Long before the internet made it easy to share the nuances of daily life, local newspapers and other regional publications reported the business, society and civic news of the people in the community. For budding genealogists, finding an ancestor in an old microfilmed newspaper and reading contemporaneous accounts of her turn in the school play or his all-city bowling championship provide a glimpse into the past that’s more textured than a chart of names and dates.
Taking a more narrative approach to the family story can be a time-consuming detective project with no guaranteed results. But once you have a name and know when and where the person lived, you can start your quest to find out how they lived. Here’s how to get started.
Digging up your roots
If you’re just beginning to climb your family tree and need names on the branches, a subscription service like Ancestry or MyHeritage can be an easy place to start gathering information. In addition to billions of digitized records (like census data, draft rolls and religious registries), these services include tutorials, articles, message boards and other tools to help you learn how to find your people.
When you get some names pinned to your tree, you may also start to receive hints of possible undiscovered relatives from the site’s algorithms or the service’s other members to help you along. If you’re not sure you want to commit to a regular subscription fee, look for a free trial period.
Finding alternative resources
Sleuthing on a budget? Visit the National Archives site and its “Resources for Genealogists” page for links to information on finding land records, immigration and naturalization documents, census data, military-service papers and more. While not all government records may be free or digitized, the National Archives hosts a page of links from other genealogy sites where you can look for information.
Some ancestors are harder to trace than others. For families severed by slavery or overlooked by government, the site has an Ethnic Heritage section with tips for finding African American ancestors, as well as for those searching for Chinese, Hispanic/Latino, Japanese or Native American forebears.
FamilySearch, run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, requires only a free account to search its billions of historical records. Geni.com (owned by MyHeritage) has free basic family-tree building services and a large social community that encourages members to work together. Immigration museums may also have free online databases, like the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation Passenger Search.
Diving Into the archives
Once you have pinned your ancestors to specific places and years, look for local media from that time. Business dealings, town government activity, social gatherings and obituaries were often reported in 19th- and 20th-century papers. But be warned: In addition to sometimes florid writing, articles from certain eras and areas can be rife with the unchecked misogyny, racism and xenophobia of the day.
The Newspaper Archives, Indexes and Morgues section of the Library of Congress site has links to many digitized publications, including African American, Cherokee and Mexican American newspapers.
The Ancestor Hunt genealogy site has a section devoted to finding historical newspapers online, and the Elephind site lets you search a growing collection of digitized international newspapers. Some archives are free, some charge to view the microfilmed images, and search capabilities vary.
Newspapers.com is an archive with more than 17,000 digitized publications dating from the 1700s. After the free trial, subscriptions start at about $8 a month, but you can search, clip, save and print the articles you find.
Finding further reading
Libraries and historical/genealogical societies may also have books and periodicals that recorded the development of the area and the people who lived there, although you may have to visit in person to look at the original material if it has not been scanned. (Some libraries also offer free access to the commercial genealogy services.)
As settlements grew, local historians often wrote books that chronicled that development and its founding families. Many of these volumes are now digitized in the public domain; search Google Books or the Internet Archive for the town or county in question.
Your relatives may also appear in the vital records bureaus of the states where they lived. The RootsWeb site offers tips on searching in its Red Book collection of American state, county and town resources.
And finally, if burial was the family tradition, try the Find a Grave site, a searchable database of cemeteries; like Newspapers.com, it’s owned by Ancestry. The site is still growing and often includes published obituaries and photos of grave sites so you can remotely visit and see where your ancestors ultimately landed.