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Genealogy on Deadline: Newspapers Bring Ancestors to Life

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Written by Jeanne Rollberg

In 2016, we have many creative ways to keep images and voices of loved ones alive through social media, YouTube, blogs and many other options. In our ancestors’ eras, the primary way communities were held together and learned about each other was through daily and weekly newspapers. These historic newspapers hold the key for us to be a Sherlock Holmes researcher – to detect the kinds of interesting details and clues about our ancestors that depict them more completely and deeply than do traditional census rolls and other typical public documents. Newspapers also give us important contextual hints for the eras when our ancestors lived. New newspaper collections are being added every month around the world. In October, for example, a new collection of 28 Swedish American newspapers came online at the Minnesota Historical Society website.

Finding the Newspaper Keys to Unlock Your Family’s Mysteries

Americans will likely want to explore newspapers in our ancestors’ homeland as well as German American, Swedish American, Italian American, Irish American, and other newspapers in the United States. Other genealogy buffs around the world may also want to explore news in an ancestor’s origin area and any new locations related to ancestor migration. Luckily, we have Google Translate and other translation programs that may help us better understand articles from foreign newspapers. To see a range of European newspapers, try this website.

Some newspaper web sites are free, and others are fee based. In most cases, you’ll be able to determine preliminarily if there are possible stories about your ancestors at no charge. One of America’s most widely used taxpayer-funded newspaper collections is the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America collection  This database includes digitized newspapers from 1789 to 1922, and is expanding monthly. You may search by state, time period, and by using key words to filter searches about your ancestors for precise results. A few foreign-language (mostly German American) newspapers appear.

GenealogyBank.com is a subscription-based site that includes American, Irish-American, and African-American newspapers plus passengers lists and other historical documents. Its newspapers are from 1690 up through 2015, a wide range. Newspapers.com, a pay site, boasts having 4,300 newspapers from the 1700s-2000s, and has a premium service that offers more newspapers than its regular service.  Ancestry.com also includes some historic newspapers as part of its paid membership. Many historical societies and web sites have local newspapers available to search online, plus others to view in house.

Expand Discovery By Using Newspapers Together

Since newspapers were published daily, weekly, or monthly whereas censuses were usually taken from every two-to-ten years (state and federal combined), newspapers provide us with critical information between censuses. You can often find birth, marriage, and death announcements, land sale/bankruptcy information, articles about your ancestors’ religious, social and political activities, and completely unexpected items as well. Obituaries are particularly useful if you have little knowledge of the ancestors you’re researching because descendants and extended family members’ names are generally included. Remember that for earlier eras, the use of “Mrs. John Smith” instead of “Winifred Smith” might help locate information for females.

Newspapers also detail criminal activities. Here’s an example of how our family learned a great deal about a Swedish ancestor whose mischief and risk-taking got him in trouble with the law repeatedly. I was able to use newspapers in New York City and San Francisco to learn about his business-related deeds initially. When a Detroit newspaper then referenced his travel back to Stockholm, I found stories in an online Stockholm newspaper where, true to form, he had also transgressed there. The details of the trouble were scant. But…bingo! The new Swedish American newspaper collection referenced earlier picked up the thread of the story about his cross-continent fraudulent immigrant agent activities. Written by a Swede who had been involved in the events, a story provided a vivid firsthand description that was very helpful, if unflattering, because we have no photos of the ancestor.

According to Swedish translator Eva Höglund, the newspaper writer wrote, “He appeared as an accomplished man of the world in the company of his wife. He was somewhat fat with a round face, a certain look over his eyebrows that one could distinguish as a villain… and he never looks people in the eyes. He has a mustache, dresses well, using a cane, and walks badly due to rheumatism in his big feet. He has a tattoo on one hand in the form of an anchor. Speaks fluent English so that you may believe that he was born in America.” Newspapers breathed life into this immigrant for his family and told us what he looked like. They also provided interesting context about immigration issues of the 1880s.

Newspaper 1-2-3 Sleuthing Process in Review

In summary, it’s a 1-2-3 process. First, consult ancestor census rolls or other information to find the newspapers in the locations you need. Keep in mind that many regional newspapers also reported news of small communities. Second, search for your ancestor, using different filters and words designed to locate particular types of materials — land sales, or estate files, for example.  Third, after taking careful notes on the articles and citing them properly in case you need to return to them, move on to other newspapers. Though many newspapers are online, remember that many more have still not been digitized and may be searched at historical societies, archives, and libraries.


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