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Family History in the News

How to Find & Use Newspapers for Genealogical Research

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Serving as daily (or weekly) diaries of local communities and their inhabitants, newspapers are excellent sources of family history. As such, they provide a wonderful, often untapped, resource for genealogists, providing accounts of events not recorded elsewhere. The determined genealogical researcher can use newspapers to not only find the expected birth announcements and obituaries, but also announcements of anniversaries, legal notices, letters to the editor, and social columns filled with local news of a more personal nature. Whether daily or monthly, urban or rural, newspapers can open a new window into the lives of your ancestors.

What you can find in old newspapers

  • Obituaries and death listings - While the amount of information on deaths found in newspapers is inconsistent, newspaper obituaries may include such details as place and date of birth; names of siblings, parents, and other surviving relatives; occupation; military service; and even the church where the funeral was held. Keep in mind that obituaries can appear weeks after the actual date of death.

  • Birth announcements and christenings - Not commmonly reported in nineteenth-century newspapers, birth announcements placed in local newspapers gradually became popular in the early 1900s.

  • Wedding vows and anniversary announcements - News of nuptial agreements usually appeared in columns of local news or, sometimes, in a separate listing of marriage announcements. Reports range from brief mentions of marriage licenses applications to full accounts of the wedding ceremony. Major wedding anniversaries - twenty-five, fifty, or more years of marriage - often warranted a newspaper mention.

  • Society news and local gossip - Most newspapers had a column for residents to submit local news that might be of interest to others. This would often include such tidbits on area residents as birthday announcements, illnesses, job promotions, wedding announcements, visitors to the community, and other news of a more personal nature.

  • Public announcements and advertisements - Livestock, farm equipment, and even personal property were often sold at public sales which might be found listed in small classified advertisements. Advertisements and announcements concerning insolvent debtors, forced land sales, professional services, runaway slaves, and missing relatives are also particularly relevant for the genealogist.

  • Legal notices - Some judicial actions, such as proving of wills, land sales for payment of taxes, divorce proceedings, proving of heirs, and the settlement of estates, cannot be concluded without public notice. Local newspapers are often a good source for such legal announcements.

  • Transfers of real estate - Local columns often kept area residents informed on who was going and coming in the neighborhood. More recent newspapers usually list real estate transactions in the classified or legal notices section.

  • Unclaimed mail lists - Periodically published by smaller newspapers, these are lists of letters, often sent by anxious relatives, which went unclaimed at the post office. Useful for potentially identifying ancestors who pulled up stakes and moved to a new location.

  • Church announcements - Many churches submitted lists of new members, baptisms, confirmations, and other church news to local newspapers for publication.

  • Military news - Items about hometown boys and girls heading off to war, along with news when they wrote home, commonly found their way into print.

  • School news and activities - School news, often found in the local news column, might include lists of students who made the honor roll, awards won by area students, school board minutes, school events, and detailed coverage of annual graduation ceremonies.

    Next > Where to Find Old Newspapers

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