Once a file of the newspaper from the ancestor’s time and location has been located, what information can you find in it? Just look and see. There really is no better way to learn about old newspapers than to spend some time reading them. To fully tap their potential, begin at the front page of the first issue available in the time period of your search and proceed issue by issue, page by page, through the entire publication. Obviously, the size of large metropolitan papers makes it impractical to read all papers, but perusing a few issues can provide a helpful overview of the layout and philosophy of the paper and unexpected clues for further research. In addition to zeroing in specific events such as death or marriage dates, a wider search approach may yield additional information on other family members and the community in general. Bits of useful information that fill in gaps in family and local history can be found in newspapers and nowhere else. When items of interest are found, carefully note them, or print them out or photocopy them if possible. It is important to note the exact newspaper title, date, page number, and even the location on the page for future reference and for documentation purposes. How disappointing it is to find an orphan newspaper clipping that doesn’t provide a date or the source of publication.
Indexes and Abstracts
Because newspapers are such voluminous and time-consuming resources, the researcher needs to use whatever shortcuts may be available. As noted previously, a surprising number of newspapers have at least partial indexes available. In addition, many researchers have abstracted items of genealogical interest from newspaper files. Some of these indexes and abstracts have been published and are widely available; others may be available only at a particular repository. Exploring Internet options is usually the most expeditious way to begin a search. Online searching (through Google or another search engine) for genealogical resources in or for a particular locality should always include searches (or keeping an eye out) for newspaper-related finding aids.
Some older tools can still be useful, too. Betty Jarboe, Obituaries: A Guide to Sources, is a good state-by-state directory for obituary indexes. Anita Milner, Newspaper Indexes: A Location and Subject Guide for Researchers, identifies and locates unpublished indexes and card files. Wherever you are searching, it is worth asking about any available indexes, particularly unpublished ones. They are often not listed (or not easily found) in library catalogs.
The most commonly used newspaper index in book form is the New York Times Index, because of the tremendous volume of material it covers and because it is available in so many public, college, and university libraries. Coverage of the New York Times Index now extends back to 1851 (with variations in coverage). This index covers published articles by subject matter and indexes names as well. Since most metropolitan newspapers report important events at approximately the same time, the Times index serves as an index to other newspapers for the same subjects. For example, the New York Times Index identifies major battles of the Civil War and includes some casualty lists. Once the date of a particular battle has been identified, you can check other newspapers for similar lists of local men killed or wounded in the same engagement. The index is especially valuable when the casualty lists were issued weeks or even months after the battle was fought.
There is also a separately published New York Times Obituaries Index with 390,000 entries covering 1858 to 1968 and a supplement covering 1969 to 1978. Official death lists and casualty lists are not indexed. References for casualty lists may appear in the New York Times Index under subject headings such as “Philippine Insurrection, casualty lists . . .” etc.
The family historian need not search even the annual volumes of the New York Times Index for a particular name of interest. The personal names listed in the New York Times Index from 1851 to 1999 have been gathered in the Personal Name Index to the New York Times Index 1851–1974 and its 1975 to 1999 supplement. The Personal Name Index includes only those names listed in the New York Times Index, not every name mentioned in the individual issues of the New York Times. In more recent times, the availability of the entire files of the New York Times online has permitted a wider range of searches to the entire files, but the print indexes are still useful.
Numerous major-city daily newspapers have been indexed in recent years, in much the same fashion as the New York Times. Most of these indexes are of relatively little use to genealogists because they are intended to index major news, not the “minor” items the genealogist most needs to find. Not even the New York Times Index, which normally fills several shelves in a library’s reference section, includes every name. Of more genealogical utility are those indexes that were created by genealogists (or local historians) or at least were created to index newspaper items of genealogical interest.
The American Antiquarian Society, of Worcester, Massachusetts, pioneered the indexing of many early newspapers. The society indexed marriages and deaths that appeared in the Columbian Sentinel of Boston from 1784 to 1840, a major achievement because this newspaper printed marriage and death notices from all over the country and included 80,000 names. Other indexing projects of the society have been a death index to the Christian Intelligencer of the Reformed Dutch Church, 1830 to 1871, an index to marriages and deaths in the New York Weekly Museum, 1788 to 1817, and an index of obituary notices of the Boston Transcript, 1875 to 1930. Copies of these newspaper indexes have been deposited in the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and the New England Historic Genealogical Society.
The Index of Obituaries of Boston Newspapers 1704–1800 abstracts deaths within Boston (1704 to 1800) and outside of Boston (1704 to 1795). Brent Holcomb, Marriage and Death Notices from Baptist Newspapers of South Carolina, 1835–1865 has abstracted and indexed the marriages and deaths that were reported in numerous South Carolina newspapers. Kenneth Scott has also compiled vital records and other genealogical information printed in the New York Post-Boy and other eighteenth-century New York and Philadelphia papers.
Newspaper indexing projects have long been popular among the hundreds of genealogical societies and libraries serving genealogists across the nation. The Chicago Genealogical Society has published several indexes to births, marriages, and deaths that appeared in several Chicago newspapers from 1833 to 1848. Many of these indexes are known only to the compilers and those who may be familiar with local library collections. Indexes of this sort are sometimes mentioned on societies’ or libraries’ websites; some have even been made available online.
Many partial newspaper indexes and abstracts have been published in genealogical society newsletters and publications, and can best be approached through the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) published by the Allen County Public Library of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and available online.
In the 1930s, the Work Projects Administration (WPA) and related programs compiled, among other projects, numerous newspaper indexes. Some were published, and others remain in manuscript form. They are notable because they tended to cover large time spans. The General Index to Contents of Savannah Georgia Newspapers, which covers 1763 to 1830, was issued in twenty-seven volumes. The Virginia Gazette Index, 1736–1780 was published in 1950 and more than 200 libraries hold it. Both indexes are in the Library of Congress.
All newspaper indexes and abstracts should be used as guides to items in the papers, not substitutes for them. Comprehensive indexes are virtually unknown. Few indexes cover gossip columns, advertisements, announcements, passenger lists, and other equally important items. For these, search page by page. A shortcut of sorts is to check the vital records indexes first to narrow down time periods when the family lived in each area, and then search these periods page by page in the local papers, covering all columns.