Newspaper Research Tip – Don’t Always Search for Surnames


One of the things that all of us who search our genealogy and family history can fall into – we always seem to search for surnames.

Obviously this is logical, but it can be a trap. Because, especially for newspapers – there is a lot of other information in articles that are pertinent to finding one of your ancestors. 

This is especially true when we have a “hard to spell” surname, or one that is spelled several different ways.  You can be sure that the journalists, always up against a deadline – did not check to make sure that all the names were spelled correctly.  And furthermore, for online newspaper databases, the quality of the original, the scan and the OCR process can indeed affect the outcome of the index that one is searching.

How about some examples that may lead to better results?

  • Search for an address – if you know the address of an ancestor, search for it.  A lot of times newspapers would include the residence of someone – so that may be a good place to try.
  • Search for a business name – if your ancestor owned a small business, you might be able to retrieve interesting articles by searching for that name.
  • Search for a lodge or club – if your ancestor belonged to or was an officer in a club or lodge or other group – search for that name.
  • Search for an occupation – if your ancestor had a unique occupation, try searching for that.
  • Search for the name of a sports team or school – often your ancestor may show up in a box score or in a list of graduates.
  • Search for the name of a military unit – if they were in the military, often the complete unit name is included in an article.
  • Search for a hobby or avocation – did Aunt Mary win ribbons at the state fair?  Or did Uncle Joe collect coins?

In all of these cases it is recommended that you limit the search to a specific newspaper or town/city. I suspect that if you performed a nationwide search for “123 Elm Street” or “gasfitter” you might get too many results to pore over.

So if searching for surnames (again especially with a difficult to spell or with several alternative spellings) doesn’t get you the results that you desire – try some of these alternatives listed above.  And you can always search for a surname AND some of these options if the site that you are using has Boolean search capability.

Good luck!


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  1. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve rarely ever searched newspapers without using a surname… sometimes I’ve used an occupation, but that’s it. Oh my – I’ll be busy researching again, won’t I?!

  2. Please get rid of the obnoxious vertical bar the floats on the left side of the screen so I can read the article. Surely you can find a better way to display the options without annoying those of us who aren’t interested in whatever those buttons do.

    1. They don’t cover the article when I view it. I find that this happens on some webpages when my magnification is set high. Maybe you could check that and be able to view the article without the obstruction.

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