The following article is written by my friend, Tom Kemp, of GenealogyBank.com. I use their website constantly for my newspaper research - both for historical newspapers as well as today's as I search for obituaries. We've now partnered with GenealogyBank.com to bring our Legacy Family Tree users a discounted rate for their content.
Genealogists are hungry for details about the lives of our ancestors, information that can only be found in newspapers. To get to know our ancestors better—the lives they lived, their hardships and triumphs—you need to know their stories. For that kind of information, nothing beats an archive of historical newspapers. Today there are thousands of newspapers online, from big cities and small towns all across America, easily searchable on the Internet.
Newspapers have been published in the U.S. since 1690. The great thing about newspapers is that most are published every day, providing information that gives genealogists the crucial details necessary to document every member on the family tree. Newspapers are essential to family history research, as the following two stories illustrate.
19th Century Tragedy in the Ayres Family
The Ayres family lived in Westchester County, New York, in the mid-nineteenth century. Census records provide important information about this family, but don’t tell the entire story. Tragedy struck the family in 1848, as we discover only by digging deeper into some old newspapers.
The 1850 Census for Greenburgh, Westchester County, New York, listed James Ayres (born in 1817) and his wife Ann (also born in 1817). The Census also listed their three children: James H. (born in 1842), Sarah (born in 1844), and Frederica (born in 1849).
Looking at this family closely, we see that there is a suspicious five-year gap in the ages of the two youngest children: Sarah is 6 and Frederica 1. These gaps are often the most difficult to research—and yet often turn up the most interesting and poignant family history. You can’t rely on census records alone to find every member of a family, or the family’s complete story.
Death was something people in 1850 were all too familiar with. The life expectancy was only around 39 years. Infant mortality was shockingly high—roughly 22 out of every 100 live births died as infants. Is there an Ayres family tragedy that the above record does not reveal—was there a child born that had died before the 1850 Census? Newspapers provide the answer, revealing a painful part of the Ayres family history.
In the Dec. 12, 1848, issue of the Hudson River Chronicle (Sing Sing, New York), there is an obituary notice for the daughter of James and Ann Ayres: Lovina Ayres, who was born Aug. 7, 1846, and died Nov. 26, 1848.
Now, notice these dates: 1846 to 1848. Little Lovina was born and died in between the census years; she was gone before the 1850 Census began recording the names of every member of the Ayres family. And so, her name was never recorded in a census. Without the account in the Hudson River Chronicle this little girl might have been omitted from the Ayres family history.
And there is more. Accompanying the obituary, the family inserted this notice—and suddenly the personal connection is made, and we can feel the Ayres’ sorrow:
The Hudson River Chronicle gives us not only the fact that Lovina was their child, it gives us the actual poem that the parents chose to remember her by. For a brief moment we are standing there in the home—feeling the grief of our ancestors as they lived it.
Newspapers Fill In Gaps and Provide Intimate Details
Newspapers not only fill in gaps in census records, they provide intimate family details that humanize genealogy research. Imagine if the Ayres were part of your family tree and you found this newspaper notice. Suddenly, you’ve come to know something about their lives; you’ve shared their grief, holding onto the image of the smile on Lovina’s lips as their darling two-year-old girl passed away. They’ve become part of your family. Your family tree is just not complete without the details that are readily available in newspapers.
As this story illustrates, newspapers are an essential tool for documenting American family histories.
Huge Historical Newspaper Archive at GenealogyBank.com
One of the key sources for online newspapers is GenealogyBank.com. Featuring more than 4,600 U.S. newspapers with over 1 billion names from all 50 states, GenealogyBank is one of the most extensive online historical newspaper archives available anywhere, designed specifically for family history research. Over 95% of their newspaper content is exclusive to GenealogyBank. By providing access to rare and hard-to-find newspapers from 1690 to the present day, GenealogyBank gives researchers the opportunity to discover unique, long-forgotten information about their American ancestors.
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