March 5th, 2013

Is Your Ancestor in the News? Tips for Searching Online Historical Newspapers

Historical newspapers that have been digitized and place online make great free genealogy resources. The technology they use to make them searchable however is sometimes imperfect, and it can be difficult to find the information you seek. Different newspaper archives employ different search technology, which compounds the problem further. The following tips however can help you to minimize that difficulty and give you the best shot at finding that crucial information about your long lost ancestor.

Tip #1 – Search Using only the Surname

It can be difficult finding an exact name in online newspaper archives. This can be because of the search technology employed by that particular website, or due to nicknames, misspellings, and abbreviations. Unless you are searching for a particularly popular surname like Smith or Jones, begin your search by using just the surname. This will increase the amount of returns you get, but if you take the time to weed through them, you could find the name of your relative, either their full name, one including a nickname that proved a road block, or an abbreviated version. If you get too many returns, enter further info such as a location.

Tip #2 – Search for Relatives

If you don’t have any success using the above strategy, try researching a relative of the ancestor you’re trying to locate. Try a combination of given names for other family members and you might be surprised at the results. Another strategy that sometimes works is to search the first name of your ancestor along with the first names of their parents.

Tip #3 – Search by Address

Sometimes the technology used by database search engines can miss surnames. The articles or obituaries you are searching for could well be there, the search technology is just not picking them up. This has happened to me several times, but perseverance usually pays off. A strategy that has worked for me in the past is to search using my ancestor’s last known address. Quite often obituaries list a person’s address, and wedding announcements sometimes do as well. They are one of the most popular types of free genealogy resources.

Tip #4 – Search by Date and Name of Publication

Sometimes you simply have to search a newspaper page by page to locate information on your relatives. If you know the date and location of an event in your ancestor’s history and have exhausted the first three strategies, this might be the way to go. If you know the date they died for instance, you can search obituaries for that time period. Find out what newspapers are or were published in the area in which your ancestor lived and use their browser option to locate the newspaper for the days the notice may have appeared. Make sure you check issues for a couple of days on either side of the event, or even a week or two. Sometimes a funeral notice or memoriam was published a few weeks after a person’s death. They also are excellent free genealogy resources.

Tip #5 – Search Using Subject Keywords

Instead of a surname search, sue the name of a specific type of documentation such as “obituary,” “wedding announcement,” or “death notice.” If you have the option, enter additional keywords such a “memoriam” or “funeral notice.” Old newspapers may use different terms, so have a look at them first, and take note of what they name particular sections of their publication. Some of them may have pages for birthday or anniversary announcement, so use as many terms as you can think of.

Tip #6 – Modify Your Keyword Search

While the above mentioned terms are important to use, you may have equal success by not using them. Don’t neglect using terms like “business notices” or “business listings.” Sometimes they mention individuals in their notices, so if you know what the occupation of your ancestor was so make use of them as well. Older newspapers sometimes listed those who immigrated to other countries; the options are really endless.

It depends on the search technology that a particular newspaper database uses, but sometimes just a name and address will get you surprising results. A genealogy search however requires imagination and resourcefulness, especially in these types of databases. Experiment using as many terms as you can think of. Terms such as “military” or “school” can sometimes be amazingly revealing. The main thing is to never give up. Make use of these excellent free genealogy resources and follow the ancestral trail as stubbornly as you can.