Finding Your Ancestor in Newspapers

I was discussing with a friend lately who was interested in finding her grandfather who left for Ontario in the 1940s. Looking for new ideas to locate him, she turned to me for suggestions. Spontaneously I replied: "How about newspapers?" "Thanks for the idea, but I am afraid he died alone and must have been buried in a potter's field…" she answered back, implying that there was no reason why anyone would publish his obituary. Still, there is more to newspapers than obituaries.

Nowadays, at the outset of the New Year, newspapers typically come out with a Babies of the Year's section. Birth announcements often date back to the first edition of these dailies. In former times, people would not wait until the holiday season to share such a joyful event. These notices could be found in local newspapers all year-round. They also featured engagements, marriages, and deaths.

Have you ever thought of looking for your ancestors' Golden Wedding Anniversary in their favourite newspapers? It was not unusual to publish detailed articles about the lives of those happy couples and their children—you may actually learn about the highlights of the ceremony, peruse through the guests' list, and read about their numerous gifts too. Sometimes, these articles even made headlines! A wealth of information is waiting for you.

Should your ancestor have been the victim of an accident, it is most likely that same would be mentioned within a few days following his death. If by misfortune he met a violent end, there would have been a coroner's inquest. Newspapers never failed to cover such events, especially since they didn't happen that frequently. Therefore, newspapers reported on crimes that were committed on the local scene, whether it was robbery, counterfeits or charlatanism. For those who had to face justice, we may read about the trial and the sentence that had to be served.

Appearing in the personal column was not restricted to rich and famous. Was your family entertaining visitors from the States? It would be addressed in these pages. The visit of an uncle from afar or the departure of a cousin on his way to the States to visit some relatives, these are just a few examples of what can be expected of historical newspapers.

There would be so much more to say about researching your ancestors in newspapers. It is such a valuable source of information and it is available to everyone. Historical newspapers can be reviewed at archives, libraries, historical societies as well as on the Internet. Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BanQ) gives access to no fewer than 300 titles in its digital collection and some are full-text searchable.

If you're living outside Quebec, a subscription to a database might be a good move.