Don't underestimate the use of old, archived newspapers as a genealogy tool; in addition to being a source of obituaries, they can tell you all sorts of little details about your ancestors' lives, and really make those life stories come alive!
(Looking for a current obituary in a Canadian newspaper? Go to 'Sources of Current Obituaries' now )
If you are looking for information to flesh out a life story, or even to solve some brick walls, one suggestion would be to find archived newspapers for the area where your ancestors lived, and do a search for their family name. You may well discover a "treasure trove" of information, as I have!
I might add that looking through archived newspapers is an excellent way of tracing family members who may still be alive, and whose vital records are not available for searching.
In Northern Ontario where my parents grew up, there was one newspaper (now among the digitized archived newspapers) that covered all the little farming communities and hamlets in the area.
The newspaper, like many I have seen from that era, was filled with the happenings among the locals. Each small community had a news reporter, who told of things occurring in their neck of the woods. Here is an example:
April 11 1913 – The Temiskaming Speaker
W.E. Harrison has been engaged as chief engineer in Campbell’s Mill at Spring Lake.
Mr. and Mrs. W. White have moved into town, having rented a house from G.F. Crick.
Mr. Arthur Calvert, who has been working as night watchman at Campbell’s Mill, returned home on Sunday, and is laid up for a few days with a very bad cold.
The wedding took place April 1st at Myrtle, Ont., of Mr. Reginald Long and Mrs. J. Harrison, both formerly of Uno Park. Their many friends in this community extend their congratulations.
Miss L. Borgford and Miss F. Miller spent a few days with Miss Borgford’s grandmother at Thornloe.
Miss L. Bucknell has returned from her holiday.
We were sorry to hear of Mrs. Hillcoat’s death.
Mrs. Wm. Newton has been visiting her mother at Charlton.
Mrs. Fred Miller purchased a fine cow at Mr. Ford’s sale.
Harry Miller has been drawing sand for James Jarvis’ new barn to be built next summer.
Mrs. James Jarvis and her son Anderson and Mrs. David Shortt were out visiting Mrs. Fred Miller.
Mrs. George Eaton visited her sister Mrs. R. McCollum for a few days last week.
L.S. Gleason’s saw mill is running at full blast these days.
Joe Hastings intends building a fine house this spring.
Messrs. Noury and Wallace Silverthorn are drawing quite a considerable lot of lumber to Earlton.
There is still a lot of timber to be drawn from the bush. May the sleighing hold out a few days longer.
Quite a number of our young folks besieged the home of Mr. R. Noury on the opening of April the 1st, with well-filled baskets and violins. Dancing was the order of the night. A dainty supper was served between the hours of 12 and 1 o’clock, the party breaking up after 4 a.m. All report having an exceptionally fine time.
Mrs. R. McCullun is visiting at McCool for a few days.
Hugh Hastings is drawing out logs which he intends to use for purpose of erecting a new house and barn. It will improve our berg a lot, as well as his farm.
Mr. and Mrs. Wallace Silverthorn and Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Gray visited at the home of Mr. Thomas Silverthorn last Sunday.
Mr. and Mrs. R.D. Revie have moved back to our burg. We are all pleased to see their shining faces again.
Note the small-town, homespun, country atmosphere of the writing, as well as the wonderful little details that it gives of the lives of the inhabitants. This excerpt is representative of the type of information you will find in archived newspapers from this era. Clearly, while life was hard, it was not "all work and no play"!
European Newspaper Sizes
Reading through these archived newspapers, even over the course of a few weeks or months, provides a fascinating glimpse into life at that time. Lumbering and associated activities, such as saw mills, were business activities that were "going strong"!
I note, as well, that privacy, in the sense that it is used today, does not appear to have been an issue at that time. I have seen entries in the newspaper talking about Mrs. So-and-So being in hospital, and the reason therefor specifically spelled out. I have also seen details, such as the fact that a neighbour had to visit the dentist because of a toothache.
Things as simple as a day spent in town, rather than on the farm, were considered noteworthy.
The above quotation (as is the case with most newspaper archives) also provides information about the movements of people, who they visited, where they worked, who had houses to rent, what was happening in terms of barn and housebuilding, who had married, who had passed away, and so on.
There are also clues about who was related to whom.
We even learn that Mrs. Fred Miller is the proud new owner of a very fine cow!!
I remember a message posted on an Ancestry message board years ago, which essentially stated that the person was looking for information on her great-grandfather, "not to be confused with the [one of the same name] who lived in Canada".
Thankfully, this person eventually accepted that the person she was seeking - the brother of my grandfather - was indeed the man who had lived in Canada, and had migrated to the US, where his sister-in-law was living, in search of work.
Had she not, it would have been easy to show her the archived newspaper reports of his visits to his family in Ontario, which specifically stated that he was from the town she was referencing in the US, and 'formerly of this area'.
You can also find your ancestors in the classified ads.
I had always known that one of my uncles was an auto body repairman; indeed, he and his brother, a mechanic, restored an old tractor that they found on my great-grandfather’s farm, where their sister and her husband were living, and combined their knowledge and skill sets to restore that old tractor to “like new”.
However, I was not aware that he was the head man at the shop where he worked, until I found an advertisement, which ran for many years in the paper, about the business, with his photograph and name given as the contact person for estimates.
I also found an advertisement of an auction of my great-grandfather’s farm equipment, just a year or two before he died, saying that he was giving up farming and was selling off the equipment and livestock.
You may also find references to your ancestors in the legal notices of archived newspapers. This could take the form of a notice of probate of a will, notifying all creditors to come forward before the date of probate.
It could also be a legal notice that the husband would no longer be responsible for the debts of the wife, such as we see today, in cases of separation and/or divorce.
Although divorce was rare in the 1800s and early 1900s, it was not entirely unheard of. I found two such notices, both with respect to the same collateral relative. Such a notice serves as a 'flag' that there was trouble in the marriage, and therefore additional documentation may be available about your ancestor's life.
Often, archived newspapers had a column dedicated to matters occurring in the courts. These usually reported on criminal cases. I recall reading about one ancestor's brush with the law in an archived newspaper report of this type - not the kind of information one is proud to find or share!
In addition to family wedding photographs and announcements, a front-page obituary for my great-grandfather (he was one of the original pioneers in the area), and other family-related items, I recall an article about one of my aunts.
She worked for one of the local utility companies. When the
postal workers went on strike, she volunteered to deliver the utility
bills to their customers – on roller skates! There was even a large
photograph of her, on roller skates with envelopes in her hand,
approaching the door of a house! A fascinating read that was!
In addition to all of the above, death notices traditionally were placed in print, although that is beginning to change somewhat with the digital age.
Obituaries are wonderful sources of genealogical information, as they generally list the children's names, and sometimes those of their spouses; they may list brothers and sisters of the deceased, thereby giving you their married names; they also
Diego Grez via Wikimedia Commons
can provide the names of the parents of the deceased. If the family is small enough, grandchildren may also be mentioned by name.
Naturally, the accuracy of the information depends on who is writing the obituary, and how interested they are in getting the facts right. If, for example, the writer of the obituary is a second or third spouse, and didn't get along with the deceased's children from a prior marriage, those children may not be named at all.
There are a number of internet-based resources housing archived newspapers. Many are free, or have a fairly low cost. Two sources I have found useful, in the sense that they list a large number of these resources in one location, are the following:
In addition to those sources, Google has been involved in a newspaper archiving project since at least 2006, and now has records located at Google News Archives.
While Google has recently announced (May 2011) that it is discontinuing this program, in terms of adding more archival newspapers, it has undertaken to support those already digitized.
For those of you looking for current newspaper obituaries, it appears that many newspapers are turning to outside providers for their online obituaries. The following links may prove useful:
www.daddezio.com - Covers all of Canada. Gives name, date of death, age at death, and newspaper and date of obituary. Where possible, links to the newspaper listing are provided.
www.yourlifemoments.ca - Features current obituaries from selected newspapers in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, and Saskatchewan.
www.legacy.com - Features the ability to search obituaries posted in selected newspapers from some major cities in western and central Canada – Vancouver and Victoria B.C.; Edmonton and Calgary, Alberta; Saskatoon and Regina, SK; Windsor, Toronto, and Ottawa, Ontario; and Montreal, Quebec. It also allows searching by province, and contains some archives as far back as 1930.
While not specific to obituaries, the following sites provide links to Canadian newspapers. If you know where the person whose obituary you are seeking lived and died, you may be able to find more than one obituary by searching through these listings:
www.newspapers24.com - links to Canadian newspapers by province, as well as to all national newspapers (The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, etc.)
www.world-newspapers.com - Links to Canadian newspapers in all provinces, as well as the national papers.
www.altstuff.com - Links to newspapers, large and small, across Canada. Organized by province.
Hopefully, this information about archived newspapers and where to find them will prove useful in your family history research.
As noted above, archived newspapers are an excellent resource for putting 'meat on the bones' of the vital statistics you have gathered about your ancestor's life,and making those ancestors' life stories "come alive"!
Tell us your stories about how searching online in an archived newspaper database helped with your family history research.
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