Why Newspapers Are Essential for Genealogy Research

Our ancestors existed in a time before the Internet, electronic record keeping, social media, and in some cases centralized databases. A time of paper, ink, quills, and the printing press. Periodicals, local newspapers, and letters – not blogs or social media – were the primary way people stayed informed of the outside world.

Not only did newspapers provide stories relevant to their contemporary audience, they also included details that make them invaluable to those studying their genealogy today. Learning how to find your family history in newspapers is not as difficult as you might think. We’re sharing tips on how to search newspaper archives and find new details and a window to our past.

The History of Newspapers

The use of the printing press became widespread in early 16th century Europe. Initially known as “courants” or “currents of news,” yearly local bulletins became community monthly gazettes which then became weekly or daily newspapers covering world news. Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick was the first newspaper published in the U.S., in 1690. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, the morning newspaper had become a tradition.

Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 September 1690, page 1
Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 September 1690, page 1

Why Search for Your Ancestors in Newspaper Archives?

At first, it may seem unlikely or daunting to find your ancestors in newspaper archives, especially if you have a common last name. However, learning how to find your family history in newspapers can help you uncover unknown facts and stories about your ancestors.

Newspapers were used to inform readers of both the world and local community events. They announced births, deaths, marriages, personal achievements, and more. In this aspect, the newspaper took on the role of the local town crier. If an event or person were worthy of celebration (or damnation), then a story would undoubtedly be found in your local, regional, or state newspaper.

Because newspapers reported on the everyday occurrences of their communities, digitized, archived newspaper collections provide insights into our ancestors’ lives. Even your relatively unknown ancestors were likely featured in their local paper. Did Aunt Mabel win the pie contest every year at the county fair? If so, this may be local news.

As social sections of newspapers grew so did the commentary of community events. Here are a few of the types of stories published in newspapers which can help you learn more about your ancestors:

  • Obituaries
  • Marriage announcements
  • Birth announcements
  • Local stories – the community’s trials and tribulations
  • Passenger lists, especially in port cities
  • Casualty or promotion lists for Armed Services
  • Event attendance announcements
  • School-related events (honor rolls, theater productions, graduations, etc.)
  • Classified advertising (ancestors’ businesses, personal ads, etc.)
  • Society news (birthday parties, club meetings and events, notable out-of-town visitors)
  • Immigration and naturalization-related events (ship sailings, naturalization ceremonies, etc.)
  • Legal notices (divorces, sales, purchases, probate, etc.)

Where to Find Archived Newspapers

  • Library Archives: Your local library can be an excellent place to start your search. Local and regional newspapers are often kept on file, some dating back decades and even centuries.
  • The Library of Congress: Has a vast database of newspapers available to the public, including local and national newspapers dating back to the early 1800s.
  • Family Storage and Personal Archives: Talk to your relatives. Chances are they’ve saved a newspaper clipping or two about your ancestors.
  • Digital Archives: Use online collections of digitized and searchable newspapers. GenealogyBank helps you find your ancestors in newspaper archives by searching the entire database of more than 8,000 newspapers.

Additional Tips to Find Your Ancestors in Newspapers

Learn how to further narrow your search from experienced genealogists:

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4 thoughts on “Why Newspapers Are Essential for Genealogy Research

  1. I concur that newspapers are a window to the past for anyone doing research on family. In my quest to “fill in the blanks,” I found a small town paper describing the early days of my brother-in-law studying to be a doctor. Then I found an uncle who once played baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers. I also found many small snippets of family doings, as everything was local news back then. A big find for me was finding a photo of my brother and his wife at their wedding near Buffalo. Thank you.

  2. I love searching GenealogyBank for tidbits. I have only one major problem. I have an entire family line named March! It seems that nothing I do eliminates bringing up everything with a date of March appearing. I cannot even do an exact name search to get past this. Is there a way around this?

    1. BJ,

      As a fellow bearer of a last name that also happens to be a noun, I can empathize!

      Gina Philibert-Ortega covers how to search for ancestors with common surnames in this article (https://blog.genealogybank.com/how-to-find-ancestors-with-common-surnames-like-bacon.html). One of the tricks that will help you find more success is to use the include/exclude search parameters. She also goes over some advanced search tips–phrase searching, and boolean operators–that can help you track a name like March.

      I’d recommend giving that article a read and utilizing those techniques that she puts forth. Happy hunting!

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