Newspapers are a valuable resource for genealogy research. They can provide information about vital records, land transactions, immigration, and local history. In some cases newspapers provide the only existing record for an event. This is especially true before official records were kept or when official records were destroyed.
Information in newspapers varies depending on the time and place. Small town newspapers generally give more information than large city newspapers. Many of the larger city newspapers cover only prominent citizens while small town newspapers generally cover all citizens.
Some of the records to look for in newspapers are birth announcements, engagements and marriage announcements, deaths, anniversaries, lists of taxpayers, deed transfers, estate notices, local news about birthdays, family visits and moves, schools awards, and ship docking announcements. The list goes on and on.
In many cases newspaper reports will give more information than an official record. For example, a typical marriage record found at the court house will give the name of the bride and groom, date and place of marriage, names of two witnesses and the person performing the ceremony. The newspaper account of this same event may give the parents of the bride and groom, list all persons in the wedding party and their relationship to the couple being married, out of town guests attending, a description of the wedding dress and perhaps much more.
Obituaries are probably the most common newspaper record that genealogist use. This is because obituaries are often found in family papers and books. An obituary contains the most information you will find in one place on a person because usually a biographical sketch of the deceased is included. This is not the case with funeral announcements. A funeral announcement will usually have only basic information. So, don’t stop searching when you find the funeral announcement since an obituary could be printed days or even weeks later.
Collecting names and dates are important in genealogy research. However, giving life to the family can be much more meaningful. Newspapers can be a big help toward this goal. Reading through a year or two of a hometown newspaper can reveal much about the community and how your ancestors fit into that community. Several years ago while searching through the Parker, South Dakota newspaper The New Era, I found these tidbits: “Mr. & Mrs. Lyman Webster purchased a fine Estey organ for their daughter Ivy. It came from Fisher’s Vermillion musical instrument store,” and “Business men on Main street have employed Steve Miller to keep the street wet down during the dusty season. This will add much to our main street business.” Neither of these items told me when or where the people were born, married or died. These items were in the Local News section of the paper and help me to bring my husband’s great grandfathers to life. For me, learning about the times and the lives of these ancestors makes the search much more interesting than collecting a lot of names and
Newspaper research is easy to neglect because it can be more difficult and time consuming than other research. Newspapers are often only available at a local location, making a visit to the locality necessary. A check of the card catalogs for the local libraries will help to find where copies of newspapers are stored. Some newspapers also have indexes. Most of the time they are only for a certain time period, but check for indexes before you start your search.
In recent years many newspapers have been microfilmed. The U.S. Newspaper Program is a national effort to preserve U.S. newspapers on microfilm. These microfilms can be sent to your closest library through Interlibrary Loan. To find out more about this project visit online at http://www.neh.gov/projects/usnp.html or ask your librarian.
Recently, some newspapers have become available online. So far it is only a very small percentage but the number is growing every day. If you want to read more about this, the January/February issue of Family Chronicle features an article on newspapers online.
It may take a little more effort to use newspapers for genealogy research but the payoff can be huge.