it would be impressive to know someone who shook hands with a President—especially one of the stature of Abraham Lincoln.

There were, no doubt, many highlights over the course of Mrs. Catharine Pride’s 102 years. She was born an African American slave in Virginia in 1810, and after the Civil War had lived in Germantown, Pennsylvania, for more than 40 years.

Now—put that in context. She was born an African American slave and she had the opportunity to meet and shake hands with Abraham Lincoln, the man who freed the slaves. It must have been a very powerful moment.

Catherine Pride Obituary - 102 year old slave shook hands with Abraham Lincoln

Reclaim your ancestors’ stories and make sure the family knows the details of your ancestors’ lives, like this obituary of Mrs. Catharine Pride published in the Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 19 January 1912, page 7.

You can discover a wealth of information in our full historical newspaper archives or explore only your African American ancestry in our African American newspapers collection.

Henry ‘Hank’ Aaron: Baseball Superstar, Humanitarian—& Gentleman

As regular readers of this blog know, GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives are a great resource to research your family history and fill in details on your family tree. These newspapers are also a terrific window into the past, letting us learn more about important people and events in our nation’s history.

For example, let’s see what these old newspapers have to tell us about one of the outstanding athletes in American history: Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron, the superstar who played baseball in Milwaukee and Atlanta for 23 seasons, from 1954 to 1976. Aaron is famous as the baseball player who broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record of 714—and, as expected, there is plenty of newspaper coverage of his historic home run and other baseball exploits.

The newspapers also tell us much more about his life than this: in addition to being a rare and gifted American athlete, Henry ‘Hank’ Aaron was a humanitarian—and a true gentleman.

The sports media and baseball fans were whipped into a frenzy as Hank Aaron approached Babe Ruth’s magical number in the 1973 Major League baseball season. Although 39 years old that summer (an age when most baseball players have retired) Hank Aaron was on target, hitting 40 home runs…but ended the year with 713 home runs, still short of the goal of 715. He had to wait all winter for another opportunity to break baseball’s home run record the next spring.

When the 1974 season began, Aaron wasted no time. He hit the record-tying 714th home run on his first at-bat that year, in Cincinnati. On April 8 the Atlanta Braves returned to Atlanta for their home opener, and 53,775 wildly cheering fans attended the game hoping Aaron would get the record that night. Hammerin’ Hank did not let the crowd down, hitting home run number 715 in the fourth inning. He received a thunderous standing ovation from the Braves’ baseball fans while fireworks lit up the sky above the stadium.

Hank Aaron hammers historic 715 homerun

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 9 April 1974, page 1.

In addition to details of the baseball game itself and Aaron’s record 715th home run, the newspaper article provides this detail:

Aaron broke away from his mates and rushed to a special box adjacent to the Atlanta dugout where he clutched his wife, Billye, and parents, Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Aaron, of Mobile, Ala.

“I never knew she could hug so tight,” Aaron said of his mother.

The following newspaper article tells us something about the character of Hank Aaron. Although he was one of the greatest American baseball players ever, he kept his ego in check; Aaron was widely recognized as a good teammate and a quiet, respectful man—a true gentleman.

Hank Aaron kept his word on the 715th homerun

Wichita Times (Wichita, Kansas), 2 May 1974, page 5, (African American Newspapers).

As this newspaper article relates, Hank Aaron was sensitive to the disruption his teammates had to endure while the press thronged around him night after night in 1973-74 covering his chase of the home run record. When it was finally over and the champagne celebration in the Atlanta locker room after the game was ready, Aaron thought immediately of his teammates:

The Braves had opened the champagne and were ready to pour, but Hank Aaron had something he wanted to say first to all his teammates.

“Thank you for being patient,” he said, his sincerity moving them. “Thank you for putting up with all that you have—the newspapermen, the photographers and all the other distractions. I know how difficult it was sometimes, and I appreciate the patience you’ve shown.”

Hank Aaron doesn’t make many speeches. Everybody in the room knew he meant this one.

Away from the spotlight and the glare of media publicity, Aaron had another career: he was a great humanitarian. He devoted countless hours to helping others, especially children, as shown in the following newspaper article.

Hank Aaron Goes to Bat for Easter Seals

Milwaukee Star (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 9 August 1973, page 8, (African American Newspapers).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Newspaper archives provide all sorts of surprising stories about the life of the person we’re researching. How many people know that Henry Aaron was once a mayor?

All Black Alabama Town Makes Hank Aaron Mayor

Wichita Times (Wichita, Kansas), 13 March 1975, page 1, (African American Newspapers).

Hank Aaron was born in Alabama, and in 1975 he was:

…sworn in as honorary mayor of Hobson City during ceremonies in which 75-year-old northeast Alabama all-black town dedicates new Town Hall.

There was a dark side to Hank Aaron’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record—and the newspapers covered that as well: racism raised its ugly head. Throughout the 1973 Major League baseball season, during the offseason, and again in 1974, Aaron received hate letters mixed in with the supportive letters that were pouring into the Atlanta Braves’ mailbox. Some even sent him death threats.

What pursuit of baseball homerun record has meant for Hank Aaron: People listen

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 9 April 1974, page 11.

In the above very revealing newspaper article, Hank Aaron opens up about the threats he’d been facing:

Aaron’s hero off the field is Dr. Martin Luther King. “He could walk with kings and talk with presidents,” said Aaron. “He wasn’t for lootings and bombings and fights but he wasn’t afraid of violence, either. He was 20 years ahead of his times.”

King’s death by assassination cannot, of course, be forgotten by Aaron. Sometimes Aaron wonders about that, too. He says that among the hundreds of letters he receives weekly, many are threats on his life.

“But I can’t think about that,” he says. “If I’m a target, then I’m a target. I can only worry about doing my job, and doing it good.”

This same newspaper article says of Aaron:

He has recently become identified with black causes. For example, he is now a close personal friend of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a leading young black spokesman. Aaron, in winter, now is the organizer of a celebrity bowling tournament in Atlanta with proceeds going to research on sickle cell anemia, a disease that afflicts black people.

And this:

Aaron is also outspoken on the progress, or lack of it, for blacks in baseball. He says that blacks are stagnating. “Whatever so-called progress there is—like blacks staying in the same hotels with the white players—this came about from civil rights legislation, not from any leveling action by baseball,” says Aaron.

“Why aren’t there even no black managers? Why aren’t there even no black third base coaches? There are token first base coaches—a few. But what does a first base coach do? He has no duties. No responsibilities. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. He’s not expected to have any intelligence.”

Aaron still feels some of the clichés of being black. He remembers that once blacks were considered “too gutless” to be able to take the pressures of day-in, day-out major league baseball.

“Jackie Robinson changed a lot of those beliefs,” says Aaron. “His courage and intelligence showed what the black man could be made of.

Hank Aaron’s stance on black rights is explored further in the following newspaper article.

Hank Aaron: Baseball Still Not Doing Enough To Give Equal Opportunities To Minorities

USA Monitor (Fort Worth, Texas), 1 March 1993, page 17, (African American Newspapers).

As you can see, newspaper archives are filled with stories you may never have heard before. You can discover little known facts, view pictures and learn more about the personal lives of famous people and your family members with newspapers.  Have fun searching our newspaper archives for details about celebrities and your own ancestors—you never know what you might find!