The best way to preserve an ancestor’s life history after we have completed our research is by writing down their story. But is there a story in all those dry facts? Where else can you go to discover the story of your ancestor? A favorite go-to resource is newspapers. Oh, the stories you can find in old newspapers!
Find Your Ancestor’s STORY in the Newspaper
Today’s social media does not have a monopoly on social sharing of people’s lives. It is just the modern version. Newspapers are the “OLD” social media… and have been around a whole lot longer! Let’s compare the timelines for each of these social mediums: digital social media started among highly technical or academic fields in small numbers in the 1970s, becoming more widespread in the 1990s and very widespread in the 2000s. So in total, digital social media has been around for about 45 years. Newspapers, on the other hand, were first printed in 1620, becoming widespread by the 1700s. So newspaper social sharing has been around for almost 400 years!!! Even better news for today’s researcher: many newspapers are being made digital, and can be found on a number of websites.
Newspaper articles can provide rich details about our ancestor’s story
Most genealogists know that birth, marriage announcements and death notices and obituaries can be found in the newspaper. These are valuable resources and should certainly be sought. But, there are so many other types of juicy tidbits you can find in the paper. Whether your ancestor was rich and famous, or a run-of-the-mill, ordinary person, they could have made it into print. The story may be found in a single article, or it may be found in a series of articles you find over several dozen years worth of papers.
So, what types of stories can you extract from newspapers?
- military unit commemorations decades after the end of military service
- unusual deaths or epidemics
- hometowns that experienced a natural disaster
- delinquent tax lists
- involvement in court cases
- mentions of visits from friends and relatives, or parties attended in the social column
- even photos, if you are lucky!
- This list could really go on and on… newspapers editors were on the lookout for all sorts of interesting news to include.
A few newspaper story examples from my own research:
- Two brothers, Howard H. and Ansel B. Donohoo, traveled a cross-country sales circuit from the 1880s until the 1910s. Their routes were traced through dozens of hotel notices printed in the newspapers.
- Not only did the newspapers chronicle Annie M. Sanford’s musical career, but a photograph was printed with one of the articles. Wasn’t she lovely?
- In the 1940s in Idaho, Nora Farnworth appeared in several articles mentioning her as part of a women’s relief organization, details of her bridge club meetings, and holiday dessert recipes she submitted for a newspaper contest.
- Arch Miller Corn, Jr. was seriously injured during a college football game in Missouri in 1932. Several newspaper articles confirmed the family story, and added many additional details.
- Frank Donohoo lost his life as an innocent bystander in a heated duel in Bardstown, Kentucky in 1868. The shooter was acquitted.
Found on Newspapers.com
- Civil War deserter and guerilla warrior, Edwin Terrell gave a hospital death bed confession describing all his dastardly deeds before he died at age 23 in Kentucky in 1868.
- Newspaper articles from the early 1900s described how Caroline Donohoo paid school tuition for her young former slaves after emancipation, some 40 years after the event.
- Three Finlay men served in the Irish Coast Guard from the 1820s-1860s. A number of news articles detailed some of the shipwrecks they helped rescue.
- In 1856, a fast-moving inferno swept through Bardstown, Kentucky, devastating 11 members of the Donohoo family.
- Patrick Donohoo and Sarah Thornsbury’s marriage announcement appeared in the newspapers of Baltimore, Maryland in 1806.
Keep in mind that every single story I have found here are for everyday, average people from my family tree. These examples are only a very small sample of the stories I have found. If my ancestors have stories in the newspaper, your ancestors have stories in the newspaper too!
How to Effectively Search the Newspapers
- Each site’s search will work a little differently
- You never know what search terms may find some relevant results for you… so don’t give up easily.
- Tweak your search terms to be broader or narrower
- Broaden the location of the newspapers you are searching… sometimes a fire in Kentucky makes national news and produces articles in New York
- If you find one article about an event, tweak your search terms to look for other related articles. The details from each article will give a more complete story.
- Search for the person’s name and their family member’s names
- search for a woman under her maiden and married surnames
- search for a woman under her husband’s name (“Mrs. John Smith”)
- search for the name of each child in the family
- search for the name of each parent in the family
- Try variant spellings and combinations of the person’s name
- use just the first name and last name
- use the middle name and last name
- use the initials
- Search for the place they lived during the time period they lived there
- Bardstown Kentucky 1830-1880
- Search for keywords about any event you know they participated in or were affected by:
- [city, county or state name] + [event] + [date range] (don’t limit this too much, events were sometimes talked about much later on anniversaries of the event)
- Bardstown fire 1856 (or a range of 1850-1870)
- Use combinations to hone in on the person or event you are looking for
- Surname + location
- surname + time period
- Location + time period
Some Favorite Newspaper Research Sites
- Chronicling America —FREE- newspapers from across the U.S. from 1789-1924
- The Ancestor Hunt Free U.S. Historical Newspaper Links –FREE – 18,000 Titles
- Fulton History— FREE – New York newspapers 1781-1989 (search for more than NY ancestors here!)
- Elephind–FREE – 3,400 Titles
- Newspapers.com– $ – newspapers from worldwide locations from 1700s-2000s
- Genealogy Bank–$ – U.S. newspapers from 1690s-Today