If you’re not obsessed with using newspaper archives in your genealogy research you are missing out on one of the greatest sources of rich family history details available.
No matter who your ancestors were, what kind of lives they lived or what occupations they had – if they existed in the last 150 years – you will almost certainly find at least some information about them in a local paper. And if they lived in the 150 years before that there is still a good chance of finding them.
That’s because not only was the local newspaper the place to record such happenings as births, marriages and deaths – people of the past loved the juicy details of their neighbors’ lives as much as we do now (social media anyone?) We’ve written about this topic as it pertains to the society pages in old newspapers before – but that information is just the tip of the iceberg.
Old newspaper archives also provide a potential goldmine of data through:
- Letters to the editor
- Advertisements for businesses and services
- Local news about school, church, and business happenings
- News about disasters and tragedies
- Notices of local events – such as plays, musical performances etc
- Legal notices of all sorts
- Human interest pieces
- News of the bizarre and unusual (sensational news is not a modern invention and if one of your ancestors was involved in an out of the ordinary incident you can bet you’ll find more than one bit about it in the newspapers, maybe even well beyond their local community)
And this is in addition to birth, marriage and death notices, obituaries and society pages where the daily goings on of people in the community were detailed.
But you’ll need to be careful. You may discover things that will shock your socks off. In the years of doing newspaper research on my own family I have discovered tales of murder, suicide, scam artists and train wrecks. I have debunked more than one family story, only to dig up whole new ones I had never heard of.
But I have also discovered simple delights about my ancestors’ travels, their businesses, and their family relationships that I could never have found elsewhere.
There is much more to be found in old newspapers than most people guess.
See how many names you can pick out of this one small newspaper clipping from Evansville Indiana in 1911.
Where to Find Old Newspapers
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If you’re ready to start exploring your ancestors’ lives in greater depth you’ll need to find old newspapers to do it in. There are several wonderful free newspaper archives online and we have covered them extensively in the past.
You can find a list of free newspaper collections here and a detailed look at using one of our favorites, Chronicling America, in this article. You will also find old newspapers as part of many regional collections. Take a look at this list of free genealogy research sites for every US state for help locating these.
But as much as I love free genealogy sites I must also admit that I love convenience in my research, and I very much enjoy well-designed sites with great tools that make my research easier. Sometimes that means I am willing to pay for a resource that I may otherwise be able to get (mostly) for free. And that’s where Newspapers.com comes in.
The Convenient Option for Ancestry Users
Newspapers.com is the newspaper archive owned by Ancestry.com and the site provides an ease of use that is extremely appealing. I can search by name or keyword, browse by location and date, read to my heart’s desire, clip articles and add them to my family tree all in one place.
And Newspapers.com does offer many newspapers that are hard or impossible to find elsewhere online, so that’s an added bonus. I’m going to walk you though the process of searching and browsing their site and then show you how you can create clippings of pages of interest, view them later and attach them to your Ancestry tree (if you have one) or download them to manually attach them to a tree elsewhere.
But before I do that, I want to talk about cost for a minute because you have some choices if you decide to use this site. Newspapers.com is a standalone site in the sense that you can subscribe directly to it OR you can gain access as part of Ancestry’s subscriptions.
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The Ancestry All Access membership includes access to all Ancestry records around the world as well as access to Newspapers.com and Fold3 (mostly military service records). The package is $199 and if you want access to all records on Ancestry as well as newspaper and service records this can be a good deal. But it’s not for everyone. If you are already a subscriber to Ancestry and paid the full $149 for a World Explorer package (rather than getting it as part of a deal) upgrading to add these additional resources is not too much of a stretch.
But you should know that Ancestry’s All Access package only includes a Basic Newspapers.com subscription. The basic subscription includes almost 120 million newspaper pages – but the Plus package includes more than 320 million. You will likely be tempted to upgrade to the higher plus package at some point in your research. You can do this even if you have an All Access package, but you should be aware that access to all newspaper pages will be an extra fee.
You can try out the Ancestry All Access membership free for 14 days here if you don’t currently have an Ancestry membership. Choose “see all our membership options” to select the All Access plan.
If you are paying for the US Discovery or other subscription, or don’t hold a paid membership at all, paying for Ancestry All Access is likely going to be way too much money. In this case you can subscribe directly to Newspapers.com only. They offer 6 month memberships and monthly options – the price is about $8 a month for basic and $20 for plus – with some pretty steep discounts for some 6 month memberships ($45 and $75 respectively).
How to Search Newspapers.com, Clip and Add to Your Ancestry Family Tree
Ok, enough about the cost. Here’s how to find information about your ancestors and add them to your tree.
As mentioned before, you will find information about many of your ancestors in old newspapers but you’ll have to be smart about how you search. It’s always best to narrow down your search targets to a certain location, or even paper, before searching to increase your chances of finding a match.
To do this simply visit the Browse section on the site (in the top navigation menu) and choose the location your ancestor lived. You can then also choose a specific newspaper and date.
Once you do this you can begin searching and further refine your searches as needed. If searching for someone that moved a fair bit or traveled (as many of my ancestors did) a global search, or one that covers an entire country, may be the most beneficial. In most cases, sorting by state or city is the best place to start.
Newspapers.com offers old papers for:
- The USA
- Northern Ireland
Note the search box above the browse area. This is where you will begin your search based on the criteria selected. If I wanted to start searching in only pages from the Clay County Advance from Ashland, Alabama I would leave this paper selected and type my terms in the search box. If I wanted to search in Ashland as a whole (all papers from that town) I would instead highlight Ashland and not one specific paper. If I desired to search the Clay County Advance only in 1894 I could choose that instead before searching.
In our example I am going to choose Missouri (state as a whole) and type in my term.
I could also accomplish this same search by choosing the Search from the top navigation menu on the site and then choosing Advanced. This will open boxes under the search box where I can add a location and date if I choose.
Upon searching I am now brought to a page of results where I can further refine as needed.
I can narrow by date, location, newspaper or by the time period that the paper was added. I can also change my search terms and sort my results.
Before we look at viewing, clipping and saving clips I want to remind you to be creative in your searches within newspaper archives. You will turn up many more wonderful details about your ancestors’ lives if you expand your efforts beyond simple name searchers and are flexible with names themselves.
Remember that names were not always spelled as you would expect. First names, especially for women, were often excluded and misspellings or shortening of surnames and given names were common.
And, in many cases, an interesting article or tidbit about your ancestor may not include their name at all.
A person may be mentioned simply as the wife, son or daughter of someone else (ie Mrs. James McKellen visited with her son today in his home on Mulberry Street in anticipation of the birth of her first grandchild). A mention like this helps you gather information about the mother, son and grandchild, but never mentions any of them by their full names.
Information about an ancestor’s business, role in a club or group or involvement in an event may provide invaluable details about their daily lives, passions and movements but also may not actually call your ancestor out by name. If you have done some research and know, for instance, that your great grandfather owned a bakery – look for advertisements for bakeries and compare them with the other records you can find, such as a city directory that lists a name and business location.
I am searching for Madame Carmine in the examples above because, using a combination of newspaper, census, death and other records, I was able to determine that my ancestor used this name instead of her own when advertising her palm reading business in Saint Louis in the early 1900s. Once I had figured out that information I was able to search for her by this new business name, as well as for related ads that were run for that specific street location that did not mention a name at all.
The point is, be flexible and creative and you will discover more than you ever imagined in old papers.
Once you have searched and filtered your terms it is time to view, clip and save to Ancestry.
You can click on the image of a newspaper page from your search results to view it, or flip through the matches of your terms on that page with the arrows on each side of the image. This is a really cool feature because sometimes there will be several possible matches on a newspaper page for a name or other terms, and by flipping through your options before clicking on the page Newspapers.com will actually bring you directly to that mention when you do click. This is so much easier than having to read through the entire page until you find a match.
Even if you don’t do this, you will be brought automatically to the first mention on the page when you click on a search result and other mentions are highlighted for you. You can also search easily within the page.
Once you have found something you want to keep you have several options for saving that data. You can save the page to your computer, print it off, clip it to your stored clips on Newspapers.com or save the entire page (or a clip of it) to Ancestry. You can see all of these options presented in the top menu bar.
Clipping couldn’t be easier. Simply select Clip, expand the box that comes up to cover the area of interest, add a note and clip. Please note that clips and your associated notes on them are viewable publicly by default so you will need to visit your clipping settings to change this. These can be found under the settings area (gear icon) in the clippings section of the site.
Tip: Newspapers.com will remove yellow highlights from your clips automatically. To remove the yellow highlights from clips you make with an external program simply hit the Cancel button next to the search terms before clipping.
Once you have clipped something you can view it at any time in the future by clicking on Clippings in the top menu bar on the site. I love this feature as it makes it possible to keep the flow of research going while easily keeping track of everything I have found for later sorting and use.
Do remember that if you lose your subscription to the site you will also lose access to these newspaper pages. Your clips will be maintained in your account for reference but you will not actually be able to see the pages – similar to how Ancestry restricts record access. For this reason you should also save to your computer every newspaper page you are interested in keeping.
If you keep your family tree on Ancestry you can now easily attach clips to the people who they belong to and Ancestry will also attach all of the source information. This is a wonderful time saver.
You can do this directly after creating a clip by using the popup that comes up after clipping, or from a clip you have saved earlier using the Save to Ancestry button. As noted above, you can also use the Save to Ancestry button on any newspaper page and this will simply open the clip box for you, create the clip and then help you connect this clip to your tree.
Any of these buttons will accomplish the same thing. In the screenshot below I have viewed the clip I just made about Madame Carmine and now I am going to attach it to my ancestor by selecting the Save to Ancestry button.
Once a popup comes up you may need to log into your Ancestry account if you have never used these two sites together before. Now choose your tree and then the person to attach the clip to.
Once you select next the clip will be connected to your Ancestry tree and you will be able to find it there. Ancestry shows these under Other Sources and saves the name of the paper, the date, a link to the original clip and a copy of the clip itself as a media file.
However, to attach this clip to an actual fact you will need to do an extra step. Newspapers.com will offer to create a new fact for you and attach the clip to it as seen below (in this case I wanted to create an occupational fact). But if you want to attach the clip to an existing fact, such as birth or death, you will need to do that yourself on Ancestry. I won’t cover that here since it involves several steps but it is covered in our Ancestry Crash Course. You can read a sample lesson here.
And that’s it. You can see that it’s pretty easy to clip and save these details to your tree on Ancestry. If you host your tree elsewhere you can simply download the newspaper pages (which you should do anyway) and attach them to your tree as you would any other source. You can create your own clips, if you like, with a program like Evernote. Just make sure to keep track of exactly where the clip came from – including the newspaper name, page number and date.
I hope the information in this article helps bring you the joy of discovering more rich details about your own ancestors’ lives!
By Melanie Mayo, Editor of Family History Daily