January 22, 2021
Last week I wrote about using newspapers to verify family stories such as my family’s lightning strike story. In addition to proving that a family story really happened, sometimes newspapers can also help us find out about long forgotten events that no one now alive even knows happened. With the widespread digitization of newspapers, it can be as easy as searching for a family name.
Sadly for many of us, not all newspapers in all areas and time frames have been digitized, which means that often the very newspapers that might hold the keys to our family’s history are not readily available to us. For example, my husband’s family spent hundreds of years living in Southern New Jersey, specifically in Gloucester County. I know for a fact that there were several newspapers published in the small towns of that county over the centuries. I also know that those newspapers were microfilmed and are held in the Gloucester County Historical Society archives. On my rare visits to the archives in Woodbury, New Jersey, I have accessed some of the microfilmed newspapers and have found obituaries and marriage and birth notices. Those types of articles have been indexed by the historical society, but the type of articles that I’m looking for now – the ones that open up a family’s life to their descendants – have never been indexed, making them almost impossible for the average researcher to access. If I had lots of time to spend on the microfilm machines in New Jersey or wanted to hire someone else to do it, or could order in microfilm through interlibrary loan, I’m sure that I would be able to find all sorts of hidden treasures. Right now with almost all libraries and archives closed due to Covid 19, none of those options are possible.
For the foreseeable future, nearly all research is confined to online sources and maybe a few published books and periodicals. Frustrating as this situation is, I have found a work around that has helped me find at least a few digitized newspapers that have helped me fill in some blanks in my husband’s family history. Although there are no digitized newspapers available for Gloucester County (at least as far as I’ve been able to locate), Gloucester County is near to the large city of Philadelphia – in fact it’s just across the river. Like those of most large cities, Philadelphia’s newspapers have been digitized and are available on various free and paid websites. Although city newspapers tend to print fewer local interest stories, they often have columns about nearby areas. In the case of Philadelphia, that includes the Southern New Jersey area where my husband’s family has always lived. For example, one of my husband’s second great grandfather’s ran for the sheriff of Gloucester County. The Philadelphia Enquirer published a column about his campaign which detailed his reasons for running and his qualifications for the job. It even included a picture of him, typically newspaper grainy but the only picture I’d ever seen of this ancestor. Since then, I’ve found a few other articles about my husband’s family in the Philadelphia papers and have also found articles in other non-Gloucester County New Jersey papers, as well.
While articles in nearby towns probably won’t be as detailed or as lengthy as similar articles in the local hometown newspaper, they can still be helpful when the smaller papers are not available. If you’re someone who can’t access the local newspaper for the area where your ancestors lived, try finding digitized newspapers for nearby towns, particularly larger ones, which are more apt to have been digitized. You might be surprised by what you find. I certainly was.
Researcher/Director at Large