Newspapers as a Genealogical Source

He who is without a newspaper is cutoff from his species.
— P. T. Barnum

A bit dramatic perhaps, but this quote attributed to the 19th century showman captures exactly what I will be trying to portray with this blog post: newspapers connect us to our fellow human beings, even those who came long before us. 

Last week, FindMyPast.com added over 1 million newspaper articles to their collection of British Newspapers covering areas across England, Scotland, and the Isle of Wight. As I looked over the new additions, it got me thinking about how valuable newspapers are as a resource. As a genealogist who focuses on detail and storytelling, newspaper articles are an essential piece of my arsenal. 

Any trained historian will be able to tell you the importance of using primary sources when doing historical research. A primary source is a source that was produced at the time of the historical event as opposed to a secondary source, which is a source produced after the fact that provides commentary on the event. Civil, parish, and census records along with and the majority of other records we use for genealogical research are examples of primary sources. Newspaper articles written at the time your ancestor was living are yet another primary source.

 Marinoni Printing Press

Marinoni Printing Press

There are many useful types of newspaper articles for writing family history including advertisements, court records, and obituaries – really anything that offers a perspective on your ancestor’s historical context.

Newspapers, while not necessarily the classical primary source material, serve as an eyewitness account into the lives of your ancestors. In their various forms, these articles are full of details and insight into your ancestors’ daily lives.

Additionally, newspaper articles can be an excellent way to corroborate research that you have already done. While I would never suggest using a newspaper article as the only resource for any factual detail, they can be very helpful in confirming or expanding on facts you have already gleaned from another source.  As genealogists we like to have as many sources in agreement with one another as possible in order to demonstrate the legitimacy of the narrative we have constructed.

While newspapers are one of my favourite sources to peruse, I would be remiss if I did not address their weaknesses. Newspaper articles always have a point of view and an intended audience. That point of view, or bias, should always be acknowledged and considered when dealing with newspaper articles. Not everything you read should be accepted as absolute truth.

Even so, newspapers serve as a valuable resource in understanding how our ancestors lived. We can glean details about the social context there were living in and what social norms they are surrounded by. Newspaper articles can tell us what was happening in the community that your ancestor was living in. Advertisements can show us what products people were buying. Perhaps an article will give us insight into how the factory or organization your ancestry was working for was viewed by the community. Or, if you’re really lucky, you might find an article that informs you about your ancestor personally.

 

  Freeman's Journal  07 February 1895

Freeman's Journal 07 February 1895

 

Let me give you one example of what I mean. Pictured above is the obituary or James Kelly of Kilskeery, County Tyrone. The obituary is rich in detail and from it we can learn a great deal. The article begins by referring to Kelly as “Mr. James Kelly JP” which denotes his position as a justice of the peace. Until partition, this unpaid position involved overseeing lesser criminal and civil legal cases.  Prominent landowners or gentlemen most often filled this position, which suggests that Kelly held a relatively upper class status. 

This suggestion is supported as we continue reading and learn that he was the “manager of several Loan Fund Banks in the surrounding counties, and a self-made man.” The Loan Fund Banks were likely a part of the loan funds system, which existed from the early 1700s until the 1960s and reached their peak in the 1840s during the Famine.  Through this system, small loans were granted to the Irish poor by independent loan funds. Kelly’s position as manager of several of these loan funds suggests that he was a man of wealth and likely very well known in the community. The obituary supports this idea when it states, “His funeral… was one of the largest and most representative ever seen in the locality.”

The obituary also lists Kelly’s surviving family members, which helps us not only by confirming that this is the correct James Kelly, but can also help us to widen our search of the Kelly family.

As stated previously, every newspaper article is written with a point of view. The obituary was printed in The Freeman’s Journal in 1895. The Freeman’s Journal has a long and varied history and it’s political leanings shifted depending on its ownership. In 1895, only two years after the defeat of the 2nd Home Rule, by prominent anti-Parnell owners controlled the publication. This is certainly not enough information to pass comment on Kelly’s personal political beliefs. It only provides us with an idea of the broader point of view of the publication that appears to regard James Kelly with respect.

All of this information, just from one obituary! When used alongside official documentation, these details can help us to understand John Kelly, and our own ancestors as more than just a name and a date.  With a bit of research, they become human beings living and participating in complex social structures.  Acknowledging this fact and trying to piece together their life story brings us one step closer to our ancestors.