6 Mistakes to Avoid When Using Newspapers for Genealogy

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With the rapidly increasing availability of millions of pages of historic newspapers online, more and more family history researchers are chasing articles about their ancestors in newspapers. Anyone who follows this blog knows that I am crazy about using newspapers for researching my own ancestors. I have written hundreds of blog posts, recorded over 40 videos about using newspapers to find pertinent information, and have created many link lists to free newspaper collections. But in my experience, there are some critical errors that can be made if one is not paying attention, or makes assumptions about things that are written in this medium. Newspapers can be useful documentation of events, but caution is imperative.

What are some mistakes that can easily be made? Below I have listed just a few, and there are others. Like any piece of information that you gather, the document is only as good as the person providing the information and publishing the information. These should be obvious with some thought and analysis, but sometimes we are so eager to “fill in a date” or record an interesting article that we neglect to think before we document.

  • Obituaries – In an obituary, especially ones in older newspapers, there are two mistakes that can create problems. The first is for example the language “….a native of Denver, Colorado.” Now if you do not know the birth location of the recently deceased person, you could easily draw the conclusion that Denver was his birthplace. You would be wrong in drawing that conclusion. What if he was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming and his parents and family moved to Denver when he was 3 months old and he spent the next 45 years there. Do not assume that “native of” means the actual birthplace.

 

  • Obituaries – The second error commonly made in older obituaries is when it states for example  “aged 75 years, 3 months, and 14 days”. If you know the date of death, which is likely included in the obituary, let’s say in this case it is April 27, 1898. You might then calculate that his date of birth therefore would be January 13, 1823, subtracting the 75 years, 3 months, and 14 days from the death date. Do leap years mess up the calculations? Even if leap years were not a factor, did they subtract the birth date from the death date correctly? Food for thought. Make sure that you have corroborating evidence of the birth date.

 

  • Marriages – In the Vital Statistics area, there are usually two listings regarding marriages. The first is “Marriage Licenses Issued,” which commonly includes the names of the bride and groom to be, along with their ages and residence address. Sometimes there also is a listing of marriages ACTUALLY performed. Please do not make the mistake of recording the marriage license date as the wedding date. Some folks get a license but for some reason do not end up getting married. And I have often found more instances of licenses being issued but the wedding not being reported in the newspaper, even though there are other documents that show they were wed. This may seem obvious but it is a mistake easily made.

 

  • Divorces – When recording Divorces, there are also multiple stages in that legal activity that are reported in the newspaper. For example – “Divorces Filed,” ” Interlocutory Decrees,” and “Divorces Granted.” If you do not record each of these dates, make sure that you only record the last one, which is the conclusion of the divorce proceeding. It’s not over ’til it’s over.

  • Articles – In a newspaper, just because the name of the person in an article matches your “search person,” it does not mean it is the person that you seek. I have had a few instances where the article was a “juicy” or “controversial” one and my ancestor’s name was included. This should be obvious, but it may not be “your ancestor” in that article. Even fairly unique names have been used by more than one person. So be very careful here. Make sure you apply some rigor to ensure that you have the right person. Don’t WISH that your ancestor was the protagonist or victim in a juicy article just because it sounds good and makes for a more interesting life story.

 

  • Births – Birth announcements can also be troublesome. Are you sure that the hospital that provided the source information for the blessed event had the correct date?  Were they reading off birth registration documents? Did they provide the actual birth date or possibly the date the birth was recorded, which is often quite different?

So these are just a few traps that one can easily fall into when searching and analyzing articles about your ancestors in the newspaper. Like everything else in genealogy, multiple pieces of evidence are always best, and if the newspaper is your only source, make sure that you are not drawing conclusions either prematurely or overzealously.


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2 Comments

  1. In my family, immigrant ancestors frequently gave the largest nearby town that would be recognized by others rather than the small village they were actually born in.

    1. Denise, thanks for suggesting that piece of info about immigrants and them citing the larger town rather than the village. Interestingly, my ancestors who were immigrants as well in the late 19th century did the same thing. So that info may have shown up in newspapers as the “:native of” information.

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