Your Immigrant Ancestor: Genealogy Research Tips

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog post, Gena shows how historical newspapers can help you learn more about your immigrant ancestors and what their immigration experience was like.

What is your ethnic background? Who was your first immigrant ancestor? Newspapers are a great resource for learning more about our individual ancestors as well as the social history of their time. How did your ancestor come to the United States? What was life like when they arrived? Whether you use the newspaper for photos, passenger lists, articles, or some historical background, there’s a good chance you can learn more about your immigrant ancestor by searching an online newspaper database such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

Immigrants Arriving in America

Ellis Island wasn’t the only arrival port for immigrants in the United States, but over time it has become synonymous with immigration. This short notice and image of Ellis Island in a 1907 North Dakota newspaper proclaims that a million Europeans a year entered the United States.

Ellis Island, Landing Place of Immigrants, Evening Times newspaper article 16 July 1907

Evening Times (Grand Forks, North Dakota), 16 July 1907, page 12

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Ship lists printed in the newspaper are a great source of information, such as this example from an 1897 New York newspaper.

Incoming Steamers, New York Tribune newspaper article 24 May 1897

New York Tribune (New York, New York), 24 May 1897, page 12

Once you have searched on your immigrant ancestor’s name, the passenger ship they sailed to America on or their country of origin, narrow your search on GenealogyBank’s Search Results page by using the category “Passenger Lists” to focus on just those types of articles.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search results page showing the "Passenger Lists" category

In the absence of finding a passenger list with your ancestor’s name and the ship they arrived on, consider the ports and modes of transportation available to them. Research their lives in the United States in your effort to learn more about their journey.

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Photos Tell a Story

Images are one way to search historical newspapers. GenealogyBank’s Search Results page lets you narrow your search to articles that contain images by clicking on the “Photos & Illustrations” category.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search results page showing the "Photos & Illustrations" category

Exploring old photos in newspapers is a great way to learn more about immigrants during the time period that your ancestor came to America. All types of images of newly arrived immigrants graced the pages of newspapers.

photos of immigrants, Anaconda Standard newspaper article 26 December 1920

Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), 26 December 1920, page 1

Photos of immigrants wearing their native costumes can be found in newspapers, and there can also be photos telling the stories of individual families. For example, the following photo focuses on one particular Dutch family and its 15 members, mostly children of the family. Whoever wrote this newspaper caption had a great sense of humor when they proclaimed: “No nation can beat the Dutch in this wonderful matter of human productivity.” Note that the father’s complete name, Hendrik Feyen, is listed. As a whole, they are referred to as the Feyen family and the wife/mother is referred to only by her first name. When conducting searches for your ancestor, make sure to conduct multiple searches and take into account variations of your ancestors’ names.

Family of Hollanders (the Feyen family) Added to U.S. Population, Twin Falls News newspaper article 26 April 1921

Twin Falls News (Twin Falls, Idaho), 26 April 1921, page 6

If your family immigrated as a group, make sure to search on every name in that family group including a search on just the surname. It’s important not to make assumptions about newspaper articles. For example, in this article about immigrant women traveling to meet up with fiancés living in the United States, the names of the women—but not their beaus—are listed, and where they are from. It would be easy to assume that women would not be mentioned as readily as male partners, but that is not always the case.

article about immigrants Emma Mayenberg and Elsie Becker, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 13 October 1922

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 13 October 1922, page 16

Other types of articles about an individual may not be obvious sources of immigration information. Don’t forget about interviews with older family members and what those can tell you about the person’s life. Anyone who had an unusual story, lived to a ripe old age, or was married for 50+ years may have found themselves the subject of a biographical newspaper article that included their immigration experiences.

GenealogyBank’s Ethnic Newspaper Archives

Searching all possible newspapers is a great idea for researching your ancestor—but don’t forget that GenealogyBank’s Ethnic Newspaper Archives are especially helpful because it’s in the ethnic newspapers that an immigrant community might be written about in more detail than a newspaper serving the general public. Readers of ethnic newspapers would be interested in people from their homeland, so it makes sense that the story of your immigrant ancestor might be featured there.

What’s your ethnic background? Good chance you can learn more about your immigrant ancestor as well as what immigration was like by searching historical newspapers.

Related Immigrant Ancestor Articles:

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Celebrate Cinco de Mayo by Tracing Your Hispanic Genealogy

Versión en español

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena suggests celebrating Cinco de Mayo by tracing your Hispanic ancestry using GenealogyBank’s Hispanic American Newspapers collection—and provides tips how to do this.

Looking for ideas for tracing your Hispanic ancestry this Cinco de Mayo? Maybe the typical regional newspapers aren’t yielding many results in your family history searches? Have you considered narrowing your search to an ethnic newspaper? GenealogyBank’s Hispanic American Newspapers collection has many different U.S.-based newspapers that served the Hispanic community, beginning in the early nineteenth century. These Spanish-language newspapers (note: some are bilingual) might provide the ancestral answers you’re looking for.

Need some ideas to help you get started tracing your Hispanic genealogy? Consider the following:

1) Search for Different Types of Newspaper Articles

Sure, genealogy researchers should search for their ancestors’ obituaries—but don’t forget about other life events including marriages, births, military service, and graduations; these events were all reported in local newspapers. Remember that your ancestor was part of a community and participated in academic, religious, and organizational activities and events. Some articles may only provide a brief mention of your ancestor’s name, but even that helps to place them in a specific area and time—or maybe even give you an idea about when they left a place.

It’s difficult to list all the different type of newspaper articles you might find an ancestor listed in, but a thorough search will help you uncover articles you may not have otherwise considered. For example, finding an ancestor’s name in a newspaper’s unclaimed letters list might indicate that they had moved on, were moving to the area, passed away, or just didn’t pick up their mail often. Noting when and how often they appear on such a list could be an important clue to follow up on.

newspaper column listing the names of people who have unclaimed letters awaiting them at the local post office, Tucsonense newspaper article 2 June 1915

Tucsonense (Tucson, Arizona), 2 June 1915, page 3

As you search for your Hispanic or Latino ancestor in the newspaper, consider searching by surname or full name only and not including a place name or other keywords. Now this may be difficult if your ancestor’s surname is common but—as you can see in the article below—individuals can be found in articles outside of the place they lived in. Limiting your initial search with a location may filter out relevant articles that were published elsewhere.

The following is an article acknowledging donations to help journalist and political activist Juan Sarabia, who in 1910 was detained in a Mexican prison. This newspaper article shows that donations came from donors on both sides of the border. In some cases, the city of the donor was included as well as their donation amount.

article about donations made to support journalist and political activist Juan Sarabia, Regeneracion newspaper article 22 October 1910

Regeneracion (Los Angeles, California), 22 October 1910, page 2

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2) Read the Paper to Learn More about Your Ancestor’s Community

By learning more about your ancestor’s community, you can get a sense of their lives and even what records may be available. Don’t ignore news articles that don’t specifically mention your ancestor. Learning about their community can help you tell their story. For example, learning more about important industries where your ancestor lived can provide you with information about why they migrated or why they chose a particular industry for employment. In some cases an article might point to higher wages, safer working conditions, or even recruitment of migrants with specific skills.

This historical newspaper article, exploring the topic of pearl fishing in the Gulf of California, is one such example of learning more about a community. In the old news article we learn that the inhabitants of La Paz understand pearls—and it makes sense they would, since the article reports that the production value in 1908 was 3 million pesos and the annual export in pearl shells was 2 million pesos!

article about pearl fishing in the Gulf of California, Tucsonense newspaper article 1 October 1921

Tucsonense (Tucson, Arizona), 1 October 1921, page 5

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3) Don’t Assume These Newspaper Are Spanish Only: Bilingual Newspapers

It’s easy to assume that a newspaper targeting a Spanish-speaking community would be printed in Spanish. While this is for the most part true, one thing a researcher quickly learns is not to make assumptions.

Not all of the newspapers in GenealogyBank’s Hispanic American Newspapers archives are printed solely in Spanish. For example the Ideal, described as a national bilingual and bi-monthly newspaper, includes articles written in both English and Spanish. Looking at this issue from 1970 for Coachella, California, you can see that articles are printed in both languages side by side.

front page of the newspaper Ideal 15 December 1970

Ideal (Coachella, California), 15 December 1970, page 1

This small newspaper includes community events, local interest articles and advertisements that provide the researcher with a better sense of their family’s community.

Click here to see a list of GenealogyBank’s Hispanic American Newspapers published from 1808-1978. Here you will find a table (sorted by states) that includes a link to each newspaper’s search page, and lists the dates of available coverage for each newspaper.

Related Article:

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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

Hispanic American Newspapers for Genealogy at GenealogyBank

Versión en español

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about the extensive online collection of Spanish American newspapers available on GenealogyBank, and gives examples showing how these newspaper articles can help you research your Hispanic family members.

Researching an immigrant ancestor or an immigrant community in the United States? Take a look at the ethnic newspapers available in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. For genealogists doing research in an area where ethnic newspapers were published, that resource should be an integral part of your family history research. These ethnic newspapers printed news from back home, interviewed friends and family, reported on social events and activities, and provided a place for those new to America or with limited English language skills to feel connected.

Those with Hispanic ancestors and family will appreciate the collection of over 350 Spanish-language newspapers available online at GenealogyBank. The Hispanic collection’s newspaper coverage crosses the country and spans from the very early 1800s to the 1970s. The early Hispanic American newspapers are fantastic resources to learn what life was like for your immigrant ancestors.

Currently, states with news coverage include: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Texas, and Wisconsin.

For many genealogists, an introduction to newspaper research begins with looking for family obituaries. According to the chapter “Newspapers” found in the genealogy classic The Source (edited by Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking): “Where major local newspapers often overlooked or carried one-line death notices of [immigrants], the person often received detailed notice in his or her ethnic newspaper.” The lesson here is to exhaust all newspapers for an area, local regional papers as well as ethnic newspapers, as you begin your obituary search.

Here’s a good example of a full obituary found in an ethnic newspaper. In this obituary for Dona Rumaldita A Vallejos, we learn some important family details as well as the cause of her death during the Spanish Flu epidemic.

obituary for Dona Rumaldita A Vallejos, Anunciador newspaper article 14 December 1918

Anunciador (Trinidad, Colorado), 14 December 1918, page 1

One reason some researchers may shy away from foreign-language newspapers is the language gap. Don’t let a newspaper article in your ancestor’s native tongue stop you. Remember that there are many online tools to help you translate a newspaper article. In the case of an obituary, you can quickly become familiar with the most commonly used words  (names for family relationships, words for birth, death, occupation, etc.) after using Google Translate, a foreign-language dictionary, or genealogical word lists available from sources such as FamilySearch, to translate words in foreign languages.

Don’t forget that newspapers aren’t just for finding information about a person’s death—they also document celebrations for the living. Consider this brief Spanish-language marriage announcement for Raymundo Rivera and Matilde Rodriguez.

marriage announcement for Raymundo Rivera and Matilde Rodriguez, Prensa newspaper article 22 April 1951

Prensa (San Antonio, Texas), 22 April 1951, page 5

Here’s another marriage announcement in Spanish that includes more information, including where the happy newlywed couple will ultimately reside.

Rose Maria de Leon & Segundo Barbosa Prince marriage announcement, Prensa newspaper article 19 June 1958

Prensa (San Antonio, Texas), 19 June 1958, page 12

Don’t forget about researching the younger members of a family. Articles about Hispanic traditions and social events such as quinceaneras can be found in American Spanish-language newspapers. I love the following article from 1950 with the photo of an Albuquerque teen and its proclamation that she is the most beautiful 15-year-old in America. A nice added detail is that she is a redhead.

notice about Jackie Lee Barnes, Prensa newspaper article 8 January 1950

Prensa (San Antonio, Texas), 8 January 1950, page 6

American Spanish-language newspapers can be a boon to a Hispanic family history researcher. As you scour them for clues in your genealogy research, make sure that you also look for English-language newspapers for additional articles about your Hispanic family members.

Click the image below to go to the list of Hispanic American newspapers currently available on GenealogyBank for future reference. Feel free to share this list on your blog or website using the embed code provided below.

List of Hispanic American Newspapers at Genealogy Bank

Does GenealogyBank Have Newspapers from Non-U.S. Countries?

We are often asked if GenealogyBank includes newspapers published in other countries, such as Canada, various countries in Europe, or in the Americas. No, we don’t.

But, there is a bright side.

U.S. newspapers routinely published news of marriages and deaths from overseas that they felt were of high interest to their U.S.-based readers. These were selective, so look to see if there were any news articles that targeted your relatives.

For example, look at this 1766 obituary from a Rhode Island newspaper.

Margaret Pullen obituary, Newport Mercury newspaper article 1 September 1766

Newport Mercury (Newport, Rhode Island), 1 September 1766, page 1

Newport, Rhode Island, is a seaport town that had many people involved in the sea. Because of this maritime involvement, news from the Caribbean islands was of high interest to the readers of Rhode Island newspapers like the Newport Mercury. This obituary of Mrs. Margaret Pullen, who died at age 100 in Antigua, would have been of interest in the Newport, RI, area—not only for her longevity and good health, but also because she was from the Caribbean, and for her family’s support of Queen Anne (1665-1714) who had been popular in the colonies.

Here is another obituary from the island of Antigua that was published in a U.S. newspaper.

James Hutchison obituary, Maryland Journal newspaper article 25 April 1788

Maryland Journal (Baltimore, Maryland), 25 April 1788, page 2

James Hutchison died 28 February 1788 a wealthy man. The obituary mentions that his sister Margaret of Paisley, Scotland, is the sole executrix of his will.

Publishing genealogy records from overseas is also common with ethnic U.S. newspapers like the Irish American Weekly (New York City, New York).

collage of marriage and death notices from Irish American newspapers

Collage of marriage and death notices from Irish American newspapers

The Irish American Weekly routinely published news of marriages and deaths from back in Ireland. Did it capture every Irish marriage? No—but it did publish tens of thousands of Irish marriage announcements and death notices. It is essential that you look there and in the other Irish American newspapers in our online archives to discover the marriage and death records of your Irish ancestors.

There is also a wealth of genealogical material to research your Hispanic ancestry in our Hispanic American newspapers. Dig in and trace your family tree around the world now!