What Can You Learn About Your Ancestors in Newspapers?

One of the things I’ve learned doing genealogy is that your family doesn’t have to be famous or infamous to be in the newspaper.

But what can you learn from newspapers? I can think of at least five things you might learn from them.

The examples presented below are things that I’ve found on Newspapers.com. This is a paid subscription, and in fact, my subscription is for Publishers Extra. (to learn more about this site, see the bottom of this blog)

But I will tell you that if you are from Canada, you’ll appreciate the 90 newspapers that are available from across Canada, but they have newspapers from around the globe as well. It was the fact that Newspapers.com has The Edmonton Journal that I purchased my subscription.

Here are the five things I can think of off the top of my head that you can learn about your family in newspapers.

1. Important Birth, Marriage and Death Events

One of the obvious things you hope to find is a birth announcement, a marriage announcement, and a death notice. These sorts of announcements can provide a wealth of information, and I pour over an obituary reading it over and over to be sure I’ve squeezed every detail that I can.

Sometimes an announcement can offer details that you might not think of. Such as this one from the wedding announcement for my grandmother’s sister which mentioned the fact that her future husband, Henry, is adopted.

Edmonton Journal May 26, 1928, found on Publisher’s Extra on Newspapers.com.

You might recognize the Batten name in the death announcement below as this is the adopted brother of Annie Batten, part of the Beaton/Batten Mystery.

This announcement was in the Edmonton Journal, Calgary Herald, and the Ottawa Citizen even though William Batten died in Kingston, Ontario. Doesn’t the detail of him taking the steamer ship the Montreal down the St. Lawrence rapids make you want to go learn more about why that was such a monumental event?

Edmonton Journal May 29, 1928, found on Publisher’s Extra on Newspapers.com

2. Way of Life

By reading the newspaper from whatever period we’re interested in, we can better understand what life was like, what people were interested in, and what was acceptable then but not necessarily now. Here’s an example of what people thought traveling to the moon would be like in 1955 as well as a cigarette ad.

Reading the local news can give you a feel for what was going on in your ancestor’s life. In 2020 I read the Edmonton Journal for the period of 1918-1920 to understand what was going on in the lives of my grandparents, who were all young children during the Spanish Flu. In my blog post, Did My Family Not Hug Because Of The Spanish Flu, you can read more on what I found.

Even this 1955 food ads give you a glimpse of what a trip to the grocery store would have cost.

3. Local Historical Events

You may be surprised and learn that your family was involved in a historical event like I did when I found not just one article but several about a train accident that was deemed the “most disastrous train incident ” in Alberta history.

The event took place on July 28, 1917, and I had initially found out about the incident at the Alberta Archives. I had found a “returning soldier request” to have my great grandfather, Francis Middlebrough, come back from his service in France during WWI. That request was denied, but it made me want to find out what exactly had happened. Imagine my surprise when I found several articles about the accident in the Edmonton Journal.

What had started as a family outing had turned disastrous. My great-grandmother, Ellen Middlebrough, went on the Moonlight Saturday Evening train to Alberta Beach with her three children, ages 3, 5, and 7. My grandfather was the 7 year old.

There were five dead and forty-one injured in the accident, and my great grandmother was the “plucky Beverly Mother” who’d saved her babes.

I also found another article from March 2, 1935, where my great aunt received a settlement of $136 ($2,644 today*) for the accident that had occurred when she was a child. She received the payout in 1935 because she had just turned 21.

The article said that her father had received $464 ($10,419 today*) and her mother $900 ($20,209 today*). I assumed they would have received their money in 1917 when the event occurred. I never found any other mention of the other two children receiving a settlement, but I would think that that would have happened.

4. Finding Family Between Census

One thing we as genealogists depend on is census records. But because the census is only held every 10 years, we have to rely on other records to find out about our families between those censuses. Newspapers are again a great place to look.

Here is an example of one of my great aunt and uncle’s children, Lloyd Gordon Beaton, who was born in 1928. In this case, the last censuses available to me are the Canadian census in 1921 and the Prairie census held in 1926. Both are before little Lloyd was born. So his obituary in The Edmonton Journal on December 8 tells his story. This clue prompted me to learn more and obtain his death record, which showed he’d died of Meningitis. Without this newspaper’s obituary, I might never know he existed.

Of course, there are no guarantees that you will find your family, but I always search for all the names in the family on Newspaper.com or other sites that have newspapers.

5. Not So Important Events

Sometimes you even find fun things that aren’t earth-shattering events in your family’s lives, like this ad for a tape recorder that my uncle was selling in 1955.

Newspapers.com has 280+ Million pages from newspapers around the globe. There is a basic subscription and Publishers Extra, which you pay extra to access specific papers. Because my family has lived in Alberta for years and specifically in Edmonton, Alberta, I need Publishers Extra to access The Edmonton Journal for such a long time.

If you have an Ancestry subscription often you’ll see references to newspapers that link to Newspapers.com which you can include in your Ancestry subscription or purchase separately.

Why not try a Newspaper.com subscription for 7-Day and see what you can find about your ancestors.

*Note: I used Dollartimes.com to find out what the value of the money was in today’s terms

Note: The post above contains affiliate links. This means I make a small percentage on the sales via these links. This does not INCREASE the price you pay as a consumer. This is a supplement to my income so I can continue  to support this blog and to make donations to the Alzheimer’s’ Society