Genealogy Resource Partners: Newspapers & the Census

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott shows that combining research in old newspapers with records from the U.S. Census is a good strategy, leading to genealogy discoveries about your ancestors you might otherwise have missed.

All of us who love genealogy know we must check and double-check our data as we create or fill in our family trees. Our double-checking can be accomplished in any number of ways. One of the ways I really enjoy is discovering how complementary and helpful newspaper articles and obituaries from the databases of GenealogyBank are to each other. This is especially true when we take this a step further: when we compare and contrast newspaper articles with return information from the U.S. Census. When paired together, you will find that newspapers and the Census are great genealogy resource partners.

Here’s an example of that complementary partnership. I was working on my maternal grandmother, Mae Anne Vicha, and tracing where she lived, etc. It wasn’t long before I came across information about her in an Ohio newspaper’s Society Pages. The column was titled “Social News of the Week” and featured as one of the tidbits the fact that the “B.C.B. Club” (a literary and social club) would be entertained next, on June 21st, at the home of Miss Mae Vicha, 3800 Warren Ave. I then checked the United States Census for 1910 and sure enough, there was my grandmother, now married, but living with her Mother, brother and sisters all at 3800 Warren Ave.

article about Mae Vicha, Plain Dealer newspaper article 10 June 1906

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 10 June 1906, page 29

Another interesting example I encountered of how newspaper articles and Census records can work together in tandem, leading you to great family history discoveries, occurred during some early genealogy research I was conducting on my Vicha ancestors. I was working through the Census returns on Teresa Vicha when I came upon the 1920 return. Not only did I find Teresa married to John Sluka, but I also found one of their daughters, Carolyn, living with them. Carolyn had married, taken the surname of Bidlingmaier, and had two children. Plus there was another treat: I found yet a second daughter, Teresa, also married and having taken the surname of Rehor. As I worked to corroborate this information about the Vicha family, the first item I found in the newspapers offered multiple benefits—just like the Census.

Enter Last Name










This historical article is from an 1896 Ohio newspaper. While I was enjoying reading “In the athletic events the fat tailors’ race and the lean tailors’ race were the most amusing,” I found that John Sluka won one of the races (for the lean tailors, and he won a suit of clothes). Imagine my surprise when elsewhere in the same article it stated that my great grandfather, J. K. Vicha, was “the orator of the day” and was the national representative of the United Garment Workers and past president of the Central Labor Union of Cleveland.

Tailor's Picnic, Plain Dealer newspaper article 21 September 1896

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 21 September 1896, page 5

As I continued to work this branch of my family tree I came upon a 1907 article, again in the Plain Dealer. It was a sad story about an attempted suicide because the “Mother of Murdered Policeman Is Weary of Existence.”

article about Barbara Sluka, Plain Dealer newspaper article 22 September 1907

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 22 September 1907, page 5

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I knew from my earlier ancestry research that my first cousin (twice removed), Albert Sluka, had been a special policeman who was stabbed to death outside a dance hall. But his mother was Teresa, not Barbara as reported in this article!

photo of Albert Sluka from his tombstone in Woodland Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio

Photo: picture of Albert Sluka from his tombstone in Woodland Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio. Credit: from the author’s collection.

This was indeed an interesting, but perplexing, old news article that required some additional and very enjoyable genealogy detective work. I’m glad to say I was able to straighten out the story. Barbara was actually the grandmother, not the mother, of Albert. Plus she did recover from her attempted suicide and lived for an additional 12 years. Perhaps it was Barbara’s thick Bohemian accent combined with her advanced age that caused the newspaper reporter to get the details just a bit mixed up.

Do you work with Census records and newspapers in tandem? If so, what have you found that has helped you the most in using these resources to research your genealogy?

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How Old Newspapers Can Help You Search U.S. Census Records

Like detectives, we approach family history by gathering all of the clues and making a case for who our relatives were: their names, when and where they were born, pushing through all of the activities of their lives until their deaths.

Pulling all of the facts and clues together helps us rediscover who each one of our relatives really were. What happened while they were alive—what do we really know about them?

The U.S. census is a terrific tool—basic for building an American family tree. It gives us a snapshot of our family at the time of recording. The census looks in on them one day of their lives, every ten years, over their lifetime. Couple this census information with old family letters, perhaps a journal, and birth, marriage & death certificates, and we begin to discover the basic facts about each person.

Add newspapers to our research and we can go beyond the basic genealogical facts: we get to learn their stories.

Newspapers were published every day. They tell us what happened each day in their town, their state, in the world. Old newspapers tell us what was happening in our relatives’ lives every day of their lives.

Since a census record is a one-day look at the family, we complement those basic facts with newspaper articles to fill in the details and get the rest of their stories, as shown in the following two examples.

William T. Crow (1802 – )

Here is the listing for William T. Crow and his wife Elizabeth Crow (1806- ) in the 1880 census.

photo of the 1880 census listing for William and Elizabeth Crow, from FamilySearch.org

Credit: FamilySearch.org

Digging deeper into GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, I found this old 1800s newspaper article about William Crow.

notice about William T. Crow, Aberdeen Weekly News newspaper article 2 October 1885

Aberdeen Weekly News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 2 October 1885, page 2

This article fills in more of the details of their lives:

  • He was a judge
  • Her maiden name was Elizabeth Blackwell
  • They married on 26 February 1826
  • They were close to the 60th anniversary of their wedding day
  • They had 6 children and 47 grandchildren living in 1885
  • 1 daughter died during childhood
  • 2 sons “sleep in soldiers’ graves”
  • They lived near Carnesville, Georgia, and all of the children lived within 1½ miles of the family home

That’s a lot of family information packed into one short paragraph. Marriage records in newspapers are a fantastic resource to trace your family tree.

Hannah Lyman (1743-1832)

Hannah (Clark) Lyman lived in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Her census record gives us a start at her story.

Here she is in the 1830 census, living in Northampton, Massachusetts.

photo of the 1830 Census listing for Hannah Lyman, from FamilySearch.org

Credit: FamilySearch.org

She is there—and the check marks tell us that there were others, unnamed, living in the house with her at that time.

Once again I turned to GenealogyBank’s historical newspapers to get more of her story, and found this 1800s news article published just two years after the census was taken.

obituary for Hannah Lyman, Hampshire Gazette newspaper article 21 March 1832

Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, Massachusetts), 21 March 1832, page 3

Like the trendy saying “it takes a village,” it takes multiple genealogical resources to fill in the details of the lives of our ancestors.

And wow—do newspapers deliver!

This newspaper article from GenealogyBank’s deep backfile of historical newspapers builds on her brief mention in the census, and tells us the core facts of her life along with a terrific family story of her memories of the “great earthquake of Nov. 18, 1755.”

Details—stories.

Newspapers tell us so much about our family history.

1940 Census Taker Doesn’t Let 3 Vicious Dogs & 50 Stitches Stop Her

It was a sunny day in Sonoma, California, on April 6, 1940, and census taker Alice Davis was off on her rounds enumerating the people of Sonoma, California, for the permanent record of the 1940 U.S. census. Little did she know that she was about to become “the first census-taker casualty in northern California.”

Three Dogs Attack Woman Census Taker, San Diego Union 7 April 1940

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 7 April 1940, page 11

As this old news article reports: “The enumerator was attacked by three large Airedale dogs when she attempted to take the tab at the Sonoma home of Carl Bergfried, retired San Francisco merchant.

“Bergfried, who was not at home at the time, returned to find Mrs. Davis battling valiantly against the enraged animals. He took her to Ferndale sanatorium where 50 stitches were required to close her wounds.”

Published in the San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 7 April 1940, page 11.

The determined Alice completed the enumeration, and Carl Bergfried and his wife Ida were recorded in the 1940 census. But the formal, dry federal census pages do not tell us of the sacrifice that Alice Davis made that day.

1940 census form for Carl Bergfried of Sonoma, California

1940 census form for Carl & Ida Bergfried of Sonoma, California

1940 Census. Sonoma, California. FamilySearch.org https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1961-27793-626-28?cc=2000219&wc=MMRS-PP1:786740582

Fortunately, the census enumerator’s story was recorded in the pages of a local newspaper. And thanks to GenealogyBank the pages of the San Diego Union have been indexed, digitized and put online—so we can learn that despite three vicious dogs and 50 stitches, Alice Davis saw it through and got the job done.

When doing your family history research, don’t rely just on the data provided by census and other government records. To really get to know something about your ancestors’ lives and the times they lived in, read their stories in the millions of newspaper articles contained in GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives.