Online newspaper databases make it much easier to search for information about your family than it used to be. Historic newspapers also provide a lot more detail and personality to family stories than simple facts.
One of my favorite free newspaper websites is Chronicling America from the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Chronicling America is a newspaper database of United States newspapers from 1777-1963.
If you’re researching ancestors who lived in Kansas, you can also search Kansas Digital Newspapers. The Kansas Historical Society partnered with Newspapers.com to create this database that is free to Kansas residents.
Beginning Your Newspaper Research
The downside to newspaper databases and websites is there might not be a newspaper available from a specific town. If you don’t find the town you need, broaden your search to the county or regional area. My ancestors lived in Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas. I used Chronicling America to research my Oklahoma ancestors. The database did not have my grandmother’s hometown newspaper. However, there were several newspapers available from the area where she lived. I searched for the town and different family names and found personal information about them that would not show up in official documents.
Historically, newspapers covered everything that was going on in the community. The local Oklahoma papers reported when my great-grandfather went to Ardmore on business. A 1919 newspaper reported that my great-grandmother, grandmother and great-aunt “motored” to Oklahoma City. I learned my grandmother had a handkerchief shower before her wedding. The article included who attended so I discovered names of her friends and neighbors.
Chronicling America might not have newspapers for the region you are researching. I did not have any luck with my Arkansas and Missouri ancestors. I did county searches and regional searches and did not find any mentions of my family. There are only a limited number of newspapers from Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma available in the database. I was more successful in my Oklahoma research because the database had Oklahoma papers from the area I needed. Chronicling America is a useful tool in your genealogy research toolbox, sometimes it is right for the job and sometimes it’s not.
Prepare for Detours and Side Trips
While searching for family information, I was sidetracked by a story about a local murder. I noticed my great-grandfather was a character witness for the victim in a murder trial. That piqued my curiosity. My great-grandfather was only mentioned once. However, I was hooked and had to find everything I could about the trial. After some digging I discovered the murder was part of long-standing feud between two families. I spent several hours trying to piece the story together through various articles and newspapers.
Looking at old newspapers gives insight into a moment in time. There is an immediacy. You almost feel like you are there at that moment and could discuss the news of the day, the weather, society happenings and advertisements with your ancestors. You gain insight into their daily lives and learn their stories. For me that is what genealogy is about – the facts and the stories that created you.
If you want more information about free genealogy websites, check out Cherie Bush’s Beyond-Subscription list of free websites and visit our popular tools webpage. There are several databases you can access free with your library card. We are also happy to help you in person in the Baker Genealogy Center on the second floor of the library.
Enjoy the adventure of your research if you get sidetracked and fall down a rabbit hole or two!