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Searching Historic Small-town Newspapers

Newspapers have often been described as the first draft of history. They can be an excellent source for chronicling the lives of our ancestors. Birth announcements, marriages and obituaries are all found in newspapers along with other information that can be very valuable to genealogists (see Why Are Newspapers Dying for a complete discussion). Newspapers are particularly useful in countries and times where government records are thin to nonexistent.

Some newspapers, however, are more useful than others for genealogists searching for their ancestors. Big-city newspapers in particular tend to focus more of their content on regional and international news, whereas small-town newspapers generally put more emphasis on local community events. As a result, local newspapers from small towns often provide a better historical record of our ancestors than big-city newspapers.

Consider the example of an obituary. An obituary is valuable to genealogists because it lists next of kin and serves as a kind of micro-chronology of a person’s life. However, the downside of an obituary is that they often follow the principle of “don’t speak ill of the dead”, especially since it is often the bereaved family who writes them.

Although usually factually correct in the spelling of names and listing of dates, obituaries rarely provide insight into the nature of a person or clues as to why the person may have done something that ended up having a profound impact on the family. Fundamentally, obituaries are as interesting for what they don’t say as much as what they do say. So, how do you overcome potential shortcomings in obituaries and find out more about your ancestor’s life?

If your ancestor came from a small town, then you have an alternate and potentially very valuable source of information – the local newspaper. Obituaries are a staple of small-town newspapers just as they are in the city. However, unlike in the city, small-town newspapers tend to be more personal. They typically contain a greater depth of content on the individuals in the community. After all, people in the town are the ones buying the local newspaper and most people want to see their name in print and find out what their neighbours are doing.

Small-town newspapers usually have detailed articles about the activities and affairs of its local citizens. This can cover everything from school spelling bees to neighbourhood clubs to local sports. Thus, you are much more likely to find references to your ancestor in a small-town newspaper than an equivalent big-city newspaper. If you read enough of these community articles, you can use a mosaic approach to piece together a detailed life story about your ancestor, the region they lived in and the events that affected their life.

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