How to Research Old Newspaper Headlines for Family History

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary shows how searching for headlines in old newspapers turns up articles that provide a glimpse into our ancestors’ world and their daily lives.

From iconic happenings of the past to lesser-known events, reading old newspaper headlines helps us share the day-to-day experiences of our ancestors. Reading the news that they read is one way to walk in their footsteps.

For example, imagine being in Vermont on 8 November 1860, picking up your local paper, and seeing this newspaper headline announcing Abraham Lincoln as the new president.

Glorious News! Abraham Lincoln Elected President!! St. Albans Messenger newspaper article 8 November 1860

St. Albans Messenger (St. Albans, Vermont), 8 November 1860, page 2

So why not become a newspaper headline hunter and query GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to see what was happening in your ancestors’ lives? Knowing the events that were happening that affected their lives, and the news that they were talking about with their family and friends, helps provide a glimpse into their world and into the past.

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Abolishing Slavery

Headline hunters weave fascinating circumstances into life stories. They’re constantly on the search for a bold or unusual newspaper headline that leads to something interesting.

In their search for headlines, they select major historical events, along with what was happening in the outside world during particular time periods. Sometimes they’ll stumble on a major event they never heard of, leaving one to wonder why it is not included more in history books.

For example, manumission (the freeing of slaves) occurred in many parts of the world long before the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution (adopted 6 December 1865) abolished slavery in the U.S.—and the movement continued long after.

For example, a search on the terms “slavery abolished” pulled up this 1794 newspaper article about the French Colonies.

article about slavery being abolished in the French Colonies, Farmers’ Library newspaper article 13 May 1794

Farmers’ Library (Rutland, Vermont), 13 May 1794, page 3

That search also found this 1879 article about African King Mtesa (or Mutesa) of the Kingdom of Buganda abolishing slavery throughout his dominions.

Slavery Abolished in Africa, Cincinnati Commercial Tribune newspaper article 13 September 1879

Cincinnati Commercial Tribune (Cincinnati, Ohio), 13 September 1879, page 2

Women’s Suffrage

Another movement not fully addressed in history books is women’s suffrage, underscoring the importance of newspaper research to clarify historical events.

A search on the term “suffragettes” found this old newspaper headline.

article about suffragettes being arrested in Great Britain, Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper article 1 March 1908

Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas), 1 March 1908, page 5

This headline reports that women were humiliated, harassed and often treated as criminal offenders. Imagine how a young girl of today would feel if she learned that her great grandmother was jailed, merely for wanting to vote!

These two headlines introduce articles reporting that California granted females the right to vote in 1911, but the quest for national equality took until 26 August 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted.

Suffrage Wins in California, Boston Journal newspaper article 13 October 1911

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 October 1911, page 12

Tennessee Approves Suffrage Amendment, Bellingham Herald newspaper article 18 August 1920

Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Washington), 18 August 1920, page 3

For an interesting timeline of how the women’s suffrage movement progressed, see the National Women’s History Museum’s Woman Suffrage Timeline (1840-1920).

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Timely Timelines

You can locate many interesting timelines in newspapers, either as feature articles or related to historical events. Search for them using the keywords “timeline,” “this day in history” or “famous headlines.”

article about historical newspaper headlines, Boston Record American newspaper article 29 October 1961

Boston Record American (Boston, Massachusetts), 29 October 1961, page 39

You may wish to construct your own timeline with historical newspaper headlines. Pick a subject and locate pertinent newspaper headlines and their corresponding articles. Categories are only limited by your imagination.

  • Art & Artists
  • Civil Rights
  • Disasters (Hindenburg, Titanic, volcanoes, etc.)
  • Famous People (explorers, presidents & first ladies, the rich & famous, etc.)
  • Laws (age of majority, child labor, education, immigration, manumission & slavery, suffrage, etc.)
  • Entertainment (movies, music, plays, etc.)
  • Eras (Roaring Twenties, Victorian Age, etc.)
  • Genealogy Research (Alex Haley’s Roots, lineage societies, technological advances, etc.)
  • Great Discoveries (gold, medical advances, vaccines, etc.)
  • Migrations (immigration, westward expansion)
  • Sports & Events (competitions, Olympics, World Series, world fairs, etc.)
  • States, Territories & County Formations
  • Wars & Military Events

Here’s a timeline of important events that the Charlotte Observer published in 1907.

timeline of important historical events, Charlotte Observer newspaper article 30 May 1907

Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina), 30 May 1907, page 8

Your genealogy software may have overlays or add-ons to create a timeline, or you can make one in a spreadsheet or with one of the free tools found on the Web. Many timeline “how-to” articles are written for teachers, but the concept applies equally to family historians.

Here are two helpful timeline articles:

Before & After Headlines

An effective tool for teaching family history is to compare before and after newspaper headlines.

For example, here is a newspaper ad from the steamer company White Star Line, advertising cross-Atlantic voyages on its huge new ship Titanic (misspelled as “Titantic”), just two months before the steamer’s ill-fated maiden voyage.

cruise ad from the White Star Line for their new steamer "Titanic," Evening Star newspaper advertisement 13 February 1912

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 13 February 1912, page 17

By contrast, here is one of the many shocking headlines the world saw after the “unsinkable” Titanic hit an iceberg and sank in the early morning hours of 15 April 1912.

Ship's Band Plays "Nearer My God to Thee" as Titanic Sinks, Winston-Salem Journal newspaper article 19 April 1912

Winston-Salem Journal (Winston-Salem, North Carolina), 19 April 1912, page 1

Here is another jarring example of contrasting old newspaper headlines. The first is a straightforward headline about the “famous dirigible navigator” Dr. Hugo Eckener arriving in America for a series of conferences on expanding dirigible service between Europe and the U.S. Eckener announced that the Hindenburg dirigible would soon resume its transatlantic flights, and declared:

By the end of the summer, I am certain we will have convinced anyone who has any doubts about the safety of Zeppelin flights across the Atlantic.

Eckener Arrives on Air Mission; Will Visit Akron, Repository newspaper article 10 January 1937

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 10 January 1937, page 3

Less than four months after Eckener made his remark, the world saw headlines such as this in its newspapers.

Fire Wrecks Hindenburg, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 6 May 1937

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 6 May 1937, page 1

Please share with us any of your favorite or surprising historical newspaper headlines found at GenealogyBank!

Related Articles about Newspaper Research for Family History:

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Anniversary of Susan B. Anthony’s Death: Women’s Rights Crusader

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post—in honor of March being National Women’s History Month—Gena commemorates the 108th anniversary of the death of women’s rights advocate Susan B. Anthony.

1920. That isn’t really that long ago. In the United States, women have had the right to vote in federal elections for less than 100 years. Depending on your age, there’s a good chance that your grandmother or great-grandmother spent part of her life without that right. Women today have many foremothers to thank for their work in securing suffrage. One woman, whose name is familiar to most of us, dedicated her life to suffrage—and like many of those who fought that fight, she never saw her dream fully realized.

On 13 March 1906 pioneering activist Susan B. Anthony died at the age of 86.

photo of women's rights advocate Susan B. Anthony at age 50

Photo: Susan B. Anthony at age 50. Credit: Wikimedia Commons by Stmarygypsy.

When she was 52, Anthony was arrested, tried and convicted for the crime of daring to vote in the 1872 Presidential Election. She persisted in her efforts with unwavering dedication, declaring a few years before she died that national women’s suffrage “…will come, but I shall not see it.”

Her words proved prophetic 14 years after her death, when the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on 18 August 1920, guaranteeing all American women the right to vote.

photo of a petition from E. Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and others asking for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing universal suffrage, ca. 1865

Photo: petition of E. Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and others asking for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing universal suffrage, ca. 1865. Credit: U.S. National Archives; Flickr The Commons.

Quaker by birth, social reform causes were not unknown to her. Susan B. Anthony spoke her mind about various causes during her life including slavery, which she spoke out against when she was only 17 years old.

History of Woman Suffrage

One of the results of her tireless work is a book series, History of Woman Suffrage, which Anthony co-authored with fellow suffragists Matilda Joslyn Gage and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This set is not only a good history of the cause; it provides valuable information to present-day researchers on the dates women received suffrage on a local and state level. The series is available online through digitized books websites including Google Books and Internet Archive.

Genealogy Tip: Be sure to consult this book series to better understand what voting records may be available for your female ancestors.

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Obituary of Susan B. Anthony

When she died, Susan B. Anthony’s obituary was published in newspapers throughout the United States. Her obituary listed her many life accomplishments, including: lecturing in 1847 on behalf of temperance; her work towards the abolition of slavery prior to the Civil War; and her taking a “prominent part in the passage of an act in New York giving married women the possession of their earnings and right of guardianship of their children.”

obituary for women's rights advocate Susan B. Anthony, Bellingham Herald newspaper article 13 March 1906

Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Washington), 13 March 1906, page 3

Even in death Anthony was breaking down gender and race barriers. An African American woman, Mrs. R. Jerome Jeffrey, spoke at her funeral, and the honorary pall bearers were young women from the University of Rochester. Anthony helped to secure coeducation privileges for women at that institution just prior to her death.

Susan B. Anthony (Lies) in State in Church, Baltimore American newspaper article 15 March 1906

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 15 March 1906, page 9

Even though she did not live to see women gain the federal right to vote, she had worked with women in other states that did enjoy suffrage in state and local elections. Women in the Western states of Wyoming (1869), Utah (1870), Colorado (1893), and Idaho (1896) were some of the first to hold the right to vote in state elections.

In 1920 the 19th Amendment was ratified after a 41-year-long battle. Originally penned by Anthony and Stanton, the text for the 19th Amendment was known as the Anthony Amendment. Years of women’s, and some men’s, hard work which involved marches, pickets, demonstrations, arrests, and even being tortured ended with the adoption of this sentence:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Suffrage Now Is a Law, Kansas City Star newspaper article 1 September 1920

Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri), 1 September 1920, page 2

Susan B. Anthony’s Grave

Susan B. Anthony is buried in the Anthony family plot at Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York. Abolitionist Frederick Douglas is also buried at Mount Hope. You can view her gravestone on the website The Freethought Trail.

Interesting history fact: Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment in 1920, giving the amendment the 36 approval votes it needed to pass. However, some states didn’t ratify it until much later; the last state, Mississippi, didn’t ratify the 19th Amendment until 1984. That’s not a typo—it wasn’t until 1984!

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jackie Robinson & Rosa Parks Obituaries

During this October week in American history three pioneering activists died who had a big impact on American society:

  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton, American women’s rights activist, died at 86 on 26 October 1902
  • Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson, American baseball player and civil rights activist, died at 53 on 24 October 1972
  • Rosa Louise McCauley Parks, American civil rights activist, died at 92 on 24 October 2005

Newspapers are filled with obituaries and profiles that help us better understand the lives of our ancestors—and the famous people who lived during their times. You can use historical newspapers to research their public careers and trace their family trees. The following old newspaper articles about these three famous Americans are good examples.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902)

An activist from an early age, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was involved in the abolitionist and temperance movements—but the cause to which she primarily devoted her considerable powers was women’s rights and their equality before the law, especially the right to vote. She was instrumental in organizing the first women’s rights convention: the Seneca Falls Convention, a two-day meeting convened on July 19, 1848, in Seneca Falls, New York.

Over 300 people attended the women’s rights convention, whose highlight was the reading and discussion of a statement of women’s rights called the Declaration of Sentiments, primarily written by Stanton. After much debate, the declaration (deliberately modeled after the Declaration of Independence) was signed by 100 of the participants: 68 women and 32 men.

Of the 12 resolutions debated and approved at the convention, the most controversial was the ninth, written by Stanton. It read: “Resolved, that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.” Women’s suffrage was a divisive issue and many of the convention’s participants opposed its inclusion, fearing that an element this controversial would weaken support for women’s equality. However, others argued persuasively in favor of supporting women’s suffrage—and in the end the voting rights resolution was approved.

Stanton met another pioneering suffragist, Susan B. Anthony, in 1851, and the two women were close friends and allies in the women’s rights movement for the rest of Stanton’s life.

This obituary was published the day after Stanton died.

Woman's Rights Loses Venerable 'Mother' [Elizabeth Cady Stanton], Denver Post newspaper obituary 27 October 1902

Denver Post (Denver, Colorado), 27 October 1902, page 3

This old newspaper obituary included a tribute penned by Susan B. Anthony: “Through the early days, when the world was against us, we stood together. Mrs. Stanton was always a courageous woman, a leader of thought and new movement. She was a most finished writer and every state paper presented to Congress or the state legislatures in the early days was written by Mrs. Stanton. I cannot express myself at all as I feel, I am too crushed to say too much, but if she had outlived me she would have found fine words with which to express our friendship.”

This tribute to Stanton was published two days after she died.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Worcester Daily Spy newspaper article 28 October 1902

Worcester Daily Spy (Worcester, Massachusetts), 28 October 1902, page 6

It concluded: “Mrs. Stanton fell far short of her aim, in what she actually accomplished, just as Susan B. Anthony finds herself far short of the goal toward which she has struggled [the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, was not ratified until 1920]. The world is not ready to grant their contention in its fullness, and indeed is still to a great degree hostile toward it, but the two remarkable women long ago won recognition of the principle by which they were inspired, and through that recognition extended the power of women in public affairs to a wonderful degree, and made great progress toward establishing women in a position more equitable with that of men so far as property rights are concerned.

“Work like that carried on by Mrs. Stanton cannot cease with her life, nor can it end when Miss Anthony, her illustrious co-worker, passes away. It is everlasting, and will constantly bring fresh benefits to womankind.”

Jackie Robinson (1919-1972)

A superb all-around athlete and a man of strong principles, Jackie Robinson is most remembered as the African American who broke baseball’s color barrier when he started a game for the Brooklyn Dodgers on 15 April 1947. Despite vicious racial taunts and threats, Robinson played the game with great intensity and excellence, gradually winning the respect and admiration of most of his peers and helping to advance the cause of the Civil Rights Movement in America.

During his 10-year baseball career, Robinson played in six World Series, had a lifetime batting average of .311, won the Rookie of the Year award in 1947, and was the National League Most Valuable Player in 1949. He became the first African American player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame when he was accepted in 1962, in his initial year of eligibility.

After his professional baseball career ended, Robinson continued to break racial barriers with a series of firsts for an African American: baseball television analyst; vice-president of a major American corporation (Chock full o’Nuts); one of the co-founders of an African American-owned financial institution called the Freedom National Bank; owner of a construction company that built housing for low-income families.

Robinson died a much-respected figure on 24 October 1972 of complications from diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease at the young age (for a prime athlete) of 53. After his death tributes poured in for the man who had accomplished—and endured—so much.

This tribute, published in the newspaper the day after Robinson died, told a story about his minor league playing career with the Montreal Royals that showed how much testing Robinson had to endure.

Fear of Failure Motivated Jackie [Robinson], Springfield Union newspaper article 25 October 1972

Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 25 October 1972, page 32

“There was the exhibition game against Indianapolis, and Paul Derringer, the one-time Cincinnati ace, was pitching against Montreal. He was a friend of [Montreal Manager Clay] Hopper’s and he said:

“‘Tell you what I’m gonna do, Clay. I’m gonna knock him (Robinson) down a couple of times and see what he’s made of.’

“Robinson had to eat dirt to avoid a high, inside pitch his first time up, but then picked himself up and singled. Derringer decked him again the next time up, but Robinson bludgeoned a screaming triple to left-center.

“‘He’ll do, Clay,’ Derringer hollered into the Montreal dugout.”

This tribute to Robinson was penned by famed sportswriter Red Smith.

Unconquerable Spirit [Jackie Robinson] Pierces Gloom in Philly, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 25 October 1972

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 25 October 1972, page 70

Calling Robinson the “black man’s fighter,” Smith wrote: “Jackie Robinson established the black man’s right to play second base. He fought for the black man’s right to a place in the white community, and he never lost sight of that goal. After he left baseball, almost everything he did was directed toward that goal. He was involved in foundation of the Freedom National Banks. He tried to get an insurance company started with black capital and when he died he was head of a construction company building houses for blacks. Years ago a friend, talking of the needs of blacks, said, ‘good schooling comes first.’

“‘No,’ Jackie said. ‘housing is the first thing. Unless he’s got a home he wants to come back to, it doesn’t matter what kind of school he goes to.’”

This Jackie Robinson obituary article was published the day after he died.

Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson Dead at 53, Plain Dealer newspaper obituary 25 October 1972

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 October 1972, page 61

It included a tribute to Robinson from the head of baseball: “Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said Robinson was unsurpassed in contribution to sports. ‘His entire life was courage. Courage as the black pioneer of the game. Courage in the way he fought for what he believed.’”

Rosa Parks (1913-2005)

When Rosa Parks, an African American woman in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her bus seat to a white person on Dec. 1, 1955, her act of resistance ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott—which in turn accelerated the Civil Rights Movement and forever changed America. It was not that Parks was too physically tired to move that evening, though it was the end of another long day working as a seamstress in the Montgomery Fair department store. Nor was she old and infirm; at 42, she was a strong and healthy African American woman. She had simply had enough of the city’s segregation laws that gave whites more rights than blacks.

Her arrest for refusing white bus driver James Blake’s order to give up her seat on the bus galvanized the African American community in Montgomery. Thousands of leaflets were distributed calling for a boycott of the city’s buses until the Jim Crow segregation laws were changed. The boycott was led by a young minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., who soon rose to national prominence as a civil rights leader. After 381 days the segregation laws were finally changed and blacks once again rode Montgomery’s buses—but that victory was only the start of a movement much, much bigger.

The Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, and Rosa Parks went on to receive national recognition—including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

This 1955 news article reported on her arrest, fining, and the subsequent bus boycott.

Negro Woman [Rosa Parks] in Segregation Case Fined, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 5 December 1955

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 5 December 1955, page 44

The newspaper article about the Montgomery bus incident reported: “The woman was taken off a bus and jailed last Thursday night after refusing to leave a section reserved for white passengers. The [Montgomery] City Code requires segregation in all forms of public transportation and gives bus drivers police powers to enforce the law.

“Meanwhile, other Negroes boycotted city buses in protest against the woman’s arrest. Police cars and motorcycles followed the busses to avert trouble.”

This obituary and appreciation was published in the newspaper two days after Parks died.

Rosa Parks Inspired Generation, Register Star newspaper article 26 October 2005

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 26 October 2005, page 1

It reported: “Attorney Vernita Hervey, a civil rights activist, said Parks’ defiance of Alabama’s Jim Crow laws sparked an uprising that ‘probably was the defining moment in African-American collective action.’”

To honor Parks, this drawing graced the editorial page of the Register Star.

editorial cartoon paying respects to Rosa Parks, Register Star newspaper illustration 26 October 2005

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 26 October 2005, page 5

Today there is even an American holiday in Rosa Parks’ honor.

Newspaper Obituaries provide personal details about someone’s life that can’t be found elsewhere—whether they are stories about our ancestors or articles about famous people we’re interested in. GenealogyBank features two collections of online obituaries:

Dig into these obituary archives today and see what you can discover about your family tree and the famous people you admire most!