Using Historic Newspapers for Genealogical Research

Historic newspapers are valuable resources for genealogical research.  Rich with all types of information, newspapers can be useful in locating material regarding families and ancestors.  19th and 20th century newspapers devoted a lot of their print space to local and state events.  Social occasions, business advertisements, marriage announcements, real estate transfers, and death notices are a few examples of the many types of information that can be found within historic newspapers.

Many newspapers included a “Local and Personal” section like this one from the Keowee Courier (Pickens Court House, S.C.). Among other things, these sections detailed social events, meetings, and travel for the local community.

Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers has made researching newspapers much easier.  Long gone are the days of indexing names in newspapers on microfilm; with Chronicling America, not only can research be conducted at the convenience of a personal computer (and for free!), these digitized newspaper images are full-text searchable as well as downloadable.

Before diving in to the over 6 million newspaper pages made available on the site, here are a few things to keep in mind when conducting genealogical research with historic newspapers:

1. Try searching variations of names.

Oftentimes, full names are not printed in historic newspapers in the same way they are today.  Men’s first names are sometimes shortened (i.e., William is printed as Wm.) or only initials are used (i.e., William Jonathan Taylor is printed as W.J. Taylor).  In some cases, married women are listed under their husband’s name (i.e., Mrs. William Taylor).  Additionally, the spelling of many family surnames has changed over time.  With these in mind, do not be afraid to search variations of first and last names to see what kind of results turn up.

This listing of candidacy announcements in the Edgefield Advertiser (Edgefield, S.C.) shows the different ways names can be listed as well as the possibility for misspellings.

This article in the Watchman and Southron (Sumter, S.C.) illustrates how surnames can be spelled in different ways even within the same article.

2. Be aware of historic terminology.

Language changes over time, so it is important to understand that some terms considered commonplace today were not used when these newspapers were printed.  In the same respect, many terms used then have now become obsolete.  For example, searching for a marriage announcement may not produce many results if using the terms “marriage” or “wedding” as these words were not always used; try including older words such as “nuptials” or “hymeneal” in conjunction with a family name for possible results.  When you do locate results, take note of the terms used for use in later searches.

3. Limit the date range to narrow the results.

When searching for a specific event or person, try altering the date range by using the “Advanced Search” tab.  Dates can be limited to a range of years or to a set of specific dates.  The database of newspapers in Chronicling America covers 87 years, so even if the exact date is unknown, narrowing the search to a five-year, ten-year, or even twenty-year period will narrow the results.

4. Be patient.

Research takes time.  While Chronicling America makes historic newspapers much more accessible than ever before, the research process still requires time and patience.  Although every newspaper page is run through OCR (Optical Character Recognition) technology to enable keyword searching, this process is not 100% accurate meaning errors will occur.  Additionally, the Chronicling America database is continually growing and evolving; new pages and titles are added on a regular basis along with new states contributing content.  A search that produces limited or no results may generate more once new content is added.

5. Keep up with what you find.

When doing any type of research, it is important to document relevant findings and results.  Within Chronicling America, there are several ways to keep up with pages or articles of interest.

  • Persistent link: each newspaper page has a persistent link listed underneath the viewer; copy and save this link in order to return to that exact page.
  • Clip image: when viewing a newspaper page, an icon in the upper right-hand corner of the toolbar features a pair of scissors. This will “clip” the page as currently seen in the viewer. This is helpful to capture headlines, short articles, images, and advertisements. A great feature with clipping images is that it also keeps the persistent link and other citation information with it.
  • PDF: along the toolbar of the page viewer is a “PDF” icon; clicking this opens up the entire current newspaper page in PDF format.  Right-clicking on this PDF image allows for saving the whole page to a desktop or flash drive.

Have you used Chronicling America for genealogical research? What kind of results did you find? What other tips would you give researchers for using this database?

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