Explore Your Ancestors’ Lives in Old Newspapers

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over nine years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” In this blog post, Duncan shows how all the different types of articles found in old newspapers can be a great source of family history information.

Census and other government records are a good starting point for family history research – but to go beyond the names and dates, to learn more about your ancestors’ individual lives and find their stories, search an online newspaper collection like GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

montage of newspaper articles
Source: GenealogyBank.com

Which life events can be discovered or verified in newspaper articles?

It is said that each person gets 15 minutes of fame in his or her lifetime. If fame is based on the appearance of a person’s name in the newspaper, I submit that our ancestors got much more than 15 minutes. Here are a few of the events in a person’s life that could have appeared in the newspapers.


Birth announcements were quickly discovered to be a financial benefit to newspapers. People loved to see their name in print and would buy the paper just to see it. Neighbors enjoyed reading the good news, which offset the daily shock and horror stories that often filled the newspaper. And birth announcements were quick and easy to report, which saved the newspaper from reporting expenses.


Local papers were quick to publish the good news of their inhabitants. Although discovered later, marriage announcements proved to be as beneficial for newspapers as birth announcements – and for all the same reasons. Besides the “feel good” side of marriage announcements, many jurisdictions required a publication of marriage to prevent marriage fraud (bigamy).


Articles relating to divorce can range from a full expose on the scandal to a simple line in the court case list. There may also appear articles announcing the cancellation of a wife’s line of credit under her husband’s name. While these cancellations don’t necessarily mean that a divorce occurred, they do provide a clue to look for one. In cases of abandonment, courts often required a posting in the newspaper so that the missing spouse might be located prior to judgment.


Several different types of articles could be generated at the expiration of a life. If it was a particularly tragic event, such as the result of an accident or crime, several articles may appear in the paper – initially, and as follow-ups. Obituaries or death notices would run to alert friends and family of the funeral. The settlement of the descendant’s estate would also include running a newspaper notice in order to alert creditors to collect their dues.

Name Changes

Many courts required those wishing to change their name legally to publish an announcement in the newspaper for several weeks in order to alert any potential creditors to the new identity.


Advertisements for the sale of work equipment can provide clues to an ancestor’s employment. In addition, ads for the individual’s business may have run in the local paper to drum up new business or alert shoppers to sales. Reporting on business was big business to the newspapers. A change in ownership or location, or an alteration of the articles of incorporation, was routinely reported in the papers. Business people were a major sector of newspaper readers. Farmers needed to know the weather forecasts and the going price of grain. Insurance salesmen would use a local tragedy to encourage the neighbors to purchase insurance before it happened to them.


Articles providing clues about the whereabouts of individuals can vary. Notices of uncollected letters at the post office or delinquent taxpayers can provide clues to your ancestors’ location. There are also ads for the sale and purchase of homes or land. Some newspapers would include farewell articles to well known residents when they moved out. Newspapers also ran ads promoting their own newspaper by listing the names of residents who moved away but still subscribed to the newspaper.

Significant Events

Even your (mostly) law abiding ancestors got speeding tickets, had things stolen from them, helped out in their neighbor’s barn fire, discovered missing livestock, etc. Of course for your less law-abiding ancestors, there were plenty of articles enumerating their crimes. All of these events and many more were reported in newspapers. Local events are the heart and soul of many newspapers.

Daily Life Events

Less significant events were also reported in newspapers, such as out-of-town visitors, church picnics, graduation parties, reorganization of the local Mason lodge, new officers in the PTA, and so on. Reporting on local events sold newspapers!

Court Cases

As mentioned with name changes, many court cases required notices to appear in the local newspapers. The court also functioned as a source of local entertainment during our ancestors’ time, and a list of that day’s hearings would run in the newspapers – much like TV listings did in the second half of the 1900s.


Many newspapers in port towns would reprint ships’ passenger lists. This was intended to alert the locals of the arrival of friends and acquaintances. Passengers from the old country brought in news from home in addition to letters and other items. Included on the passenger list would also be names of important arriving businessmen that shrewd locals might want to be introduced to for reasons of commerce. Of course, ships also carried freight that would be of interest to the locals. Therefore, the coming and going of ships and their passengers made for promising material to sell newspapers.

There is far more family history information to be found in old newspapers than you may initially realize. Not only can they provide the vital statistics of birth, marriage, and death, they often provide more color and context for your ancestors than you would otherwise know.

Are you attending the RootsTech Genealogy Conference?

GenealogyBank is helping to sponsor the upcoming RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, 3-6 February, 2016. If you’re attending, come visit us at booth #523 to discuss genealogy in general, or any specific questions you have about your own family history research.

For more information about RootsTech, visit the website at: http://www.rootstech.org/?lang=eng

Related Articles:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *