Using Newspapers to Enrich Your Research

Human beings are social creatures. Most people have a network of friends, family, and acquaintances that they like to keep in contact with. No matter the size, these networks of interconnected people form unique communities with common interests, occupations, or backgrounds. Maybe someone is a part of a Facebook group for avid gardeners or maybe someone frequents the local pickleball courts to find people who share a common hobby. Perhaps someone uses social media and text messages to keep in touch with children who live across the country. Whatever the form, these are all tools to aid human connection. 

While the most commonly used tools of connection utilize the internet, these technologies are relatively new creations. People did not suddenly become more social with the dawn of the digital age, tools of connection just changed. Before social media, socialization was dominated by visits to dance halls, joining a bowling club, writing letters, and with a surprisingly large number of local newspapers. While a physical newspaper has become a rather rare sight today, they were the precursor to today’s social media. 

The local paper of yesteryear held so much more than news. The papers printed short stories, advice columns, advertisements for local businesses and so much more. For this reason, they are a goldmine for the curious family historian, but how can they best be used to enrich genealogical research?

Finding death information can be somewhat difficult for North Carolina researchers because the state did not begin recording deaths until 1913. Researchers sometimes turn to cemeteries to find this missing information, but headstones often break or fade with time. Luckily, newspapers are an excellent substitute for death records. It was common for family members to publish short snippets in the local paper shortly after a person’s death. There would often be a notice that someone has died with information about an upcoming funeral and a brief obituary would also be published. These snippets are incredibly useful because they can provide death dates, burial places, and names of close family members.

In addition to death information, newspapers often contain marriage announcements for impending nuptials and occasionally will have something regarding a divorce. One of the more interesting things one can find in a newspaper is criminal and court information. This is the area where family secrets come out about a great uncle who was a horse thief or even a murder mystery. Newspapers also often had social pages which had all sorts of random information. Whether someone is looking for information on specific life events, family secrets, or topics their ancestors may have discussed at the dinner table, newspapers are a great place to look. 

Many of North Carolina’s Historic Newspapers are preserved and available online. Digital NC and the Library of Congress both have excellent collections of newspapers that can be accessed for free. Newspapers.com and Newspaper Archive are extensive online databases, but they require a subscription.

The North Carolina State Archives has one of the most comprehensive collections of NC newspapers. The State Archives is trying to microfilm every North Carolina Newspaper ever published. Even though most of their content is not available online, the collection is worth looking into.

Happy Researching!