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Relatively Speaking: Finding ancestors in old newspapers are gold nuggets

Dec. 8, 2010 at 6:08 a.m.
Updated Dec. 9, 2010 at 6:09 a.m.


By Martha Jones

Genealogists and family historians often search old newspapers hoping to find information to flesh out the lives of their ancestors. Some of the most entertaining historical and genealogical information comes from local newspaper gossip columns, social and personal news, advertisements and editorials. Newspapers often give local birth, marriage and death announcements. Advertisements, commercial news, hotel guest lists, news of out-of-town visitors, real estate notices and court case summaries place ancestors in a certain place at a certain time. For genealogists, any mention of an ancestor in an old newspaper is a gold nugget find.

In days past, researchers had to search dusty attics thumbing through yellowed and brittle newspapers to find yesterday's news. Today, hundreds of historical newspapers are digitized and online and hundreds more are available on microfilm. A very useful site for locating information about ancestral newspapers is the United States Newspaper Program at www.neh.gov/projects/usnp.html. It offers links to websites in each state related to the newspaper project. The Texas Center for American History claims their newspaper collection "houses extensive runs of newspapers published primarily in Texas and the South. Total holdings number more than 5,100 titles, including more than 3,000 Texas titles, making this the largest Texas newspaper collection in existence. In addition, the Center houses newspapers published in every state of the Confederacy from the 1790s through the early 1900s. Significant holdings include extensive runs of early newspapers in hard copy from Charleston, S.C.; Augusta, Ga.; New Orleans, La.; and Little Rock, Ark. Many issues are rare, including the copies of several important antebellum Louisiana and Mississippi newspapers. All titles have been cataloged as part of the U.S. Newspaper Project."

Hundreds of old newspapers have been digitized and are available online; some are free and some are fee-based. Many of those not digitized often are available on microfilm or still in print through various libraries and archives. It is possible to find transcripts of vital records from old newspapers in local genealogy society publications such as those published by the Victoria County Genealogical Society. Check for originals or microfilmed newspaper records in newspaper offices, local public libraries, county courthouses, state archives, libraries, historical society libraries and university libraries.

Finding the availability and location of old newspapers is a challenge but the best place to begin the search is online. Sites that publish historical newspaper collections often provide lists of their holdings. Some websites offer lists of available newspapers by state or by country with links to those online. These include Wikipedia: List of Online Newspaper Archives, Penn State University: Historical Newspapers Online list for the United States, Cyndi's List: Newspapers, and the Family History Library catalog at www.familysearch.org has many newspapers available on microfilm that can be rented for a small fee through local Family History Centers.

Look for historical newspapers using an Internet search engine. Enter the title or location adding the search terms "historical newspapers," or "digital collections." Library, archive, and historical society websites are excellent resources for finding newspapers, including university libraries and state archives. Do not overlook local genealogical societies whose mission is to preserve and share genealogical resources available for their area. Happy researching old newspapers.

E-mail genealogy queries to mjones@vicad.com. VCGS members will research queries requiring extensive study.

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