Genealogy Tip: Getting the Most from Your Newspaper Search

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega gives several tips to help you search old newspapers for stories about your ancestors. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

How do you search historical newspaper archives for articles about your ancestors? That may seem like a simple question – but the way you search is important in making sure you get the results you seek. We all want to find our ancestors in historical newspapers, so conducting the best search possible is essential.

The following are just a few tips to help your newspaper search. The model I’ll be using is GenealogyBank, but these tips apply to any newspaper collection you’re searching.

Before You Start

Before you conduct your search, sit down and write out your ancestor’s full name. Now, take some time to write variations of that name. For example, if your ancestor is John Michael Smith, write out John Smith, J. Michael Smith, John M. Smith, J.M. Smith, and maybe, depending on the time period, Jno Smith.

Next, write down the various misspelling of that first and last name. It’s possible you’ve seen those in other records you’ve researched.

If you’re searching for a married female ancestor, write out the same list but include her husband’s name. For example, if her name is Trudy Jones but she’s married to John Michael Smith, she might be in a newspaper article as Mrs. John Smith. You’ll need his name variations as well as hers.

Begin Your Search

Think of searching as a process – not a one-time try. Use the name variations, keywords, and dates to craft multiple searches. Remember that the more information you add to a search, the fewer results you will receive. So, in some cases, you may not want to fill in each box on the search engine.

Let’s look at each component of the GenealogyBank search engine.

A screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box

First, you can enter a given (First Name) and surname (Last Name).

A screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box, showing the first and last name optionsIf you check the Exact Name Search box your first and last name boxes will become one box labeled Full Name.

A screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box, showing the full name option

Make sure to do some exact name searches, but don’t limit all your searches to exact name.

Next you can add a Date Range or a Specific Date to your search. This can be especially helpful when searching on a name that is quite common. Here’s where you can search on the years your ancestor was alive or on a specific date in their life. Remember that an obituary won’t happen the day the person died, so in some cases it’s best to do a date range.

A screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box, showing the date options

The next line of boxes on the search engine are for Keywords. What’s a keyword? A keyword is really any word or phrase. But think in terms of words that will help your search be more specific. For example, let’s say that the surname you are researching is also the name of a county. In the Exclude These Keywords box you can use the word “county” or even the name of the state where that county is found (as long as it’s not the state your ancestor lived in).

A screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box, showing the keywords option

So, what keywords should you use? Possibilities include an ancestor’s occupation, an event, an activity, the street name they lived on, or even the name of a relation you think should appear in an article with them. Think about what types of articles you expect to find and that might provide ideas for what keywords to use.

You can then include what State you want searched. The default is All States and you can leave that as is – but if you are searching for an ancestor with a common name, you may want to choose a specific state to search in order to limit the results you get.

A screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box, showing the state option

If you’re searching in a particular state, you can narrow your search further to a specific City (or cities) in that state.

A screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box, showing the state-city option

For example, if you select Vermont in the State box, then the City box will have a dropdown menu showing the cities in Vermont.

A screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box, showing the searching cities in Vermont option

The default in the Newspaper search box is All Newspapers, since you don’t know how many newspapers published articles about your ancestor.

A screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box, showing the newspaper option

Finally, you can specify the GenealogyBank Collections you want searched. The default is All Collections and you may want to start by searching everything. Once you’ve searched, the results list allows you to click on the various collections and see that collection’s results. In fact, you can modify your search once you see your results list.

A screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box, showing the collections option

The Collections search allows you to make choices. That’s right; it doesn’t have to be the Newspaper Archives collection. Your choices include:

  • Newspaper Archives
  • Recent Obituaries
  • S. Federal Census
  • Social Security Death Index
  • Historical Books
  • Government Publications

A screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box, showing the collections choices

Get Started Now

A little pre-planning with your search can help save you frustration later on. Take some time now to craft searches to use as you search for your ancestors in historical newspapers. Good luck with your family history research!

2 thoughts on “Genealogy Tip: Getting the Most from Your Newspaper Search

  1. If you’re looking for an obituary and it doesn’t come up in a search, it could be because the print is faded or blurry or maybe there’s a crinkle in the paper and the OCR software can’t read it. If you know the date of death (or other special event) browse the local newspaper (or neighboring towns) around those dates. Hopefully page 1 will have an index. If not, the Deaths columns are usually around the same page in each issue. My ggm had a young son that was killed in an accident. I only found the article by browsing the newspaper around the date he died.
    There won’t be an obituary for everyone, so also check for a Notice to Creditors, a Funeral Notice, a Notice of Probate, or a Card of Thanks. One of my ancestors had no obituary but his wife wrote a card of thanks to those who helped her during this trying time.

    1. Dianne, Thank you for those comments and your experience. I am so glad you mentioned browsing/reading the newspaper. It is important to sometimes take the time to browse, not just search. There can be all kinds of reasons for missing an article but browsing allows us to take more time and find items we might not otherwise. –Gena

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