Many genealogists are familiar with using newspapers to locate obituaries, but there are many more pieces of information a newspaper can provide! Some of the other genealogical information published in newspapers includes engagement and marriage notices, birth notices, anniversaries, school news and graduations, family illnesses and visits, business information, family reunions or parties, legal notices (probate, land, divorce), and migrations. Newspapers are a great place to find a more complete story about your ancestors. Because a newspaper is an unofficial source (there are no official government forms or regulations to follow), there is usually more personal information included in the newspaper than in official documents.
Almost every city has a newspaper, and many have more than one. Large cities may have multiple daily papers, while rural areas might have a weekly paper covering the entire county. The smaller the paper, the more personal the news…and the better for genealogists! In places where courthouse records were destroyed, the newspaper can be a great substitute because it was stored in a different location.
Searching newspapers can be a tedious chore because you may have to read through many, many issues before finding anything. If it is a small weekly paper it might be worth reading or scanning every issue, particularly if your ancestors were part of a large extended family•you never know what you might find! If it is a larger paper, scan several issues to figure out on which days and which pages the obituaries, legal notices, and gossip columns are printed. (The gossip columns may be your best bet for finding personal news!) However, be aware that sometimes short notices (i.e. birth, marriage or death) are fit in between longer articles, so they could be anywhere!
Obituaries may be among the easier records to find in a newspaper. If you have a date of death, check for a death notice or obituary in the next several issues (seven to ten days for a daily paper, four to six weeks for a weekly). Even if you find a death notice immediately, you should continue looking. A longer obituary may follow (after a family member had time to write one), or a funeral notice or report may be printed much later. If a person's death was caused by accident or prolonged illness, also check several issues before the death date. The official cause of death for one of my ancestor's daughters was given as "injury in auto wreck." A notice in the Arkansas newspaper after she died gave the date of the auto accident, which had occurred two months previously. A search of the paper for that date included mention of the accident, where her injuries were said to be "slight." Apparently, there were later complications!
Marriages are another event often reported in the newspaper. As with obituaries, you'll want to search several issues before and after the date. An engagement notice may have been printed several months before the marriage, but may be difficult to find in a larger paper. Sometimes a marriage is listed with just the barest of details; other times it may have more information. One article in a newspaper from 1924 mentioned that the couple was married at the bride's home at 8 p.m., gave the address, said where the couple would reside, gave the name of the reverend who performed the ceremony and the three married women who presided over the punch bowl. It even mentioned that "the bride was lovely in Persian blue crepe." These clues could lead to church records, records in the location of the couple's future home, and more research about the three punch bowl women may identify them as relatives or close friends.
There are a few things to remember about searching newspapers. Don't forget to check in every paper available for the town where your ancestor died, because different papers published different things. If your ancestors' town doesn't have a paper, look in nearby towns, particularly if they are larger, and check the county seat. Look for papers from neighboring counties or states if your ancestors lived near the border. With obituaries, keep in mind that your ancestor may have died in a different locality than where they lived for most of their adult life (for example, they may have moved in with a grown child), so check papers in both places. With marriages, look for notices in the towns where both the bride and groom and their parents lived, not just where the marriage took place. And of course, be sure to write down which newspapers you searched, and for which dates, because you definitely don't want to forget and have to read through them twice!
To find out which newspapers served the area where your ancestors lived, check with local historical or genealogical societies, libraries, or colleges. There were also ethnic and religious newspapers which may include your ancestors, where applicable. Most older newspapers that are extant have been microfilmed and are located at one or more record repositories. Many states have large newspaper archives at the state historical society. If you can't find a newspaper in these places, there are nationwide indexes, such as:
U.S. Library of Congress. Catalog Management and Publication Division. Newspapers in Microform: United States, 1848-1983. 2 vols. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1984.
United States Newspape Program National Union List. 4th ed. Dublin, Ohio: OCLC, 1993. Microfiche.
It may be more work to search newspapers than to search an alphabetical, indexed record at the courthouse, but it is well worth it! Reading a family history where there are just names and dates isn't nearly as interesting as picturing your ancestor getting married in his mother-in-law's parlor just as the sun was setting, surrounded by a few friends and relatives, with his bride-to-be wearing a Persian blue dress! And now that I think about it, I wonder what the weather was like that day? I'm sure I could find out in the newspaper…
Learn more about newspaper research in the following sources:
James L. Hansen, "Research in Newspapers." The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, ed. By Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1997), pp. 413-40.
Sniffen, Irene G. Newspapers as a Genealogical Resource." National Genealogical Society Quarterly 68 (September 1980): 179-87.