Old newspapers are one of the most valuable resources available to family history researchers. Not only can they provide some of the critical basic data we need to grow our trees – such as birth, marriage and death dates – they are one of the few resources that can help us expand our understanding of our ancestors’ personal stories as well.
Whether you are able locate a standard obituary or notice of birth, or are lucky enough to find a newspaper article dedicated to a relative, you can often uncover a wealth of information in a newspaper. Even the simplest of obituaries, for instance, often discloses important dates, relationships, occupational data, religious affiliations and location of burial — all details that you can add to your tree and use to further your research.
Newspapers are also a wonderful way to educate yourself about a location your ancestor lived in during a specific time period. If you can find a historical paper for a city or town where your ancestor resided, you can dig up information about local cemeteries, churches, social groups, businesses, directories, schools, events and more that could provide additional sources of information to you.
We’ve written about places to locate free newspaper records in the past but wanted to take a minute to put a spotlight on one of the best no-cost resources available — Chronicling America from the Library of Congress.
This valuable free genealogy resource offers more than 10 million pages from over 2,000 individual newspapers across the US. You can easily search and view pages from 1836 – 1922 for free on their website right here.
A sampling of some of their top free papers includes:
- The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) 1854-1972
- The New-York Tribune (New York [N.Y.]) 1866-1924 and The Sun (New York [N.Y.]) 1833-1916
- The Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, D.C.) 1834-1974
- The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer. (Wheeling, W. Va.) 1865-1903
- The Topeka State Journal (Topeka, Kan.) 1892-1980
Before you jump into searching this large database for your ancestors’ information you will want to know a few helpful tips.
5 Simple Tips for Better Searches on Chronicling America
1. Use the advanced search instead of the standard search. This will help you include/exclude important keywords and easily narrow your search down by location, date or publication of interest. The advanced search also provides a very helpful section that will allow you to search for words near each other in the text. This feature is vital when searching pages with large amounts of text, such as we find in newspapers, as it helps ensure that keywords are actually related to each other.
We discuss how to do this when conducting searches in Google in a previous article and you can find out how to use this helpful search trick to uncover data on just about any site by taking our new genealogy course.
Find the Chronicling America advanced search here.
2. When conducting a search for genealogy information use keywords as you would expect to find them in the text you want to find. For instance “died on,” “survived by,” “born in” or “buried in” when looking for an obituary or “was born to” or “baby girl” when looking for a birth notice. Think, as well, about how names might have been laid out — for example “surname, first name” or “first name middle name surname” — when searching for people. You will have to dig a bit to find what you need within all of the available pages, so be flexible and keep trying different combinations.
3. Use quotation marks to make a word or phrase exact, and a minus sign to remove terms from your search. For instance try searching for “Jones, Mary” instead of Mary Jones or exclude a specific publication or story that is dominating results with “-chronicle” or “-new york.”
4. Pay attention to the red highlights. When conducting a search, Chronicling America highlights your matching text in red on a page to help you locate your target areas. This makes finding relevant data pretty straightforward.
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5. And don’t forget to save pages of interest — both those that you know will help you and those you would like to review later. You can do this easily on any page by downloading the text, image or PDF version for free (see below). Or you can use a program like Google Keep to clip pages easily. Find out how to do that in our recent article. Make sure you copy down the citation so that you can access the page later (name of publication, date and link as shown at the bottom of every page).
Finally, Chronicling American also offers a wonderful index of almost all US newspapers from 1690-present. This directory can help you locate additional newspapers that may contain family history information. Find it here.
By Melanie Mayo, Editor of Family History Daily.
Image: A typical “Heavy man.” Old newspaper boy 25 yrs. on streets. (See 1463). Location: St. Louis, Missouri. 1910. Library of Congress