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Using Newspapers in Family History Research
Column published: 08 July 2006. Updated 12 July 2006
By: Shirley Gage Hodges   Biography & Archived Articles

Newspapers are of tremendous value to the historian and genealogist. The newspapers chronicle current events and the people involved in them. Unfortunately, genealogists in search of their ancestry all too often overlook this valuable source. Even though we read the newspaper daily we forget that our ancestors were often mentioned in these earlier gazettes. Newspapers that were published during the time that our ancestors lived can provide important background on our families. We can learn not only about the communities in which they lived, but also about the churches and associations they attended or had memberships in. Sometimes those little snippets that we find in the newspaper are the only thing we can find that will help us place our ancestor in a certain place at a certain time. The accounts from the old newspapers can help us flesh out the stories about our ancestors.

We have to remember that the newspapers of old left nothing to the imagination when they published their stories. Fortunately for us, they felt that every "juicy" story deserved to be told. They certainly didn't understand the concept of being politically correct. Sometimes the details can be rather appalling, revolting or just rather humorous when we can view them with the comfort of the distance of time.

We can read all of the history and social history books available, but we can certainly better understand the lives of our ancestors when we find their stories in the old newspapers. You can really get a better sense of what your ancestors were experiencing after reading about an event or a time or place in history when you read it in a newspaper that was printed there and then.

The denominational newspapers should not be overlooked as they were also full of births, deaths and marriage information. They also included editorials on how you should vote and feel about every subject imaginable.

Some of the best features of the newspapers are the "Fifty Years Ago This Week" or columns of that nature. Sometimes you will find a reference to a person who is now deceased or information about an event that happened long ago.

Types of items to be found in newspapers:
    Obituary of Mrs. Alfred E. Ball (Alice Lewis) of St. Mary's Ontario
  • Advertisements -- if your ancestor was a merchant, these ads can provide its location, and the types of goods or services provided to the community. It may also give you an indication of how successful their business was.

  • Articles about local disasters - listings of people who may have been injured or killed during a disaster can be very valuable in locating an ancestor. I just recently found the newspaper that contained the story about a tornado that hit my childhood home. It is a wonderful item to include in the family history. Since I was 10 at the time, my memory was a little sketchy about the details.

  • Births -- parent's names, date of birth, sex; sometimes name of child and sibling information.

  • Funeral Notices -- generally brief, listing name and date of death; sometimes funeral home and burial information is included.

  • Gossip columns -- information varies from a brief mention to lots of details about family, relations, etc. These can be some of the most fascinating and helpful things you will find in the newspaper. Also, remember to look for birth or death announcements in the social items. Before hospitals, a pregnant woman may have gone to her mother's or sister's home to give birth.

  • Legal Notices -- information on estates, sometimes listing living heirs. You can also find information on foreclosures and sheriff's sales.

  • Lists of new arrivals in the community - names of immigrants arriving in a community

  • Marriage -- names of bride and groom, date of marriage; sometimes the church, parent's names, wedding party information. Some times you get really lucky and find things like references to the couple's clothing, gifts received, wedding guests or attendants, and sometimes the couple's occupation and residence

  • News -- anything from social events, news of prominent citizens, military information (during wars), business notices and news, etc.

  • Obituaries -- information can vary from name and date of death, to age, family information, and a biography of the deceased.

  • Prison and Jail Records - gives details about sentences and jail terms. Now I realize that most of us would find no need for this type of information but I mention it just in case.

  • Proving up notices -- one of the requirements of the Homestead Laws was the advertising of "proving up" notices.

  • School Class -- lists of students graduating for that year.

  • Trial Proceedings - provides details of court cases

Thoughts about newspapers from some famous folks:
  • " Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." -Thomas Jefferson, 1787.

  • "For my part I entertain a high idea of the utility of periodical publications; insomuch as I could heartily desire, copies of ... magazines, as well as common Gazettes, might be spread through every city, town, and village in the United States. I consider such vehicles of knowledge more happily calculated than any other to preserve the liberty, stimulate the industry, and ameliorate the morals of a free and enlightened people."- George Washington, 1788.

  • "I am not the editor of a newspaper and shall always try to do right and be good so that God will not make me one." - Mark Twain, 1870

Until next time :)

Shirley Hodges, biography & genealogy lectures; email:

Editor's Note: Shirley Hodges is the author of the popular Guide to United States Census, 1790-1930

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