Take Your Newspapers Search to the Next Level!

In 2018, Elizabeth Bell, a member of our Newspapers.com™ team, made a surprising discovery about her family history. She received the results of her Ancestry® DNA test and found that 8% of her DNA originated from the African continent. Liz’s family history had always been a bit of a mystery, and the DNA findings spurred Liz and her daughter Kaylie Watkins to learn more.

Elizabeth Bell and daughter Kaylie Watkins

The duo started on a quest, and it didn’t take long to find answers. They discovered another member’s family tree on Ancestry® that included Liz’s great-grandmother. While working backward on the tree, they found that Liz’s 2nd great-grandfather, listed as William Jenkins, was a Black man. Liz’s late father was also named William Jenkins, but he had never revealed much about his ancestors.

Surprised at this new discovery, Liz searched Newspapers.com™ to learn more. She found just one newspaper article. It revealed that Jenkins was born in Virginia in 1814, and he was born a free man. Assuming she’d exhausted her search results, Liz placed this quest on the back burner.

Recently, Liz mentioned this story to Newspapers.com™ team members. They were sure there was more to find. Within 20 minutes, the team located dozens of stories that shed new light on the Jenkins family. Liz was stunned! “How did you find these,” she asked.

The Cass County Republican: March 15, 1860

We thought we’d share some strategies we used to take Liz’s newspaper search to the next level. We hope some of these ideas might help you uncover hidden leaves in your family tree.

Use Quotations!

We performed dozens of searches using a variety of terms. Here are some of the search terms that yielded results:

  • “William Jenkins”
  • “William Jenkins” and “free papers”
  • “Jenkins” and “Michigan”
  • “Jenkins” and “Dowagiac” (Dowagiac was Jenkin’s hometown)
  • “Jenkins” and “former slave”
  • “Jenkins” and “born a free man”
  • “Jenkins” and “free man”
  • “William Jenkins” and “freed man”

Search for Children, Grandchildren, and other Descendants

William Jenkins died in 1898, but in 1964, a Michigan paper interviewed Jenkin’s daughter, Lulu. This clipping contains a priceless photograph of Lulu holding her father’s free papers. He kept them in his pocket his whole life. We also found Lulu’s marriage announcement, an article about her 98th birthday, and a subsequent obituary. We used the same type of searches that we initially used for William to search for each of his children in the papers. These provided more names to add to our tree and more pieces to the Jenkins family puzzle.  

William Jenkins’s daughter Lulu examines his free papers. Battle Creek Enquirer: August 9, 1964

Don’t Limit Your Search Dates or Places

Nearly 100 years after the death of William Jenkins, we discovered this astounding article in an Indiana newspaper. It was an interview with William’s great-granddaughter, Doris B. Wilson. Doris was interested in genealogy and hired a local artist to paint a tree mural on her wall. She then meticulously researched nearly 100 descendants of William Jenkins and added their photographs to her family tree painting. She was also the latest keeper of Jenkin’s original free papers. In addition, she reported that William died in Dowagiac in 1898. Most trees on Ancestry showed William died in Philadelphia in 1900 – another piece to the puzzle. At the end of this article, it said that the Jenkins family had held an annual family reunion in Cassopolis, Michigan, each year since 1901! We were excited to track down Doris but discovered she died in 2008. Her obituary mentioned her sister Gladys Weatherspoon. We searched for Gladys, but sadly she had also passed away. Both obituaries, however, named family members and provided clues for more research.

William Jenkins’s great-granddaughter stands by a painted mural of her family tree. The South Bend Tribune: August 22, 1993

Think Beyond Birth Announcements, Wedding Announcements, and Obituaries

We didn’t find a birth announcement, marriage announcement, or obituary for William. If you run up against a similar problem in your research, extend your search to include other family members. A sibling, child’s, or grandchild’s obituary or wedding announcement might provide a clue to break through a genealogical brick wall. Also, consider other articles that might mention your ancestor. Did the newspaper publish a town history? An article celebrating the anniversary of a church where your ancestor attended? A notice about a family reunion? Consider flipping through the pages of the local paper to learn more about what was happening in the community. Even if your ancestor is not listed by name, the pages of the paper provide context to your story.

Expand and Narrow Filters

Since William Jenkins was born in Virginia, we started our newspaper search there. When that search didn’t yield results, we expanded our search to include Ohio and Michigan – two other states where he lived. We alternated back and forth between dates and search terms in each of these searches. Ironically, the newspaper stories that revealed the most information about William Jenkins were in Indiana papers, where some of his descendants settled. Don’t be afraid to search outside places you know your ancestor lived. We’ve found informative articles about people who were just visiting from out of town.

Think Abbreviations and Nicknames

If your initial searches don’t reveal results, try some abbreviations. For example, we might find William Jenkins in the paper as Wm. Jenkins, or W.A. Jenkins, or W. Jenkins. Some common abbreviations we’ve seen are Chas. (Charles), Jas. (James), Jno. (John or Jonathon), Archd (Archibald), Abm. (Abraham), etc. Newspapers often used nicknames too.  Elizabeth might be Lizzie, Mattie for Martha, Fanny for Frances, Molly for Mary, etc.

We hope these tips will help you take your search to the next level on Newspapers.com™. Give it a try, and share your results and additional tips in the comments below.

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17 thoughts on “Take Your Newspapers Search to the Next Level!

  1. You mention that your search for William Jenkins in Virginia newspapers did not yield results. I don’t know where William lived in the Commonwealth, but your remark prompts me to mention that you need more early newspapers from the northern Virginia area. The Alexandria Gazette is not enough.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion, Renee. I’ll pass that along to our content team.

    1. Hi Lorine, the newspapers where the copyright is still owned by the publisher require the Publisher Extra subscription to view. The papers no longer covered under copyright are available in the Basic subscription.

  2. My biggest problem is with Ancestry.com. I have paid very expensive membership fees every year to them and can never get them on line. I get lots of Hints regularly, but when I try to explore further on them all I get is another ad to try a membership! I have been a member for 20+ years!!! For the longest time my computer sw wasn’t compatible with yours. It didn’t present properly. When I retired in 2014 I got a new computer and proper sw. I still can’t get into it!

  3. Susan’s problem of not being able to contact Ancestry is understandable. I, too, have asked questions on several occasions, but there was no response to simple questions. One question repeatedly made should have a quick answer – How can the program recalculate relationships when I am related to the ancestor on both maternal and paternal lines?

    Thanks for your assistance!

  4. Is adjacency or proximity searching an option, e.g. using search words like NEAR. I recent ply needed to find a man with a very common name who was a coal dealer in NYC at the turn of the century. I was able to find some items by combining his name with coal but there were lots of irrelevant search results that I needed to review as the preview screen didn’t help … other newspaper search services offer at least some proximity search options

  5. Jenny, I always limit my search by location. I am a research librarian, old school, grew up with having to construct search queries using Boolean search queries, so I know computers have been able to do this type of searching since the seventies. I really don’t know why Newspapers.com does not have this capability now, you used to have an option to use a quasi proximity search but that is no longer an option, your primary competitor has these capabilities,

  6. Original commentor here–I was also a research and collection development librarian, and I second the motion for proximity operators. Near, within 5 words of, within paragraph, etc.

  7. I find the same problem with Ancestry.com, hints keep coming and yet they are the same ones every time, that’s why I stopped using Ancestry.com it’s just repeating hints that I have already added from elsewhere and are followed up with a need to resubscribe before you can see the hints – why would I when I got further with other sites like Scotland’s People?

  8. A couple of other search tips for Black ancestors in the US— “ Jenkins, negro” or “Jenkins, colored”— earliest results first. Try that county. For more unusual names, try the whole state. Be prepared for predictably weird results — sometimes condescending, sometimes upsetting, etc. but often useful at filling in details and understanding their lives after the Civil War. Search “ colored man” or woman, “ negro man” or woman for their counties or areas and get a sense of the community’s history.

  9. Amazing and inspirational information. I will use this technique to conduct future searches. Now, I have a new reason to use newspapers.com, thank you

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