5 Tips for Finding an Ancestor with a Common Name in the Newspaper

What do you do when you want to look for your ancestor in the newspaper, but your ancestor has a common name? How do you know if the John Smith you found mentioned in a newspaper article is your John Smith?

This can be a frustrating roadblock to navigate, so to help you in your search, we’ve come up with 5 tips for finding a person with a common name in the papers on Newspapers.com.

1. Use our search filters.

We’ll start with the most obvious tip first: Use the Newspapers.com search filters to narrow down your matches. (Watch this video to learn how to use our filters.)

If you go to our search bar and type John Smith, you’ll get more than 100 million results, which is far too many to go through one by one. So try adding filters in addition to your search terms. For example, if you know John Smith lived in Kansas between 1909 and 1930, add filters for that location and date range. This simple method will help get the number of search results down to a more manageable number.

Search filters on Newspapers.com
Search filters on Newspapers.com

Keep in mind, however, that any time you add filters to a search, you are excluding potential matches. While a newspaper article about your ancestor is most likely to appear in a newspaper from the town he lived in during the time he lived there, if he traveled to a different city to visit a relative, he may also appear in that town’s newspaper. Or he might be mentioned in a newspaper long after his death in an article about one of his descendants.

2. Learn everything you can about your ancestor.

If your ancestor has a common name, the thing that will help you distinguish them in the newspaper is obviously not going to be their name—it’ll be other things about them. So the more you know about your ancestor, the more likely you will be to recognize them when you come across them in a newspaper. Traditional records, such as censuses, vital records, wills, and land records, are a good place to find personal information about your ancestor that you can use in your newspaper search.

Example of a WW2 draft card, which can provide useful information in learning about an individual (via Fold3)
Example of a WW2 draft card, which can provide useful information in learning about an individual (via Fold3)

Details that may help you distinguish your ancestor include when and where they lived (even down to their address, if possible), as well as their spouse’s, parents’, and children’s names. Every detail can help—even their profession, physical description, and the clubs and church they belonged to.

So if your ancestor John Smith lived in a town with another John Smith, you may be able to tell them apart by the details provided in a newspaper article. For instance, if you know your John Smith was a doctor, then an article in the town paper mentioning a “Dr. John Smith” is more likely to be about your ancestor than an article talking about a lawyer named John Smith. Similarly, if you know he was 30 years old in 1912, then you’ll also know that an article from 1912 about a John Smith’s 50th wedding anniversary isn’t going to be about your ancestor.

3. Learn who their family, friends, and neighbors were.

Your ancestor may have had a common name, but there were likely people in their circle who had more distinguishable names. So try searching for your ancestor in conjunction with family, friends, and neighbors who had less common names.

For example, our commonly named John Smith may have married a woman with a more uncommon surname, like Chuba. So if you search for him in conjunction with his in-laws’ surname, you may turn up mentions of him in the newspaper. Similarly, maybe his father or brother had a less common first name than “John,” so if you find their names and his mentioned together in an article, this is a good sign you’ve found whom you’re looking for.

A Smith family photo (Nebraska State Journal, 12.25.1915)
A Smith family photo from a newspaper (Nebraska State Journal, 12.25.1915)

And don’t stop at family members. If you know the name of a family friend or neighbor (things like censuses and city directories can alert you to who lived nearby), you can search for that person in the newspaper and see if your ancestor pops up in conjunction with them. For example, if your John Smith lived next door to a Thomas Bieber for many years, and you find a John Smith mentioned in a newspaper social column about the Bieber’s Christmas party, there’s a good probability that it’s your John Smith.

4. Try searching without a name.

If the person’s name is the problem, try searching without one—or with only part of it. To search without a name, gather all the information possible about the person, like we mentioned in previous tips, and then search using these criteria.

So instead of searching for the name “John Smith,” search for things you know about him. If you know Dr. John Smith lived in Topeka, Kansas, between 1909 and 1930 and was married to a woman with the maiden name Chuba, you could try searching for doctors living in Topeka during that time period who were mentioned in the newspaper in conjunction with the Chuba family.

Example of a Newspapers.com search that doesn't use the individual's full name
Example of a Newspapers.com search that doesn’t use the individual’s full name

This method requires a lot of experimenting with different keywords and testing out different searches, but you never know what you may turn up this way!

5. Pay attention to newspaper patterns.

If you’re confused about which John Smith is which in a town’s newspaper, it would’ve been confusing for people in your ancestor’s day too. So newspapers had to find a method to distinguish people with the same name in their articles. One way they sometimes did this was by including an address in conjunction with a name. But they also differentiated people by styling their names differently.

Newspapers often stuck to naming patterns when mentioning residents so that their readers could know who was being written about. John Smith may have been written about in the newspaper as “John Smith,” “Jno. Smith,” “John A. Smith,” “J. A. Smith,” “Johnny Smith,” “Jack Smith,” “Dr. Smith,” or some other variation. So your ancestor might not be “John Smith” in the newspaper at all—he might be “J. A. Smith,” while the other John Smith in town was written about as “John Smith.”

Of course, newspapers didn’t always stick strictly to naming patterns, but when you are able to find a pattern, it can be a major help in identifying your ancestor. So if you are able find your ancestor mentioned in the newspaper at least once, pay attention to how the paper styled their name!

Good luck!

List of some of the John Smiths in and around Kansas City circa 1888 (via the Kansas City Daily Gazette, 08.11.1888)
List of some of the John Smiths in and around Kansas City circa 1888 (via the Kansas City Daily Gazette, 08.11.1888)

Unfortunately, having an ancestor with a common name often means you have to spend a lot more time combing search results to find them in the newspaper. Sometimes, the best you can do is narrow your search results down to a manageable number, and then go through each result, ruling them out one by one. You may even have to do quite a bit of research into someone who isn’t your ancestor, just so you know for sure that they aren’t the person you’re looking for.

But the time and effort you spend will be well worth it when you do finally find a newspaper mention of your ancestor!

Let us know in the comments if you have any other tips for finding ancestors with common names!

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