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Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill -- 6/2/2006


Ethnic Newspapers, by Michael John Neill

Those of us with non-English speaking immigrant ancestors are sometimes dismayed by the small amount of genealogical information found on them in local newspapers. One way to potentially overcome this problem is to utilize American newspapers in your ancestor's native language. Many large (and sometimes not so large) cities with substantial immigrant populations had newspapers printed in the immigrant's native language. Ignoring these papers could result in significant information being overlooked.

Why Use Them?
It might have been that the only people who "cared" that your ancestor died, married, etc. were fellow natives of his or her home country. An ethnic newspaper may include more details about your ancestor than the local English-language paper.

When Antje Fecht died near Carthage, Illinois, in 1900, there was no obituary in the local weekly paper. Not even a one-line death notice. Her obituary in a German language newspaper was fairly detailed and included her date and place of birth, information on her immigration, and the Bible text from which the funeral sermon was given.

Louise Mortier's 1921 obituary in the Gazette van Moline (a Flemish language paper published in Moline, Illinois) provided her exact village of birth in Belgium, but did not mention her first name, only listing her as Mrs. August Mortier.

Why the extra details in an ethnic newspaper? Because the readers knew the area and usually shared a heritage, fellow Belgians reading the Gazette van Moline would want to know where in Belgium she was born. Readers of the English-language paper were not as familiar with the country and not as likely to care.

Learning About the Papers
There are many ways one can learn about ethnic newspapers. The website for The United States Newspaper Program is an excellent place to start, looking both in the state where the ancestor lived and died. Searches should not end there. Library card catalogs of specific libraries in the research areas should be searched and finding aids and bibliographies for specific locations should be referenced for additional citations.

A few samples:

I found these sites by searching online for:

German newpapers microfilm kansas
Flemish newspapers microfilm illinois
Swedish newspapers microfilm texas

These searches will at least get the researcher started on their path to locating online finding aids if they are in existence. Google searches do overlook things and researchers are always advised to search card catalogs of libraries at the local, regional, and state level for such materials in addition to performing search engine searches.

Questions regarding ethnic newspapers may also be posted to an appropriate mailing list at RootsWeb or on a related message board at Ancestry.com.
Keep in mind that as your ancestor's family assimilated, the likelihood they appear in an ethnic newspaper diminishes.

Not Necessarily Published Close By
It may be that the ethnic newspaper you need was published hundreds of miles from where your ancestor lived. The Ostfriesische Nachrichten was originally published in Breda, Iowa, beginning in the 1880s and still published as late as World War II. This German language newspaper was a means by which emigrants from this area of northern Germany could keep in contact with former neighbors and friends. The newspaper published obituaries, marriage announcements, and letters from correspondents across the United States and news from Europe as well. My Ostfriesen relatives were generally in Illinois, Kansas, and Nebraska and yet they appear numerous times in the newspaper, including several letters to the editor that an ancestor wrote in the 1910s.

Reading the Newspaper
For many the real challenge will be in reading. My experience reading the German script in the Ostfriesische Nachrichten was frustrating at first; however, it is possible. Some letters look exceedingly similar especially to the untrained eye. I first focused on the names and locations in any item I was trying to decipher in an attempt to read some of the letters. I then worked my way from there focusing on German words that I already knew.

The Family History Library's Guide to reading German Gothic script was also a tremendous help. Researchers reading newspapers in other languages are encouraged to reference the Family History Library's website for online guidance in reading handwriting or to visit Cyndi's List for the specific country of interest to find links to handwriting sites.

Make certain you have included non-English language newspapers in your search for your ancestor. It may be that something published in his new home in his native language is what will take your searches back to his homeland.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS). He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at mjnrootdig@myfamily.com or visit his website at: www.rootdig.com, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

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