Researching Newspapers — Beyond the Obits

by Carol Stetser
Like most family historians, I’d always felt that I was using newspapers effectively. After all, I’d looked up literally dozens of obits and marriage and birth announcements. Recently, however, I’ve come to realize that historic (and even modern) newspapers offer a whole lot more. Since they were written for contemporary readers, at the time the events occurred, newspapers are a time machine of sorts. Through them we can open a window into a lost world.

Newspaper Digitization Projects

In recent years, more and more historic newspapers have been digitized. Finding digitized newspapers for an area your ancestors lived, is like hitting the mother lode. A year or so ago, I discovered Utah Digital Newspapers. Many of my ancestors were from Utah, and I found over 300 articles mentioning them. They covered everything from what crops my great-grandfather planted in 1893 to an article about another great-grandfather’s trip from New Zealand to the United States.

The wonderful part of these digitized papers is the ease with which you can search them. If your family name is unusual, such as mine (Fernelius, in case you wondered), it’s easy to search for that name. More common names might require first names and initials. Just remember that newspaper writers were as apt then as now to misspell names, so don’t forget to check any variants you can think of for both last and first names. Another way to find articles is to search by place names, specific dates and/or institution names. In fact, just about any way you can imagine to search will yield results.

Several “pay-for-view” sites such as Ancestry.com, Godfrey Library and the New England Historical and Genealogical Society have good digital newspaper collections. Their holdings are fascinating; however, they do cost. For those of us too cheap to subscribe, there are many great, free websites such as the one for Utah above. A comprehensive listing is found at www.researchguides.net/newspapers.htm. The site lists the newspapers by state, and while the list is fairly short now, many of these sites are adding newspapers frequently.

A few months after I found all of those articles in Utah, I checked back again and found that a newspaper for an adjoining county had been added. That netted another 90 or so articles! Also, even if you don’t find anything on the town or county you’re researching, check other newspapers in the region. The Minnesota list didn’t have any listings for the county my ancestors lived in. However, upon checking the one Minnesota paper listed, I found several articles about some cousins who operated a flying circus throughout the Midwest in the 1920s.

Finally, don’t forget that modern newspapers are also online. Many newspapers have been digitized since the late 1990s. For example, the local Fort Collins Coloradoan (www.coloradoan.com) is available from 1999 to the present. This archive is completely searchable for all articles, including obituaries. Searching is free, but there is a small charge to access the complete articles. Many other modern newspapers have similar archives, and some don’t even charge to access archived articles.

One noteworthy newspaper, the New York Times (www.nytimes.com), is searchable from 1851 to the present. Even if you don’t have New York ancestors, this is a great source to check out if your ancestors came through Castle Garden or Ellis Island. The “Shipping News” section always reported the arrival of ships and gave a brief summary of the voyage, such as this 1868 arrival notice for the steamship “City of London.” In addition, you can browse and see what was going on in New York on the day your ancestor landed.

Microfilm and Hard Copy

Unfortunately, most newspapers have not been digitized. This makes it more difficult to access their treasures, but it’s not impossible. Many newspapers have been microfilmed, or at least the hard copies have been bound into books. Check at www.neh.gov/projects/usnp.html for links to various state newspaper websites. Even small libraries usually have microfilm of the local newspaper. If you have a chance to visit an ancestral town, budget some time to read the newspapers for the time period your ancestors lived in the area. Beware that reading old newspapers is addictive!

If you can’t get to local libraries, remember that state libraries and/or archives usually keep copies of microfilmed newspapers for the entire state. Most other states have similar state archives and libraries; usually they are located in the state capitol; check before you drive all over a state looking for small town newspapers. Another great advantage to these state collections is that their newspapers are often available on interlibrary loan (ILL), so you can get access to them, even if you can’t travel.

Looking for articles in person is always best. You’ll see what someone else might miss, but if you can’t get to an area, write, email or call the local historical or genealogical society and/or library. Sometimes they have indexes which they will check. Occasionally, they’ll even read newspapers for you. No matter how you access them, newspapers are a goldmine of information about the Past. Whether you find articles directly about your ancestor or articles that give you a feeling for a time and place, it’s well worth your time to look for them.

From the Larimer County Genealogical Society Newsletter, Volume 26 Number 6

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