Early Newspapers: A Window Into Our Ancestors’ Lives

Newspapers have recorded day-to-day American life since 1690, when the first American multi-page newspaper was published in Boston, Massachusetts. From that small and very early beginning, newspapers soon became ubiquitous as they, like the American people they followed, overflowed the 13 original colonies and spread across the face of what became the United States.  Contrary to popular belief, all manner of farmers, merchants, soldiers, parsons, and other ordinary folk appeared in newspapers, right alongside the rich and famous. Fortunately for genealogists, thousands of these newspapers and their stories have survived. These early papers can often tell us not only when and where our ancestors were born, married, and died, but they can also tell us how they lived. They can provide the context of their lives by telling us about the times and events that they lived through.

What You Can Expect to Find

Genealogical information in early newspapers varies widely, but can include:

  • Birth Announcements: Very sporadic prior to 1900; these are often limited to the child’s date of birth, its sex and the names of the parents.
  • Deaths/ Funeral Notices/ Obituaries: They range from simple listings of the name and date of death, to nearly full biographies of the deceased with detailed mention of surviving family
  • Marriages & Anniversaries – There was an account of a marriage in very first American newspaper. Information ranges from lists of marriages with minimal details, to full Society page stories that name all members of the wedding, the location, the honeymoon destination, and the names of more important guests. Announcements of significant anniversaries (50 years, etc.) can also provide life stories.
  • Legal Notices – Letters of Administration, estate settlement or sales, tax sales, divorce proceedings and other legal actions routinely required publication.
  • Public Announcements and Advertisements – Public sales of livestock, farm equipment, and personal property, advertisements for new businesses, insolvency lists and notices of rewards for return of lost or stolen property - including runaway slaves.
  • Gossip/Society –May include anything from a notice of a visit to or from out of town family, meetings of the local Sewing Circle (or Charitable Society, etc) to a full report of a social event with numerous details about family, relations, etc.
  • The Unexpected News Story – Almost literally anything: accidents, fires, community or school events, business success, new businesses openings, suicides, murders, other crime news, or a thousand other things.

Finding the Right Newspapers – Where to Look There are some excellent online newspaper sources:

  • Ancestry.com: Subscription site (free at many public libraries and all FHCs) with searchable access to digitized images of more than 1007 newspapers.
  • Genealogy Bank.com:  A subscription site (Free at some libraries)with access to digitized images of more than 1300 newspapers from 1690 - 1977.
  • ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Only available through libraries, offers searchable newspapers dating back to the 19th century.
  • Small Town Papers: Over 250 small town U.S. newspapers. Most are from the 1900s, but some go back to 1865.
  • The Olden Times, Historic Newspapers Online:  Digital images from a private collection of 18th, 19th and early 20th century newspapers from the U. S., England, Scotland, Australia & Ireland.
  • Newspapers Online:   This site provides a series of links to newspapers all over the world – most are more recent newspapers.
  • Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers:  The Library of Congress’ collection of searchable digitized newspapers. Currently includes papers from around 25 states, but it offers a taste of what we hope is in the works.
  • The US Newspaper Program A cooperative state/federal effort to locate, catalog and preserve U.S. newspapers. Provides links to each state’s newspaper program, many of which have at least some digitized newspapers online. The University of Florida hosts Florida’s program at http://www.uflib.ufl.edu/flnews/ .

Can’t find your ancestors in the online papers? Don’t give up yet, there are still some excellent resources available.

  • Public Libraries: Often have bound or microfilmed collections. Many have online access to Ancestry.com and the ProQuest Historical Newspapers, as well. Interlibrary loan allows you to have microfilmed papers from other states sent to your local library.
  • Family History Library: Large collection of microfilmed newspapers that can be rented through your local Family History Center.

To order a newspaper on microfilm, you must first know the name of the newspaper that you are seeking. Try the US Newspaper Program, linking to the state that you are researching. Another excellent finding aid is Appendix B of the 1880 U.S. Census, which lists all of the newspapers in each state -towns, and counties are identified.  It is online in two parts, listed alphabetically by state: [Alabama to Minnesota] [Minnesota to Wyoming Territory]

Appendix B - 1880 U.S. Census

1880 Census Publications Florida