There are a lot of great resources on the internet to research history, family history and other topics of general interest involving people. Recently, I discovered the website “The Ancestor Hunt” as a free resource for finding online newspapers from all over the United States and Canada.
Website owner Kenneth R. Marks has collected a multitude of newspaper, obituary indexes, photos, and birth, death and marriage records resources from around the world to help genealogists with their research.
Here’s Kenneth’s story.
How The Ancestor Hunt Began
In 2002, Kenneth R. Marks joined ancestry.com as a “free subscriber”. His intention was to learn more about his family history.
After some intense searching for residents of his family tree, he discovered that it was not his main goal to find new members and their birth, marriage, and death dates and locations necessarily. He was much more interested to discover the stories of his ancestors’ lives. The BMD stuff became boring to him.
Kenneth then moved on to researching newspapers to find out those stories. If one of his living relatives did not know stories of ancestors from over a hundred years ago, then how could he find out more about them and how they lived?
Newspapers! Newspapers could hold the secrets to so many questions
- What was their occupation? Were they a miner, a gasfitter, a salesman, a stenographer, or a farmer?
- What lodges or associations did they belong to?
- Did they have a dark past as a criminal, or were they a victim?
- Were they an inventor or an entertainer?
- What church did they go to?
- Were they a councilman, or a lawyer?
- Did they own some kind of retail establishment?
Newspaper articles were the key for sure.
“It hurts my heart to know that there are ancestors who didn’t have children or possibly didn’t marry, that no one will ever remember UNLESS I become the one who records what little or maybe a lot about their life story.
And without a ton of information obtained through relatives’ interviews, that left me with old newspapers to research.”
Example: Kenneth found ancestors in San Francisco during the time of the 1906 earthquake and fire as well as relatives in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s who had to flee. The back stories of those events were critical to understanding how they lived. And these “event” stories and the history of the event were provided by old newspapers.
When Kenneth started, he had very few relatives who were older than him as he is the oldest great-grandchild and grandchild and all grandparents and parents are gone. He had one uncle and two of his father’s cousins left, and no one on his mother’s side. Despite their help with some stories as they were few and far between, his only “hope” was to dig into old newspapers.
While on this newspaper research path, he discovered the two guiding passions:
- If we don’t document the stories of our ancestors, who will?
- Our ancestors can “live forever” through this documenting of their life stories, and they deserve our attention to their memory.
The Ancestor Hunt Focuses on Newspapers
The Ancestor Hunt website was started in 2012 when Kenneth started writing about general genealogy topics. Along the way, he discovered dozens of techniques to use to make progress in researching old newspapers. It was (and still is) his intent to share these techniques, as well as valuable tools in order that the journey for the reader will be less bumpy and hopefully just as rewarding as it has been for him.
Whether one is a historian, a student researching a historical event for a school project, a genealogist or family historian trying to find articles about their ancestors, or searching just for fun, all the resources in the site can be of help. They are intended to help one become a master newspaper researcher.
As Kenneth got “good at it”, he discovered that there really weren’t very many genealogists and family historians that used newspapers much as a tool. And there weren’t “places to go” to learn newspaper research best practices if you will.
So, although The Ancestor Hunt was already in existence, the last few years have been devoted to historic newspaper research methods.
The site is a mix of regularly updated links to “free to search” collections for primarily the U.S. and Canada (over 22,000 titles represented); articles about how to become a more successful researcher, Quicksheets, a free eBook, and about 50 video tutorials on YouTube. All free.
There are also links to other entities that Kenneth has created: a Facebook Group (Genealogy and Newspapers) with over 8,600 members, a Google Plus Community (Genealogy and Newspapers) of about 2,500 members, a Facebook page with over 14,500 Followers, and a couple of Pinterest Boards, as well as a Flipboard dedicated to Newspaper Research.
In summary, it is Kenneth’s mission to help create many more obsessed newspaper researchers. In these old papers live the life stories of long-gone ancestors. Let’s make them live “forever” by documenting the stories that live in old newspapers.
How Does Kenneth Create These Link Lists?
When Kenneth started creating the lists, he focused on the U.S. and a year later added Canada. He has created summary lists for other countries, but the language barrier prevents him from being very accurate in non-English speaking countries. He prefers to be accurate and does not create the longest list just for the sake of making it long. Just like all the genealogy tree sites that are filled with garbage unsourced or unproven names and dates, it does his readership and followers no good if he creates garbage link lists.
Kenneth started by reviewing other link lists, traversing to the many sites that he had used himself or was aware of, verifying the links and performing some rudimentary Google searching to find additional links.
Now, he employs a much more refined and targeted Google search criteria to find the ”hidden” online newspaper collections. More recently, he has found the majority of the links that have been added through his own digging.
He has also found that many of the existing newspaper link list sites are not frequently updated (or not at all), and so he is wasting his time reviewing their lists every 3 or 4 months. There are a few good lists out there, but they include subscription sites as well as non-online titles, or they are infrequently updated and have an increasing number of dead links.
With this, The Ancestor Hunt’s link list for free online historical newspaper collections is likely the most comprehensive and accurate for the U.S. and Canada.
Other Endeavors for The Ancestor Hunt
Although creating and updating the lists is extremely time-consuming, Kenneth found the additional time that he could use in other areas of genealogy research.
- Free Online Photo Database Links. Kenneth has always been intrigued by ancestor photographs and trying to name who the ancestor is. His favorite cousin and genealogy “buddy” and him had quite a time a few years ago analyzing together a ton of old photographs of their ancestors and determining the names of the people in the photo. Kenneth has also found a few of his ancestor photos in online photo databases. Thus, he decided in mid-2014 through 2015 to create a state by state list of free to search online old photo collections. He intends to update those links this year, as the number of online photo collections has exploded since 2015.
- Obituaries and Obituary Indexes as a target for listing online links to mostly obituary indexes. Kenneth only lists those that have the date of publication and the newspaper title. Without those, it just serves as a death index database. He has already updated it once in January of this year and will be updating it quite soon, as he has discovered additional methods to find many more of those obituary index databases.
- Birth, Marriage, and Death Indexes. There is a ton of those online. They are useful for finding target ancestors and who and when they married, as well as when they were born and died. Personally, Kenneth uses those as hints in his own genealogy research for his family, but they are great clues. As his research methodology has improved, he will update these link lists this year as well.
Feedback From Visitors
This project provides Kenneth great joy in creating these lists, as he often gets positive responses from readers where they have found some important information about one or more of their ancestors, and especially when they find a newspaper article that helps fill in the story of their ancestor’s lives. Almost all responses are positive, and he receives responses via site comments, or contact forms, or via email of sites that he has not included. The only negatives are when a reader clicks on an ad and suggests strongly that his site is not free, which, indeed it is totally free. His biggest frustration is with the rare user who claims that the site is not free when he knows that they have not even opened a blog post or looked at his site.
By and large, this has been a rather intense yet fulfilling endeavor with what Kenneth would guess about 99% positive reader satisfaction. He continues to do this with the goal to help other folks to find the stories of their ancestor’s lives.
About Kenneth R. Marks
Currently, Kenneth is retired from his 35-year career as a software executive. He attended UC Berkeley, the University of Southern California and California State University, graduating with A BS in Mathematics in 1968. He spends many hours with The Ancestor Hunt website as well as researching his own ancestors. He maintains two family history websites: www.marksology.com and www.braunhart.com, which because of family circumstances have not been updated or added to in the last couple of years, unfortunately.
Have you taken a look at what The Ancestor Hunt website has to offer?
Kenneth’s Three Favorite Personal Genealogy Stories
(not in any specific order)
- Finding his 2nd great-grandfather who immigrated to New York City in the early 1850s and off to San Francisco in the late 1850s was outstanding, but finding his brother and two sisters, largely because of newspaper articles, is one of his favorites. The story can be found at http://www.marksology.com/2013/09/finding-aunt-lottie.html
- Finding his genealogy “buddy” Martha was also outstanding. She actually found Kenneth in 2010 after 6 months of trying. At one time they were emailing one another 30 times a day as they were discovering their Braunhart relatives, poring over hundreds of old ancestor photos, and generally harassing their relatives to help them out with their boxes of old photos and other artifacts. They worked together to get a bunch of hundred-year-old family letters written in German translated and analyzed. This is the best part of genealogy research – connecting with people, especially new relatives.
- The last story is a little difficult to write but the most heartwarming of all. As Kenneth was writing the blog posts for what he calls “Braunhart Mania” (braunhart.com) in 2010, he was approached (via email) by a woman, (who he calls “A”) who lives in Berlin, Germany. She is his daughter’s age and as it turns out is one of their Braunhart relatives. Her Jewish grandfather was forced to divorce his Christian wife and give up his three children and was later murdered by the Nazis. “A” was very curious about her own family history when she was young and pestered her father (who was one of the three children who was stripped away from his father). He did not under any circumstances want to revisit that horrible time in his life. As a result, “A” felt quite lost regarding family connections, especially emotionally. As it turned out, through the research with Kenneth’s genealogy buddy Martha, “A”s grandfather was one of 13 children and was the only one of the 13 who stayed in Germany. Others were either killed in a concentration camp, immigrated to the U.S before the late 1930’s or from other places that German Jews hid out during the war – Shanghai, Palestine or England. The positive emotional response from “A” and her connecting with her American family is the best story of all, as it meant so much to her to connect with them.