Beyond Obits: Newspaper Research
February 22, 2019
Since obituaries often contain the only biographical information available about an ancestor, most genealogists search for them. Unfortunately, many family historians confine their newspaper research to obituaries and overlook many other potential articles that can fill in the blanks in a family history. Because so many newspapers are now digitized and readily available online, it’s easier than ever to access the wealth of information contained in old newspapers.
About twenty years ago, I undertook a major newspaper search. My paternal grandfather was one eleven children and also had nine double cousins (two brothers married two sisters). All twenty of the siblings and double cousins lived to grow up and marry and have families of their own. My project was to find out as much about all forty of these inter-related men and women as I could. One of my major sources was the local newspapers in the towns where they’d lived and died. Back then, digitized newspapers were rare; newspaper research essentially consisted of finding obituaries since most newspapers were not indexed. This entailed visits to local libraries and state archives to access newspapers on microfilm, telephone calls to libraries who had obituary files and queries sent off to volunteers on websites such as Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness. After many months, I eventually found obits for nearly all of the forty relatives.
Fast forward twenty years, and I decided that I’d revisit my research into my grandfather’s family. Because so many newspapers are available online now, I was able to find the same obituaries I’d found so many years ago within a few hours, rather than the months it had taken before. I even found a few obits I’d missed since they appeared in newspapers I hadn’t thought to search or hadn’t had the ability to access in the past. But, the most amazing part was the sheer volume of articles that turned up about these twenty couples. I found dozens of articles about their engagements and weddings, often with pictures of the bride in her wedding finery.
Through other articles I learned that one great-uncle had raised prize-winning English setters and another was a champion bowler. Some cousins had been drafted into the Army during World War I; another had earned a doctorate in chemistry. One cousin was elected the mayor of his town; his wife designed and sewed the first flag for the State of Utah. In addition, there were notices of divorces I hadn’t known occurred, articles describing family birthday parties and even a few photographs such as a four-generation photo including my great grandfather, his son, grandson and great grandson.
I now knew much more about my family than I’d ever imagined, and the most amazing part of the search was that I did it all at home, at my convenience, in my bedroom slippers. My family wasn’t famous, wasn’t particularly well-to-do or notorious in any way, but I was able to find hundreds of articles about them; I’m sure that almost any genealogist would be able to do the same thing for his/her family. It’s just a matter of knowing where to search.
I typically check free sources first, and for newspapers, there are loads of free sources. One of the best is the Library of Congress Chronicling America website at https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/ . This website offers access to thousands of digitized newspaper pages. In addition, they offer a directory of historic newspapers which includes information about where those newspapers may be found; this can be helpful in locating non-digitized newspapers.
Another great free source for historic newspapers is the website https://Elephind.com where links to many free digitized newspapers can be found. This website includes newspapers from all over the world, not just from the U.S. Many states have historic newspaper projects which have digitized papers from their respective states. Elephind includes links to many of these websites, as well.
There are, of course, several good pay-for-view newspaper websites. These include https://www.newspapers.com/ , https://www.genealogybank.com/ and https://newspaperarchive.com/ . Before purchasing a subscription, it’s a good idea to make sure that the website you’re considering actually has the newspaper you’re looking for. If the title is available, be sure to check date coverage; sometimes more than one of these websites will contain a title, but for different date ranges. These website often offer free trials and short term subscriptions. Unless you’re working on a very large project, a short term subscription may make sense since finding all the articles about a particular family may not take very long. The websites are continually adding newspaper titles, so checking back often is a good idea.
Finally, several of the large research databases also contain digitized newspapers. Ancestry, My Heritage and Find My Past all have at least some newspapers.
It can be a little difficult to figure out which database holds the newspapers for the place and time you’re looking for, but the rewards are definitely worth the effort. With newspapers, you just never know what you might find, but it’s often something you would find nowhere else.