Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Why Newspapers can
Help Fill in the Blanks

There is a no-man's-land for beginners starting out with their genealogical research. It's a time that stretches from the end of the most recently released census year—in our case, currently 1940—to the present day. Unless a new researcher happens to live in one of those states sporting total disregard for personal privacy, it's hard to come up with documentation for family members post-1940.

Of course, there are exceptions. Draft registration cards for World War II are one handy example, but that only helps for the men we're seeking—and then, only some of them. City directories sometimes provide hints, but unfortunately don't come with any clues to link "John Smith" with the rest of his family (other than, perhaps, a wife's name).

When I'm researching a more recent ancestor—someone in my family who lived and died before my arrival here on terra firma—my go-to place for research has always been historic newspaper collections.

The frustrating thing about newspaper archives, though, is that there is not simply one place to go to find everything there is to find. I've even subscribed to a collection of newspapers, only to find that the specific publication—or even the specific date desired within an otherwise available publication—is not available on that subscription service.

There are two ways around that dilemma, of course. One is to shell out the bucks to subscribe to multiple newspaper services. That one can get pretty pricey, over the long haul.

The other answer is to discover the many outlets which provide digitized newspaper collections for free.

There is a wide assortment of resources for the savvy researcher wishing to locate near-modern ancestors in local news stories. The Library of Congress' Chronicling America collection comes to mind right away, as does the more-contrary Google News Archives resource. (To tame that search nightmare, I use Google to search keywords in specific publications, after entering the terms in quotes, "Google News Archives.")

For those appreciating a friendly guide through the free-newspapers universe, there is always Kenneth R. Marks' The Ancestor Hunt, providing search tutorials and clickable links to newspapers around the world.

There are many other resources, of course—the Wikipedia list of free online newspaper archives comes to mind here—but for filling in the blanks on my paternal side's extended family, my go-to resource will mostly be the quirky Old Fulton NY Postcards site. While the newspaper selections on this site obviously focus on resources from the state of New York, they have expanded far beyond those borders. The site is huge. To put that in perspective, by 2013, the website had grown to contain three times as much content as the Library of Congress' Chronicling America site.

For my puzzling paternal line—centered mostly in New York, once the family arrived from what is now a part of the country of Poland—this is the newspaper archive of choice for my research. The drudgery of it all, of course, is that I will have to systematically go through each cousin's name in the mid-twentieth century and earlier, searching to find any facts on births, marriages, funerals or other news items.

Just like the drudge work of adding each cousin's full details on names and vital statistics, this will take time—and patience. However, if just one or two leads provide me names for the subsequent generation, it will be worth it. I'd love to connect with distant cousins in this family line and ask them to consider taking a DNA test, or share their family photos, or just help confirm the BMD facts I've managed to scrounge up from other sources.

This, of course, will take lots of time. But being as prone as I am to wandering down rabbit trails, the news reports are an interesting divertissement for me. And if they provide an interesting story, all the better for these research efforts.


  1. I hope you discover some wonderful stories :)

  2. Thanks! I had not visited Chronicling America before your post! Now I am finding lots of family members.

    1. That's good to know, Colleen. Glad you are finding that site helpful. It can really be a boon for some, and an absolute zero for other researchers. It really depends on which location and time period you are seeking. But I always include it in my go-to newspaper sites.

  3. There are so many places to find newspapers that it can drive you crazy trying to remember all the places. I usually start with Google, typing "digital newspapers " to see if there is a local program that has a newspaper I need. I also put the town into Google and look at the map to see what the nearest town or city might have newspapers that could mention my ancestor in their paper.

    Last month I discovered a gem at Red Oak, Iowa -- digital copies of their newspaper, only found on the computer at the local public library. It never hurts to contact the library to see if they have digitized the paper.

    1. Good points, Lisa! And how neat that you found that resource in Iowa.

      I've discovered some useful resources, back in the days of utilizing the genealogical forums, thanks to other members sharing local intel. I suppose the same can be had via the newer social media-based groups, just for the asking about local newspaper resources. There are indeed some local gems that may seem to be a best kept secret--at least, until we ask those in the know.

  4. I can't thank you enough for this article. Because of it, I have found an obituary for which I have been seeking for a very long time. I, unfortunately, had misplaced an original copy of my great great grandfather's obituary who died near Tonapah, Nevada in 1907. I searched high and low with no success. I even purchased a subscription to one of the historical newspaper services, which as you mentioned in the article, was way too limited in the issues they provide, particularly for the state of Nevada. Consequently, when I read your article, I decided to give the :Library of Congress a try, and the issue of the Tonapah Bonanza, which contained my ancestor's obituary appeared Thank you so much.

    1. Oh, that's so wonderful to hear, John! Thank you so much for stopping by to share that research victory!

      Newspapers are my go-to resource for almost anything ancestral when I want to expand my discoveries beyond the traditional dates of birth, marriage and death. When a researcher wishes to put some life into that "dash" between the dates, you can't do better than gleaning the local newspapers.

      I do want to add that, should your foray into free newspaper resources have failed you, another (admittedly very low-tech) resource is still available at most locations: calling the local library to see if they do obit lookups. Due to budget cutbacks, some libraries now charge a modest fee for this service, but still offer it. Or they may have transferred those duties to a willing nonprofit organization, like the local genealogical society or historical society.

      Glad to hear the Chronicling America site at the U.S. Library of Congress worked out for you!


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