Research Your Scottish Ancestry

RObert WilbanksNewspapers - News of Our Ancestors

by Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.
Chief Genealogist & Historian, C.S.A.

A little known, but no less important, genealogical resource is newspapers. Whether they are mentioned directly or indirectly, or not at all, newspapers can be the day-to-day (or week-to-week) story of our ancestors’ lives and the community they lived in.

They are written as events happen, making them an excellent source for family history research. They can be a great, and even fun, resource for genealogy.

Newspapers usually serve a geographical region, with national, state or local publications. They can also be ethnic based, such as Polish, German, or Irish or Scottish newspapers in America, and some are religious based, at the national or local level, whether Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, etc. And of course, they can be politically based, whether Whig, Liberal, Democratic, Republican, etc. So, a mention of your ancestors in any of these can indicate a character trait or viewpoint.

Newspapers began in the mid to late 1600s, and may have started out monthly or weekly. With technological advancements, the daily newspaper began to appear in the late 1700s. In America, Boston began one of the earliest newspapers, with weekly publications in New York and Philadelphia beginning by the early 1700s. In 1783, the Pennsylvania Evening Post became the first daily publication in America.

In Scotland, newspapers began in the mid-1600s, and became more established in the early 1700s. The Edinburgh Evening Courant (1718) and the Caledonian Mercury (1720) were the more significant early papers, though they were more national and international in scope, with little local news. Regional publications began with the Glasgow Journal (1741) and the Aberdeen Journal (1748). The Glasgow Mercury (1778) focused more on local news.

While the most common use of newspapers in genealogy is for the more obvious and direct publishing of birth and marriage announcements, and obituaries, there is so much more that can be found in these weekly or daily local publications. Newspapers have been found to regularly publish voter lists or school listings, ships’ passenger lists, various court, including estate and probate cases, and announcements of visitors to the homes of local residents. Church and social groups have stories written about events and activities, listing members in attendance. Business announcements are also published frequently, noting if your ancestor opened a shop, or announced a new service, set up a medical or law practice; or announcing the receipt of a shipment of goods, etc. Also, announcements of unclaimed mail were regular occurrences. And often, to the embarrassment of the local residents, newspapers frequently announced personal domestic issues and social indiscretions, such as runaway wives and drunken husbands, ailments, trips, unsavory visitors, killings, and much more.

One of the key significances of newspapers is that they often survived in local areas where records were otherwise lost or destroyed. Announcements of upcoming court cases were often required to be published in successive issues for three weeks or three months, seeking creditors or lost family, etc., before the cases were brought before the court. This is a great substitute where court records were lost or destroyed. Also, in jurisdictions where vital records were not kept, newspapers are a great place to find announcements of births, marriages and deaths. Sometimes certain local announcements would spread around a region in multiple newspapers. So, at a time or in an area where there are gaps in publications, the same announcement can be found copied in another publication across county lines.

Fortunately, due to our advanced technology, newspapers are extensively digitized and available on various websites for free or a fee. Ancestry, MyHeritage, FindMyPast, and many other genealogical subscription sites have numerous newspapers, including a wealth of British and Scottish publications. There are also fee-based sites that provide access to numerous newspapers from around the world, such as GenealogyBank, NewspaperArchive, and more. Chronicling America (, by the U.S. Library of Congress, has an extensive collection of digitized early American newspapers up to 1963. Usually, surname and keyword searches are available, with limiters by date, region, etc., making the search and the results more manageable.

Of course, like any other aspect of genealogy, the key is to know the right place and the right time to search newspapers. Additionally, you have to learn what newspapers were published at that time and in that place, and you have to learn what is now available and where it can be found today. But it is well worth the effort when you find the news and stories about your ancestors that you couldn’t find in other more standard records and resources.        

This is another of a series of articles in which I show you the basics of searching for your family history, discussing the use of family records, public records, and online resources nationally and internationally, etc. The previous articles are now available on the Genealogy Section of this website.   See “Genealogy” in the menu options at the top of the web page.