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Genealogy 101 - Use of Newspapers in Genealogy Research

The ONE place you might find birth, death, marriage dates, parents' and children's names, occupation, military role, family history, reunions, obituary with cemetery name, cause of death, deeds, probate, and more!

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Use of Newspapers in Genealogy Research
By Judith Florian


 
Newcomers to genealogy research may be overwhelmed at the prospect of searching microfilmed newspapers. Most newspaper collections have never been indexed, and searches can be tedious. However, old newspapers are full of interesting bits of family information.

Most searchers focus on one goal with newspapers: to locate the obituary of an ancestor. Some obituaries are gold mines, giving place of birth, parentsí names, marriage information, childrenís names, church affiliation, and cemetery name. Yet, many other obituaries are very lacking in details, possibly not even giving the exact date of death and no family details. My ancestorís obituary said only that he awoke and before the morning was done he was "a corpse." After high hopes to find information, his write-up was certainly a disappointment! These short write ups were common in older papers until approximately the 1930s when more standardized obituaries were used. Unless your ancestor was considered a pioneer family, a long-time citizen of that area, or was a very prominent person, the details of their family relationships and details of their life were not included. By the early 1900s, more information was given, and burial place was included in at least 80% of obituaries. With the cemetery name, you may be able to track down cemetery or church records, if these exist. 

If your obituary search ends as mine did, what are other ways newspapers can be useful to your genealogy pursuit? The first thing I recommend to those using old newspapers for the first time is to put a microfilm roll on a machine and just look over the issues. Look to see how the newspaper is set up; each newspaper develops its own style, which changes from early 1800s through the lifetime of the paper. Generally though, the front page contains national and local political news, and high-interest local news such as accidents, murders, or stories affecting local employment and economy. Page two continues with these stories, but may also include columns of specific regional news. Most old papers had "correspondence from" small communities and townships of the county. These columns usually were named things like "Local Briefs," "Local Glances," or other such titles. These local glances columns are one of the first areas I check after looking for obituaries. Local Glances are one to two sentences about local citizens, mostly dealing with who traveled where or visited whom, who moved where, and other local tid-bits. These may not seem important, but they help in two ways. First, it gives an added insight into an ancestorís daily life, and more importantly, it may give relationship information that is new or verifies what you have. Here is one fictional example: "Charles Algire and daughter, Mrs. Ann Curry, were Sunday visitors at the home of Mr. Algireís aunt, Mrs. Abbey Smith." I just found a piece tonight that mentions my great-great- grandfather and great-grandfather ("and children") visiting the home of my great-great-great grandfather, the father of Mrs. Lane: "Mr. and Mrs. Frank Lane and children and Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Gladfeller [sic] and children of the Wylandville section, have returned home after spending a few days at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Waller." This gem was buried on page 4, which is where Editors used additional "Local Glances" as fillers in between advertisements which appear on pages 3 and 4 generally.
   


Pages 3 and 4 of old newspapers mostly contain advertisements, want ads, and legal notes. Before you skip those pages, reconsider. Advertisements first give you impressions about life when your ancestor was living, and one of the store owners may just be related to you! Want Ads, unlike today, often mention a name of the subscriber. Legal notices, while difficult to read, are usually about Estate Notices or Land Sales. 

Estate Notices will give name of deceased, and the paperís date will give you an idea of death date, if you didnít know date before. These notices also are "signed" by the executor of the estate; executors are often relatives. Land Sales give you basic information found in deeds, but usually in less detail. It gives the name of the land tract, location, neighborís names sometimes, total acreage, and date set for the sale.  

Deed Indexes will point you to the Deed, but these newspaper land sale notices are a nice compliment to the actual Deed. Remember also in looking at Deed Index Books that many early deeds were never recorded at the time of the actual sale. 

A Deed Transfer often was not filed in sales between family members until the land was sold the next time, which could be 20 even 40 years later. Documents out of the correct time period can be confusing and lead a researcher astray especially if there were many same-name persons living in a small area. Land in one of my early families transferred at the marriage of the second son in the 1830s, but a deed was not recorded for it until the 1860s. As an early researcher, I skipped reading the 1860s deed because it was "too late" for the Joseph I was seeking. Wrong! It was the same property, and I lost months of research time, simply because I didnít look at that 1860s deed. In the 1860s, 2 Deeds appeared, one documenting the 1830s transfer, and one for the newest sale. So, while actual deeds are the most important document, newspaper Legal Notices may be the only real-time information of earlier land sales.  


After looking for obituaries (and in later years separate funeral notices), Local Glances type columns, and Legal Notices/advertisement pages, I use my eyes to scan articles on all the pages. Titles may be deceiving but the articles may mention employee names, such as at a mill, mine or factory, or may name local political candidates. One of these employees, candidates or elected officials may be a member of the family you are seeking.

While some researchers choose to focus only on primary persons in a family, like research of a direct line, it can be helpful to at least note the newspaper date where you see others of the same surname. You might not know a connection, yet, to that individual, but if you find a connection later, you will know what newspaper date to re-check. 

If an article is of particular interest, or an obituary, you will want to make a full copy by machine or hand-written. If you write it, take care to do so exactly as it appears which qualifies as a "transcript" of the item. If the article contains a lot of unnecessary writing, or if you are not sure a person is part of your family, you may choose to just do an "abstract," which contains only pertinent information along with the citation. An abstract of basic information contained in an article might look like this: (abstract) Charles Smith, W. Pike Run Twp., wife Martha...visited Marthaís Aunt, Mrs. Hurn, Amity. Include the word abstract so you wonít get confused later, and it will be clear to another person if you share your research with someone else in the future. Note: Since you are not quoting from the source, you do NOT use quotes on abstracted lines.
 

Finally, I have some advice about the citation of newspapers which I guarantee will save you time, aggravation and frustration later. The best newspaper citations contain as much information as you can find. The front page of every issue contains the mast head where a newspaper name appears. 

There are several things to look for on the front page: 

Title of Newspaper, Issue or Volume (Vol.) and Number (No.).   Some papers contain "The" on the mast head; others do not contain the word "The." If a mast head does not contain "The" it is officially not part of the newspaperís name, but if it is, then it should be written as such. As examples: the Washington Reporter, Vol. 4, No. 11 or The Herald, Vol. 1, No. 4. Use underline for a newspaper title, because you will need to put the title of articles in quotation marks: for example, the Washington Reporter, Vol. 4, No. 11, "Death Takes Civil War Veteran," p. 2. Of note, sometimes the same newspaper had name changes over the decades so it is always best to check the masthead on every issue and not assume it is the same title. 

Next, you need to write the article name, exactly as it appears, with capital letters or small-case as it is shown; this is called "transcribed as is." Put the article name in quotation marks after the newspaper title. 

Then find the page number. You may not find a page number typed on each page of very old papers, but you can easily count them. As well, the oldest papers contain the same number of pages in each issue, often around 4 pages, so once you are familiar with the layout, it is easy to figure out, or run the microfilm back to page one and count as you move forward.  If you are working with sectioned papers, include the section with page number, as in: Article from the Washington Reporter, Vol. 4, No. 11, "Estate Sales," page D-4, for Charles Smith.  For an obituary or funeral notice, I write it the citation like this: The transcript of the obituary of Charles Smith from the Washington Reporter, Vol. 4, No. 11,  page D-4 (followed by a colon, and then I type the full obituary). 

Old newspapers are gold mines for genealogy researchers! While it takes time to search them, it can certainly be very worthwhile to both new and experienced genealogists. You can make newspaper searches easier by becoming familiar with how a certain newspaper is set up and the types of content you might find. 

 

 

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All newspaper items posted with permission of the Observer-Reporter Oct. 13, 2005.

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(c) Judith Ann Florian
159 E. Main St.
Girard, Ohio 44420

Copyright Notice - Data / info. for individuals and surnames may be reproduced for personal family histories only, but not for any commercial use or sale. Please give credit to Judith Florian and Catherine L. Caldwell for locating newspaper items and original documents. You may use J. Florian's research conclusions if credit is given. No other data or images may be reproduced without permission. © August 2005-present, Judith Florian, Copyright All rights reserved.

Dates of Site updates and new content added: Dec 2005;  Jan to Dec 2006; Jan to Dec 2007; Jan to Dec. 2008; Jan to Dec. 2009; Jan to Dec. 2010; Jan-Feb 2011

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