How newspapers can tell you how your ancestors lived

1857 Boisdale debt case - Copy

Newspapers and newspaper archives are a fantastic source of information when researching your family tree. I’ve joined several websites and libraries who hold newspapers from the past and found amazing information and stories about even the poorest relatives in our family.

Not all articles are written about famous or wealthy people. I’ve found articles about pauper ancestors who made the news because of something they did or said. There has been articles about their children who won awards for school or agricultural fairs.

The above article was what showed me why Hugh Macdonald most likely didn’t show on the 1861 UK Census. 1n 1857 he was declared insolvent (broke) which was a crime if you couldn’t pay your debts. He went to debtors prison which is very much like a Charles Dickens novel! He eventually was released but the above article confirmed he was “our” ancestor because they name his address which we have on several documents. It also confirms his wife was running a rooming house.

I’ve got another article from years before, when he was still in South Uist, Scotland. In this article he is mentioned because he managed to save a boat that was loaded with supplies and he was given credit for it. The following notice was the death of his son Alexander, who was only 19 years old and died in Demerara, British Guyana. Was he a soldier? Had he emigrated there? This opened up another whole search for me. Turns out there was a rebellion at this time and he was most likely a casualty of it. This obituary appeared in the Liverpool Mercury where his father lived, but also in several Scottish newspapers. His father obviously wanted his extended family to know what happened. Another great help is that in almost all articles about Hugh, he is called either Hugh Macdonald, esq. of Boisdale, or Hugh Macdonald, Boisdale. He is always confirming his status. Unfortunately for Hugh and his wife, there were many such obituaries as he outlived 8 of his children.

Alex.McD-Demerara obitFinally, there is this sad article of another ancestor from Scotland who ended his life and he made the newspapers because of it. He was not well off or famous. Just a regular man who had fallen on hard times and became depressed.

Suicide James Matthew

I’ve got countless articles that tell stories of heart ache, crime, birth, marriages and deaths. Of families separated by emigration and of families at war in the court system. Bankruptcies, even advertisements have appeared for past family members. All of these help build up how our ancestors lived. Who they were, what they did and what became of them. It’s so much better than just a name with a birth, marriage and death date. That’s boring.

I joined the Toronto Reference Library and with my card I can access the archives of the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail. This was free. I also joined the British Newspaper Archive which holds the best newspapers (I think) from not just England but Scotland, Ireland and Wales. This is a pay per view site.

Here are links to some that I use a lot:   (some Ontario newspapers FREE)



About tiesthatbindsite

I'm a genealogist with a passion for Scottish and English ancestry. I'm trilingual so I can also do research in French Canadian records and Italian records. My love for family history began 35 years ago and continues to grow every day. My family is very important to me and I hope to instill in them a love for "where they came from" so that they can better understand who they are. I also want to share my love of family history with anyone who understands how important it is to not lose site of their ancestors. They all have a story to tell.
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2 Responses to How newspapers can tell you how your ancestors lived

  1. Jana Last says:


    I want to let you know that your blog is listed in today’s Fab Finds post at

    Have a wonderful weekend!


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