Perils, Pitfalls and Rewards


James Beidler spoke at our March 2011 meeting on the topic of newspapers and their effect on genealogical research. Newspaper research has had the biggest growth of records in recent years – due to the availability to index the newspapers. Jim had several reasons to use newspapers as an alternate record source. Vital events in life – birth, marriage and death -- were frequently recorded in newspapers. Marriages sometimes had their own detailed accounts – from a description of the bridal gown, decorations to a list of the guests. Births were frequently announced under the personal or local town news sections – often mentioning that the stork had arrived at someone’s house. From the late 1800’s to the 1960’s obituaries were published in great detail and for free. Sometimes they included family trees, noteworthy events, sermon texts, pallbearers, and other details of the funeral. Information in obituaries was greatly reduced in the 1990’s after newspaper began charging to print the death announcements.

Newspapers are also a great source to find the little extras as anniversary, birthday and reunion celebrations were covered.  Frequently, there would be a list of attendees at such events. Genealogy and local history columns were published. Social columns told who was visiting who. Some papers even published lists of recent visitors to hotels. Estate notices, public auctions, shipping notices and railroad schedules could be found in the local papers. Newspapers give a perspective on the times. The advertisements are fascinating to look at for price comparisons to today. Health columns gave advice and testimonials. Early papers published lists of letters waiting to be picked up at the post office. One could also find lists of businesses and their owners in the papers. Jim’s last reason was called “Things found on the way to something else” … the articles you read while looking for something else that give you a picture of the life and times of your ancestors. Recently, while looking for an obituary, I was distracted by the articles on the sinking of the Titanic.

Technology is rapidly changing the newspaper research. Until the 1960’s – one had to use “morgue” style clippings. From 1970-1990 – research was done by looking at newspapers on microfilm. In early the 2000’s, full page searches were available. By 2009, one was able to search a newspaper on the article level using OCR (optical character recognition). Now it is possible to search by every word indexing.

Jim suggested several online sites for newspaper searches which are subscription services. The first – has over 1000 titles, 106 which were published in Pennsylvania. The second is – which covers newspapers from 1680 to mid 1990. A separate section covers only obituaries from 1977 to present. Proquest Historical newspaper includes Afro-American newspapers and the Civil War era (I have found that the proquest historical newspapers are available through some public and college libraries – the collection seems to include the New York Times, Washington Post and the major local city paper for that particular area – access is not to all newspapers published but seems to be a specialized collection. Example being the Baltimore Sun is available on one site, and the Philadelphia Inquirer on another – but both papers are not available on the same site). Another subscription site is which includes the Pennsylvania Gazette.

A free site is available through googlenews.archives. There are completely free newspapers and others charge a fee for viewing. One can also Google the Penn State Pennsylvania Civil War Newspapers.  Fifty Pennsylvania newspapers published from 1831-1877 are available through this site.

Family history researchers should not ignore newspapers as a source of information for family history.  With the technological advances made in recent years; newspapers have become very easy to search and can sometimes provide the missing piece of information that you need to fill a blank. They also give one a feel for the social, political and economic events that affected an individual’s life and help understand who your ancestor was and what their life was like.