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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Mining the Treasure in Newspapers
by Rhonda R. McClure

January 2, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

What is it that we look for as we crank microfilm and search through page after page of census online or hit a general search engine and begin to plug in our family names? We are hoping to find more of those elusive birth, marriage and death dates and places. When we are on the Internet we are hoping to find something that puts flesh on those ancestors of long ago and gives us an idea of how they ticked. There is one record type that few genealogists spend any time with, but which in fact is probably the best portal into the past.

What is that record? The newspaper. Perhaps because we are so used to the newspapers of today, we often dismiss it as a valuable genealogical research tool. This is a mistake. Newspapers of the past were filled with local news. Sure they had major national or world news, but the bulk of the articles and write-ups were about the activities going on locally.

Newspapers are a portal to the past.

Vital Record Alternative

Too often we bemoan the fact that we cannot find the birth certificate of our ancestor, or the death record. Many give up at this point, convinced that they will never find a record that supplies them with the information that these two documents would have. While we would love to have these documents, the newspaper may hold a great alternative.

Obituaries are the first thing that people think of when they think of using a newspaper for genealogical research. In fact the obituary is a valuable resource. Obituaries often named the deceased, the date of death, age, and sometimes included a biography. In the biography you may have found family information such as place of birth, names of parents, when the deceased came to the community in which he or she died. Obituaries also usually list, by name, the surviving spouse — sometimes with a maiden name for women, the names of the children, and how many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. By contrast the funeral notice is much briefer, usually only listing the name of the deceased, the date of death, the funeral home and the burial information.

When it comes to a marriage there are a number of different marriage announcements that you are likely to find in the newspaper. There is the marriage announcement itself, but you may also find lists of those who have submitted marriage applications. Engagement announcements were quite common then. In fact I have two for my mother, neither marriage actually taking place. And then there are the anniversaries. Special milestone ones such as the 25th or the 50th often get major write-ups in the newspaper. My grandparent's 50th had pictures, some history on the couple, and a list of those family members who attended the celebration. The wedding announcement usually carries with it a picture of the bride, sometimes of both, along with the date of the marriage, where the ceremony took place, who performed the ceremony, the names of the parents' of the bride and groom and often where the couple was honeymooning and then planning to settle down.

Births were also announced. Some newspapers left them to be simple entries with the name of the baby, date of birth, parents' names, and the hospital. In other places, especially small towns, you could also expect to find the grandparents' names listed

For those searching for information on adoptees, the newspaper may hold clues to the biological parents, and when the adoption took place. These things were often announced in the newspaper at the time of the adoption. In some instances it may be the only way of getting the information you need since so many of the records involved in adoption are sealed at the time the adoption is finalized.

Other Newsworthy Events

The older newspapers often reported on the get-togethers that took place. Sometimes you would see mention of the upcoming event, and then a follow up piece devoted to what took place, and more importantly who attended. You just never know what types of events you will find mentioned in the newspapers. From the grand elite balls of the social set to the bazaars of the local churches, everything was considered news and lots of names were often printed.

There are have been a few noteworthy entries that I was happy to find. For instance, a gathering in honor of the anniversary of the birth of Jefferson Davis listed the ancestor I was looking for by name and included his unit and regiment. Good information that allowed me to follow up with military records.

Once in a while, an ancestor did run afoul of the law or perhaps he was running for office. Such events were also reported and may give you some background information on your ancestor. If he was arrested, then you have new records to look for. If he was running for a political office, it is possible that they printed an in depth biography on your ancestor.

One of the fascinations I have with newspapers, and I will admit I sometimes get distracted in my research, is the various ads and specialty columns that are truly a peek into what life was like then. I love to see how things changed over the years. You just never know what you will find. For instance, did you know that Doc Holliday actually advertised as a dentist? The ad I saw for him alluded to him being a friendly dentist. Doc Holliday and friendly are not two things that I normally put together.

I am fascinated by what the newspaper felt was worthy of reporting. In today's global world, many of the items reported then would never be considered today. The papers then were much smaller and yet they often included stories from all over without overlooking the wonderful events that were taking place right there. And some of the columns that were devoted to recipes and household tips remind us of a simpler time.

Finding Newspapers

There are many places that you can find newspapers. Libraries often have the local paper available. State archives and libraries sometimes will collect papers for that state — going back many years. And some of those older newspapers may be available on microfilm and thus you may be able to get them through your local library's interlibrary loan program. There is also the newspaper's morgue as well. To find out where a paper was published and if the paper is still in operation, you will want to see if your local library has a copy of the Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media.

There are some other valuable published resources for those newspapers that are available on microfilm.

  • Newspapers in Microform, United States, 1948-1983 (coverage of newspapers actually dates from 1704 to 1972)
  • Newspapers in Microform, Foreign Countries, 1948-1983 (coverage of newspapers actually dates from 1655 to 1972)
  • United States Newspaper Program National Union List (available through the Family History Library on microfiche)

Some online sources include:

In Conclusion

There are many places where we can find newspapers and, as you have seen, there are many different things that we can learn about our ancestors specifically and about their daily lives in general. Newspapers are a portal to the past that we should make sure remains open.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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