Newspapers open up a window into your ancestors’ lives. Of course, they’re a valuable source for birth, marriage and death dates, but the biographical details in newspapers can turn your family history from a collection of dry facts into a unique tale of struggles and triumphs. A 1904 Oakes Republican gossip column recounted how my North Dakota great-grandparents celebrated Independence Day by treating friends and neighbors to a picnic:
Mr. Olmstead … provided a swing, hammock, croquet set and the boys played a game of ball so everyone had a good time in the cool shade of the trees. An excellent dinner was served including lemonade, ice cream and fruit to which all did justice. Mr. Olmstead and wife did everything for the entertainment of the crowd and all spent a very enjoyable day.
It’s easier than ever to find such writeups on your kin now that many old papers are online. After microfilmed newspapers are digitized to create an image of each page, the images are run through OCR (optical character recognition) software to generate a text file of the articles. Then all that text is indexed so you can search for a word anywhere in millions of pages at once. Once you find a match, you can view the article on the newspaper page.
The free and fee-based sites here hold the web’s largest newspaper collections. We’ll give you tips for using them and info on their fees, size and coverage. Let’s get started finding your ancestors’ exciting stories.
- Price: Available through libraries and society memberships. Accessible through Godfrey Memorial Library memberships ($45-$125/year) or free at FamilySearch Centers. Included with a $79.95 annual membership in the New England Historic Genealogical Society.
- Size: 500 newspaper titles, 18 million articles, 1.8 million pages
- Coverage: United States except Nevada and Washington, 1800-1899
This large newspaper collection covers most of the United States. The publisher, Gale, also offers nine collections of British newspapers and periodicals dating back to the 17th century. If your library subscribes to any of these collections, you can search them simultaneously through the Gale NewsVault. The only subscription Gale makes available to individuals is 19th Century British Library Newspapers 1800-1900.
The 19th Century US Newspapers database doesn’t index many single letters (such as initials), so searching on “J.H. Pennington” as an exact phrase won’t get good results. Search on just the last name or add other words that might be unique to the subject you’re searching,
- Price: $59.95/year. Accessible through Godfrey Memorial Library memberships ($45-$125/year) or free at FamilySearch Centers.
- Size: 1 million articles
- Coverage: New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia; African-American and abolitionist newspapers, 1728-1902
A subscription to this service lets you search county histories from the Mid-Atlantic states and New England; Godey’s Lady’s Book; newspapers from Pennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina; African-American newspapers; and Civil War histories.
One exciting find in this collection involved my indentured servant ancestor Tobias Shaubhut. A search on his last name turned up an advertisement in an issue of The Pennsylvania Gazette from 1786. Instead of fulfilling his obligation to work for several years, Tobias ran away after one month. His master offered a $4 reward for his return and gave this description: “Tobias Shaubhut, a taylor by trade, about 25 years of age, 5 feet 8 inches high, has a smooth face, dark hair, tied behind … ” Many similar notices appear in this paper, so it’s worth a look for your 18th-century indentured ancestors.
- Price: US membership $155.40/year, World membership $299.40/year. Free at FamilySearch Centers.
- Size: 1,300 titles, 40 million pages
- Coverage: United States, Canada, Australia, England, Scotland (not all titles are included in Ancestry Library Edition), 1748-2005
In addition to passenger lists, censuses and other records, Ancestry.com has newspapers, including those licensed from NewspaperArchive. Its coverage of 20th-century titles is especially strong. To narrow your search to just newspapers, select Search All Records from the Search tab dropdown menu. In the right column, under Stories & Publications, select Newspapers. Then, on the right, you can further narrow the papers you’ll search by date or place.
In addition to using the First and Last Name search boxes, also try entering a name as a phrase surrounded by quotation marks in the Keyword box, like this: “John H. Pennington”. Highlighting of matching terms on the newspaper pages (“hit highlighting”) works in Internet Explorer, but not with some other web browsers.
- Price: free
- Size: 3.47 million pages
- Coverage: 22 states plus Washington, DC, 1860-1922
The Library of Congress’s newspaper site has two parts: Click Search Pages to search and view newspapers from nearly two dozen states. Click Search Directory to find titles of newspapers published all over the United States from 1690 to the present. You’ll learn where to find microfilm copies that may be available on interlibrary loan.
Early American Newspapers, Series 1, 1690-1876
- Price: Included in a $60/year New York Genealogical and Biographical Society membership. Papers are also on GenealogyBank. Accessible through Godfrey Memorial Library memberships ($45-$125/year) or free at FamilySearch Centers. Included with a $79.95 annual membership in the New England Historic Genealogical Society.
- Size: 718 newspaper titles, 346,395 issues, 1.51 million pages
- Coverage: 23 states plus Washington, DC, 1690-1876
Available to members of some genealogical societies, this is a terrific collection of newspapers published before America’s centennial. Here’s a search tip for these and other Colonial newspapers: In the early part of this era, the letter s at the beginning or in the middle of a word resembled an f, which can fool OCR software. The question mark wildcard, which substitutes a ? for a single letter in your search term, can help you out. Search on Bri?tol, for example, to find the word Bristol in newspaper articles, whether the OCR process interpreted it as Bristol or Briftol.
- Price: $11.95/month, $79.95/year. Free at FamilySearch Centers.
- Size: 5.5 million pages
- Coverage: 45 states plus Washington, DC, and London Times 1785-1919, 1785-2008
Along with its census, military and other records, Footnote has newspapers from across the US, plus the London Times. To search or browse newspapers, click on the Original Documents link, scroll down and select Newspapers. Enter your search terms in the search box and click the Go button. Optionally, narrow your search first by selecting a country, a state, a specific newspaper and a year. You can search all the newspapers from a country, state or city at once. You also can search all the years available for a newspaper, but you can’t limit your search to a range of years.
The Advanced Search option generally doesn’t work well with newspapers, but Footnote’s new search system — being developed at press time — may change that.
- Price: $19.95/month, $69.95/year
- Size: 5,000 newspapers
- Coverage: United States, 1690-current
This huge collection includes newspapers published all over the United States, including African-American, Hispanic and other ethnic titles. The site also has a collection of obituaries dating back to 1977.
Use the First and Last Name search boxes, but also try this trick: Go to the Advanced Search form and in the Include Keywords With Search box, type a full name surrounded by quotation marks.
Click on the Print button to print an article. To save it as an image file on your computer, click on the Print button, right-click on the image (or control-click if you have a Mac), select Save Image As from the pop-up options, select a folder and name the file (it’ll have the extension .PNG). Or click on the PDF button to save the article as a PDF file, then hover your mouse cursor near the bottom of the screen and click on the disk icon. (You can save the whole page by clicking on the newspaper page icon before clicking on the PDF button.)
About 200 foreign newspapers from 1922 and earlier are available from GenealogyBank’s parent company, NewsBank, through the Readex World Newspaper Archive. You can’t use Readex at home, but see if any university libraries in your area will let you use the service even if you’re not a student.
- Price: free to search; sometimes a fee to view an entire article
- Size: 2,500 US newspaper titles, millions of articles
- Coverage: United States, Canada and other countries, 1738-2009
The Google News search scours recently published news articles, which can help you find potential cousins and research ancestral locales. The Google News Archive search covers newspapers back to 1738, digitized by Google and other parties. Both searches include American and foreign news from free and fee-based services.
Newspapers covered by the Google News Archive search are listed. Google has announced it won’t digitize more papers, but the existing archive will remain searchable. For more options searching Google News Archive, select Advanced Archive Search. You can limit your search to a specific newspaper, or to a range of years. For example, entering Crume in the box labeled Find Results With All of the Words and Spokesman Review in the Source box searches that newspaper for articles mentioning people with my last name.
- Price: free to view up to 20 articles a month from 1851-1923 and 1987-present; $3.95/article or $15.95/10 articles for 1924-1986
- Size: 13 million articles
- Coverage: New York City, national and international news, 1851-present
As the nation’s “newspaper of record,” the New York Times is a key store of news from not only New York City, but the whole country. Articles are displayed as PDF files. To zoom in on an article with Adobe Reader X, the latest version of the PDF-reading program, hover your cursor over the lower part of the screen and a menu bar will appear with options including Print and Save. Click on the plus sign to zoom in and on the minus sign to zoom out.
- Price: $29.97/3 months, $47.94/6 months, $71.88/year or up to 100 pages views, $19.99/year. Accessible through Godfrey Memorial Library memberships ($45-$125/year) or free at FamilySearch Centers.
- Size: 154 million pages, billions of articles
- Coverage: United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, South Africa and the Caribbean, 1607-2011
By far the largest collection of online newspapers, NewspaperArchive has more than 400 years of newspapers from around the world. It adds 4 million pages every month.
The Advanced Search here provides several options for searching the text and narrowing your search by date and place. But keep in mind one important limitation: You can’t search on an initial. So if you enter the name John H. Pennington in the Exact Phrase box, the site will return matches for John Pennington.
- Price: free
- Size: 16.6 million pages
- Coverage: New York, 1795-2007
Borrowing microfilmed newspapers from the New York State Library costs out-of-state libraries a minimum of $20 plus shipping. So it’s great to have free access to many New York state newspapers through this growing site coordinated by Tom Tryniski.
Despite the name, Old Fulton NY Post Cards has newspapers from all over the state. To download the list as an Excel file, click first on FAQ_HELP_INDEX at the top of the screen, then the link to “browse the different papers,” and finally “Download this index as a Microsoft Excel file.”
If you’re viewing the newspaper articles in Adobe Reader X, hit highlighting won’t work. To enable it, you could install an earlier version of Adobe Reader. But it’s probably more practical to save the PDF file to your computer and then use Ctrl-F to search for a word on the page. Note that you can copy and paste text from this site’s PDF files, so you can easily copy an article into a word processing document or quote an article when documenting the source in your genealogy software.
- Price: about $13/month or $71.40/year
- Size: 21 million pages
- Coverage: United States, Canada, Australia, Caribbean, Europe, Mexico, South America, 1752-2004
Truly international in scope, Paper of Record has large collections of newspapers from Canada and Mexico, as well as titles from the United States, Europe, Australia, the Caribbean and South America. Formerly accessible through Google and World Vital Records, as of this summer, Paper of Record is once again available only by subscription through its own site.
You can search only one newspaper title and a five-year span at once. Hit highlighting also doesn’t work quite right. Paper of Record is upgrading its searching, so watch for improvements.
- Price: Prices vary. For example, the Baltimore Sun costs $3.95/article and $19.95 for a 24-hour pass (10 articles).
- Size: 130 newspapers, 25 million pages
- Coverage: United States, Canada, Israel, United Kingdom, 1764-2009
ProQuest Archiver’s list of newspaper titles point for searching individual newspapers from the United States, Ontario, Jerusalem and London. You can view images of 13 big-city US newspapers and two London newspapers going as far back as 1764, and search the text of more than 100 other newspapers from about 1999 to the present. Individuals can access them on a pay-per-view basis or through a subscribing library.
Digitized newspapers available through libraries are listed. They include major newspapers from the United States, Great Britain, Ireland and India, plus several African-American newspapers. If a library subscribes to multiple ProQuest newspapers, you can search all of them at once.
In addition to the titles available through ProQuest Archiver, ProQuest has developed specialized newspaper collections for clients. The New York Times Archive has its own site (see above). The Minnesota State Library makes The Minneapolis Tribune available for free to state residents. Check with your library for access.
- Price: Access some articles free through Google News Archive; others by fee through Footnote or NewspaperArchive.
- Size: 325 newspapers, 4 million pages
- Coverage: 45 states, 1865-present
Well-known for covering even the most mundane goings-on, small town newspapers are terrific sources for learning about our ancestors’ everyday lives. This collection includes local newspapers from across the United States.
To search the collection back to about 2006, click the red Enter Here link on the right. You can’t search older issues of all the newspapers at once, but you can search individual titles. Click on Browse by State on the home page and then click on a title, such as Minnesota Askov American. Near the top of the page, there’s a search box for the Google Newspaper Archive search, which includes many titles from SmallTownPapers. If the newspaper doesn’t have a Google Newspaper Archive search box, you may be able to access it on Footnote or NewspaperArchive, but both of these are subscription sites.
- Price: $16.25/month or $89.99/year. Free at FamilySearch Centers.
- Size: 1 billion pages
- Coverage: United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, 1753-1923
This site licensed many of its newspapers from NewspaperArchive. From the World Vital Records home page, you can search a range of up to 20 years. To search just the newspapers, select Newspapers & Periodicals from the Search tab, but then you can search only one year.
To browse newspapers published in a single state, click on a state in the US map on the home page or select Browse by State from the Places tab. You also can then select a specific newspaper title to search. Note that wildcards and phrase searching won’t work in World Vital Records’ newspaper collection.
Getting the Scoop
The collections highlighted here aren’t the only places to find articles about your ancestors. Expand your search with these tips and tools:
- Your public library might provide online access to newspaper databases or have historical papers on microfilm. Check at the reference desk.
- Search the Library of Congress Chronicling America newspaper directory for microfilmed papers you can order via interlibrary loan.
- Surf websites of state archives for their newspaper holdings, which may be available for loan to your local library.
- Portals that can link you to more online newspaper archives include Cyndi’s List, Free Newspaper Archives, Online Historical Newspapers and XooxleAnswers: Newspaper Archives.
Newspaper Search Tips
Here’s how to get the most out of your searches in online newspaper databases:
- Limit your search to titles that cover the places and time periods where your ancestors lived. Then a last name search may be narrow enough to find relevant matches.
- If the site supports wildcards, use them to find names that could be spelled different ways. Usually a * substitutes for zero or more characters, so Rob*son finds Robinson, Robison and Robertson. A ? generally substitutes for one character, so Ols?n finds Olson and Olsen.
- Read the sites’ tips for proximity searching — that is, specifying that your search terms must appear near each other on newspaper pages.
- If your search doesn’t work, browse the newspapers printed around dates of interest.
- Search on an exact phrase, usually by surrounding it with quotation marks. Since OCR software sometimes misreads letters, don’t search on a long phrase. Instead of “San Francisco Land and Cattle Company,” try just “San Francisco Land.”
Free Web Content
- Newspaper digitization efforts
- What to look for in newspapers
- Family Tree Magazine Podcast: African-American newspaper research
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From the November 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine
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