Breaking News

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack Premium

“Necessarily we are all fond of murders, scandals, swindles, robberies, explosions, collisions, and all such things, when we know the people, and when they are neighbors and friends.”

Mark Twain might’ve added “and ancestors” to his statement had he foreseen how many genealogists would be scouring newspapers for word on their forebears.

Old weeklies and dailies hold juicy tidbits of your family history. They’re like cameras, providing snapshots of history as it happened to ordinary people. If you’re lucky, your ancestral newspaper is text-searchable on a Web site. But more often than not, you’ll have to figure out which library has it on microfilm. Then, if the newspaper isn’t indexed, finding those juicy ancestral tidbits may mean combing page by page through issue after issue. I can almost hear you thinking, isn’t there an easier way?

I have good news: There is. Here, we deliver the scoop on five strategies for more-efficiently and less-tediously sniffing out the news on your family.

1. Focus on key life events.

Take a look at your genealogical research into vital records, court documents, deeds and immigration records, noting when and where major life events occurred. (Creating timelines for your ancestors would be helpful here.) Did your great-grandparents celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in Denver? Was your ancestor involved in a Bowie County, Texas, court case as one of the parties or a juror?

These types of events are good starting points for newspaper research, so list them and add names of associated relatives. Then scan local papers for the surrounding days. Check personal and local news items up to a month before and a week after births, marriages and deaths. You might find mention of relatives coming to town for a christening, wedding, deathbed farewell or funeral.

2. Report to the right section.

By now, you’re convinced there’s a lot of good stuff in newspapers — but where’s your family in all that small print? Instead of reading the entire issue, focus on the section most appropriate for the life event you’re researching.

Obituaries and death notices: An obituary search usually prompts genealogists’ first foray into newspaper research. Check publications both where your ancestor lived and where he died (don’t assume that’s the same place).

Death notices are fairly straightforward, giving the deceased’s name and usually the date of death, the location of the memorial service and the burial place. You might find a note, probably at the end, along the lines of “Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Zanesville (Ohio) papers please copy.” This request for other newspapers to print the item is a clue the deceased’s family and friends lived in those cities. If you’re uncertain where your ancestor came from, this is your lead.

Obituaries provide more details than death notices. Family members or newspaper staff may have written them. Some 19th-century obituaries were eulogies, describing the deceased’s character. You’ll also see mini-biographies — of course, those are the most genealogically beneficial.

Recent immigrants often put loved ones’ obituaries in foreign-language newspapers instead of their English counterparts. These papers are rarely indexed, so for easier searching, you’ll need to narrow the date of death to a short time frame.

If family legend tells of someone dying in an unusual way, look in the news section. John Norris, for example, didn’t do anything particularly newsworthy in life, but in death he made the front page — the headline read, “J.G. Norris, 56, Dies of Exposure in One-Room Home.” Mary Clark didn’t get an obituary, but a 1908 news article described her attempt to take her life: She stabbed herself in the abdomen with a butcher knife and set her hair on fire. Two weeks later, she died from infection of her wounds.

Estate settlements and sales: After you find an obituary, death notice or other document attesting your ancestor went to the great beyond, scan the newspaper for estate settlements and property sales. These are usually among the legal notices, but they might be in a display ad, and may not appear for several weeks or a couple of months after the death. You can narrow the publication date for a notice by finding a probate file at the courthouse — it might contain a copy of the notice or a note when one would appear.

Life-event announcements: Look for brief proclamations of births, engagements, marriages, anniversaries, family reunions and 100th birthdays, as well as news on local military regiments and newcomers seeking lost relatives. Check the personals around these dates for names of relatives attending celebrations.

Personals and society pages: Our personals — “SWF seeking SWM who loves to cook, clean and do laundry” — are a far cry from those our ancestors read. Back then, the personals resembled gossip columns, except they covered ordinary local citizens, not just the rich and famous. Typical notices broadcast out-of-town visitors and locals’ comings and goings:

Stan and Ila Wilson stopped by her Uncle Leroy Milton’s place to visit with him while they were in Montrose on Saturday. They found him feeble.

In small towns, neighborhood correspondents — who typically weren’t on the newspaper staff and lacked journalism training — might have written the personals. And the columns often weren’t edited. Like any newspaper item, they may have errors. They sometimes make for entertaining reading, too:

Local cowboys missed real rodeo action Sunday morning by not being at our corral. By virtue of a large knot on his forehead, Jim found out why Roberta refused to show one of his heifers in 4-H last year. After a wild scurry out of her path, then his meeting up with a panel she relocated, he roped her and the fun began.

(Do you suppose Jim roped Roberta or the heifer?)

If your ancestors were prominent citizens, scan the society pages. During the Civil War, newspapers started printing Sunday editions, which began to carry special sections for women. These sections contained the society columns, as well as fiction, poetry, fashion, etiquette and department store ads.

Runaway slaves and indentured servants: You’ll find these “wanted” announcements in Colonial and pre-Civil War newspapers. The beauty of these ads is in the descriptions of the runaways:

John Ecton Ducrect, a native of Berne in Switzerland… is about 5 feet 9 inches high, pitted with small pox, and very swarthy, almost as dark as a mulatto; wears his own hair, with a false tail, and is generally powdered, being a barber by trade.

Many wanted ads have been extracted and compiled into books such as Lathan A. Windley’s four-volume Runaway Slave Advertisements: A Documentary History from the 1730s to 1790 (Greenwood Press). Check the Family History Library’s (FHL) <> online catalog — click the catalog link on the home page and run a subject or keyword search on fugitive slaves.

Legal notices: The courthouse isn’t the only place you’ll find records of sins and scandals. Many cases required public notice in the newspaper — marital separations are especially common:

George Christ, who lives somewhere in the neighborhood of Bergun’s Park, and whose nature, we fear, is far from befitting his name, advertises in our columns that he will not be responsible for any of his wife’s debts, she having left his bed and board. Mrs. Christ alleges that she had too much reason for her departure, having made complaint before Justice Lyon, on Tuesday last, that her husband was in the habit of thrashing her instead of cherishing her.

Check court records first to get a time frame for published legal notices.

Shipping news: Are you tracing immigrants? Look in this section for ship arrivals. Obviously, this section wasn’t published in landlocked cities, but check papers in ports such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Articles often give ship information and names of the captain and first- and second-class passengers.

If something happened on board, such as a disease outbreak, you might find articles in the news section. Search on the day the ship was due to arrive and several days after. The Nord America docked in New York Oct. 27, 1905; the following day, the New York Times reported, “Smallpox On a Ship Passed At Quarantine. Case discovered at Ellis Island after 2,000 had been exposed.” Although they may not provide passengers’ names, such articles will add historical context to your research.

3. Get familiar with the publication.

Most papers devote particular pages of every issue to certain types of coverage. Take a look at the newspaper that landed on your doorstep this morning: National news is probably in the first section; local news, the second. TV and movie listings occupy the back page of the entertainment section. Your ancestors’ newspapers were usually no different (except for the TV listings, of course). Peruse a few consecutive issues. You don’t have to read them — just notice the placement of the obituaries, personal items, legal notices, community announcements and so on. Once you get the lay of the newspaper, you’ll more easily skim through relevant years.

4. Press for published abstracts.

Volunteers may have scoured old newspapers in your ancestor’s area and abstracted items of genealogical value. Use local library and historical society catalogs to find books of these abstracts, such as Irish Relatives and Friends: From “Information Wanted” Ads in the Irish-American, 1850-1871 edited by Laura Murphy DeGrazia and Diane Fitzpatrick Haberstroh (Genealogical Publishing Co.). (Visit <> for a searchable database of names from similar missing-person ads in the Boston Pilot.)

Search the FHL’s catalog, too. Though it holds few microfilmed newspapers, the FHL has a good collection of abstracts, clippings and obituaries. Run a place search on your ancestor’s town and scroll to the Newspapers category. Then rent microfilm through your local FHL branch Family History Center (use FamilySearch to find it). You can’t borrow printed books from the FHL, but use WorldCat <> to find a book at another repository and have your librarian request it through interlibrary loan.

5. Peruse PERSI.

Genealogical journals — publications of local, state and national genealogical societies — are another good source of newspaper indexes or abstracts. The Periodical Source Index (PERSI) contains citations to 6,500 US and Canadian journals going back to 1800. You can search PERSI on the Web by using HeritageQuest Online <> at a subscribing library. (You may be able to access this service from home through the library’s Web site; stop by the reference desk for information.) To find newspaper abstracts, run a search on your ancestor’s name, town or county plus newspaper.

Each match shows you the citation for the journal article — if your library doesn’t carry the publication, it may be available through interlibrary loan. You also can order photocopies for a fee from the Allen County Public Library, which creates PERSI. Use the library’s online form <> or write the Genealogy Department, Box 2270, Fort Wayne, IN 46802.

6. Know no news is still good news.

My dad told me I should be in the paper only three times: when I was hatched, matched and dispatched. Maybe your ancestor felt likewise, and stayed out of the news. Can newspapers still be beneficial to your genealogy? Absolutely! Historical articles offer research clues — word of a flu epidemic could reveal the cause of Esther’s disappearance from census records, for example. If you decide to write about or scrapbook your family history, newspapers can tell you — among other things — how much your ancestors paid for groceries, what fashions they wore, what their neighborhood was like, and what they might have done for fun.

Of course, you’ll also read about “murders, scandals, swindles, robberies, explosions, collisions” and other mishaps. In fact, now that I think about it, I’m guessing once you start newspaper research, you’ll stop worrying about having to read the entire newspaper. More likely, you’ll become completely absorbed in yesterday’s news, wondering how to tear yourself away.

From the February 2007 issue of Family Tree Magazine

Learn about your ancestors with the Newspapers Cheat Sheet!

Order this essential reference for researching online newspaper databases to find records.