Tracing Ancestors in Historical Newspapers – Thursday Thoughts

Have you thought of tracing your ancestors in historical newspapers?

Tracing Ancestors in Historical Newspapers

Historical newspapers present a really fascinating historical window on times gone by. Newspaper articles offer a ringside seat at historical events, a chronology of shifting language use and an opportune peek at public moments within countless family histories.

Tracing ancestors can require detective work but if you know where an ancestor lived, either their specific location or home region it is surprising what local, regional or even national historical newspapers might be able to add to your knowledge of family ancestors.

Hitting the headlines or buried in the backpages

There are numerous types of historical newspaper entry which might shed light on ancestors’ lives. Here are some areas of life which you might find recorded in newsprint:

  • Birth, deaths, marriages and other life events
  • Commercial activities, advertising
  • Legal notifications, bankruptcy, name changes
  • Good fortunes or misfortunes
  • Misdemeanors

Depending on the period in question, newspapers covering 20th century family life may also provide a source of photographic records featuring family members or contextualising images.

Big cities, big news

Your family ancestry may have played out in Great Britain, across the European continent, in North America or Australia, and many many places besides these. Chances are that there are newspapers still in exist in ancestral locations which can help you add valuable details to your family history.

Big city newspapers and national newspapers may be the most accessible remotely, if you are based in another location or country to your ancestors. Increasingly popular historical newspaper collections are being digitised by archives and libraries where they are held. Some commercial historical newspaper collections online are subscription based, whereas others are free. Many digitised newspaper collections being offered commercially have also been indexed and can be searched for specific terms and therefore individuals. Whereas some digitised collections held in academic institutions can only be manually searched, edition by edition. Once you have identified a locality you are interested in making contact with a local library or regional archive should be able to tell you if archived newspapers are available digitally, in house or externally through a subscription service.

In the UK, USA and Austria for example there are comprehensive digitised newspaper collections focused on national newspapers as well as those published in state and county capitals. There are also centralised collections available online which represent many European countries through one platform.

One of the benefits of the commercial national newspaper collections is that you can conduct a nationwide search for a family member, which is especially useful if you know that they moved around. The downside, especially if you have an ancestor with a common set of names or if you don’t restrict your search to a narrow time frame or geographic location, is that there may be many potential hits and you will need a strategy to eliminate individuals.

Think local, look global

It’s not just large cities which have newspaper collections but also smaller localities too, such as provincial towns and regions which had their own news agencies.

If you are seeking newspapers relevant to a very specific location it is worth asking locally first. Although many local and regional newspapers which had relatively limited circulation may, over the course of decades and even the odd century, been transferred to a centralised location at national level or even relocated abroad. This is notably the case for some newspaper collections specifically associated with former European Jewish communities and institutions. You may find yourself searching internationally, for example at Center for Jewish History in New York, USA, or Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem, Israel.

That said it is frustrating when newspapers which once existed appear not to have been retained or preserved. It seems inconceivable in this day and age of digital distribution and back up that copies may no longer exist, but unfortunately in some cases it is indeed so.

Names in print

Besides newspapers the archives can also come up with other categories of published broadsheet, from publications issued by faith groups, political organisations and social clubs, in addition to academic and commercial publications in which ancestors may be sought in print if you can identify a strong enough connection.

It’s abroad sheet!”

If your ancestors lived in a country whose language you do not speak do not be put off by the idea of looking at foreign-language newspapers. Since you are primarily interested in identifying an individual by name, where newspapers have been indexed such a search would be relatively easy. Once you have identified the extract which is relevant to your search you may then need translation assistance in order to understand the full details. Our translation and transcription services can help you unlock the contents of newspaper articles in a range of European languages.

Historical newspapers provide both ancestral details and context

Once you have found ancestors in historical newspapers the details have the potential to fill gaps if your ancestors’ vital data. Newspaper articles can answer questions, shedding light on ancestral behaviour and life events from the big to the small. Some were noteworthy enough to hit the headlines others mundane enough to hid among the back pages.

You may find a rare gem such as an absconding relation whose whereabouts you had conjectured but never found. Maybe even finding a missing person or information about life events in far flung places which you would not have come across if it hadn’t been for the newspaper sighting. Newspaper sightings can also provide a short cut into the possibility of other historical sources which might give more detail about incidents and life moments. For example is you find an article referring to a crime or legal proceedings then you may be able to follow this up with enquiries about police or court records.

If your searches bring nothing, this may only be a nothing yet. As more and more newspapers are digitised search indexed results may come in the future in the meantime newspapers provide vital background information and historical context to help understand our ancestors lives through the eyes of their contemporaries.

Newspapers can provide random facts and useless trivia but also the real stuff of ancestral life. From your great great aunt’s prize winning sweet peas to your swindeling great grandfather’s disappearance on bail. Newspapers are stuffed full of the lives of everyone’s ancestors … the rich, the poor, the prominent and the ne’er-do-wells.

Hannah Gill, historytrace, 30/06/2016

Historytrace can help you to discover your ancestors in historical newspapers in a wide range of European languages. Get in touch using the Contact page of this website if our services could help you explore your family history on a deeper level.

You have been reading the historytracings blogpost “Tracing Ancestors in Historical Newspapers – Thursday Thoughts”. Copyright text: www.historytrace.co.uk, 2016.

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