Searching newspapers is one of the most time-consuming yet fruitful endeavors a genealogist can undertake.
Undoubtedly, the most common piece of information a family historian seeks in newspapers are vital records. The information found in birth, marriage or death records can often be located in newspapers as well. Many times, newspapers provide even more detail than an official record.
But what else can you find? The answer may surprise you - almost anything!
Let's take a look at some fascinating discoveries that our users have made, as well as some general categories you might not have thought to look for.
1. Newspapers can solve all sorts of mysteries
Imagine you found out that one of your ancestors was born at sea - and then barred entry to the United States! When only looking at the records, it is impossible to understand for sure why this happened.
Only a newspaper can provide the full story:
Imagine discovering a story like this to tell at the next family gathering! © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
If you would like to read about the full story, we recently wrote about it here.
2. Criminal activity
Some of our relatives might be ashamed, but not us! We treasure every single story about our ancestors, even if the subject is somewhat nefarious. Unless the crime was particularly heinous, it can be an amazing (and sometimes hilarious) story to tell your family.
A great example:
For years, my great-grandmother spoke of an uncle that landed in some legal trouble in early 20th century New York. She refused, out of shame, to delve into exactly what happened. Many years later, it all became clear with some newspaper research:
That's right - one of my great uncles was involved in a fake university, cleverly named "Columbian University" - so close, yet so far from legitimacy!The New York Sun, February 9th 1912
Apparently my ancestor was implicated in a scheme to create a fraudulent university named "Columbian University" - it seems like the scam was busted up before it got too far.
But I have to wonder - if anyone was fooled by the intentionally confusing name, what would they have thought when they arrived, only to discover this prestigious institution was located in someone's house?
3. Ship arrivals and accidents
Some 18th and 19th century newspapers had a laser focus, dedicating themselves to covering news relevant to a particular profession, political issue, religious denomination or ethnicity.
One particularly useful source for immigration information can be mercantile newspapers. These publications often had logs that detailed ship arrivals, departures and other details regarding trans-Atlantic travel. For early immigrants, these papers may be the only place to locate information regarding the voyage of your ancestors.
Mercantile and general newspapers are also quite useful for uncovering travel disasters - shipwrecks and other abnormalities usually received special attention, and can provide extra detail if your ancestor had an incident at sea.
4. Revealing life advice
Old newspapers were full of items intended to entertain and advise their readers. While your ancestor may not appear in name, browsing through these kind of articles can offer amazing insight into the attitudes and worldviews of the times.
We recommend finding some of your ancestor's contemporary newspapers and simply reading them. Pay particular attention to the editorials and society section to get a good idea of how their social world was set up.
© THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
5. Legal announcements
Newspapers were often required to print certain legal announcements. While the content of these can be a little dry, they can be absolutely invaluable genealogical clues and lead to amazing discoveries.
You may find publicly posted information regarding a deceased ancestor's estate or other issues regarding will & probate records. Public notices about legal proceedings may not provide any information in and of themselves, but they may point you to a collection of court records that you previously overlooked.
6. Business advertisements
Advertising appeared in every newspaper, no matter the time period or location. Especially since early newspapers didn't cover much local news, the only evidence you may find of your ancestors in newspapers pre-1840 is in advertisements.
Business notices were quite common, and it would be a great discovery to find out when an ancestor set up a new business (or closed a struggling one). These kind of advertisements were commonly used to fill up leftover space on the page, so keep your eyes peeled - important advertisements could be found on almost any page of the paper:
Independent Chronicle and The Universal Advertiser, January 1 1784
7. Historical perspective
One of the most exciting things you can do with historical newspapers is to view the world through your ancestor's eyes. Give it a shot - think of a memorable event that occurred during their lifetime and locate their hometown newspaper (or a major newspaper of the times if you can't find it).
By looking at the headline and reading the article, you're creating an amazing connection with your past - you're getting the same information they did, in the same exact way. Wow!
Newspapers are also great for general historical research. Comparing newspaper headlines from around the world can show you different global perspectives on famous historical events. Did you know that Pearl Harbor was covered differently throughout the English-speaking world?
Free Newspaper Webinar this Friday
Our resident newspaper expert, Alex Cox, will be sharing his top 5 tips for researching in historical newspapers this Friday at 11:00am EST. Register today to reserve your spot!