Newspapers Help Genealogical Researchers Get the Lede on Family History

Genealogists Use Newspapers to Trace New York Ancestry

“Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” Don’t be a genealogical researcher hack, take the lede and get the scoop on family history through newspapers. Don’t rely on factoids and puff pieces, go straight to the historical rag. Professional genealogist Joan Shurtlif penned this listicle, which is certain to be a marmalade dropper when it comes to offering helpful genealogical research tips.

“Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” Don’t be a genealogical researcher hack, take the lede and get the scoop on family history through newspapers. Don’t rely on factoids and puff pieces, go straight to the historical rag. Alert the paparazzi, your ancestors may be in the news!

Ah, the printed news. One of this RecordClick genealogist’s favorite resources is newspapers. Think of Pennsylvania and Benjamin Franklin and the Pennsylvania Gazette comes to mind. The paper, which Franklin purchased it in 1729, played a role in the formation of this country. Early newspapers definitely did more than just report political news. Content included shipping news, legal and court notices, and vital records – especially prominent marriages and deaths. They are most assuredly the kinds of resources that  Pennsylvania genealogical researchers and family historians should seek out.

Two of my favorite family tidbits have come from the Columbia Spy (Columbia, Pennsylvania). The first is about my g-g-grandmother Clementine. The family story is that she and her mother came to the United States in the late 1820s when she was about four. Her mother died at sea, and Clementine was raised by a relative who was already living in the States. The 21 March 1846 edition of the Columbia Spy has a legal notice posted:

“In The Matter of the intended application of Clementine Griffin, for license, to keep a tavern in the borough of Washington – it being an old stand…”

This is the earliest record I have found for my g-g-grandmother Clementine.

The second clipping from the Columbia Spy pertains to my g-grandmother Barbara. I knew her first two children were born out of wedlock, but I never knew the circumstances. In the 20 June 1868 edition:

“Police Cases – Before Samuel Evans, Esq. Fornication and Bastardy – Barbara Kise, spinster, of Washington, b.c. charged Samuel G. Urban with being the father of a bastard child. Defendant bound over to answer at August session.”

Barbara gave birth to a son 17 November 1868.

A Little Newspaper History

Don’t expect to find much genealogical information in the earliest newspapers. Printing was a very labor intensive process. Type was set, letter by letter, by hand. Format was limited and any images were carved by hand on wood. Ink had to be applied and then pressed onto a sheet of paper – one page at a time. The earliest news was printed on a broadsheet – a larger sheet of paper that could be tacked on a wall. Eventually a newspaper format developed with a printed matter on both sides of the paper, in columns and with advertising. The earliest papers were usually weeklies.

By the mid-1800s, improved typesetting methods and bigger presses allowed newspapers to develop a larger circulation and to print with more frequency with a wider variety of reading matter. The linotype machine was invented in the 1880s. Its long metal galleys of type shortened the makeup and printing time of the newspaper and made it easier to read.

As the printing and publishing process became easier, the number of newspapers and the amount of local news increased. In the 1700s, most newspapers were printed in the Philadelphia area. They included: American Weekly Mercury, Pennsylvania Journal, Pennsylvania Chronicle, Pennsylvania Ledger, and the Pennsylvania Packet. One of the earliest newspapers to be printed outside of Philadelphia was the Pennsylvania Herald & York General Advertiser in 1789 in York.

After 1800, the number of printed newspapers increased – especially outside the Philadelphia area. They included:

By the mid-1800s, enough presses were available that many smaller towns had newspapers. For genealogists, however, a smaller paper is usually better, because the smaller the community, the more likely local townspeople made it into the newspaper. The heyday of the small town newspaper came in the early 1900s; however, by the Depression in the 1930s, the rural population began to migrate to larger cities. The United States was moving from an agrarian to an industrialized society, and the jobs were in the cities. This was especially true with the steel mills in Pennsylvania. As the towns grew into cities, the newspapers expanded with them. More important news trumped lesser news, such as “Farmer Jones’ cow got loose.”

A good number, but by no means all, of Pennsylvania newspapers have been digitized and are online. The family genealogical researcher needs to remember, however, that there may be gaps or a limited number of issues.

One of my favorite websites for accessing online newspapers is the University of Pennsylvania Library’s guide to online newspapers. Updated frequently, it lists all the states and free newspaper websites. The website also links to Google Newspapers with an alphabetical listing, including the dates, of all the newspapers posted there.

The State Library of Pennsylvania Historic Newspapers Collection (1826-1929), and do a search for “newspapers.” Towns included are: Coudersport, Lancaster, Lewistown, Mansield, Marietta, and Milton.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania is located in Philadelphia. It has a large selection of Pennsylvania newspapers on microfilm.

Be sure and check local, including college and university, libraries, historical, and genealogical societies for newspapers on microfilm.

The Library of Congress has posted Pennsylvania newspapers from almost 50 communities on their Chronicling America website. They start in the mid-1800s and extend into the 1900s. The towns range from Bloomsburg and Clearfield to Scranton and Sunbury.

Newspaper Archive is a paid website, offering an unlimited 3-day trial account for a minimal cost. It houses more than 200 Pennsylvania newspapers in its online archive, with  dates ranging from the 1700s to recent.

Not all newspapers have been digitized, unfortunately, meaning you will either have to travel to Pennsylvania to look up an individual, or you can hire a genealogist through the family history services at RecordClick. Our holistic genealogical services approach allows you to be the genealogical detective for your family history research. The knowledgeable and professional genealogists at RecordClick can help. Our genealogical researchers can access newspapers or help you develop a research strategy.