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Female Ancestors: Finding Women in Local History and Genealogy


Woman's Journal and Suffrage News. March 8, 1913. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Historical context for businesses, churches, schools, social events, and so much more can be found in community newspapers. Yes, you want obituaries and marriage announcements, but if you want the real day-to-day life of your ancestors or their community – read the news.

Never assume an ancestor was not headline material. Newsworthy items range widely, especially in columns of personal mentions and rural correspondents. Look not only for family names, but also for affiliations that may include your ancestor, even if they are not specifically identified.

As in all genealogical research, we must remember that family history is human history – and humans are not, nor have they ever been, perfect. Newspapers thrived on scandal and outrageousness in the past just as in the present. So we must go into our search ready for anything and prepared to follow through on any new discoveries with honest, accurate, and exhaustive research. Consider the content of each article and where else you may find records to confirm or deny details and expound upon the subject.

For our female ancestors who are less prominently represented in so many other types of records, the mere mentions of her social calls, travel plans, or recent illness may pull at a thread that unravels a whole string of events in her life or provides a tale that puts personality back into her profile.

Selected Resources

Library of Congress subject specialists have created Blogs that provide background and resources for further study.

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

The Library of Congress provides free access to Chronicling America, which is a word-searchable collection of historic newspapers. You can search this database to lookup area newspapers and search for articles related to your community and the people who lived in your house.

If the newspapers for your area have not been digitized yet, use the Directory of U.S. Newspapers to see which repositories house the archives.

Access further resources about available publications through the Library of Congress Newspapers and Periodicals Division.

Library of Congress subject specialists have created Research Guides that provide background and resources for further study.

The digitization and optical-character-recognition (OCR) scanning of historic newspapers enables us to quickly search across thousands of newsprint pages in less time than we might have spent loading the reel on a microfilm machine. There are many such projects underway, so in addition to the popular national databases featured below, be sure to ask about initiatives in your ancestor's state and community. And, of course, digitization is a slow process, so be sure to seek out physical archives of newspaper issues and microfilm collections as well.

The subscription resources marked with a padlock are available to researchers on-site at the Library of Congress. If you are unable to visit the Library, you may be able to access these resources through your local public or academic library.