Extra, Extra, Read All About Your Ancestors

By Jeffrey A. Bockman

Originally published in Heritage Quest, Issue #106 July/August 2003, page 38

The titles that follow are not chapters in a history book, but rather the EUROPE headlines on the front page of the Chicago Tribune on November 21, 1867.

Synopsis of the Emperor Napoleon's Speech in the French Chambers.

Queen Victoria's Address in the British Parliament.

A Brief Reference to German Affairs, the Eastern and Roman Questions.

That was the day that Great-great-great-grandmother Esther Olmstead West died. The following day, the four-page Chicago Tribune had listed the death notice:

  • Nov 22, 1867 Chicago Tribune - DIED

  • In this city, Nov. 21st 1867 at the residence of her daughter (Mrs. H.H. Demary) 241 Warren St, Mrs. Esther West, aged 80 years and 6 months. Funeral from residence today (Friday) at 12 noon.

The information in the notice supplements a cemetery record and is especially useful since there are no Cook County, Illinois, records before 1871 because they were all destroyed in the Chicago Fire. Since newspapers are sent to and collected in a variety of locations they cannot all be lost in a single disaster. Other items of interest in that issue give you a view of the world in which they lived:

517 miles of the Union Pacific Railroad running west of Omaha

Preparations are underway for the trial of Jefferson Davis

House and lot for sale on Michigan Ave. $11,000

Hyde Park comfortable house and ground 154 ft. front, 136 deep, and 49 rear $1,600

Esther's death notice was repeated on Saturday the 23rd along with some stories that are similar to current news stores:

Opera Strike the revolt of the chorus singers in New York City.

March 8, 2003 Music stops on Broadway - Theaters go dark as actors support musicians' strike

The Home (Insurance) Company of Cincinnati Suspended

March 5, 2003 Kemper sells operations to Swiss group.

Another story included:

  • The great criminal of the age will be left to the discretion of the District Judge, Underwood, whose incompetency is notorious and to such a jury as may be selected for the occasion. It is a curious commentary on the uncertainty of human justice-this dilly dallying with a case like that of Davis.

This commentary about the grand jury hearing for Jefferson Davis, who never did stand trial, could be in any modern paper except for the "dilly dallying" comment.

Newspapers are good for verifying information when you have a date and a location. With a little luck you may also discover other relatives. Newspaper research is similar to using the Internet in that there has been an unbelievable wealth of information published but it is often very difficult or tedious to find. However, when you do find something, you often have much more information about your ancestors than just the typical names and dates. The following examples were found in the same paper, under PERSONAL:

  • If Mrs. William Wilsey, who left her husband in Monrovia County, Iowa, several years ago will send her address to her husband he will send her money to return to him, as he is truly repentant of his past conduct, and is anxious to be reconciled.

One wonders exactly what he had done. Did she write? Did he send the money? Did she use it to go home?

  • Information - Wanted of - William McNiven, a native of Haddington Scotland was in Chicago in 1837. Any information regarding him will be thankfully received by his sister Susan or his uncle John McNiven, 563 Fulton St. Chicago Ill.

Then there is a long story with the headline "Wealthy Citizen of Michigan died in a Brothel. Another victim added to a long list." Briefly, the owner of a Saginaw, Michigan gristmill had come to Chicago to purchase a shipload of wheat. After doing so he wanted a "good spree" and it continues with names and details. It could make you think again about a comment in a county history that states that so-and-so died in a distant town.

On the 24th there was a list of females and males who had unclaimed letters at the post office. While this does not help with linking generations it does at least prove that someone thought that person lived there. There was listed, a letter for "DeMary H.S. maj gen." This seems to have been for Hiram H. Demary, Esther's son-in-law, who spent most of his time in Colorado, though returned to Chicago to vote for Lincoln and again about 40 years later to die.

Society news often included photographs, details of weddings, and family details of engagements. The last issue of the year often included information on famous people who died during the year. You never know what you will find in a newspaper. But you will find nothing if you never look. The likelihood of finding information will depend upon the five "Ws":

    • WHO were they? Their status (good or bad) in the community.

    • WHAT happened? More likely to find information if it was sensational or interesting; also the usual, routine events.

    • WHERE? Big cities have a lot of competing news items. Small towns were usually looking for things to print.

    • WHEN? Items reported and the details included have changed over time. A story normally reported could have been omitted if a catastrophe, murder, election, or a war declaration occurred on the same day. There is often a very long time lag on marriages being reported in some modern papers.

    • WHY & HOW did it happen? This is why you want to read the article.

The routine events that are often included in the papers are: DEATH-Notices, obituaries, burial permits, cemetery plot purchase, legal notices (probate), news, accidents, or local society events or stories; MARRIAGE-License, local society news, modern announcements contain a lot of family information but are often published several months later; BIRTH-Modern announcements give parents' names; LAND TRANSFER or SALE-Seller, buyer, address, price; PROPERTY TAXES (usually by township)-List of owners, property description, and the amount. There are also estate sales, tax sales, lodge and club activities, school events, and business ads.

Linking people to their parents is a goal of genealogy. Since birth and death records are a fairly modern record and are not always available, newspapers may be a good alternative. A newspaper death or obituary notice usually provides some link between generations. It can help to substantiate other information or show relationships to people buried near your ancestor.

If you visit the cemetery, record the death dates of everyone buried in and around the family plot; then search the papers for each death date as well as a few issues before and after. While the information may not always have the correct spelling it can still provide the links you desire, as shown in the examples of Mrs. West's daughter Jane and family:

  • Oct 10, 1899 Chicago Tribune - DEATHS

  • "De Mary - Oct 9, 1899 Hiram H. De Mary in his 85th year. Funeral private. Denver and Leadville Colo. papers please copy."

Death notices and obituaries often give the name of other cities. This is a clue telling either where they previously lived or where they may currently have family living.

  • Oct 12, 1899 Chicago Tribune - DEATH RECORD BURIAL PERMIT ISSUED

  • "De Mary H.H. 84 Home for Incurables Oct 9."

    • June 18, 1905 Chicago Sunday Tribune DEATHS

    • "DeMavy - Mrs. Jane June 17 in her 91st year. Mother of Edward M. Raworth, Kate Reworth Holmes and Helen E. Stevenson. Notice of Funeral hereafter."

    • June 19, 1905 Chicago Tribune - DEATHS

    • "DeMary - the funeral of Mrs. Jane De Mary will take place from the residence of her daughter Mrs. D.M. Stevenson 170 36th St. Tuesday June 20 at 10 a.m. to Rosehill by car. Burial private."

    • June 20, 1905 Chicago Tribune - DEATHS

    • "De Mary Jane 90 170 36th St. June 17."

    • Dec. 30, 1914 Chicago Daily Tribune - OBITUARY (page 7 column 1)

    • "Mrs. Helen E. Stevenson wife of Donald Stevenson died yesterday at . . . residence 536 East Thirty Sixth Street. She was born in Alexander, NY in 1851 and came to Chicago when a girl. She was one of the organizers of the Camera Club and later its president. She is survived by her husband Donald, and two sons. Funeral service will be held at the late residence tomorrow afternoon. Burial at Rosehill."

    • Dec. 30, 1914 Chicago Daily Tribune - DEATHS (page 15 column 5)

    • "STEVENSON - Helen E. Stevenson, wife of Donald M. Stevenson, at her home, 536 E. 30th St., yesterday afternoon. Funeral 2 o'clock Thursday. Denver papers please copy."

    • Jan. 23, 1922 Chicago Daily Tribune - DEATH NOTICES

    • "Stevenson - Donald M. Stevenson Jan 22 in his seventy-seventh year. Two sons surviving, Raworth W. Stevenson and John G. Stevenson. Funeral from Rosehill chapel on Tuesday at 2 o'clock in the afternoon."

As we can see from the death notices for Jane Demary there were different notices on three different days. You need to keep looking until you do not find anything more. In larger cities there were several editions printed each day and they may each have different information.

When my grandfather died on Feb. 1, 1923 there were five different items in the paper over the next four days. Feb. 1 had a news story. Feb. 2 had an obituary and a story under Society News. Feb 4 had the obituary with funeral details and another Society News with a quote by my mother, who was then three years old. She said, "I don't like this house. Everybody cries." Her grandfather had died only three weeks earlier.

THEN, looking up their marriage, which was known from both home sources and the Illinois Marriage Index, located at, I also found this newspaper listing:

  • June 5, 1872 Chicago Tribune - MARRIED

  • "Stevenson - De Marie - Monday June 3rd 1872 at the residence of J. D. Ward Esq by the Rev C. A. Staples. Donald M Stevenon and Ellen E. De Marie all of Chicago, no cards."

Finding Articles

Home Sources - The best place to start is in the family. People usually clip out articles about themselves or their family. The scraps are stored in photo albums, scrapbooks, or in a little envelope hidden away with the "important" papers. One day my mother handed me a small newspaper clipping, two inches wide by 2.5 inches long, and asked if it would help me. The names are abbreviated.

  • Is Recovering - Miss J.D.S. daughter of Mrs. V.J.S. is recovering from surgery for the relief of appendicitis at Copley hospital. J.'s sister Mrs. E.H.D., daughter P.L. and son E. III of Ferguson, Mo., are here with Mrs. D's mother and grandmother, Mrs. G.J. and Mr. D's parents, Mr. And Mrs. E.H.D. The junior Mr. D. who accompanied his family to Aurora has returned to Ferguson. Mrs. S. who went to Bedford, Va., last week to attend the wedding of a cousin, the former J.B., a relative of Senator H.F.B. of Virginia, will return to Dixon tonight to resume her duties.

Let's face it; it must have been a pretty slow news day. Funny how little is really written about the recovering patient, while including three generations of genealogy for the visiting family. Since it did not have a date I asked when she had had the operation. I then wrote to the Bedford, VA Historical Society to find the name of the groom. I then found the former J.B.'s death date in the Social Security death index and then after writing for the obituary I found out about an adopted son and a living uncle. Unfortunately I was unable to locate any information on the whereabouts of the Johnson Family Bible that her mother-my grandmother-had mentioned. But yes that little piece of paper helped me at least know where it wasn't.

Disasters were always covered in graphic detail by newspapers. Train wrecks were unfortunately fairly common and steam locomotive accidents were especially gruesome. In my grandmother's papers were several articles about a "train wreck" in Basalt, Colorado on July 11, 1891 that killed her aunt and uncle along with his wife and baby son. There were articles about the corner's inquest with details of the accident, a list of the dead, information about the Ellis family's deaths, and two describing a funeral train to Glenwood Springs and the Aspen burials.

Newspaper Repositories - If you already know the date and place of an event then you need to find out what newspapers were in existence at that time. You then have to find out where there is a collection of them. Most states have at least one research facility that has a major collection of newspapers. Other facilities like the Wisconsin State Historical Library have major newspaper collections covering much of the country. Indexes can be helpful if you do not have an exact date or you want to find the information on everyone with a certain surname.

Indexes - Over the years there have been many volunteer and professional newspaper-indexing projects. This allows for discovery research and lets you easily find everyone with the same last name. This is especially useful in areas that did not have vital record registration at the time. Some indexes only include the primary name from obituaries or the official notices of deaths, marriages, and births while others may include all of the names or other types of stories. Indexes can be card files, books, or online databases.

  • Card Files

  • There is an every name card index of the Denver Post at the Colorado State Historical Library.

  • Card files of obituaries can be found at a number of libraries and historical societies.

    • Books Indexes

    • Also look for books or society publications that index or compile newspaper data such as:

      • The New York Evening Post, NYC Deaths (index) Nov. 16, 1801 - Dec 31, 1850 by Gertrude A. Barber (example: Sept. 5 1834 - "Jared H. West in his 56th year")

      • Marriage Notices from Washington County, NY Newspapers 1799-1880 by Mary S. Jackson and Edward F. Jackson, Heritage Books (example: "Donald M. Stevenson formerly of Cambridge, NY married Helen DeMarie of Chicago 3 June 1872 Chicago, ILL. ")

    • Electronic Databases

    • Online searches are available for many modern newspapers. The databases contain the new information along with some information from older papers. Check individual Web sites for time periods, as coverage varies greatly. Some examples are:

      • Proquest Archives - They are the supplier of a large collection of microfilmed newspapers online available to libraries by subscription. bound/newspaper.html

      • Wheaton Public Library Vital Records Index - The Vital Records Database is an index to the birth, marriage, and death items printed in the Wheaton, Illinois newspapers beginning in 1885. This is a project in progress with volunteers reading the papers and recording the genealogical data. Short items, such as announcements, often appear in their entirety in the "Note" area and larger items are abstracted.

      • Cleveland Necrology File: The data is taken from a filmed copy of a card file of local cemetery records and newspaper death notices gathered by the CPL staff and includes paid death notices. Cleveland Necrology File

Even if an index gives the full transcription you may still want to review the actual paper for a few days before and after the event. While an old obituary might not contain much genealogical information there can be news stories for days, or weeks before that tell about the subject of your search falling off a fence, tractor, or horse, the ladies of the town or church bringing food to the family, relatives coming to town to help, etc. We found that in the newspapers where the parents were living, we were more likely to find paid notices-such as those in the Washington County index.

Newspapers can sometimes let you see what people were doing, and that may help you to identify the correct individual when there are several people with the same name. While I was researching the death of a James Johnson in 1858, and reading the papers for several days before and after the date, I found several articles about the supposed son, William, buying tobacco with no mention of a family death. Either the death did not occur at this time or this William was not the son of that James.

Locating Newspapers

For the most part you will be researching in microfilmed copies of the papers, though sometimes you will actually use the real thing. It's best to work with the film as newsprint does not hold up well with use. The first thing you will need to do is to find out what newspapers were in existence at the time and place of the event. Besides the local towns you should also look for any regional or nearby big city papers as well as any appropriate foreign language, religious, school, or neighborhood newspapers. The following books list the old newspapers and where they can be found:

    • Clarence S. Brigham's History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820, 2 vols. (Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1947. Reprinted with corrections and additions: Hamden, CT: Archon, 1962).

    • Edward Lathem's Chronological Tables of American Newspapers, 1690-1820 (Barre, MA: American Antiquarian Society and Barre Pub., 1972).

    • American Newspapers, 1821-1935: A Union List of Files Available in the United States and Canada, edited by Winifred Gregory (N.Y.: Wilson, 1937. Reprinted, N.Y.: Draus, 1967).

    • Newspapers in Microform, United States 1948-1972. (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1973).

      • 2009: Use the N.W. Ayer & Son's American Newspaper Annuals from 1869-1919 to determine what newspapers were in existance for each state and city in the country. It gives the name of the paper, the day of the week that it was published, the number of pages, and when it began publication.

Web sites like the New York Public Library Obituary page and the British Library newspaper catalog and archive papers.html are also very helpful. You can also find the Web site for a current newspaper and then see if it has any historical information archived:

    • has obituaries for the past 30 days, with guest books and memorial pages.

    • Internet Public Library at lets you choose the desired country, state, and city to find name and web address of newspaper.

    • Use to search for a paper by name or "[town] + newspaper"

Also search the local or state library's online catalog using Title Keyword: newspaper and the name or place. The "United States Newspaper" Project is available via OCLC (Online Computer Library Center) First Search, which is accessible at most libraries. After using OCLC's catalog you can request the newspaper on film via Interlibrary Loan (ILL).

  • 2009: Use to locate newspaper collections. It is a public version of OCLC.

    • 2009: There are now a wide variety of websites including, New York Times, and Colorado Historic Newspapers that contain articles or entire pages from historic newspapers. Be aware that every word from every article is NOT INDEXED. Many of the sites will let you view or download an entire page. Be sure to read the entire paper around the time of significant events. Do not be afraid to search these sites even if they do not have newspapers for your area of interest. Stories that have a dateline from one city and end up in any number of papers. See, then choose [Gen. Links] and then select Newspapers for links to a number of newspaper sites.


Once you find and record or copy the information you should properly cite your source so that you or someone else can easily find it again, if necessary. Richard S. Lackey, in his book Cite Your Sources, recommends the following format: Newspaper's Name (City, County, State), issue date, page & column, Location/[facility] where viewed. Example: Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Cook, IL), 30 December 1914, p. 15, col. 5; Naperville Public Library) On your field notes you should also have your name, the date, and location where you recorded the information, and note any problems with the condition of the film or paper, and the reader, printer, or copier. If you didn't find anything because you were rushed or didn't feel good then also note that. You may be able to find a better copy or equipment elsewhere in the future.

2009: I recommend that you also include the edition of the paper!

Even if your ancestors were just plain folks, there is still probably something about them in a newspaper. If they were rich, famous, a politician, a crook, or killed in an accident, you will find a lot more, possibly even a picture. It will take a lot of time since you may end up reading a number of the other articles and advertisements; but you will gain a great deal of understanding about the time period in which they lived.

Newspapers are one source where you can read the extra information about your ancestors.

Links to the listed Web sites and others are available at, choose [Gen. Links] and then select Newspapers or Libraries.

Post your comments at

  • Newspapers have always been a great tool to learn more about our ancestors as well as the time and place where they lived. Newspapers can often provide information about events even when the official records have been destroyed. Many newspapers have been microfilmed for both preservation and to improve access. In the six years since the article was written, a number of online sites have really improved access to newspaper articles or entire pages. The comments starting with 2009: reflect some of the changes.

    • Online searches can often locate a story about a person in a place where you would never have thought of looking. They cannot, however, find every story because every word in every article is not indexed! Some of these sites provide access to every page in the paper, so you can read them just like you would microfilm, except you can do it at home or in a local library.

    • This article was the basis for a popular lecture by the same name.

    • Extra, Extra, Read All About Your Ancestors also includes articles and examples found at a number of the online newspaper sites.

    • An audio CD of the lecture that was given at the 2008 Ohio State Genealogy Conference can be purchased at JAMB Tapes, Inc - Select F-09.