Newspaper Research

A scene from Genealogy Roadshow with Joshua Taylor.A scene from Genealogy Roadshow with Joshua Taylor.

Newspapers offer a fascinating look into the lives of your ancestors. On Genealogy Roadshow we often use newspapers to dig a bit deeper into the lives of those we are researching. In some cases a local newspaper offers a look at the daily lives of our relatives, something a census or vital record cannot easily offer. The United States offers newspapers from 1690 to the present day, a catalog of which can be accessed through Chronicling America the online portal of the National Digital Newspaper Program a partnership between the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Where do I look?

A local public library in the area where your relative lived is a great place to start looking for newspapers. Many state libraries and historical societies will often have large collections of newspapers available on microfilm or through digital access. For example, our St. Louis episode utilized the resources of the State Historical Society of Missouri, whose Missouri Digital Newspaper Project offers hundreds of local newspapers, freely available to search by keyword.

While many local digital papers can be accessed at Chronicling America, other organizations have their own impressive newspaper collections that might cover multiple areas. The American Antiquarian Society has one of the largest collections of materials printed before 1820. Their collections include more than 20 miles of printed materials.

Not every issue of a newspaper has survived or is included in every library, so it can be important to search the holdings of more than one library for a specific title. While millions of newspaper pages from across the world are available online, millions more are still in print and/or microfilm format in an archive waiting for you to access.

What do I look for?

Your relatives do not have to be famous or even infamous to appear in a local newspaper. While local newspapers often include birth, marriage, and death announcements, they also often touch on other aspects of an individual’s life. Those involved in real estate sales, business owners, and others whose line of work might require them to publically post items in the newspaper will often appear. Some newspapers include announcements of local events, which can include out of town visitors, vacation plans, engagements, health notices, and other details. If your ancestor's hometown did not publish their own paper, be sure to search for newspapers printed in the nearest town - as they will often include regional news.

News might also travel outside of the local area where your ancestor's lived, so be sure to check surrounding towns, counties, and states. Typically, the more sensational a story is, the more often news is copied and distributed in other newspapers. Notices of births, marriages, and deaths might also be recorded in an ancestor's place of origin as well as their residence at the time.

Joshua Taylor-fade_x.png Newspapers are not always printed every day, so it is key to search a few days or a week before or after an event occurs. It might take up to 4-6 weeks (or even longer) for news to be delivered, prepared, and printed in the local newspaper. A town might also have more than one local newspaper, so it can be important to examine more than one title when looking for information. A paper might have a particular political or religious leaning, which can offer additional insight into the news reported by or about your ancestors.

Many digital newspapers are fully keyword searchable, though their online indices are not often 100% accurate. When searching online collections, include keywords beyond an individual's first or last name,  such an occupation, town of residence, or address. Also keep in mind that a newspaper might refer to your relative by their last name, a nickname, or even just their initials. A digitized index might incorrectly interpret a letter, name, or other word, so browsing each page can be a useful technique in some cases.

Finally, do not forget to immerse yourself in the historical world of your relatives. Their stories often come alive through reading local advertisements and articles about local events in historical newspapers. An article does not have to mention your ancestor by name to offer a glimpse into their past.

— Joshua Taylor

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