Apr 8, 2022

Searching Beyond Names – Newspapers

April 8, 2022

Like everyone else, searching for my ancestors by name has been my default method of using newspapers. It’s a great way to find obituaries and other vital records. It’s also a wonderful way to locate famous ancestors and ancestors with unusual names. It’s not, however, the only way to find information about your ancestors’ lives in newspapers.


Recently, for example, I’ve been reviewing the information I’ve collected on my immigrant ancestors. I’ve compiled all sorts of documents for them including passenger arrival lists and naturalization records. While great sources, none of these records really tell me a lot about the actual experiences of being a newcomer to America.


Since most of my ancestors arrived in America after newspapers were common, I wondered if there might be articles in newspapers that would give me some insight into their lives. My ancestors arrived at large ports like New York and Philadelphia by ship between about 1850 and the beginning of World War I.


Newspapers for that era for large cities are readily available online at a variety of websites ranging from free sites Chronicling America to paid sites like and Genealogy Bank.


Newspapers in port cities publish a column called “Shipping News” or “Marine Intelligence.” The column gives the names of every ship that docked at the port during the previous day. It usually gives a brief description of the voyage itself, as well. For example, a genealogist I know told me that his grandfather  maintained that his ship almost met the fate of the “Titanic” when it ran into an iceberg.

Luckily, the grandfather’s ship was repaired and made it into port. The family thought the grandfather exaggerated his story, but my genealogist friend looked at the “Shipping News” column for the day his grandfather arrived. The ship he sailed on was listed. The blurb about it stated that the ship had hit an iceberg during voyage. The crew was able to make repairs, but the passengers had been prepared to abandon ship. An interesting family story was turned into a fact, thanks to a newspaper article.


“Shipping News” columns are not the only information about the arrival of an ancestor’s ship that can be found in newspapers. For example, I checked the weather report in the New York Herald for the day my grandmother arrived in New York City in October of 1914. The high was 80 degrees on that day. I suspect my grandmother was shocked to find herself in mid-summer weather so late in the year. Her home in Norway was rarely that warm, even in the middle of summer.


It’s also fun to search for the name of the ship an ancestor travelled on. I searched for my grandmother’s ship Bergensfjord for the period just before and just after she arrived. I found an interesting article detailing how over two thirds of the ship’s 1145 passengers were young, single women looking for positions as servants.


The article also explained why the ship was a day late arriving in port. It had been forced to detour to the far North Atlantic to avoid meeting trouble further south. Although Norway was neutral, World War I had just begun, and passenger ships were not exempt from being attacked. Apparently, the ship went so far north that the passengers were able to see the black cliffs of Iceland.


Had I looked for my grandmother’s name or had my friend looked for his grandfather’s name in the newspapers, we would have found nothing at all. Both of them had travelled in steerage. They were too insignificant to have been listed. By looking in other ways, my friend and I both found interesting details to add to our family immigration stories. Details that we would not have been able to find anywhere else.


Carol Stetser