Overview of Newspapers in Family History

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Using Newspapers in Family History

This article is part of a series.
Overview of Newspapers in Family History
List of Genealogical Information in Newspapers
Vital Statistics in Newspapers
Local News
Biographical Sketches in Newspapers
Legal Notices in Newspapers
Public Announcements and Advertisements
Immigration Information in Newspapers
Slave Information in Newspapers
Reunion Information in Newspapers
How to Find Newspapers
Searching Newspapers
Religious Newspapers
Ethnic and Foreign-Language Newspapers
List of Useful Newspaper Resources
Topics

This article originally appeared in "Newspapers" by Loretto Dennis Szucs, FUGA, and James L. Hansen, FASG in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

Contents

Introduction

The technological advances of recent years have revolutionized the way family historians discover and use records. Nowhere is that more evident than in the area of newspaper research. As a steadily increasing number of large metropolitan dailies and small-town dailies and weeklies become accessible on the Internet, we suddenly have a powerful new tool to discover incredible details about our ancestors’ lives—details that are often unavailable elsewhere. Historical newspapers give us the remarkable ability to see history through eyewitness accounts, while contemporary newspapers keep us current with today’s domestic and international happenings. With just a few clicks of the mouse, we can view a news item or an obituary from yesterday or from a hundred years ago.

Scanning technology makes it possible for us to see and print accurate reproductions of old newspapers from the convenience of our own homes. Indexes created using optical character recognition (OCR) software allow us to search through hundreds of thousands of pages for names or events in mere seconds. Coverage is uneven at this point, but if one of the digitized newspapers is one you need, it can be invaluable. For anyone who has had to conduct a page-by-page search of unindexed original or microfilmed papers, this development is nothing short of wonderful.

In just a few short years, government agencies and commercial entities have placed millions of pages of our individual and collective history online, enabling us to see the original documents firsthand. In these cases, we are no longer dependent on abstracts or transcripts to fill the gaps in our family stories. Being able to search newspaper databases allows us to discover long-lost relatives who were living in unexpected places and involved in stories we never imagined. Consider the man who disappeared from records in New York in 1850 but was found in a Chicago newspaper database for that same year. Or the woman who disappeared from records in the town where she had resided all of her life, only to be found in a search of a newspaper database of a distant town. An item in the digitized and indexed newspaper led to the story of how the woman had gone to live with her daughter in this town because of declining health, and how she had passed away in a place where no one had thought to look for records.

Essentially every currently published newspaper has a website. While some include only contact and other basic information, others include much more detailed and rich content. An increasing number of current newspapers post most, if not all, of their articles and archives online, either free or for a fee. Many libraries, genealogical and historical societies, commercial companies, and individuals have extracted, compiled, indexed, and digitized items from newspapers and made them available online in various forms.

Many newspaper databases include fully searchable text versions that can be browsed or searched using a computer-generated index. The accuracy of every newspaper index varies according to the quality of the original images. The images for most newspapers can be browsed sequentially, or via links to specific images, which may be obtained through the search results. Over time, the name of a newspaper may have changed and the time span it covered may not always be consistent. Also, the date range of some Internet collections may not represent the complete published set or time period needed. Check the local library or historical society in the area in which your ancestors lived for more information about other available newspapers. When the subject or individual of your search cannot be located through an index, and if a place and date range (death date, etc.) are known, try browsing the full text of a specific newspaper. Such full-text searches should be conducted as frequently as possible because, in addition to the chance to find an ancestor, there is no better way to capture the thinking, the culture, and the very essence of the time and place where your ancestors lived.

How have newspapers become such an important research tool for so many in such a short period of time? And what are the secrets to using them to their fullest potential? It has been said that newspapers are the first rough draft of history. As such they are of great importance to students of history, sociology, law, medical research, economics, marketing, and many other fields. Because newspapers are so heavily used, there has been a significant demand to make newspapers more accessible to the masses. This chapter will focus on the great potential that this ever-growing research tool has to offer, with a special focus on the ways that family historians can best put newspapers to use in their research.

The National Digital Newspaper Program

The National Digital Newspaper Program, launched by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Library of Congress in late 2004, plans to digitize 30 million pages, spanning the years 1836 through 1922. Stars and Stripes, a newspaper published by the United States Army from 1918 to 1919, was the first project to go online at the Library of Congress website as a result of the joint effort. Because the fonts used in newspapers prior to 1836 do not lend themselves to OCR technology, those newspapers were not included in the first phase of scanning, and copyright laws set the limit at the other end of the series. Eventually, the Library of Congress site will host an online bibliography of newspapers that will tell where every newspaper (since the first newspaper published in 1690 to the present day) is located—whether online or offline. In a speech to members of the National Press Club in November 2004, NEH Chairman Bruce Cole said, “This digitizing will democratize knowledge by making it available to anyone with an Internet connection. But just as important and revolutionary, it is also going to create something new. The sheer volume of information in newspapers has been an obstacle. Newspapers carry three thousand to seven thousand words on a page. The new technology overcomes that. The page is scanned; it’s tagged with name, date, and page number—metadata. The process turns the enormous volume of material into a searchable asset. And this asset will be easy to use” http://www.neh.gov/whoweare/speeches/11162004.html.

Examples of Online Newspapers

Because they understand the importance of newspapers to general and family historians, authors, students, journalists, and those in dozens of other professions; commercial entities like Ancestry.com, ProQuest, and Readexhave invested heavily in newspaper digitizing projects.

The Historical Newspaper Collection at Ancestry.com, available by subscription, includes pages from newspapers across the United States, UK, Canada, and other countries, dating from 1765 through the present. In addition to fully-searchable images of the New York Times, the Atlanta Constitution, and other large city publications, the Ancestry.com collection includes a wide variety of small town publications such as the Adams Centinel published in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, from the beginning of the nineteenth century, and the Ohio Repository (1815 to 1861 with some gaps), which was published in Canton, Ohio.

The ProQuest Historical Collection, available at many libraries, includes full-text and full-image articles from several major American city newspapers from 1849 to 2001, including the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and a few others.

For those with an interest in early-American research, Readex, a division of Newsbank, has posted Early American Newspapers, 1690–1876 Series I online. Based largely on Clarence Brigham’s History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690–1820, this collection offers a fully text-searchable database of over one million pages, including cover-to-cover reproductions of historical newspapers such as the Boston Gazette, the Gazette of the United States, the New York Evening Post, and others. This collection is available at some public libraries, through some educational institutions, and to members of the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Another good example of a subscription service offering digitized newspapers is NewspaperARCHIVE.com, which, according to its website, adds a million pages of new content each month. There are also a growing number of pay-per-view newspaper sites that charge a fee for access to articles that can be identified by free online indexes.

State and Local Projects

The Utah Digital Newspapers project, launched in 2002 through a Library Services and Technology Act grant administered by the Utah State Library, is a great example of what individual states are doing to make newspapers accessible to the masses. The digitization process, developed at the University of Utah, is regularly adding searchable images of Utah newspapers printed from 1879 to 1956.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online is a remarkable project, produced by the Brooklyn Public Library (NY), and supported by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Pages of the now-defunct Brooklyn Daily Eagle can be searched by name, date, or subject for the years 1841 to 1902 http://www.brooklynpubliclibrary.org/eagle. The Eagle is important not only because it carried news of what was for a long time the third largest city in the United States, but also because it included news from the rest of the New York Metropolitan area and the world in general. Because of the enormity of the collection, the digitization project has been broken into several phases. Phase I, which covers the period from 26 October 1841 to 31 December 1902, and is currently online, represents only half of the Eagle’s years of publication.

Newspaper Abstracts, Extracts, and Photographs

A growing number of historical agencies are partnering with libraries to post newspaper archives or portions of newspaper collections online. An example is a Chicago Daily News collection of photographs (1902 to 1933) housed at the Chicago Historical Society. The collection is now viewable at the Library of Congress website.

In addition to the searchable full-page newspapers that are continuously going online, volunteers regularly post historical newspaper items on local interest sites such as those hosted by RootsWeb.com. In many cases, obituaries and other newspaper clippings are the only sources to include birthplaces of the deceased, making them especially important for those seeking the origins of ancestors whose birth took place in a different state or country. The newspaper clipping database at RootsWeb.com <www.rootsweb.com> contains over 400,000 entries. The U.S. GenWeb Project, hosted by RootsWeb.com, has been posting obituaries from various newspapers since 2000.

Obituaries

Obituaries from recently published and archived newspapers are available on a growing number of websites. Typing the word “newspapers” or “obituaries” into a search engine will lead to a vast array of old and current biographical information about individuals living in the United States and almost everywhere else on the globe. Typing the word “newspapers” or “obituaries” plus a specific place name will generally lead to a well of fascinating information and new clues for future research. Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites on the Net includes an alphabetically arranged list of hundreds of obituary links. Obituary Central is a site with its own archive, searchable from the main page, as well as a state-by-state directory of obituary search engines. An amazing and always growing number of obituaries from current and historical newspapers are being posted daily.

The Obituary Hunter on Ancestry.com includes hundreds of thousands of recent obituaries from hundreds of newspapers. Ancestry.com scours the Internet daily to find new obituaries and extracts the facts into the database. In each case, the source of the information is provided, along with links to the full obituary text. It is a popular site for locating information on a recently deceased family member, ancestors, friends, former classmates, business associates, and celebrities.

The Denver Public Library is one of many libraries that have posted local obituaries online. The “Denver Obituary Index” covers various periods between 1939 and 1974, as well as 1990 through 2004. Newspaper sources for the obituary index include the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News.

The Cleveland Public Library index to area obituaries from the early 1800s to the present is a similar project. And Cleveland, like many other urban areas, has benefited from the work of ethnic groups whose members have prepared indexes with a special focus on newspapers. The Cleveland Jewish Genealogy Society has an index of Jewish obituaries from 1902 to 1974: http://www.clevelandjgs.org/resources.htm.

The Value of Newspapers

Newspapers are the day-to-day (or week-to-week) diaries of community events. They are accounts of the lives of famous and ordinary people written as events happened, making them an excellent source for family history. Newspapers usually serve a geographic region, and may also be oriented toward a particular ethnic, cultural, social, or political group. Because newspapers preserve the collected thoughts of many minds, they reflect moral, cultural, educational, and political development more broadly than do the isolated thoughts of an individual’s correspondence or diary. Nowhere can a clearer idea be gained of public sentiment than in the American newspaper.

While records of birth, marriage, and death are the most commonly sought and the most consistently helpful, only the genealogist’s imagination and resourcefulness limit the newspaper’s usefulness in supplying clues about historical events, local news items, probate court and legal notices, real estate transactions, political biographies, announcements, notices of new and terminated partnerships, business advertisements, and notices for settling debts.

Newspapers are especially important for family historians as they are a partial substitute for nonexistent civil records. Obituaries, for example, often fill the gap when a death record is nonexistent or cannot be found. Newspapers are also an important source of marriage information, particularly in those states where marriages were not recorded until the twentieth century. They take on added importance where official public records have been destroyed. All Cook County, Illinois, official records, for example, were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Newspapers consequently become even more critical in reconstructing the history of the city and tracing the roots of its settlers.

Newspapers are unofficial sources, and as such, they often provide incidental information not recorded elsewhere. Because of their unofficial nature, they are not bound by forms used by official government sources. A newspaper account of a marriage might, for example, indicate that it took place at the home of the bride’s parents, perhaps even naming them; it might list the occupation of the groom, or indicate that the ceremony was part of a double wedding in which the bride’s sister was also being married. None of these details is likely to appear in the marriage record at the courthouse.

Newspapers are not limited to a particular geographical area and may include reports of births, marriages, and deaths of local citizens, even when they occurred in a neighboring county or another state. Discovering the date and place of an event through a newspaper account can open doors to additional research sources and documentation.

The Evolution of Newspapers

The newspapers we know and take for granted today are the products of some three centuries of development, and are quite different from their colonial predecessors. After a single-issue attempt in 1690, the Boston News-Letter, starting in 1704, was the first regularly published newspaper in what is now the United States. Its basic format—four pages, with content concentrating on international news and “literary” matter, with a wealth of advertising and legal notices—remained generally standard for newspapers for the next century and a half. The early newspaper was very much a local product, designed to convey news of the wider world to the citizens of a particular community. Little attention was given to local news, which everyone presumably knew already.

Three nineteenth-century developments changed the newspaper dramatically: the invention of the power printing press, the development of the railroads (which allowed much wider distribution of a paper), and the increasing demand for news, particularly during the Civil War. The major city dailies, with their telegraphic news-gathering, large steam presses, and railroad-based distribution systems, began to dominate the international, national, and state news-reporting functions. As a result, papers in smaller communities had to concentrate on local news if they were to survive and prosper.

Current Newspapers

Current newspapers are especially useful in locating unknown relatives. Distant relatives may still be living in old hometowns though the direct ancestor moved away. Obituaries in current papers may provide biographical details not available elsewhere. Thousands of current newspaper obituaries can be found by typing a name, or the name of a town plus the word newspaper into a search engine such as Google. The Obituary Collection at Ancestry.com contains recent obituaries culled daily from hundreds of newspapers on the Internet.

Additionally, current newspapers at least occasionally feature historical articles about the community and its people, particularly in conjunction with centennials, sesquicentennials, and so on of either the community or the newspaper. These articles may also provide useful leads for furthering research. The availability of an ever-increasing number of online newspapers has put a wide variety of newspapers at our fingertips.

Conclusion

As with any other genealogical or historical source, a degree of skepticism is needed as we read through the pages of the past. The hurried nature of news-gathering—then, as now—has often led to error. Not everything found in print is accurate. Yet, while the quality of information found in newspapers varies greatly, there’s often no other way to glean more personal and personality-revealing details about ancestors and other family members. Sometimes newspapers fill in gaps in family stories, and sometimes they provide vital records where no other proof of birth, marriage, or death exists. They are entertaining and enlightening. They are accounts of the lives of famous and ordinary people written as they happened, making them an excellent source for family history.

References

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