Wednesday, February 27, 2013

U.S. Research Tip: The (News)Paper Trail

Most people go straight to census records and other government resources for vital statistics about their ancestors: where they lived, the "BMDs" (birth, marriage, and death dates), and so on.

My ancestors in 1844
(Ok so the printer couldn't spell "Married"...)
But if you know where they lived, local newspapers can be a treasure-trove.  In the United States newspapers in major cities were common well before the American Revolution, and by the early 1800's even small towns had at least one and often several supporting the community.  In those days newspapers were the only source of news besides word-of-mouth and a sometimes unreliable mail service, and a local paper served a vital need.   If your ancestors were part of any community, there's a chance that they're mentioned somewhere in a local newspaper.

If newspapers for the places you're researching have survived, a local county or state historical or genealogical society will know about it.  Often state or local libraries will have copies already on microfilm and if you can't visit in person they will know someone who can do the research for a small fee.   Subscription sites like or GenealogyBank are starting to offer images of many newspaper archives online, but before dropping money check if your local library already has a subscription to those or to ProQuest.  Or check out the free Library of Congress digital newspaper collection.

A local paper would usually carry marriage and death announcements (or even an obituary, if you're lucky) for subscribers.  You can confirm BMD dates, or even find other clues for your search.  What church did they attend and what records may have survived there?  Who else attended their wedding or funeral?  What did they die of?  What family relationships are mentioned?

But newspapers offer much more than dry facts - they give snapshots into our ancestors' lives.  Sometimes they're sensational... how would you like to find your ancestor in the story under one of these headlines (no, these aren't my ancestors, they're just taken from a sampling of the St. Louis Republic between 1888 and 1900):

Another tip:  don't rely just on the automated searches for the digital archives.  They're good, but they're not perfect at deciphering the old and often faded print.  Do your own manual search through newspapers over the time your ancestors lived there.  At the very least you'll understand more about your ancestors' lifestyle and what they were interested in.  And if you're lucky, you can find a hidden legacy from your ancestors that will help bring them alive in your records.

My oldest find - my 5x-great-grandmother's death in 1803.

Apparently in 1895 my ancestors were the place to rusticate!

A moment of my ancestor's farming life from 1844

1 comment:

  1. I love researching in old newspapers. The down side: I get easily side tracked! They are so interesing.
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)