You’ve got a weekend free, and you decide to use it to research your family history. Start by focusing on one person at a time and document your findings using a newspaper research worksheet.
The most apparent family information found in newspapers are birth announcements and obituaries. But there’s so much more that can help you paint a picture of your ancestor’s life.
One of your first tasks as a family historian is to paint a picture of your forbears through the details they leave behind: their names, dates of key life events, and relationships to others, either stated or implied in the records you find. Birth records are essential but can be more challenging to locate than other documents, such as marriage and death certificates. In our ancestors’ day, they were more likely to be a private affair, and government-issued documents started late in the 1800s or even later.
Often, older birth records could be more detailed, and you’ll need to consult other record collections to help estimate dates and pinpoint where your ancestor was born. You’ll also want to check local newspaper archives for obituaries, mainly if the deceased had foreign roots.
When delving into genealogy research, individuals often navigate the process of looking up birth records, a fundamental step in unraveling their family history and connections.
The best place to begin is with your own family’s archives. You can search online databases for birth records; some collections include birth and baptism records. Some state archives offer birth records, too. Many local libraries have significant genealogical collections with compiled family histories and genealogies, town records, old letters, newspaper clipping files, and more.
Many researchers consider obituaries supplements or substitutes for birth, death, and marriage records. A well-written obituary can provide clues to other documents you should seek, primarily if the deceased served in the military or had a particular interest.
However, obituaries have been challenging to find in the past due to record-keeping methods and newspaper production schedules. Fortunately, many online genealogy services today offer obituary searches through historical newspapers. These services allow you to search by name, date range, and place of birth or death.
In addition, the website offers an extensive archive of digitized obituaries. The service is available for a subscription fee and provides access to obituaries from all over the country. The site also includes information on a person’s relatives, employer, and other details that may interest family historians.
Another resource for finding New York birth records is the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). The SSDI includes the names of more than 77 million people who died in the United States since 1962. This database should be a starting point for any research, but remember that it is incomplete and not a replacement for original death certificates or obituaries. Original death records can be obtained from the village, town, or city clerk where the death occurred and the Department of Health.
New York State passed a law in 1847 requiring village, town, and city clerks to track birth records. However, this system quickly fell out of favor, and most towns didn’t record any births after 1850. You can find some official deliveries in Albany, Buffalo, and Yonkers from the 1870s onwards by searching substitute records—the large books of handwritten records (libraries) kept by local clerks. You can also search online indexes for these records between 1881 and 1914.
If you need access to New York State records, you can search local newspapers for marriage announcements in the area where your ancestors lived. Newspaper archives provide access to hundreds of years of local papers. Use keywords specific to the type of newspaper you’re looking for, and consider the period you’re focusing on. High levels of illiteracy and the tradition of taking down information orally meant mistakes were common. Try using advanced search techniques, such as reversing the order of first and last names or searching for maiden names.
If you’re still stuck, consider hiring a professional researcher. They can help you uncover important details that you may have overlooked. With some know-how and persistence, you can find the birth records you’re seeking.
The information in newspapers can give you clues about the lives of your ancestors that aren’t available anywhere else. For example, newspaper accounts of people visiting from out of town can give you a sense of what life was like in that place and time. Old newspaper articles can also provide details about children’s birthday parties, with guest lists and stories of local military men returning home on leave and their adventures overseas.
Newspapers are particularly valuable as partial substitutes for nonexistent civil records and as a supplement to other sources such as birth and death certificates. They’re especially critical in places where official documents have been lost, such as when all Cook County, Illinois, civil marriages were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. They’re also a vital resource when immigrant family members change their names upon arrival in America or when a particular ancestor leaves no other known record of their past, such as a wartime obituary.
When researching your ancestors in newspaper archives, use various search terms. Try searching for the person’s full name; first and last names with different spellings; initials; prefixes such as Mr., Mrs., Dr., or Rev; and nicknames. You can even widen your search to include the year range in which that person was alive.