Anyone who has been doing genealogy for a while has probably discovered the wizardry of searching old newspapers for our ancestors. Old newspaper articles are often the only place you can find out anything about a brick wall ancestor. With records being destroyed, lost, or not even kept over the centuries, you know by now that you cannot always rely on them to tell you what you need to know about your ancestors. However, plenty of people who never show up in any vital records have been mentioned in the newspapers of their area, and sometimes even in national newspapers. Even better, you will often find personal stories about your ancestors there, which is just as important as names, dates, and relationships.
Old newspapers are important tools in helping you discover your ancestors and in getting to know them better. If you are not already using them in your genealogy research, you should be. They are amazing treasure troves of otherwise hidden information. Whether you are just starting out with old newspaper research, or have been doing it for a while but aren’t getting the results you would like, here are some tips on how to do more effective searches of old newspapers online. These tips will help you find more mentions of your ancestors, revealing even more hidden details about your family history.
Make a List of Other Ways Your Ancestor’s Name Could Be Spelled
This is important because there was no standardized English spelling until the middle of the 19th century, and even then, standard spelling didn’t become widely used in the United States until the early 20th century. This means that those creating official records or writing articles about your ancestors in newspapers would spell the first and last name as they heard it. This means names were often spelled phonetically.
Accents also played a part in how names were heard and spelled. If someone with a foreign accent gave information on your ancestor for a newspaper article, the accent will influence the way the name was heard and spelled. And, if the source for the article gave a spelling for a first or last name, it might be incorrect… this is even true if your ancestor was the source and spelling their own name; they might not have had enough education to know how to properly spell their name, or they may have had a variety of spellings they used for it, which was not uncommon in the past.
It is important to get as large a variety of spellings as you can. Ask a child or children in your family to spell the name; say it to them, then see what they come up with based on how they heard it. Try playing the “telephone game” with ancestor names at family gatherings, whispering it in one relative’s ear, and then finding out what the name is when it comes back to you. Don’t forget to think of potential nicknames (and different spellings for those nicknames) with first names. Some names, like John and William, may also be abbreviated (“Jn” and “Wm” are common, but there are also others).
That means the best thing you can do to find your ancestors in old newspaper articles is not to spell their name right (though this sometimes works, too), but to spell it wrong. Make a list of all the possible alternate spellings, phonetic spellings, spellings with accents, and even misspellings of your ancestor’s first and last name. When you search old newspapers for them, use these spellings in different combinations with the first and last names, until you find a combination that gives you a result.
There might genuinely be no results in a particular newspaper (so search other ones from the region, and national ones, as well), but there might be, and searching this way is the only way you will know you have not missed an article about your ancestor.
Learn to Work with Optical Character Recognition
This is something you encounter with digital newspapers online. When an old newspaper is scanned and uploaded to a genealogy website, a computer reads and translates the text. You have to remember that computers are completely literal. They read and translate words and letters exactly as they have been programmed to “see” them. This means words are simply meaningless strings of characters to them, and they cannot interpret nuances in spellings or understand what a reporter meant with a misspelling. They may also interpret the same letter as different letters, depending on the typeface used in the newspaper article… and some old newspapers used three or four different typefaces on each page.
Old newspapers sometimes blurred ink from two letters, making them appear as one letter to a computer scanning it. The computer may interpret and translate that ink smudge as an entirely different letter that either of the letters that formed it. Even dust or hair or any other debris that landed on the scanner can cause a computer to translate letters that are wrong, or that simply aren’t there.
If you can, it is a good idea to compare an original newspaper article with the scanned version. This will give you a good notion of how the computer is reading and translating different typefaces, ink smudges, debris, and other things that may affect what appears on the scanned page. You can make a list of common words or names, and how computers translate them. It will help you in your newspaper research.
There is a tool online for doing this with California newspapers (California Digital Newspaper Collection). Even if you don’t have California ancestors, it is still a good tool to play with to help you learn to get around common computer scanning mistakes in newspaper translation.
Once you know the best tricks to use, locating your ancestors in old newspapers becomes much easier. Use these tips to unlock important secrets about your family history. It is worthwhile, and you will be glad you did it.
Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)