As you build your family history and develop the story of your ancestors, it’s helpful to consider what those ancestors were doing at a specific time and place in history. When you find the convergence of person, place, and time, you have more than family history, you have a family story. One of the best places to find that “sweet spot” is through newspapers, which just might be the best kept secret in genealogy.
Newspapers allow us to see into the historical period in which our ancestors lived. Newspapers help us to understand the general information about a time and place, and they are chock-full of treasures pertaining to the lives of our ancestors. Often, we are able to glean specific details which cannot be found anyplace else: a baby who died; a winter storm on the day an ancestor arrived on Angel Island; the loss of a business after the 1906 earthquake; stories about family and friends; social events, weddings, and funerals; and the day-to-day lives and activities of our family members.
Marriage notices can be very interesting. Imagine being able to discover the maiden names of women. Even details such as the type of dress worn by the bride or her attendants, and the types of flowers in the bouquet, add color and depth to the family narrative.
Obituaries can be a virtual gold mine of family details, often revealing a great deal about the life of an individual, from schools attended to jobs held, and names of family and friends.
Through newspapers, we might discover children who were born and died between census years, maiden names of women through marriage and death announcements, or causes of death during epidemics. Divorces and probate actions might be announced, and businesses established and advertised. One genealogist recently discovered that a relative, who was presumed to have been single, actually died of influenza, leaving behind a wife who was named. All of these sorts of details add color and depth to the family narrative, and confirm or refute oral history.
Newspapers can provide the details to help flesh out the lives of our family members, as well as their friends, associates and neighbors. Descriptions of graduations, awards, religious services, and athletic endeavors can sometimes fill in the blanks when other records are non-existent. Occasionally, name changes, previously unknown spouses, or a criminal past provide enough clues for the family historian to search additional records.
For Japanese Americans, community newspapers, assembly center newspapers, and concentration camp papers are particularly resourceful. While some early Nikkei newspapers were written in Japanese, others were in English. Assembly centers and War Relocation Authority camps operated much like small towns, and the newspapers from those places are just like small-town newspapers; those papers can be found in a number of locations.
The following list of resources is just the tip of the iceberg and is in no way comprehensive. Although archival newspapers can be found in a variety of locations, not everything is online.
The Family Tree Historical Newspapers Guide: How to Find Your Ancestors in Archived Newspapers by James Beidler.
“Going Beyond Obituaries: How to Use Newspapers in Your Family History Research,” by Legacy Family Tree.
Ancestry.com has both WRA newspapers and assembly center newspapers. This subscription Website can be accessed for free at many public libraries, Family History centers, and the California Genealogical Society.
California Digital Newspaper Collection is a free site which has searchable newspapers from around California, though it is not Nikkei-specific.
Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project has several digitized camp newspapers in its free archival collection.
Hoji Shinbun Digital Collection contains 89 titles (including the pre-war Nichi Bei Shimbun) and growing. This word-searchable collection is part of Stanford University’s Hoover Library. Some content is restricted to use on the Stanford campus, such as The Rafu Shimpo.
Library of Congress includes newspapers from all of the WRA camps and from some assembly centers, plus other regions. It is word-searchable.
Universities often hold newspaper collections. University of Washington Nikkei Newspapers Digital Archive has two online Japanese newspapers, the North American Times (aka Hokubei Jiji) and North American Post (1946-1950). This university also has a number of newspapers on microfilm. Hokubei Jiji is also available on microfilm at Washington State University. Other universities to check include the University of California, Berkeley and UCLA.
In addition to these resources, be sure to check the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, the Japanese American National Library in San Francisco, the San Francisco Public Library, and the California History Room at the California State Library in Sacramento.
Linda Harms Okazaki is a professional genealogist who currently serves as president of the California Genealogical Society. She specializes in Japanese American records. If you have a genealogical question which might be answered in this column, please send an e-mail to LindasOrchard@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.