How to Find Tricky & Common Ancestor Names in Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary provides some tips and tricks to find ancestors that are difficult to search for because they have common names, such as Smith or Jones.

One of my favorite genealogical expressions is: “My ancestor must have been in the Witness Protection Program, as there is absolutely no evidence of him [or her]!”

I always feel for people when they can’t find even the tiniest tidbit about an ancestor when they search in an extensive collection of old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

Very often, information about the target ancestor is in the old newspapers—but the ancestor search may be made more difficult because their name may be tricky. This is especially true for ancestors with diabolically vexing common names, such as John Smith, John Jones, or William Scott (the name of one of my ancestors).

This blog article shows you some search tips and tricks to find these difficult ancestors with common names in newspapers.

Finding Your Target Smith or Jones

As is well known, Smith and Jones are incredibly common names, as are John and William. In this 1844 newspaper article, take a look at how many people named Smith and Jones attended this family’s Christmas party.

I can’t fathom how many historical characters were named John or William—and I know from first-hand experience, sorting them out is challenging.

Note how many Johns there were in this tongue-in-cheek account of an annual Smith Christmas party. Not only are there numerous family members named John Smith, but there seems to be an equal number by the given name of Charles, not to mention all of the John Joneses and their wives, famously known as “Mrs.”

article about an annual Christmas party for the Smith family, Commercial Advertiser newspaper article 8 January 1844

Commercial Advertiser (New York, New York), 8 January 1844, page 1

Although you may never sort out a complicated family such as the one attending the Smith Christmas party, let’s review a few genealogy tips on how you might proceed with newspaper searches for ancestors with common names.

One-Name Ancestor Name Studies

Although tedious, consider undertaking a one-name study for a specific area, and cross-reference the results with persons by the same name in the same location. It will serve as a prospective list, and help you determine who’s who.

For example, in the GenealogyBank search box do a search for all the John Smiths in the Boston area.

screenshot of a search for John Smith in Boston on GenealogyBank

By incorporating a date range, such as 1844-1846, and a location, you may discover births, marriages, deaths, and even charming stories—such as this one, found doing a different John Smith search using the date 1856.

The John Smith in this newspaper article was a mate of the good ship Sally, and one day when the captain discovered him sleeping during his watch, John reacted vociferously: “do you supposed that I’m a d—–d horse to sleep standing up?” This quick and witty response caused the captain to laugh all the way back to his cabin, thereby allowing John Smith to finish his nap!

article about John Smith, Times-Picayune newspaper article 5 February 1856

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 5 February 1856, page 1

Search for Ancestor Names by Category

Another useful technique is to narrow a query using the various newspaper article categories found on GenealogyBank’s Search Results page.

For example, when I did the search above for Boston and John Smith with the date range 1844-1846, this was the Search Results page.

screenshot of search results page on GenealogyBank for a search for John Smith in Boston

First of all, this Search Results page shows there are 844 records matching the query. Notice the box on the left-hand side of the page: it breaks these 844 results down into various categories to make your searching easier. The most popular historical newspaper categories are shown first, including these results:

Initial Search Results

  • Historical Obituaries 19
  • Marriage Records 8
  • Passenger Lists 48
  • Newspaper Articles 203
  • Legal, Probate & Court 15

That accounts for the first 293 results. And the rest? See below the list of initial search results, where there is a blue arrow and it says “551 More”? Click on that blue arrow to see the remaining 551 results organized by category.

screenshot of the expanded search results page on GenealogyBank for a search for John Smith in Boston

Expanded Search Results

  • Newspaper Letters 7
  • Poems & Songs 1
  • Ads & Classifieds 540
  • Commodity & Stocks 2
  • Political & Elections 1

To select a newspaper category, click on the blue link. Try not to rule out seemingly less interesting categories—even an advertisement can hold a clue to a family business or probate record.

When dealing with a return as large as 844 hits, it makes the task of examining the results easier if you break them down into smaller groups by category, then examine each category one by one—the lesser totals will help you retain your focus, and it’s quicker to examine results when they’re grouped by category because you know what to expect and can accelerate your examination.

Narrowing Your Ancestor Name Search

When an extended family has chosen to name many offspring with similar or identical names, sharpen your search by looking for nicknames and other appellations (such as Senior and Junior), along with search terms that denote a particular characteristic of your ancestor, in an attempt to find that one specific individual you’re searching for.

Ancestor Nicknames & Distinctive Physical Characteristics

If you think we have a hard time straightening out complicated families, so did our ancestors. One of the ways they avoided confusion was to give people nicknames. The following comical 1876 newspaper article illustrates a breadth of creative nicknames.

A “respectable-looking old gentleman from the Eastern States” was trying to find a man named Smith in Austin, Nevada. The boy assisting him wanted to know which Smith the man was looking for and made many helpful suggestions, including: Big Smith, Little Smith, Three-fingered Smith, Bottle-nose Smith, Cock-eye Smith, Six-toed Smith, Mush-head Smith, One-legged Smith, Bow-legged Smith, and many more.

The old gentleman retorted: “My son, the Smith I am in search of possesses to his name none of the heathenish prefixes you have mentioned. His name is simply John Smith.”

To which the boy promptly responded: “All them fellows is named John!”

Looking for Smith, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 2 June 1876

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 2 June 1876, page 3

Searching by Generational Suffix: Senior & Junior

A common genealogical trap is thinking that “Seniors” and “Juniors” are related. From a historical perspective, senior means older, or of an advanced age, which is exactly how our ancestors interpreted the generational name designation. Two people with the same name, one a senior and one a junior, were not necessarily related.

  • Senior: indicates that there were two or more persons by the same name living in a community, with the senior being older than the junior.
  • Junior: indicates that there was another person by the same name, who was older than the person under discussion.

Distinctive Physical Characteristics

As seen in the humorous account of the many John Smiths of Austin, Nevada, people are often associated with their distinctive physical characteristics, whether it be their hair color, weight or height. An example from my own ancestry is finding two William Scotts, both of Revolutionary War fame.

Although cousins, one of the William Scotts (my ancestor) was shorter than the other. Family and other historical accounts refer to him as “Short Bill,” and the other as “Tall Bill.”

Prefix Name Titles & Initials

If someone held a position of honor, the title or the given (first name) might be ignored or abbreviated. Here are some examples of common name prefixes, which you could incorporate into an ancestor search:

  • Gen. Smith
  • Col. E. Smith
  • Rev. Dr. Smith
Passengers, Charleston Courier newspaper article 7 September 1849

Charleston Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 7 September 1849, page 2

If you are searching for an ancestor with a common name, make note if you ever run across that ancestor’s nickname, title, or distinctive characteristic—then incorporate that information into your search. You just might get lucky and find that individual needle in the haystack of common names.

Search Photos to Find Your Ancestor with a Common Name

One advantage to large families with common names is that you might find a family reunion newspaper article and—if lucky—a reunion photograph. Here is an example, displaying the “Largest Family in Mississippi,” all related to William Smith and his wife Catherine Pinkie Smith—with each individual clearly identified.

Death Invades Circle of 'Largest' Family in Mississippi, Times-Picayune newspaper article 12 March 1922

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 12 March 1922, page 39

Search Locations, Dates & Publications

Finally, try searching for your ancestor with a common name by specific locations, such as New York or New Hampshire.

After selecting “New York” as a target area, I searched for my ancestor William Scott (he was from the Saratoga Springs area) and found some good information.

screenshot of search for William Scott on GenealogyBank

By expanding the search to all of New York, I found death notices in newspapers that were published outside of Saratoga Springs. These newspaper articles provided many exciting life details, including William Scott’s approximate date of immigration prior to the Revolutionary War, information that he had fought in the battles of Bunker Hill, Trenton, White Plains and Saratoga, and that he had 38 battle wounds!

obituary for William Scott, Orange County Patriot; or, The Spirit of Seventy-Six newspaper article 15 August 1815

Orange County Patriot; or, The Spirit of Seventy-Six (Goshen, New York), 15 August 1815, page 1

As in all genealogical searches, these death notices led to more searches with even more results, including information that William Scott had actually been captured at the Battle of Bunker Hill! If you search for more newspaper articles about him, you’ll even discover that he wrote an account of what happened to the prisoners of war. This is a pretty cool research discovery for an ancestor whose common name posed search challenges, isn’t it!

Here is one of the newspaper articles about William Scott that I found in my additional searches.

casualty list for the Battle of Bunker Hill, Pennsylvania Journal newspaper article 27 September 1775

Pennsylvania Journal (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 27 September 1775, page 2

So don’t despair if you’re trying to find information about an ancestor with a common name. Yes, your first search may have turned up so many results you felt hopeless trying to weed through them, looking for information about your target ancestor. But if you use the ancestor search tips and tricks discussed in this article, you just might make that family history discovery you’ve spent years searching for! Good luck and have fun ancestor name hunting!

GenealogyBank Adding More Recent Obituaries from 5 U.S. States

GenealogyBank is pleased to announce that it is adding recent obituaries from another 19 newspapers from 5 states. This includes newspapers from Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, New York and Vermont—thousands more obituaries to help with your family history research.

Search these newly-added recent obituaries online now at: http://www.genealogybank.com/gbnk/obituaries/

GenealogyBank's Recent Newspaper Obituaries search box

GenealogyBank’s Recent Newspaper Obituaries search box

Or you can go directly to your current obituary archive of interest by clicking on the newspaper title links below:

Athens Banner-Herald (Athens, GA)

  • Obituaries: 6/10/2003 – Current

Daily Nonpareil, The (Council Bluffs, IA)

  • Obituaries: 11/15/2006 – Current

Georgetown News-Graphic (Georgetown, KY)

  • Obituaries: 09/08/2000 – Current

Adirondack Journal (Warrensburg, NY)

  • Obituaries: 8/05/2011 – 02/01/2012

Cazenovia Republican (Cazenovia, NY)

  • Obituaries: 08/05/2011 – Current

Denpubs.com (Elizabethtown, NY)

  • Obituaries: 02/10/2007 – Current

Eagle Observer, The (Marcellus, NY)

  • Obituaries: 08/04/2011 – Current

Eagle Star-Review (Cicero, North Syracuse, NY)

  • Obituaries: 08/05/2011 – Current

Guilderland Spotlight (Delmar, Guilderland, NY)

  • Obituaries: 08/05/2011 – Current

News Enterprise (North Creek, NY)

  • Obituaries: 08/05/2011 – 02/29/2012

North Countryman (Altona, NY)

  • Obituaries: 08/05/2011 – 02/28/2012

Saratoga County Spotlight (Saratoga Springs, NY)

  • Obituaries: 08/05/2011 – Current

Schenectady County Spotlight (Schenectady, NY)

  • Obituaries: 08/05/2011 – Current

SpotlightNews.com (Delmar, NY)

  • Obituaries: 08/08/2006 – Current

Times of Ti (Ticonderoga, NY)

  • Obituaries: 08/05/2011 – 02/29/2012

Valley News (Elizabethtown, NY)

  • Obituaries: 08/05/2011 – 02/22/2012

Addison Eagle (Middlebury, VT)

  • Obituaries: 08/03/2011 – Current

Green Mountain Outlook (Middlebury, VT)

  • Obituaries: 08/05/2011 – Current

New Market Press (Middlebury, VT)

  • Obituaries: 08/03/2011 – Current

Millions of New Newspaper Records Added in January

GenealogyBank adds new content daily to its U.S. newspaper archives, an expansive online collection of 5,850 newspapers and more than one billion articles and records—and growing!

January 2012 was one of our best months ever: GenealogyBank added 31 million digitized records with newspapers from 31 states to our archives for you to search online. Here is a listing of all of January’s newspaper content additions.

State City Title Coverage  
Alabama Mobile Mobile Register 07/01/1858–10/31/1869
Alaska Bethel Delta Discovery, The* 07/15/2011–Current Obituaries Only
Arkansas Jonesboro Jonesboro Daily News 01/07/1909–04/08/1909
Arkansas Jonesboro Jonesboro Evening Sun 12/08/1906–12/23/1922
Arkansas Jonesboro Jonesboro Weekly Sun 05/31/1922–05/31/1922
Arkansas Jonesboro Jonesboro Weekly Times-Enterprise 05/10/1906–05/10/1906
Arkansas Little Rock Arkansas Democrat-Gazette* 10/30/2011–Current Obituaries Only
Arkansas Little Rock Arkansas Gazette 11/20/1819–11/01/1908
Arkansas Siloam Springs Siloam Springs Herald-Leader, The* 11/16/2011–Current Obituaries Only
California El Centro Imperial Valley Press* 01/02/2001–Current Obituaries Only
California Riverside Riverside Daily Press 7/1/1939–2/8/1949
California San Diego Evening Tribune 1/1/1900–10/24/1932
California San Diego San Diego Union 4/3/1912–6/30/1965
Colorado Denver Denver Post 3/8/1906–3/8/1906
Colorado Denver Denver Rocky Mountain News 10/2/1880–12/25/1922
Colorado Denver Rocky Mountain News 4/23/1859–4/19/1862
Connecticut Hartford American Mercury 01/19/1830–06/25/1833
Connecticut Hartford Connecticut Courant 02/19/1842–12/23/1843
Connecticut Hartford Times 2/27/1836–8/5/1837
Connecticut Litchfield Litchfield Republican 05/04/1848–09/28/1855
Connecticut New Haven Columbian Register 01/08/1831–09/13/1851
Connecticut Norwich Norwich Aurora 01/02/1858–12/24/1873
Delaware Wilmington Delaware Gazette 04/11/1787–10/31/1787
District of Columbia Washington United States Telegraph 05/21/1827–07/07/1829
Florida Pensacola Pensacola Gazette* 01/14/1843–03/25/1848
Florida Tampa Tampa Tribune 3/17/1929–10/7/1931
Georgia Augusta Augusta Chronicle 01/21/1792–12/31/1922
Georgia Augusta Daily Constitutionalist* 05/14/1840–04/09/1861
Georgia Marietta Marietta Journal 10/14/1979–9/9/1985
Georgia Milledgeville Georgia Journal 07/02/1822–03/08/1832
Georgia Savannah Daily Georgian 09/16/1826–07/19/1832
Idaho Idaho Falls Idaho Register 08/05/1892–08/05/1892
Idaho Twin Falls Twin Falls News 09/17/1920–09/17/1920
Illinois Niles Bugle, The* 08/18/2011–Current Obituaries Only
Illinois Rockford Register Star 3/31/2007–5/30/2007
Illinois Rockford Register-Republic 6/21/1957–6/21/1957
Illinois Shorewood Shorewood Sentinel, The* 06/13/2011–Current Obituaries Only
Illinois Springfield Illinois State Register* 11/13/1840–12/27/1844
Iowa Forest City Britt News Tribune* 03/20/2003–Current Obituaries Only
Kentucky Maysville Ledger Independent, The* 07/11/2002–Current Obituaries Only
Louisiana Baton Rouge Advocate 6/29/1945–12/31/1985
Louisiana Baton Rouge Daily Advocate 9/8/1869–3/27/1883
Louisiana Baton Rouge State Times Advocate 1/7/1922–8/25/1922
Louisiana New Orleans Courrier de la Louisiane 01/06/1823–01/14/1824
Louisiana New Orleans Times-Picayune 04/26/1901–05/21/1914
Massachusetts Boston Boston Commercial Gazette 04/16/1835–01/23/1840
Massachusetts Boston Boston Courier 1/2/1845–7/17/1845
Massachusetts Boston Boston Herald 7/4/1893–12/6/1907
Massachusetts Boston Repertory 1/11/1821–3/27/1821
Massachusetts Boston Saturday Morning Transcript* 02/07/1835–12/29/1838
Massachusetts Boston Weekly Messenger 03/03/1831–03/03/1831
Massachusetts Nantucket Nantucket Inquirer 04/22/1826–12/04/1841
Massachusetts New Bedford New-Bedford Mercury 01/02/1857–12/31/1869
Massachusetts Newburyport Newburyport Herald 02/07/1834–01/03/1837
Massachusetts Northampton Hampshire Gazette 01/04/1826–09/02/1840
Massachusetts Salem Salem Register 11/18/1841–8/4/1856
Massachusetts Springfield Hampden Whig 02/24/1830–09/27/1837
Massachusetts Springfield Springfield Union 1/1/1913–3/31/1915
Massachusetts West Springfield American Intelligencer 08/09/1796–08/09/1796
Massachusetts Worcester Massachusetts Spy 03/14/1821–12/31/1869
Massachusetts Worcester National Aegis 10/23/1822–12/23/1876
Michigan Charlevoix Charlevoix Courier* 01/02/2009–Current Obituaries Only
Michigan Jackson Jackson Citizen 01/08/1897–04/23/1897
Michigan Kalamazoo Kalamazoo Gazette 07/21/1876–07/21/1876
Michigan Petoskey Petoskey News-Review* 04/16/2001–Current Obituaries Only
Minnesota Winona Winona Daily News* 05/15/2001–Current Obituaries Only
Nebraska Beatrice Beatrice Daily Sun* 06/10/2002–Current Obituaries Only
Nebraska Omaha Omaha World Herald 12/15/1957–12/25/1983
New Hampshire Concord New-Hampshire Patriot 2/20/1861–2/20/1861
New Hampshire Portsmouth Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics 01/07/1860–09/28/1872
New Jersey Morristown Genius of Liberty 10/25/1798–04/11/1805
New Jersey Trenton Trenton Evening Times 03/14/1916–06/29/1916
New Jersey Trenton True American 12/29/1801–12/14/1812
New York Albany Albany Argus 01/03/1823–04/30/1869
New York Auburn Auburn Journal and Advertiser* 05/31/1837–12/30/1846
New York Cazenovia Pilot 05/13/1818–11/28/1822
New York New York Commercial Advertiser 04/04/1821–11/21/1876
New York New York New York Herald 4/14/1876–4/14/1876
New York New York New York Herald-Tribune 12/24/1887–12/24/1887
New York New York New-York Gazette 03/03/1803–03/04/1803
New York New York Spectator 04/30/1842–08/18/1851
New York New York Weekly Visitor 11/03/1822–04/26/1823
New York Saratoga Springs Saratoga Sentinel 5/9/1826–3/14/1837
New York Syracuse Post-Standard, The: Blogs* 02/18/2011–Current Obituaries Only
North Carolina Cary Cary News, The* 02/13/2011–Current Obituaries Only
North Carolina Fayetteville Carolina Observer* 12/09/1824–11/04/1830
North Carolina Smithfield Smithfield Herald, The* 01/19/2011–Current Obituaries Only
North Carolina Winston-Salem Winston-Salem Journal 5/30/1917–4/28/1928
North Carolina Zebulon Eastern Wake News* 01/19/2011–Current Obituaries Only
Ohio Canton Repository 9/1/1939–9/22/1939
Ohio Chillicothe Supporter and Scioto Gazette* 02/21/1821–02/08/1827
Ohio Cleveland Plain Dealer 07/23/1847–11/05/1922
Oregon Portland Oregonian 08/04/1904–08/04/1904
Pennsylvania Harrisburg Harrisburg Republican 12/17/1816–07/17/1818
Pennsylvania Harrisburg Patriot 01/01/1866–12/19/1912
Pennsylvania Philadelphia National Gazette 9/20/1827–6/9/1835
Pennsylvania Philadelphia Philadelphia Inquirer 02/04/1830–05/28/1859
Pennsylvania Pittsburgh Tree of Liberty 02/22/1801–10/16/1802
Pennsylvania Somerset Daily American, The* 01/12/2011–Current Obituaries Only
Pennsylvania Washington Washington Reporter 01/01/1821–06/16/1869
South Carolina Charleston Charleston Courier 07/08/1822–04/25/1872
South Carolina Charleston Charleston Mercury 04/18/1860–07/11/1868
South Carolina Charleston South-Carolina State-Gazette 9/24/1801–9/24/1801
Texas Dallas Dallas Morning News 11/16/1983–4/20/1984
Texas Lexington Lexington Leader* 04/09/2009–Current Obituaries Only
Texas Marble Falls River Cities Daily Tribune, The* 02/25/2010–Current Obituaries Only
Texas Texarkana Texarkana Gazette* 10/28/2011–Current Obituaries Only
Vermont Brattleboro Vermont Phoenix 2/23/1866–12/14/1866
Vermont St. Albans St. Albans Daily Messenger 04/24/1861–10/23/1872
Vermont St. Albans St. Albans Messenger 10/10/1850–09/29/1921
Vermont St. Albans St. Albans Transcript* 04/05/1873–04/05/1873
Vermont Windsor Vermont Journal 02/15/1862–02/15/1862
Vermont Windsor Vermont Republican 01/01/1821–05/10/1828
Virginia Alexandria Alexandria Gazette 01/02/1823–03/31/1870
Virginia Norfolk Norfolk Gazette and Publick Ledger 07/17/1804–09/17/1816
Virginia Richmond Richmond Enquirer 07/29/1867–04/28/1870
Virginia Richmond Richmond Times Dispatch 9/15/1929–3/3/1930
Virginia Richmond Richmond Whig 02/16/1833–12/29/1874
Virginia Richmond Virginia Patriot 04/27/1814–04/27/1814
Wisconsin Chippewa Falls Chippewa Herald, The* 01/30/1999–Current Obituaries Only