Not only are they easy to find, but they hold a wealth of information. But remember, they are a secondary source and must be viewed as such. It is always necessary to find additional collaborating evidence for any facts that you find in newspapers.
Let's discuss the following topics with regards to US newspaper research:
- Brief History of the Newspaper
- What You Can Find in the Newspaper
- Clues You Can Find in Obituaries
- Newspapers Online and Offline
Large cities would often have more than one newspaper. Some may be written in foreign languages and could be found in related ethnic areas: French, German, Italian, Spanish and many others. These papers not only provided information on the inhabitants of the area, but often on those across the sea. They maintained a link to the homeland happenings.
Please don't overlook researching some of these "specialty" newspapers even if you don't read the language.
If you come across a surname of interest, copy the article for future reference.
Most large Universities and Libraries around the country offer free transcription services.
You can also use the following web site and transcribe the information yourself (please be aware that this is done by machine and may not translate exactly correctly): AltaVista Translations at
Another option would be to use the following volunteer web site that actually takes your document and transcribes it for you:
Free Translation Service
Brief History of the Newspaper
The earliest variation on a newspaper was a daily sheet published in 59 B.C. in Rome called Acta Diurna (Daily Events), which Julius Caesar ordered posted throughout the city. The earliest known printed newspaper was in Beijing in 748.
Germany's Avisa Relation oder Zeitung, in 1609, is the first regularly published newspaper in Europe. Forty-four years later the first newspaper in England, the Oxford Gazette was published, utilizing double columns for the first time; the Oxford/London Gazette is considered the first true newspaper. Closer to home, the first North American newspaper, Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick, was published in 1690 in Boston.
The first United States daily was the Pennsylvania Packet in 1784. A penny bought a New York newspaper in 1833, opening up the first mass market for newspapers. In 1878 the first full page newspaper advertisements appeared, and in 1880 the first photographs were seen in newspapers, using half tones.
Modern day newspapers have a much different focus than the newspapers of the 1800s and early 1900s. In those earlier days, newspapers were the place to go to find out all the local news, from who's in town visiting relatives, to who is ill, to what live stock Mr. Jones is selling today. It seems like today's major newspapers cover the larger topics, national sports and worldwide events, and have less and less to do with local activities as in the past.
What You Can Find in the Newspaper
You are probably familiar with many of the items I am going to discuss, but others you might not have thought about. One thing I would like to stress is that if you are looking through a paper for just obituaries or marriage announcements, you could be missing quite a lot of valuable information. It may take a bit more time, but skim through the entire newspaper. This is very important if your ancestors were long time residents of the area. The information you might find in various newspapers may vary from the list below, since all newspapers are not alike in what they print. The list below is just to give you a general idea of what is available, in the best of circumstances.
The name of the child and parents, to include the mother's maiden name. The date and place of birth.
Names of the bride and groom, names of the parents, date and place of the wedding, a picture of the couple, and some personal history of the bride and groom (which may include employment, schooling, where they grew up and how long they have lived in the area).
Full name of bride and groom, date and place of marriage, a picture of the couple, names of relatives, minister and church affiliation.
For more information, have a look at the following article by George Morgan at
Investigating Marriage Announcements.
Death Notices differ from obituaries in the fact that they usually only contain the name, date and place of death. They are usually found in modern day, large city newspapers that have too many deaths per day to print full, detailed obituaries.
Information that you can find in an Obituary are almost endless and include relatives, occupation, birthplace, birth date, burial place, death date, past residences, church affiliation, participation in organizations and the military.
Date, wife's maiden name, children, property.
Marriage date and place, relatives, picture of the couple, and sometimes the wife's maiden name.
Date and place of reunion, name and place of residence of attendees.
Name and location of business, partners, explanation of business.
Name and location of church, religion, type of activity, name of church members or church committee members.
Name and location of organization, member's name.
Name and any service rendered to the community.
Notice of estate settlements — name, date of death and possible relatives, and property. Notice of Sheriff's Sale - Name, reason for the sale.
Name and military organization.
Date and location of disaster, name of people involved to include injury and name of relatives.
You will normally find the personal information in the "Local" section of the newspaper and is usually broken down into sections for each town. Some of the items you might find are sickness, injury, vacation, visitors, and celebrations.
Just think of all the information you could possibly find on your ancestors and all the additional clues and resources to check.
Clues Found in Obituaries
Laurie shares two obituaries from her own collection and points out some of the clues that are found there. She uses two older obituaries to demonstrate the fact that even the "oldies" contain clues for further research (not like most of the modern day obituaries where dates, names, locations and other facts are in abundance). For this demonstration, assume that you only know the date and place of death before finding these obituaries.
What clues can you find while reading this obituary? Laurie lists the ones she found. Can you find any others she missed?
Obituary published on Mar 26, 1896 in Black River Falls, Wisconsin:
"Jeremiah B. Preston died at the home of his nephew, Isaac Preston, in the town of Albion on Tuesday morning, March 24th, 1896, from the effects of an attack of the grip. The deceased was 85 years of age on the 26th day of January last. He was born in Bellville, Canada, and came to Wisconsin with his family, in 1851. In the spring of 1863 they moved to Jackson County and have resided here ever since. He survived his wife about four years. They leave three sons and three daughters. Among them is our townsman, F. G. Preston. The funeral services will be held at Sechlerville at 11 o'clock to-day. Uncle Jerry, as everybody called him, was a good old man, and quite a familiar figure to most of our citizens."
So, what did you find? Laurie found 9 different items to continue her search for Jeremiah and his family.
- Found a nephew, named Isaac in Albion, WI. Check federal (and, if applicable, state) census, county land & property records and vital records (which will lead to the name of Jeremiah's brother) for the name Isaac PRESTON.
- Found date and place of death. Check for a death record in the county court house.
- Found date (by calculating this sentence "85 years of age on the 26th day of January last" into Jan 26, 1811) and place of birth. Check into Canadian vital records, census, land & property records, etc.
- Found possible immigration date and to/from location. Check for naturalization records for the state of Wisconsin from 1851 through 1896. Found county of residence. Lived in Jackson County from 1863 through 1896. Check any indexes available for 1870 and 1880 federal census and/or actual census records. Check for any available state census. Check for any land & property records, birth and marriage records to include Jeremiah as the father.
- Found approximate year and location of death for his wife by using this sentence "He survived his wife about four years." Check for a death record in the county for 1891 and 1892. Look for wife's obituary. Also check any gravestone inscriptions for county cemeteries.
- Found that three sons and three daughters were still living as of 1896.
- Found that one son, F. G. PRESTON, was a resident of Black River Falls, WI. Search through all vital records for him in the county and/or Black River Falls. Check on census records and in land and property records.
- Found possible town of burial (Sechlerville). Check in county and/or in Sechlerville for tombstone inscriptions.
- Found a name variant, Jerry. Check for this variant in all records searched from now on.
In contrast to the above obituary (which does contain a few more names and locations), the following was published on Aug 02, 1888 in Neillsville, Wisconsin:
"DIED, in the town of Pine Valley, July 28, of hemorrhage of the stomach, Mr. Elijah B. Brown, aged 64. Mr. Brown was an old soldier, and if we mistake not was drawing a pension for honorable services and disability at the time of his death. One by one the old soldiers pass over the river, which is not bridged by pontoons, and daily the number of the country's brave defenders grow less."
Not much to go on here, is there? Well, that might be true, but the one clue that does show itself is a FINE one! It states that Elijah served in the military and was receiving a pension. From the date of death and Elijah's age at death, you can assume that he served in the Civil War. Search the Civil War pension index, the roster of Wisconsin soldiers, and any other database relating to the Civil War. It just so happened that Laurie did locate and order his Civil War pension file (it was over 100 pages), which contained many more facts and clues to continue her research.
Newspapers, Online and Offline
Current versions of many newspapers can be found on the Internet. Some have indexes to death notices/obituaries for the past several months. I've even seen some newspapers with online death indexes for the past 25 years, it just all depends on the city, state and newspaper you are researching. I have also seen libraries with complete obituaries from 1850-1975 online. Keep your eyes peeled and check out some of these online newspaper resources and research help listed below.
- Cyndi's List - Newspapers
- Ancestry Message Boards - Newspapers
- Online Daily Newspapers With Obituaries
- Audiotapes.com - Genealogy Lectures on Tape - Newspaper Research - for sale
The first place you should check is at your local library. Check with the reference librarian and ask her to help you locate, and order through inter-library loan, the newspaper on microfilm. If you are lucky enough to live in the area you are researching, then the library should have all the local newspapers on microfilm.
If that is of no help, the next step would be to order the microfilm, through inter-library loan, from the Library of Congress.
Most major papers are represented from 1801 through 1989 and they have an online index that covers the years 1940 through 1989. The loan period is 60 days and you can read more about it and check out the index at the following web site:
Library of Congress - Newspapers
Next, search The US Newspaper Project.
This is an excellent, one-stop-shop for locating newspaper repositories (Historical Societies, Libraries or other institutions), by state, that hold newspaper microfilm.
Check out their web site:
US Newspaper Project
In closing, I would like to mention the fact that collecting old newspapers is a growing hobby around the country.
If you think you might be interested in this hobby, I would suggest the following web site:
History Buff - Primer on Collecting Old Historic Newspapers