I believe even those new to the discipline of genealogy are quite aware of the usefulness of newspapers as genealogical sources. Though newspapers represent an original source of secondary information they are an example of sources which are often rich in social history and context.
Newspapers are obvious sources of birth, marriage and death notices. These tend to be the “go-to” periodical documents of interest to genealogists. These are genealogical gold! Birth notices may aid in proving parentage, marriage notices may prove marriage details but also could list family members. Obituaries are perhaps the most valuable of these newspaper notices often providing a great deal of life event and family information.
The rush to attach these notices to your family tree occasionally can lead to missing a research opportunity. While many novice genealogists may be sure to add family members from these documents to their trees they may disregard other information which could lead to unique discoveries and records. Be sure to research the organizations and places listed in an obituary. Local clubs, service, and leisure organizations, religious organizations or places of worship, places of work should not just be thought of as fluff. They create context and tell the story of an individual’s life but more than this they can form leads to unexpected records and documents. Pick through notices with a fine toothed comb analyzing every stated name, organization, and relationship you may be surprised by the results.
Now look beyond these notices and think in even broader terms. If you, like myself are from a small town or city, you know that small town local newspapers are filled with articles about everyday people as yourself. They detail local events, celebrate accomplishments, describe local disasters, and often just act as a old fashioned “Facebook” social page. Even if your ancestors were not famous or infamous newspaper articles may mention them. Reading the local papers of their times also provide you with some social context. What was happening in their community? Were there any local events which may have effected their lives? We often scour sources for the names of the individuals we are researching however broadening the scope of our search to include social history can provide more valuable information than you may imagine!
Of course, it is always a genealogical jackpot when an ancestor appears who was celebrated, notorious, or perhaps unfortunately experienced tragedy! I will offer a few personal examples which illustrate how “reading deeper” can ultimately lead to further sources.
If you are a regular follower of my blog you will already be aware of the story of my notorious Great Great Grandfather John Carter. Accused, tried, and convicted for the murder of his wife the story splashed across the British papers, I had no difficulty in finding article after article. Had I read these articles for the narrative alone and then tucked them away in a file or attached them to my family tree I would have overlooked clues to amazing resources. I decided instead to pull every name from the articles. The name of the coroner, the police officers involved, even the name of the executioner. Researching each of these individuals gave me new insights and context but more importantly lead to the discovery of the coroner records investigating the deaths of all three of John Carter’s wives! Another significant discovery was John Carter’s mugshot which surfaced through researching the gaol also named in newspaper articles.
Perhaps it seems common sense and obvious but as busy genealogists it can be easy to gloss over secondary sources without attention to detail! Genealogy is an investigation and as they say “the devil is in the details”!