The Family Tree Historical Newspapers Guide: How to Find Your Ancestors in Archived Newspapers

The Family Tree Historical Newspapers Guide: How to Find Your Ancestors in Archived Newspapers

by James Beidler

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There are more historical newspaper resources than you think--and they're easier to access than you know. When researched properly, no other type of record can beat historical newspapers in "taking the pulse" of their times and places, recording not just the names, but also information important to the community. This comprehensive how-to guide will show you how to harvest the "social media" of centuries past to learn about your ancestors and the times and places they lived in. With step-by-step examples, case studies, templates, worksheets, and screenshots, this book shows you what you can find in online (and offline) historical newspapers, from city dailies to weekly community papers to foreign-language gazetteers.

The Family Tree Historical Newspapers Guide features:
  • Tips and techniques for finding crucial genealogy records in newspapers, such as birth announcements, obituaries, and even news reports
  • Step-by-step guides for using popular online newspaper databases such as GenealogyBank and
  • Case studies that will put information found in newspapers to use

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781440350665
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/20/2018
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 1,091,417
File size: 30 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

James M. Beidler (Leesport, PA), a former newspaper copy editor, never lost his zest for journalism and has written two books on researching German ancestors.

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The Historical Role of Newspapers

With all the genealogical resources available to you, why should you take the time to research newspapers? As we discussed in the introduction, newspapers can provide information that no other record type can, presenting you with unique opportunities to breathe life into your family's story. And since newspapers were the social media of their time, they document the everyday lives of your ancestors and their communities.

This chapter will discuss the historical role of newspapers, giving you some foundations of how more than three centuries of newspaper publishing have played out in America. We'll also discuss how time and place affect your genealogy research, plus how you can make your way through the rest of this book.


Anyone working on family history needs to be familiar with genealogy's first principles, such as researching specific questions (to keep research from being scattershot), working backward in time (instead of assuming a distant person with the same surname is automatically an ancestor, only to waste time and effort), and practicing "whole family" genealogy (studying records relating to siblings of direct-line ancestors for the information it can add).

But probably the paramount principle when starting a newspaper search is grounding yourself in the proper "time and place" of the people or events you are searching. Just as the history of newspapers in this chapter will help inoculate you from "presentism," using time and place — the date or era in which you are searching and the geographic (or, in some cases, ethnographic) area being researched — will keep you right on target in your genealogical and historical research. Knowing when and where an event took place is essential to finding records of it, and an event's time and place form a sort of crosshairs that allow you to target genealogy resources. Without historical context about the time era and geographic place you are researching, you won't know what records are available or when they began, causing you to miss out on records or waste time researching records that were never created.

The time and place you're researching will be narrow or broad, depending on what you're searching for. Time might refer to just one day or possibly a whole decade, while place could range from a borough in a large city to a whole country.

Let's take a look at the genealogical time-and-place intersect in action. Keep in mind the historical realities of the time and place you're researching in. If your research goal is a "California state birth certificate from 1879," you are likely to be disappointed, as the state did not begin registration of births and deaths until July 1905. Changing the goal to a "Record showing birth in California in 1879," on the other hand, opens up possibilities such as births written down by county recorders and church registers of infant baptisms — as well as mentions of births in newspapers.

But what if you want to look at "Documents from Edgar County, Illinois, in 1820"? Well, my research tells me Edgar County wasn't created until 1823. As a result, any records relating to those who became Edgar County residents will likely be in its parent, Clark County. Likewise, if you want to look for a Clark County, Illinois, ancestor's land in 1820 and later, be prepared for a lot of searching. A dozen-plus counties were later cut from Clark County's original territory (basically the whole northeastern portion of the state!), so you'll have a lot more land to search than just today's relatively compact Clark County. The description of the property in that pre-1820 Clark County deed likely will be helpful in determining in which modern county the property is located.

By "aiming" the crosshairs, you can hopefully avoid the aforementioned presentism, and you will have to re-aim with every ancestor. Often, you'll have to recalibrate in different parts of one ancestor's life. You have to know your history to aim those crosshairs correctly!

So how does this apply to newspaper research? You need to recalibrate your genealogy crosshairs for each new ancestor or family you're researching, as newspaper coverage and availability varied from place to place and across time. One important way this manifests itself today is that newspapers that are large and influential in a community now may not have always been that way, as the pre-eminent news source in a community will not necessarily have had the same role during the era being researched. That current newspaper might not have even existed during that earlier time, or it may have been an upstart afterthought versus a then-dominant-but-now-defunct title. Or you may have to do some research on the newspaper's own "genealogy" if it has gone through multiple titles or mergers or owners.

Looking at things from the "place" end of the crosshairs, what is now a substantial community previously might have been served by a geographically zoned "edition" of another town's newspaper (or just even a "column" in that other town's newspaper). The small community of your ancestor could have been part of the "territory" of the newspaper published in its county seat … or even a paper in a different county, often dependent upon proximity (both in terms of actual mileage as well as connections through valleys in some areas).


Print media have been a forceful tool since Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press to the European continent more than half a millennium ago, with books (especially religious works such as the Bible), one-page broadsheets, magazines, templates for personal documents, educational materials, sheet music, comic books, and more having a huge impact. But it's hard to overstate the ubiquity of newspapers, in particular, as the chief source of information around the world (not to mention their utility in birdcages and as bedding for farm animals). No other category of printed matter has reached more people, more often since the first attempts at newspapers were made in Europe in the early 1600s. This is especially true in America, where so many communities founded daily newspapers beginning in the mid- 1800s. Even today, as the newspaper audience becomes increasingly digital, tens of millions of Americans — and hundreds of millions of people around the world — continue to read just print editions.

In this section, I'll share a brief history of newspapers in the United States.


The first known print publication in the Colonies was a single issue of a Boston newspaper published (and, shortly after, suppressed) in 1690, and weeklies were being published in the major cities of half the colonies by the 1740s. One of the most prominent was The Pennsylvania Gazette, the Philadelphia newspaper considered the "newspaper of record" and owned by Benjamin Franklin for most of its run from 1728 to 1800. Multiple newspapers were being published in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston by the time of American independence in 1776. The first foreign-language newspapers were printed in German in the Philadelphia area beginning in 1739, in a nod to the region's ethnic diversity.

The news content of these Colonial newspapers reflected the publications' target audiences, often the merchant class who yearned to be kept abreast of happenings from farther away, especially in Europe. (Most people knew what was happening in their immediate communities.) However, advertisements in these publications often had notations of local interest, including lands for sale; runaway servants, enslaved people, or animals; and names of importers and their goods for sale (image A). You can also find articles on the politics of the day, travelogues from around the world, and documentation about the comings and goings of ships.

For those with Colonial ancestry or seeking information about the history of these times, it's useful to know a couple of things. First, nearly every surviving newspaper from Colonial times has been digitized by one or another service (which we'll discuss in chapters 6 through 9). Secondly, because American newspapers started first in large cities, their coverage of the "hinterlands" will be limited (but not nonexistent). Newspapers are worth a look through, as you are likely to find mentions of an ancestral area or someone in an ancestor's larger circle, what eminent genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills calls the "FAN Club" of "friends, associates, and neighbors."


At the beginning of the 1800s, several hundred newspapers were in publication — including a handful publishing daily — but that was a faint preview of what was to come as the nineteenth century unfolded. More "average" people became newspaper readers, adding to the amount of space newspapers devoted to news versus advertising. Just as political parties sprang up in the new American republic, many newspapers in the early 1800s were partisan in their selections and presentation of news (with these political leanings often apparent in nameplates, which featured words like Democrat, Republican, and Whig).

By the 1830s, more than a thousand newspapers existed in America, and a few were now published west of the Mississippi River. Several technologies in the succeeding decades pushed the numbers to more than fifteen thousand publications by the dawn of the twentieth century, a time when virtually every county seat had at least one publication. Using telegraph wires to transmit stories — tested during the Mexican-American War in the 1840s and evolving into "wire service" like the Associated Press — made it possible to publish news in a shorter time frame. Steam presses enabled newspapers to print more copies with more pages to an edition, and railroads facilitated quick distribution of newspapers to ever-larger geographic areas.

These technological improvements advanced the mass-market "penny press" papers that appeared during the same time period. Newspaper publishing — which had previously profited mostly by selling other products — became a lucrative activity through advertising and a modest cover price (charged to buyers of subscriptions and single copies), plus requirements for the government to fund "legal notices" of government activities in newspapers.

Beginning in the second half of the 1800s and extending past the end of World War II, newspapers were the number-one source of information for most Americans. Understanding this to be the case, most newspapers made it their business to expand their news coverage to include the minutiae of the community's everyday life. Many publications attempted to have correspondents in even the smallest hamlets so all kinds of happenings made their way into print, such as visits from relatives, someone being approved for a military pension, or the closing of a local business.

In addition, many features that are still staples of newspaper articles — for example, obituaries of common people (see chapter 4), crime reports, and courthouse activity — became common in this "golden age of newspapers," during which profits were high, newsprint costs low, and virtually no other media challenged them as a source of news or advertising. Even when radio broadcasting (first viewed as a threat) came along in the 1920s, newspapers formed cross-ownerships with the burgeoning radio stations that allowed both media to benefit in ways the Federal Communications Commission rules would later prohibit.

Newspapers that focused on a specific ethnic group flourished during this time period. A few African American newspapers appeared during the pre-Civil War period to advocate for the abolition of slavery; more black-oriented publications emerged in major cities during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The German-language press — which peaked at almost six hundred newspapers in 1910 before a sharp decline as a result of anti-German feeling during and after World War I — was joined by a wide variety of other ethnic newspapers: Norwegian, French, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Jewish, and more. It was during this time period that some religious denominations published their own newspapers, and labor unions got into the act as well. As we will advise again in chapters 11 and 12 on specialized newspapers, those papers are often indispensable choices when researching African Americans, immigrant ethnic groups, and members of labor unions.

This golden age is probably the most difficult one for researchers to mine effectively, however. Many towns had multiple newspapers, providing a smorgasbord of opportunities to learn about a particular time period (image B) — but also extra work for researchers.

Researchers face additional challenges when studying newspapers from this era. First, changes in the names of newspapers (especially, but not exclusively, every time ownership shifted) can make trying to account for "all" newspapers of a time and place a trying experience. And, frustratingly, some newspapers have been "lost to history" either entirely or such that only scattered issues have survived.


The conditions that enabled newspapers' golden age began to change in the decades after World War II. Television competed with newspapers for advertising dollars and breaking news alerts — as well as for people's time. A fair number of individuals who might have read more than one newspaper every day now felt challenged to tackle even one, especially when TV news could be packed into a half-hour program and consumed without the effort of reading.

As a result, many newspapers allocated less space for national and international news, leaving that for the TV networks to cover. Instead, they tried to cover more locally based news and run longer, more in-depth articles for those readers still willing to invest the time. But many "minutiae" features began to die out when the price of newsprint began spiking in the 1970s, especially in midsized daily papers. The replacement of "hot type" technology (in which lead-cast lines of type were difficult to redo in a timely fashion) with "cold type" (essentially filmstrips with words and photos to be "pasted up" on boards in preparation for a photographic plate of the page to be made) created a focus on reader-friendly newspaper design instead of items being more randomly placed.

Newspapers were still overwhelmingly profitable, and publications in some cities stayed alive by forming Joint Operating Agreements, in which the production aspects of the newspapers were handled together (eliminating duplicated costs of separate printing, circulation, and advertising departments) while two editorial "voices" were preserved. In other cases, publishers developed "chains" of newspapers in different cities, many of which merged over time. Because some of these mergers were "leveraged buyouts" (in which the sale was financed with future profits), a significant number of newspapers began to fail in the 2000s when falling profit margins could not cover debt service and other operating expenses.

During this time period, officials and historians began to recognize the historical value of newspapers and started a number of different preservation efforts. The US Newspaper Program, put into place by the National Endowment for the Humanities with assistance from the Library of Congress in the early 1980s, took on the goal "to locate, catalog, and preserve on microfilm" the nation's newspapers, especially those deemed "newspapers of record" for their communities. With many newspapers printed on acidic paper, especially between 1850 and 1950 (often nicknamed the "Era of Bad Paper"), these publications were literally crumbling into dust. In addition, editorial offices began entering the electronic (not quite digital) age, producing digitized content that could be saved into a searchable electronic library in addition to being used in a print edition. Publishers themselves also began to understand the importance of microfilming their "back files" instead of just putting them together in unwieldy volumes that bound together issues from a certain time period.


While television ended the newspaper's golden age, the Internet turned the industry upside down. The business model for nearly two centuries had been for advertising to bring in the lion's share of the revenue (with most newspapers also charging a cover price that made up between 10 percent and 25 percent of income), enough to pay for the cost of newsgathering as well as ensure a profitable venture. But when advertising cratered in the Great Recession in 2008, newspapers were mostly caught flatfooted. While nearly all newspapers had a web presence, the profit from Internet advertising was tiny compared to what newspapers lost in display (with many advertisers going to direct mail) and classified (which found great audiences in classified-like websites such as Craigslist ads ). Some newspapers began placing their content behind a paywall (which required users to purchase credits or have a paid subscription to view articles online), but this had limited success.

As a result, newspapers shrank in size (both in the number of pages as well as physical dimensions). Some reduced frequencies from daily to three days a week or even went "digital only" (image C). Nearly all publications slashed the number of employees in their editorial departments. Newspapers attempted to monetize features that were previously free (such as obituaries, which we'll discuss in chapter 4).

In today's world, the "package" of the newspaper has changed from printed material to "information delivered digitally or in print form." Editorial workers at newspapers and other "legacy" media publications produce content, which is often plucked away by so-called "news aggregator" websites that republish it and add relatively little to the original articles.


Excerpted from "The Family Tree Historical Newspapers Guide"
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Copyright © 2018 James M. Beidler.
Excerpted by permission of F+W Media, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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