10 Articles Professional Genealogists Search for in Newspapers
Professional genealogists know that obituaries and marriage announcements are not the only relevant news articles that can help document your ancestors and the world in which they live.
Having studied historic and modern newspapers, I want to share with you ten newspaper article types that benefit professional genealogists in their work. Make sure you’re going beyond the obituary and diving deeper into the articles.
Search Newspapers for Persons and Organizations
Before I begin the list, there are two key points you need to know.
First, when professional genealogist searches a newspaper, they not only look for specific names, but they want to understand the context in which an ancestor lives. Therefore, use searchable databases like the ones listed below:
But after you find your ancestor in a publication, take time to explore additional details within the newspaper.
Also, be sure to search for schools, communities, and organizations your ancestors belonged to so that you can find out more about their lives, even if those articles do not mention them by name.
10 Articles Beyond Obituaries
Now that we’ve covered those two things, let’s jump into the 10 articles professional genealogists use.
If you’re a professional genealogist and you’re not using these article types, I invite you to learn more about newspapers to improve the quality of your work.
1. Land Transactions: home/farm
Newspapers will often document the land transfer from one person to another. Land transactions appear in some of the earliest newspapers in existence. So when you find a land transaction, you will often find
the date that the transaction took place
an explanation of the parcel of land
where it is located
the size of the property
details about upgrades or other amenities
the identity of the previous owner or owners and whether they are living or deceased.
Pay attention to who is selling property.
When you see a Sherrif’s Sale transaction, you should become excited. Sherriff’s Sales will direct you to court documents, such as probate records or debtors filings. These documents will o extend the story of your ancestor.
Regardless of WHO is selling the property, if you find your ancestor listed in the newspaper in a land sale, research land records in the county the newspaper is printed in to learn more particulars about the property and its transfer.
Pro Tip: Some lands are advertised not only in the local newspaper but also in issues around the country. For instance, some farms were advertised in a newspaper in Missouri, but the property was located in Arkansas.
If you can not find information about your ancestor’s property in the local paper, expand your search. You never know where the article you need will appear.
See examples of each news article type in this video.
2. Unclaimed Letters lists
Genealogy research is about placing your ancestor in a time and location. One favorite newspaper article is the list of unclaimed letters. In many historic newspapers, the post office would list out who had not picked up their letters and provide a date associated with this fact. While you can't learn much else, you can learn that someone thought your relative lived in a specific place, such as Salt Lake City on 3 June 1852.
3. Disaster Victims lists
Many disasters strike in the towns where our ancestors lived or while they were traveling. Therefore, look for disasters that might have affected your ancestor's life or the town where they lived.
Then see if there's a list of those impacted by such a disaster. You might find an article about a fire aboard a ship. The article also included a death roll for the passengers and crew members who died.
Search newspapers for disasters in your ancestor’s town, such as building fires, tornados, floods, earthquakes, epidemics, etc. Then see if the paper printed a list of victims associated with that disaster.
If you don't have a death date for an ancestor from a death record, a newspaper article that lists them as victims can serve as their death record.
4. Religious news, events & activities
No matter the denomination, religious events and news can help you add context to your ancestor's stories. Often you won't search for your ancestor by name for these articles. Instead, you'll research a specific church, the leader's name, or the denomination in general.
One of the first articles you may find about your ancestor's religious community is when and where their congregation met. Many newspapers will list meeting times and places. Pay attention to the different meeting times for ethnicity-based congregations.
Within a religious group, there might be smaller groups that had meetings. Perhaps a women's study group met a member's home. Another group might plan a potluck and list the name of the organizers, which may include your ancestor.
If you happen to have a religious leader in your family tree, then searching for their name. By so doing, you may discover when they started living and serving in a particular area. You may discover some of the topics your religious leader preached. Some newspapers will advertise the titles of lectures given by religious leaders. You can gain a lot of insight into what was on their heart and mind.
But do not discount researching the topics taught at your ancestor’s church, even if they were not the ones giving the talk. If you find the name of the religious official who is named on your ancestor’s church-related record, then research that leader in newspapers. It really can add context and depth to your knowledge of your ancestor and the eventual stories you may write.
5. Advertisements & Classifieds
Advertisements are a great place to learn about the businesses your ancestors may have owned or worked for, the item that they were either trying to purchase or sell, and the jobs that they are trying to hire for or they are trying to obtain.
But remember, you're not just searching for your ancestor's name in advertisements and classifieds. You may be searching for their employers or the companies they worked for. And sometimes you're just curious about what is being sold when your ancestor lived in this town to provide some historical context for a narrative you may write in the future.
If at any time you would like the assistance of an experienced heir hunter or forensic genealogist, check out our friends over at Legacy Tree Genealogists. and tell them Devon Noel Lee referred you.
6. Entertainment Sections
Some professional genealogists specialize in writing narratives about your ancestors. One fantastic selection to add context to your ancestor's story is to search the entertainment section. Unless your ancestor was an Entertainer, this section will surely be for historical context.
For instance, you may see a notice that the circus came to town. Notice the type of entertainment activities included in such a performance. Pay attention to the cost of attendance. If your ancestor had children, I'm sure that they heard about the circus and begged their parents to go.
7. Gossip columns
Many people love to gossip, and newspapers were notorious for spreading gossip. Check the newspapers for the gossip column.
Be careful because many gossip columns don't always identify someone by name. Also, be aware that some of the information is not factual. Perhaps this is why a name is rarely attached to the actual tidbit.
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8. Social News & Events
A close cousin to the gossip column is societal news. In this case, the events are small little news items about citizens coming to, leaving from, or hosting various events in town. Since names are attached, these items tend to be factual.
You can learn that Mrs. Edgar Ross traveled to see her daughter, Mrs. Walter Blount. Or, you may discover that Mr. James Stetson returned from a trip to New York before going to study at Alabama Polytechnic Institute.
To learn how to research society news using keywords related to such topics, check out my post Explore the Social Life of Your Ancestors Using Old Newspapers.
9. Legal notices & rulings
Professional genealogist knows that court records are fantastic resources for the juicy details about our ancestors' lives. However, court records can often be inaccessible.
One hack to finding out court cases that we need to research for our ancestors is to look at the legal notices and court rulings documented in newspapers.
Remember that the court filings can appear in the local newspaper and other state publications. And if it is a particularly interesting or notable court case, it can be recorded throughout a country.
Additional court briefs can report when a court orders an action to take place, such as the distribution of assets in a probate case. Or when participants in a case submit their answers.
Newspapers are also more accessible than many divorce court proceedings. As such, search newspapers for potential divorce filings and judgments. Perhaps your ancestors did not stay married long if they seem to not have had children or one spouse seems to have died, but you can’t find a death date.
Another court notice that often appears in newspapers pertains to guardianship issues. Be advised that individuals needing guardians are not always orphaned children.
10. Jury lists
One final list that helps us place our ancestors in a time and place, similar to the unclaimed letter’s list, is jury duty lists.
Sometimes the lists are extremely brief and connected to a specific court case. As such, you can learn what cases your relatives passed judgment on. That could make for many interesting stories.
Other jury lists documents who served when and how much they were compensated.
Are You Ready to Search Newspapers Further?
I hope your greatest takeaway from these 10 articles is the wealth of information available beyond an obituary. Newspapers can also point you toward other genealogical records with the added bonus of helping you know exactly when, where, and who is involved in those records.
Good luck with your research. Please let me know what you find or what additional questions you may have. Leaving comments helps YouTube know other genealogists need to know this information. Plus, it helps me know what content to make next.