Newspapers: Must-Have Genealogical Resource for Family Historians

Introduction: In this article, Jessica Edwards gives tips on how newspapers can help with your genealogy, and gives examples from her own family history research. Jessica has had a lifelong interest in her family’s history – especially on her father’s side, which goes back to the first settlers in Pennsylvania, Jamestown and New England – and has documented and added more than 21,000 people to her family tree!

If you are a beginning genealogist you may have occasionally looked at newspapers as a last resort for information about your ancestors. Newspapers of by-gone days can give you quite a bit of information if you only open your mind!

Living in an Information Age

We are living in what is called the “Information Age” and we get it via the internet, television, cable, satellite, and the radio (in the future there may be some other methods not even dreamed about yet). In the generations that came before us, they often shared their information through a newspaper, which could be a source of monthly, weekly, daily, or even twice-a-day information.

Purpose of Early Newspapers

The purpose of early newspapers was to relay information about the world at large as well as local news. Once printing presses became powered by electricity (instead of relying on humans providing the energy to move the parts needed to print a newspaper), more copies could be produced at a faster rate and for less money – which meant that newspapers could reach a wider audience. Local news sections meant that personal information was left for future generations (although they never saw it from that perspective).

What Is the Use of Old Newspapers in Genealogy?

Some interesting things you may see in old newspapers include: vacation plans; life events (birth announcements, bar mitzvah, weddings, parties, and funerals); arrests and trials over trivial things; and “human interest stories.”

Newspapers can also give you a glimpse of life at that period in history by looking at what things cost, what people found to do for amusement, what clothing they wore, etc., which may help to bring your relatives “alive” to you so that they become more than just dates on a pedigree chart. So, look not only at the stories in the newspaper but also at the paid advertisements and the classifieds (I found an ad for a relative offering to trade items for the extra eggs his chickens produced, and another selling off farm equipment after he became disabled).

These newspaper articles might also give you the names of the churches or temples your ancestors had services done at, which in turn might have records providing you other children’s names, dates of events, etc.

Problems Using Old Newspapers

When you use newspapers as a source for your genealogical research, you must keep in mind that these were written by people who were imperfect and could make mistakes in either the writing or printing of the information. They also had their own viewpoints and biases.

So please keep all of these things in mind, and try to use as many sources as possible to verify the information you find and, wherever possible, check original records to compare the information. Information is most believable when it is an original source (recorded by an eyewitness, meaning someone who had first-hand knowledge or experience with an event, relationship or some other matter in question); preserved in its original format; preserved in a clear and certain way so that it is directly understood, such as: “John Smith married Mary Partridge on 7 September 1879”; and consistent with the presumed facts that are found in one or more other sources.

My Personal Experiences Using Newspapers as a Source

Some interesting things I have found in my own genealogical search in the newspapers have included: what items were left by one great-great grand aunt (so it gave me information as to property, status, and her heirs as well as information on her life); an engagement party coverage (gave me information on both sides of the couple for other relatives as well as where they were living at the time, and anticipated wedding date); and an article on my great grandmother and her father and sisters running their own lumber mill in central Pennsylvania (considered highly unusual at the time because the women did all of the jobs, and also because they were considered “beauties” in the region who hadn’t married and didn’t need to be “provided for by a man”).

In one newspaper article I found, a distant cousin was mentioned because he ran into a burning neighbor’s house on a rescue attempt. The article also mentioned how two of the children who died were playmates of my cousin’s children (and named the children of my cousin). I found a series of articles on what I thought was a cousin of mine, only to find out that my cousin was arrested because he had the same name and age of another man who embezzled quite a bit of money and committed a number of other crimes (the articles went into details of the differences between the two men in order to exonerate my cousin, who had first been accused in print of committing the crimes).

One thing to keep in mind when you search old newspapers is to consider looking for your relatives’ names in other locations, as news might be picked up by the media in other locations, or articles may be published back in their home towns, towns they may have lived in, or the locations of relatives. Also, be sure to search for women by both maiden and married names, as it may make a difference in the results.

So, in closing: use a collection of old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, to supplement the names and dates on your family tree, to find the stories of your ancestors’ lives and bring them “back to life” to your family.

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