How to Research Historical Events for Genealogy with Newspapers

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this guest blog post, Duncan shows three real-life examples in which she helped genealogists find newspaper articles about their ancestors, explaining the tips and techniques that got her successful results.

Some of the best information we find in family history research is news that helps us learn the motivations behind our ancestors’ actions. After all, these family members are so much more than just names and dates on a family tree. Finding out what our ancestors did and the events they were involved in—and their possible motivation—helps us better understand them as real people, not just collections of data.

The best sources to look for these details of our ancestors’ lives are the journals and letters they wrote. The next best source is old newspapers. They were the Facebook of the day and the gossip rag too. Searching through newspapers using the names of our ancestors can bring back many valuable results. We can also search for news articles about events in our ancestors’ lives that don’t mention our ancestors by name.

I’ve included several examples here of how to find these valuable articles and stories that provide a window into our ancestors’ lives.

The Explosion That Killed Emanuel Urban

A GenealogyBank member was looking for an article about a nitroglycerin explosion that killed her relative Emanuel Urban in September 1904 in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. I ran a search for the name Emanuel Urban but got back no results. She is confident that the date and location of the event are correct, but I couldn’t find any relevant historical newspaper articles. Perhaps the name wasn’t mentioned in the old news articles about the explosion. How can we search on GenealogyBank without using a name?

Tips for Searching the Newspaper Archives

I ran the search like this:

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page for a search on nitroglycerin and explosion

Why did I formulate the newspaper archives search like this? I put nitroglycerin OR nitro-glycerin in the last name field and explosion in the first name field because I wanted the words to appear very close to each other in the news articles. Since I don’t know if the newspaper articles use nitroglycerin or nitro-glycerin, I can search for both using the word OR (both letters capitalized) between them (this is called a “Boolean Operator”).

Nitroglycerin has a tendency to explode! Without some keywords and a narrow date range, I would get too many search results. To avoid this, I narrowed the results by entering “Upper Sandusky” in the keyword field. Using quotation marks around the name Upper Sandusky will make sure it appears exactly as I typed it.  I also added the date range of September 1904 to October 1904 to further narrow the results.

Enter Last Name










Search News Nationwide

What I didn’t do is select just one state’s newspapers to look through. And it is a good thing I searched nationwide. Upper Sandusky is a city in Ohio, but only two of the six search results were published in Ohio newspapers. The others were published in Idaho, Illinois, Michigan and Washington, D.C., newspapers.

Your Ancestor’s Name Might Have Been Misspelled

Surprisingly, several of the historical news articles mention Emanuel Urban by name. So why didn’t I find his name when I ran the search the first time? Apparently the newspaper editors couldn’t get the spelling of the name correct. I found Emanuel Urban under the following names: Emanuel Urcan, Irban, Urican, Hurcan, and even Samuel Green. Who knows how the name Emanuel Urban became Samuel Green!

Explosion Is Fatal to Five, Daily Illinois State Journal newspaper article 5 September 1904

Daily Illinois State Journal (Springfield, Illinois), 5 September 1904, page 1

West Virginia Train Robbery

Another GenealogyBank member was searching for articles about an event she had personally been involved in as a young girl in the late 1940s. She was traveling by train with her grandmother when the train was robbed somewhere in West Virginia. She wanted to find some newspaper articles about it so that she could learn more about the event. Her name would not be mentioned in the newspaper articles and she wasn’t sure how to search for information about the incident.

I ran this search:

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page for a search on train robbery and West Virginia

This search found 35 articles, most of which were about the exact train robbery she remembered! Here is one article that has pictures of some of her fellow passengers:

photos of the victims of a West Virginia train robbery, Boston Traveler newspaper article 10 March 1949

Boston Traveler (Boston, Massachusetts), 10 March 1949, page 27

Try Using Different Keywords in Your Searches

Of course if I entered different keywords into the genealogy search engine, I might be able to find even more old news articles. For example now that I know the date of the train robbery, I could run an archive search like this:

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page for a search on train and Martinsburg

This search returned 78 newspaper results! There are certainly more details and stories that could be gathered from these articles.

Passenger Train Robbed; One Shot, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 10 March 1949

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 10 March 1949, page 1

You will notice that my previous record search used the keywords “West Virginia” and robbery. The above article has neither term, which is why it did not show up on that first search. It abbreviates West Virginia to W.Va., and uses the term robbed rather than robbery.

Enter Last Name










James Nealand & the Gunpowder Mill

A GenealogyBank member was looking for an ancestor named James Nealand who was killed in an explosion at a gunpowder mill in Hazardville, Connecticut, during the Civil War. He knew there were multiple spellings of the name Nealand, but hadn’t been able to find newspaper articles under any of the known spellings. I tried the following search:

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page for a search on powder mill and explosion

Search without a Surname

I was able to find six articles relating to the event. I even found James Nealand. His name had been misspelled as James Kneeland.

Explosion of a Powder Mill, Boston Evening Transcript newspaper article 24 July 1862

Boston Evening Transcript (Boston, Massachusetts), 24 July 1862, page 1

Even if your ancestors weren’t directly involved in any big events, they were affected by the major historical events around them. Researching more about how these important events affected your ancestors’ neighbors and community will help you learn more about the people you are interested in. For example, while researching a small community in South Dakota, I found that the neighbors of the person I was researching had their house destroyed in a devastating tornado. If I had only searched for the people I was directly interested in, I would have missed out on knowing about this tornado that surely affected them too.

Genealogy Tip: When searching newspapers to learn more about your ancestors, don’t forget to look for the events they were involved in—or at least affected by—as well. Genealogy is more fun and complete when you learn not just about your ancestors’ individual lives—but also the communities where they resided and the times in which they lived.

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Newspapers Break through Genealogy Brick Wall, Solving 100-Year Mystery

Louise A., of Longview, Washington, had a mystery on her hands. A dedicated genealogist, she had been tracing her family history and building her family tree—but had hit a brick wall. There was a 100-year-old mystery in her family history that she couldn’t solve in her genealogy research: what had ever happened to her long lost great-uncle, Fred Day?

Our Letter from Louise

Louise wrote to GenealogyBank describing her research frustration—and her exciting genealogy breakthrough.

As the beginning of her email explained:

A note to give you a BIG “thank you” for your service! I had searched off and on for eight years trying to solve the 100-year-old mystery in my family of a great uncle that disappeared while fishing along the Columbia River in Oregon, or so the story went. In all the searching in local and state archives, plus checking with records offices anywhere I could think of, the ONLY record I found was a certificate of marriage, to my great aunt in 1909.

Eight frustrating years of research, and no answers. The family story Louise heard as a child had always been vague, about some “fishing accident” involving her great-uncle Fred, but never any details.

How Newspapers Helped Crack the Case

Enter Last Name










Then one day Louise turned to GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, figuring that in a collection of more than 6,500 newspapers and over one billion records, there was sure to be something she could find out about her great-uncle. She found articles about a Fred Day, all right, but not the Fred Day who was her great-uncle. Then an idea hit her.

As Louise’s note explained:

The other day I happened to think to put in my great-aunt’s name, “Bertha Day.” Bingo! Here came article after article of the disappearance of “Frisco” Day in 1910!

I could barely believe my eyes! He did not disappear while fishing, but disappeared by driving drunk as a chauffeur, taking a woman to catch a ferry late at night, and ran off a trestle into the Columbia River slough!

Here’s the first news article Louise found, in which she began, at long last, to discover the truth of her relative’s disappearance. The old article begins with these shocking headlines:

article about the fatal car accident of Frisco Day, Bellingham Herald newspaper article 12 June 1910

Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Washington), 12 June 1910, page 3

The newspaper article’s opening three paragraphs lay out the story:

article about the fatal car accident of Frisco Day, Bellingham Herald newspaper article 12 June 1910

Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Washington), 12 June 1910, page 3

The headlines of the next news article speculate that Louise’s great-uncle Fred “Frisco” Day and a woman—Mabel Monto—were the victims of the car crash. Although the bodies had not yet been recovered, a Portland saloonkeeper, Tice Adkins, served the couple drinks and saw them get into the red car and drive off into the pouring rain.

article about the fatal car accident of Frisco Day, Oregonian newspaper article 12 June 1910

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 12 June 1910, page 1

The newspaper article supplies these details about the fatal accident that claimed Louise’s great-uncle’s life:

article about the fatal car accident of Frisco Day, Oregonian newspaper article 12 June 1910

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 12 June 1910, page 1

Great-Aunt Shares Her Story

That same newspaper had another article about Frisco Day’s accident.

article about the fatal car accident of Frisco Day and his wife Bertha's grief, Oregonian newspaper article 12 June 1910

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 12 June 1910, page 8

This historical newspaper article describes the grief of Louise’s great-aunt:

He [Frisco Day] was expected to return on Friday night at a late hour, and even before hearing of the accident, Mrs. Day had become much worried over the non-appearance of her husband. When she was informed that her husband might have been one of the party which met a tragic death she was prostrated with grief. She remained downtown with friends hoping against hope as clue after clue was followed out, each pointing more strongly than the other to her husband as one of the probable victims.

Mrs. Day is scarcely out of her teens and was married to Frisco Day in Portland less than six months ago. She said last night: “My husband never failed to telephone me when he was detained longer than usual and I felt sure something terrible had happened to him even before I heard of the accident on the bridge over the Oregon Slough. He never stayed away from me any longer than was absolutely necessary, and I am heartbroken to think he is lying out there beneath the water dead.”

Enter Last Name










Missing Bodies & More

The next day’s newspaper reports that the car was recovered but no bodies found. However, police investigations confirmed that Day and Monto were the only two people in the car, and that both certainly drowned in the accident.

article about the fatal car accident of Frisco Day, Oregonian newspaper article 13 June 1910

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 13 June 1910, page 1

News of Frisco Day’s accident and the recovery of the auto were reported in a wide range of newspapers. For example, this Utah newspaper printed this story:

article about the fatal car accident of Frisco Day, Salt Lake Telegram newspaper article 13 June 1910

Salt Lake Telegram (Salt Lake City, Utah), 13 June 1910, page 1

A Washington newspaper ran this short notice editorializing about Frisco Day’s accident:

article about the fatal car accident of Frisco Day, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 14 June 1910

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 14 June 1910, page 6

Thanks to these old newspaper articles, Louse found out what happened to her great-uncle Frisco Day all those years ago, finally breaking through the brick wall that had her stumped in her genealogy research. But since his body had not been recovered, she still lacked closure—and kept searching through the newspaper archives to see if she could discover more. Then she found what she was looking for—this newspaper article, reporting that his body was finally recovered in 1913, nearly three years after he was killed in the accident.

article about the recovery of the body of Frisco Day, Oregonian newspaper article 15 February 1913

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 15 February 1913, page 4

The historical newspaper article reports:

The skeleton, which was identified by letters in his pockets, was taken to Portland.

As Louise wrote:

The papers had the final story of finding his body almost three years later, in 1913. What a scandal it must have been and my great-aunt had only been married to him for a few months. It was absolutely fascinating to read all these stories and finally solve this mystery! I know without these newspapers being available, I never would have known what happened to him and why he was never mentioned while my great-aunt was living.

Again, thank you for this service!

Genealogy Search Tips: We thank Louise for sharing her family story with us and our readers. Her genealogy brick wall breakthrough presents some helpful family history lessons.

  • Always include old newspapers in your family history searches. Louise spent years searching local and state archives, but government records don’t have all the information—sometimes, the only place you’ll find the true story of what actually happened to your ancestor is in the pages of an old newspaper.
  • Try searching on different variations of your ancestor’s name in the newspaper archives, including initials and nicknames. Also, try searching for the names of close relatives. In this case, her search for Fred Day came up empty—but if she had searched on his nickname “Frisco” she would have found him right away. The key to her research success was searching on the name of Fred’s wife, Bertha Day.
  • Don’t limit your initial ancestor search geographically—cast a wide net. Although Frisco Day’s accident on the Columbia River was a local Oregon/Washington story, newspapers as far away as California, Utah and Florida picked up the news story.
  • Be persistent. Louise had tried to unravel the mystery of her great-uncle’s disappearance for eight years before busting through her brick wall. What a good feeling—to finally fill in a missing piece of your family tree, a satisfying reward after much patient ancestor searching!

Congratulations to Louise on finding the story of her long lost relative!

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