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The Context of Their Lives…Part 1

Vital records are a core component of any family history seeker’s toolbox. Birth, marriage, and death certificates give us a foundation on which to build our family tree. However, our ancestors are more than the names, dates, and places we associate with them. That’s where historical and social context can help fill the gaps and round out the lives and stories of our family members. 

Newspapers are an incredible source for digging deep into historical and social context. There are many different types of information, so let’s take a look at some examples from a small-town newspaper.

Current Events

To really understand the life of an ancestor, current events give us a snapshot of what was happening at the time. Newspapers published current events from the local (city and county level) all the way to state, national, and even world news.

A Plethora of Events

Local Gas Explosion

International News – War


Religious affiliations can give us insight into our ancestors’ lives from a different perspective. Our family members might not be specifically named in an article; however, we can learn valuable insight into what their church life and faith might have entailed. 

Sunday School Report

Church History


Do you ever wonder what ailed your ancestors back in the day? Oftentimes, short blurbs were published in the newspaper telling of sicknesses and diseases afflicting people and how they were faring. If there was more of an outbreak, those were also included to warn the public. 

Typhoid Fever

Childhood Diseases


The school days of our ancestors were much different. Today’s massive, technology-laden buildings have changed significantly from the tiny, one-room schoolhouses of more than a century ago. One thing that hasn’t changed is the desire to capture what’s happening in education. 

Graduation Address

List of Area Schoolhouses and Teachers


Some families have lived in one location for generations. Others are frequently on the move. Thinking my great grandparents lived their entire lives in my hometown tripped up my research. While a census record only gives location every ten years, newspapers might contain the whereabouts of your ancestors throughout those ten years. I discovered in newspaper clippings that my great grandparents had actually lived in several cities and even states. 

Family Moving


Similar to migration, real estate transactions in the newspaper give us a snapshot of where our ancestors lived, what they owned, and the cost of property compared to the present day. Things like real estate transfers and Sheriff’s sales might hold a missing piece of information about your ancestors.

Real Estate Transfers

Sheriff’s Sales

Be sure to check out Part Two of The Context of Their Lives for even more ideas and examples of finding historical and social context to build out your ancestors’ stories.

Excited to explore and discover the context surrounding the lives of your family members? Visit NewspaperArchive.com for a 7-Day Free Trial and start today.

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