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Newspapers <<

| Newspapers | How to Find Newspapers |
| How to Find Your Ancestor in an Old Newspaper |

Newspapers

One of the best and most underused resources in genealogical research is newspapers. Researchers dismiss them for a variety of reasons - my family wasn't important enough to be mentioned; the little town we came from probably didn't have a paper, and even if it did, those old issues probably don't exist anymore; they're too hard to find; or they're too hard to search. All of these are valid concerns, but the genealogical details and historical context that can be found in newspapers make it worth the effort.

casualty notice There's actually a reasonably good chance that your family may be mentioned in a newspaper. Many 19th and 20th century papers, for example, routinely included obituaries, or at least death or funeral notices for residents in their area. In the 1900s, birth, wedding and milestone anniversary announcements became quite standard. If your family was somewhat prominent in the area in which they lived, they may appear in the society page or column, but even relative unknowns show up for reasons such as being a party to a legal action, winning a prize at a county fair, or dying accidentally (in fact, if you ever receive a death certificate giving "killed" or "accident" as the cause of death, consider it your duty to search local newspapers for that time period). Earlier papers contained less personal information, but you may still find a brief mention of a pending marriage or abrupt death as far back as the late 1700s.

 Video Clip
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Ancestors expert Curt Witcher talks about the importance of newspaper records.

crew Even if your family does not appear, however, newspapers are still worth searching because they give you context - a sense of the place and time in which your ancestors lived. Unlike today's papers, you're not likely to find much information about world events in these older papers. What you will find, though, is how your ancestors were affected by local happenings such as extreme weather conditions or a county election. You may find ads for local businesses (maybe even their own!) or descriptions of local events of note such as school, church or political functions. Everything from the fashions of the era to the price of bread to the way they spent their Saturday nights can be found. The newspaper of days gone by was a chronicle of the events of an area, and that alone makes it a valuable tool in your research.

How to Find Newspapers

Admittedly, finding the newspaper that may have recorded pieces of your ancestors' lives can be a bit of a challenge. To begin your search, you will need two pieces of information: 1) the area in which your ancestor lived and 2) a specific time frame.

 Video Clip
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Ancestors expert Curt Witcher explains how easy newspaper research can be.

Ideally, you'll want to know the town in which they lived, but it's a good idea to also know the name of the county, state, and larger towns. Start locally and work your way up to the larger areas as needed. Newspapers, like any other business, came and went over the years, so you'll want to know what timeframe you're looking for to save yourself the trouble of looking for a paper that didn't even exist in the years in which your target ancestor lived.

What if you have the name of the town in which your ancestor lived, but can't find it anywhere on present day maps? Have a look at some gazetteers to see if you can learn about name changes over the years. Go to the Gazeteers extra for some online assistance with locating and using gazetteers.

Once you've defined the time and area, the next step is to find where these old newspapers can be found today. Because of their fragility, most old papers have been microfilmed for use by researchers. To find out where these microfilms are located, you have several options. If you still live in the same area as your ancestors, your first plan of attack should be to go to the local library. If they don't have the microfilms there, they should be able to direct you to them or perhaps to newspaper abstracts that have been published in book form.

Even if you don't live in the area, you might want to consider calling or writing the library as it may be possible to borrow the microfilms on interlibrary loan. If you are unable to find the newspaper through the local library, try the state library or archives. The state library collection should be almost complete, and most state libraries participate in interlibrary loan programs with other state libraries. State and county historical and genealogical societies are also an excellent resource for locating old newspapers (and newspaper abstracts).

 Video Clip
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Where to start looking for newspapers? Ancestors experts Curt Witcher and Lyle Winter suggest your local Public Library.

If you live too far to visit or the librarians you've contacted are unable to assist you, it's time to consult some finding aids such as newspaper directories. These resources will help you identify which libraries or repositories have editions of particular newspapers for given time periods. Some of the better known newspaper directories are Clarence S. Brigham's History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820, Winifred Gregory's American Newspaper (which covers 1821-1936), Ayers Directory of Publications, and Lubomyr R. and Anna T. Wynar's Encyclopedic Directory of Ethnic Newspapers and Periodicals in the United States. Many public and genealogical libraries have these directories.

If you have easy access to a local Family History Center, you may also want to search the FHL Catalog by the locality -- state, county, city - and then under the subject of newspapers. While the FHL does not hold many local newspapers, it does have indexes to and abstracts from quite a few.

How to Find Your Ancestor in an Old Newspaper

Once you locate a newspaper that serviced your ancestor's town, you'll want to have as narrow a timeframe in mind as possible, as most old newspapers are not indexed. The best approach is to start by searching for a known life event such as a death or marriage. This will allow you to focus on just a few days.

woman Of course, you'll always want to take the time to check if, in fact, there is an index! Most newspaper indexes only contain names extracted from major articles, but the potential time savings makes it worth a look. Anita C. Milner's Newspaper Indexes: A Location and Subject Guide for Researchers (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1977-82) is a useful resource. For some areas, an obituary index, sometimes called a "necrology file," may be available through the local library or genealogical society.

If your ancestors' names do not appear in any indexes, then prepare to scroll. Obtain the microfilms for the time period of interest and scroll through each issue page by page. Yes, it takes some persistence, but the discoveries almost always make it worthwhile! At a bare minimum, you will soak up the era and develop an understanding of the place in which your ancestors lived which few other means could possible give you.

One final word of warning: be prepared for what you might find! Just as today, scandal and sensational topics of all kinds were favorites subjects in newspapers. You may find that your ancestor died a gruesome death or committed a crime or was found inebriated in public. Contrary to popular belief, today's vices are not really new and one or two of your ancestors may have practiced a few. There just might be a few skeletons in the closet!

 
 
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