Welcome to this step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008-09. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.
Episode 27: Find Your Family History in Newspapers, Part 1
Newspapers offer such a unique perspective on history in general, and our ancestors specifically. You can find everything from birth, marriage and death announcements, to school and club event, crime stories, land transactions, sports activities and just about any other activity that your ancestors were part of that made the news. So let’s get started and “Read all about it!”
In this episode, you’ll hear from Jane Knowles Lindsey at the California Genealogical Society. She is currently the president there and often teaches on this subject. Our conversation on newspaper research continues in next week’s episode!
Here are some take-away thoughts from this episode, along with some updates:
Determine which newspapers existed for your ancestor’s hometown and time period. Look for ethnic and neighborhood papers, too. The most comprehensive U.S. newspaper directory is at Chronicling America. This site does let you search by language, ethnic background, labor group and more.
Look for these newspapers at digitized newspaper sites, starting with the free ones. In the U.S., this means starting with Chronicling America and state digital newspaper project sites (search on the state name and “digital newspapers”). These sites came out of the government digitizing program mentioned in the show.
Digitized newspaper searching is done with OCR (optical character recognition), which doesn’t pick up everything in tough-to-read historical print. Try searching with different spellings, a first name in a particular timeframe, or other people or terms that may have been mentioned.
Ancestry has put lots of newspapers on their website—but not everything, and for only limited time periods. Notice what time period is covered for a specific newspaper. Ancestry has since launched Newspapers.com.
If you’ve found the name of a newspaper that probably covered your family, but you haven’t found it digitized, search the name of the newspaper in your favorite web browsers. Most newspapers are on microfilm somewhere and web directories will likely list holdings. Also, some newspapers have also been indexed on USGenWeb or other sites.
State archives and libraries are often a great resource for newspapers. Local libraries may have unique clippings files or scrapbooks.
Several websites and databases now focus on obituary content. You can target a search for these.
I loved this topic so much I ended up writing a book on it! How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers walks you through the process of finding and researching old newspapers. You’ll find step-by-step instructions, worksheets and checklists, tons of free online resources, websites worth paying for, location-based newspaper websites and a case study that shows you how it’s done.
6 Top Newspaper Research Resources
Some of the digital newspaper collections mentioned in the episode are available by library subscription, like The Early American Newspapers collection the and 19th century Newspaper Collection from The Gale Group. Check with your local library.
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New records at genealogy websites can come in all shapes and sizes. They may include new or updated indexes, digitized records, or improvements to the search function. It all adds up to new opportunities for you to find more information on your family history. Here’s the latest from some of the most popular genealogy records sites.
New at MyHeritage
Here’s the latest on new records from MyHeritage:
1801 Norway Census Index
“The 1801 census was carried out on Sunday, February 1, 1801, and is based on complete lists of individuals.
The census contains the names of farms (in rural areas), the full names of inhabitants, the familial ties between household members, their age, marital status, and occupation.
For married and previously married people, it was recorded how many times they had been married or widowed.
The age listed was the age on the next birthday.
The names of smallholdings are typically not included. People were registered in the regions where they belonged. Those who were absent, e.g. sailors, should be listed in their hometowns.
The department of statistics of the Exchequer in Copenhagen prepared the census and processed its results. In the rural districts, the census was carried out by parsons with the assistance of precentors and school teachers. In the towns the efforts were supervised by the Town Administration and carried out by the Subdivision Heads of each conscription district. The town lists are arranged by building numbers. This collection is provided through cooperation with the National Archives of Norway.”
1865 Norway Census Index
“This collection of over 1.68 million records is the first national census to list a place of birth for all persons recorded. This census contains the person’s name, residence, status in the family, occupation, sex, marital status, age, place of birth, religion if not a member of the state church, and other miscellaneous information.
Censuses have been taken by the Norwegian government and by ecclesiastical officials for population studies and taxation purposes.
Census and census-like records are found from the 1500s to 2000. After 1900, a national census was taken every 10 years until 2000. Access to the national census records is restricted for a period of 100 years after the date of enumeration.
Generally, you will find more detailed family information in more recent censuses.
Some known deficiencies in the 1865 original census material include records from Gol parish in Buskerud county, Holtålen Parish in Sør-Trøndelag county, Bjerke parish in the Nannestad dioceses in Akershus county, and at least 106 special lists in Kristiania (Old name for Oslo). This collection is provided through cooperation with the National Archives of Norway.”
United Kingdom, War Memorials, 1914–1949 Index
“This free collection of 1.1 million records provides details on soldiers from the United Kingdom that died during the wars in the early to mid 20th century.
During the first World War, alone, there was an average of over 450 British casualties per day. Information listed on these records may include: name, date of death or burial, burial place, and age at death. These records might also include rank, service and unit of the military as well as any honors earned during service.
The records primarily consist of soldiers from the First and Second World Wars with a few records from different wars. The number of British casualties was smaller in wars following World War II, and the number of records from other conflicts is consequently low.
This collection content is copyright of the Imperial War Museums and the index is provided by MyHeritage free of charge as a beneficial service to the genealogy community.”
Estonia, Gravestones, 1812–2019 Index
“This collection includes information from Estonia cemeteries and consists of records from 1812-2019. These include the name of the deceased, birth date when available, death date when available, date of burial when available, and the name of the cemetery.
Cemeteries can help you trace the burial and or death place of an Estonian relative. Cemetery records may also help identify ancestors when access to church records and census records is limited, or the death was not recorded in other records.”
North Carolina, Mecklenburg County Birth Index, 1913–2019 Index
“This collection is an index of birth records from Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. The records may contain the first name, middle name, last name, gender, and date of birth of the individual. Mecklenburg County is the largest county in North Carolina by population, and its county seat is Charlotte.”
North Carolina, Mecklenburg County Marriage Index, 1884–2019 Index
“This free collection is an index of marriage records from Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. The records may contain the following searchable information: first name, middle name, and last name of the bride and groom, and the marriage date of the couple. Records may also contain the marriage license number and the date of the application.
Mecklenburg County is the largest county in North Carolina by population, and its county seat is Charlotte.
Most records in this collection are from the 20th century or later, with just three percent from before the year 1900. However, there is a select amount of records dated from before 1884, with approximately one percent of the collection falling under this category.”
North Carolina, Mecklenburg County Death Index, 1916–2019 Index
“This free collection is an index of death records from Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. The records may contain the following searchable information: first name, middle name, last name, gender, and death date of the individual. Records may also contain the certificate number for the death. Mecklenburg County is the largest county in North Carolina by population, and its county seat is Charlotte.
In some cases, the gender is given as unknown along with a missing given name. This usually means the record is for a still-born baby. All records in this collection are from the 20th century or later. However, there is a select amount of records dated before 1916, with the earliest from 1908.”
Pennsylvania, Lawrence County Index of Obituaries, 1871–2016 Index
“This collection includes an index of obituaries and death records from Lawrence County Pennsylvania for the years 1871-2016. A record may include the first and last name of the deceased, death date, date of death announcement, name of spouse, name of parent(s), and the name of the newspaper that published the information.
Obituaries can be a good source of information about a person and may also include information about the deceased’s family members. Often an obituary will include information such as the birth date, marriage date, children, occupation, education, and the location of living family members at the time the obituary was written.”
Pennsylvania, Lawrence County Index of Marriage Announcement, 1858–2006 Index
“This collection includes marriage announcements from Lawrence County, Pennsylvania for the years 1858-2006. Records may include the first and last name of the bride and groom, the names of parent(s), the title of the newspaper that published the announcement, the page on which the announcement is located, the date of the marriage announcement, and the year of the marriage.
Marriage records are a valuable source of information. Marriage records found in newspapers are not limited to a specific form, like most government marriage records, therefore newspapers may contain details about a marriage not found elsewhere, such as names of siblings or other relatives.
Newspapers can report marriages of people who no longer live in the area but who still have friends or family there.”
Chile, Electoral Rolls, 2013 Index
“This collection of over 12 million records contains information about Chilean voters during the November 17, 2013 elections. Records include the names of voters and the location of the vote. The collection also includes records about canceled voters, mostly because of the death of the voter, and disqualified voters.
All of the above newly updated collections are now available through MyHeritage SuperSearch™. Searching these records is free, but a Data or Complete subscription is required to view the records, save them to your family tree, and access Record Matches. Our Record Matching technology will get to work and notify you automatically if any of these records mention a member of your family tree. You’ll then have the ability to review the record and decide if you’d like to add the new information to your family tree.”
New Newspaper Content at GenealogyBank
GenealogyBank is one of the leading providers of digitized newspapers, and they’ve recently added new content for 152 newspaper titles from across 35 states including:
Here’s a short video about another historic newspaper resource (click for sound):
More New Newspaper Content at the British Newspaper Archive
One of my favorite websites, the British Newspaper Archive celebrated its 8th birthday this week (the Archive was launched on 29th November 2011) and also reached the milestone of 35 million searchable pages. Here’s ta brief overview of the 128,362 new pages recently added.
New title added:
Elgin Courant, and Morayshire Advertiser (Scotland, 1863-1905)
The Reading Evening Post
Wells Journal and the Bristol Timesand Mirror (West country area)
“Pre-Confirmation books, otherwise known as Childrens’ Books, were used to record the names of children who had not yet been confirmed into the Lutheran church. These records are extremely valuable as they record family groups and provide dates of birth and sometimes a place of birth as well. Death dates may also occasionally be included. Once the child became eligible for Communion, they were then recorded in the Communion books.
Pre-Confirmation books were organised by villages and then by farm and household.
Users may find the following details for individuals found in the communion books (where available):
UPDATED: U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014
On November 14, 2019 changes were made to improve the performance of this collection, so if you’ve ever searched it and not found what you were looking for, it might be worth another try. Note: no new records were added.
On May 20 Ancestry added 1,388,625 new records to this collection.
“This database contains both images of and indexes extracted from various records of marriages in Washington.
Marriage records can offer a wide range of details. While the indexes in this database may provide the basic facts surrounding a wedding—bride, groom, date, and place—images of marriage certificates may also include additional information such as
marital status (single, divorced)
whether a first marriage
fathers’ names and birthplaces
mothers’ names, maiden names, and birthplaces
This database does not contain an image for every document included in the index.”
We’ve got our fingers crossed that you are able to unearth some new genealogy gems from these new updates. If you do, please leave a comment and let us know, and then share this post with your friends.
This free video (below) introduces Trove, The National Library of Australia’s online catalog and digital archive for all things Australian.
If you have roots in Australia, I hope you are using Trove. When I first covered it in the Genealogy Gems podcast a while back, it was a fairly new resource and I shared how it is chock full of 76 million digitized newspaper articles. Now that number exceeds 200 million records! The site has expanded its other content, too. If you haven’t looked for your Aussie roots on Trove recently, you’re really missing out!
Trove helps you find and use resources relating to Australia. It’s more than a search engine. Trove brings together content from libraries, museums, archives and other research organisations and gives you tools to explore and build.
Trove is many things: a community, a set of services, an aggregation of metadata, and a growing repository of fulltext digital resources.
That’s how the site introduces itself, and it sure lives up to its claim. As shown in the video below, Trove lets you search among “zones” of online content:
digitized newspapers; journals, articles and data sets;
online and offline books, audiobooks, theses and pamphlets;
pictures, photos and objects;
music, sound and video files;
maps, atlases, charts and globes;
diaries, letters and personal papers;
people and organizations; and
a zone for user-created lists.
You can browse these zones individually or search them all with a single click. You can search for just items available online, in Australian-only content, or just in libraries you specify. Creating a free user ID allows you to personalize your experience and participate in online forums. From my U.S. perspective, it would be like having the Library of Congress main website and all its offshoots such as Chronicling America rolled up together with WorldCat, ArchiveGrid, Internet Archive and its Wayback Machine–but focused entirely on my country.
When it comes to those nearly-200 million newspaper articles, you can search these by keyword or browse by newspaper title, state, date, category (article, ad or list) or tag. Refine search results by place, title, category, whether illustrated, decade and even the length of the article. You can even sign up to receive alerts to newly-posted material that matches your search criteria.
Remember, newspaper research in genealogy isn’t just about obituaries or wedding anniversary announcements. It’s about understanding the daily lives of our ancestors, and I share more strategies on uncovering these gems in my book How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers (available as an e-book or in print).
Here’s a video from the National Library of Australia with an overview of Trove:
Did you know you don’t have to pay for a subscription to anythingto be able to start learning more about your family history?
Start to find your family history for free by asking the four questions listed below.
1. What do you already know?
Chances are that you know something about your family already. The most important facts we start with are our relatives’ names and their dates and places of birth, marriage(s) and death. These facts can help you later to distinguish between records about our relatives and others with the same name.
After filling out what you can, show your family tree chart and family group sheets to other relatives. Ask them if they can fill in some blanks. Remember these tips:
Try to include a little note about who tells you each piece of information.
Someone may dispute what you find. Everyone’s memory of an event is different. Don’t argue. Treat their information with respect:. Write it down. Then ask politely if they have any documentation you could see, or why they believe something to be true (who told them, etc).
Ask whether anything is missing from your charts: a grandparent’s second marriage, a stillborn child or even whether someone’s name is accurate. You or others might know someone by a nickname or middle name.
Be sensitive to information that might be confidential or not generally well-known, like a birth date that doesn’t appear more than 9 months after a wedding, or a first marriage. Consider asking living relatives if it’s okay for you to share certain facts. Consider only showing part of your charts to a relative.
3. What’s in the attic (or anywhere else)?
We can often find family documents in our own homes and those of our relatives. Look in attics, basements, storage units, safe deposit boxes and safes, filing cabinets, photo albums, scrapbooks, shoeboxes and other places where papers and memorabilia may be tucked. You’re looking for things like:
certificates of birth, baptism, marriage or death;
obituaries or other news articles, like anniversaries;
funeral programs, wedding and birth announcements;
photos with names or other notes on the backs;
insurance, pension, military or other paperwork that may mention births or deaths or beneficiary information;
wills and home ownership paperwork–even outdated ones;
a family Bible.
When you find family names, relationships, dates and places in these documents, add them to your charts.
4. What’s available online for free?
There are two major types of family history information online: records and trees. Records are documents created about specific people, like obituaries, birth certificates and all those other examples I just mentioned. Trees are a computerized form of other people’s family tree charts and group sheets. It can be tempting to just look for someone else’s version of your family tree. Eventually you will want to consult those. But other people’s trees are notoriously full of mistakes! Instead, start by looking for records about the relatives you already have identified.
I suggest that you start your search at FamilySearch.org because it’s totally free. At most other sites, you’ll have to subscribe or pay to see all the search results. At FamilySearch, you just need to create a free user login to get the most access to their records.
After logging in, click Search. Choose a relative you don’t know a lot about. Search for that name. Use the different search options to add more information–even a range of dates and a state/province or country–so you don’t have to wade through thousands of near-matches.
The most common records to find on FamilySearch for many countries are census and vital records.
A census is a tally of residents, voters or another target population. Entries often include details about a household: who lived there, how they were related, how old they were, where they were born, etc. You can often extract family information from census listings, though some things (like ages or name spellings) may not be totally accurate.
Vital records are official records of someone’s birth, marriage or death. In these, you’ll often find important dates and places as well as names of parents, spouses or others important to the family. They aren’t always totally accurate, and you may only be able to see an index of the record (not the actual document).
As you find search results, compare what they say to what you’ve already learned. How likely is it that this record belongs to your family? Consider how many people seem to have the same name in that location and time period (for example, how many are mentioned in the 1880 U.S. census in that state?). Don’t just look at the search results list: click through to look at the full summary of the entry and, if you can, the original record itself. You may find additional details in these that can confirm whether this record belongs to your relative. You may even find out about new people: your great-grandparents’ parents, for example. Write it all down or begin building a family tree right there on the FamilySearch website (because it’s totally free: learn more about that here.) And one of the greatest keys to long term success is citing your sources. It’s imperative that you make careful note of where you got the resource so that you can find and refer to it again later, and back up your research if it is ever called into question.
People who research their family history often describe it as a puzzle with lots of different pieces. You will need to assemble a lot of puzzle pieces–information about each relative–to begin to see the “bigger picture” of your family history. You’ll start to sense which pieces may belong to a different family puzzle. You may put together a picture that is unexpected, or has some shadows and sadness. There will likely also emerge heroic, beautiful and touching images.