Genealogy Search Tips for Chronicling America

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Often marriages are printed in varying detail in historic newspapers. This notice appeared, among others, in the Bennington Banner and Reformer, October 15, 1903.

The search for ancestors, while generally rewarding, can be difficult and time-consuming; as an amateur genealogist I can attest to this. For genealogy research, certainly, historic newspapers contain a wealth of information about relatives, for newspapers can include local news, marriages and deaths, participant lists (military recruitment lists, organizations, meetings, parties), advertisements, social and political functions, local individual updates (e.g., “Mrs. William Johnson received her parents this past Wednesday”–these may or may not be helpful!), and legal notices (deeds, court happenings, divorces, estates). This is, if you can find it amid hundreds of thousands of pages. Generally, this has often meant hours of scanning newspaper microfilm or going through actual newspapers at a historical society or library.

Thankfully, Chronicling America provides an online platform for searching historic newspapers from across the United States. Chronicling America is an accessible and free search tool that greatly eases the search of newspapers for traces of the past. Currently, thirty-eight states, including Vermont, have over 6.6 million pages from 1,105 newspapers available for search on the website from the years of 1836-1922.

Genealogy Search Tips:

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Local personal updates were usually printed in most papers by the late 19th century, containing a variety of news including marriages, licenses, enlistments, and real estate purchases. Note too the different ways people’s names were typed. This is from the Burlington Weekly Free Press in 1918.

Searching on Chronicling America is not without its own challenges. Sometimes you get zero results, sometimes you might get thousands! It can be daunting; however, adapting and modifying your search parameters is essential to closing in on the results that you are searching for. Below, some key helpful hints on genealogy searches.

  • Diversify your search terms.
  1. For example, try the full name, first and middle initial and last name (e.g., W.D. Barrows), maiden name, or just a last name (be prepared for a lot of search results!).
  2. Consider that first names might be abbreviated (Chas. for Charles).  A woman usually was identified by her husband’s first and last name.
  3. Try searching also schools, affiliated organizations, street names, family businesses. For example, if I knew that my family surname was Green and that they owned an oil company. I might try “Green Oil Company” in my search.
  4. Historic vocabulary: Vocabulary has changed quite a bit since the 19th and the early 20th century, which should be kept in mind when commencing searches. For example, if you know your great-grandfather owned a general store in a small Vermont town, you should try using “dry goods” as a search term. Spellings have also altered over time–take for instance, in the excerpt below, the spelling of center as “centre.”
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An excerpt from the “Business Cards” section of the Vermont Daily Transcript from 1868, which contains now uncommonly used words such as proprietor, dealer, dry goods, notions, and chancery.

5. It’s important to remember that the search technology is not perfect; it does not pick up every word on the page, which is why it’s useful to diversify your search terms.                     6.Typos occur often in historic newspapers (there was no spell check), so try different spellings of names, too.                                                                                                                          7. If you are looking for something specific, such as a marriage, you can try a search of “marriage” and the last name.

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I did a general search in this example. Here I limited it to the state of Vermont and searched for the name “W.D. Roberts.” I received a total of 152 search results–not bad for a basic search!

  • Narrow (or expand) your search parameters, using the basic and advanced search options on Chronicling America.
  1. For example, if you are looking for a relative in the Civil War who fought in the 1st Vermont Cavalry, you could limit your location to Vermont, search a variety of terms, and narrow the years to 1861-1865.
  2. You can also narrow the search by newspaper. If you know your relative lived in Bennington, Vermont, you could search under the “Advanced Search” button under the Bennington Evening Banner newspaper pages only.
  3. If you are finding your search restrictions are coming up with too little results, try eliminating some of your constraints.
  4. Another option, as seen in the example below, is to search “with any of the words,” “all of the words,” “with the phrase,” and “with the words within x number of spaces.” Trying a combination of these could led to more results.
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Under the Advanced Search, you can apply multiple search restrictions, including searching by state, a specific newspaper, specific year or date time frame, language, and vary your word parameters.

There are other guides online that provide a good deal of assistance with genealogy research on Chronicling America, including:

  • A very helpful and detailed powerpoint presentation with great search examples by past VTDNP Project Librarian Tom McMurdo on how to search Chronicling America for genealogy purposes.
  • Search strategies by the Library of Congress for Chronicling America for both basic and advanced searches as well .
  • State blog entries: Hawaii Digital Newspaper Project and South Carolina Digital Newspaper Project both have published short entries on searching genealogy newspaper content Chronicling America.
  • The Ohio Historical Society has created a useful interactive document on how to search on Chronicling America, as well as a genealogy-specific powerpoint on how to search Chronicling America.

Vermont Newspapers Digitized on Chronicling America:

Other free (nearby) online newspaper databases:

Happy searching! Remember you can bookmark newspaper pages and download, save, and print pdfs, jpegs, and jp2s from Chronicling America. If you have any suggestions, success stories, or questions, please contact Karyn at knorwood@uvm.edu.

-Karyn Norwood, Digital Support Specialist

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5 Responses to Genealogy Search Tips for Chronicling America

  1. chmjr2 says:

    A very good posting, with information we all can use. I will be looking over all the links you have provided.

  2. Thank you for this, Karen. Very helpful. I have done 3 videos about using the Chronicling America site if you are interested.

    https://www.youtube.com/user/KennethRMarks/videos?shelf_id=1&tag_id=UCtBZulebfB25jtRJRJ3btiw.3.library-of-congress&sort=dd&view=46.

    I will also share this post on my Genealogy and Newspapers FB Group.and my The Ancestor Hunt FB Page.

    • vtdnp says:

      Hi Kenneth,
      Thank you so much for your comment and willingness to share the post! Your videos are excellent, concise, and informative–thank you for sharing them with us.
      -Karyn

  3. tookie says:

    It’s also great for doing research on ghostly comings and goings, monsters, mysterious flying objects etc.

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