By Kimberly Brown, Family Historian
Because most of our ancestors were just ordinary folks, most people who are researching their family history overlook newspapers as a source for more information. They may think that their everyday ancestors weren't mentioned in newspapers, but most small-town newspapers are a gold mine for genealogical information. If your ancestor lived, died, got married, became ill, sold property, served in the military, or even visited family members in a small town, chances are good that they made it into the local newspaper.
To find a newspaper article about one of your ancestors, start by pinning down the time and place that he or she lived. Remember that the name of a place may have changed, or your family may have moved, so you'll have to do a little homework to find a publication for your ancestor's hometown. You can search online indexes, such as the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) and the Family History Library Catalog. You can also search published newspaper directories such as The Ayer Directory of Newspapers and Periodicals and Roswell's American Newspaper Directory. Once you know what newspaper you need to search, then you'll need to locate where the records are stored. Almost all newspapers are stored on microfilm to preserve them, although occasionally you may be lucky enough to find a newspaper digitized online. One of the best places to look for the microfilms is your local library. If you live in the same town that your ancestors did, you'll probably find the records there. If not, you can usually order the microfilms on interlibrary loan. If you are searching a newspaper that is still being published, the microfilms may be housed on-site at the newspaper offices, or they may be archived in a library nearby.
Once you find the microfilms for the newspaper, you can start searching for your ancestors. Some records have been indexed by the newspaper companies or by local genealogical societies; if this is the case, finding your family members should be easy. If not, you can usually find articles on your ancestor by searching a few weeks before and after an important event that you know occurred in your ancestor's life. Go through the newspapers carefully and search page by page. Once you find your ancestor mentioned in an article, don't stop searching there because an event is rarely written about just once in a newspaper.
What should you be searching for? Obviously, obituaries and wedding announcements are a valuable find. An obituary gives a brief biography of the decedent, lists all his immediate family members, and lists all his surviving kin. Likewise, wedding announcements list the parents of the bride and the groom, as well as other family members in attendance. Obituaries and wedding announcements can both be clues to finding other records, since they list the church where the funeral or wedding is taking place.
Don't just limit yourself to searching for births, marriages, and deaths. Anything out of the ordinary that your ancestor did may have been written about. Check the business pages in case your ancestor sold property or hired new workers on the family farm. Check the gossip column, where you may find anything from news of an engagement to a married daughter coming home to visit her parents. Of course, don't neglect the front page, either. If your ancestor did something really unusual, such as stealing a horse or dying from a rare illness, he just may have been front-page news.