Which Newspaper did your Ancestors Read? Or Breaking through Brick Walls with the Chicago Daily News

IMG_20171012_152402When we look at our ancestor’s lives through the filter of our modern view point, we genealogists often make faulty assumptions.

For example, our modern mindset finds difficulty with the thought that a person born just a few generations ago might not have known his or her birth date or even birth year. In fact, our ancestors can be found in documents where their given age falls into a huge range of potential birth years for this very reason. The way we today use and celebrate birthdays are fairly recent constructs.

Another example might be how we limit our searches to the most well-known modern resources. I am thinking specifically about how Chicago genealogists might limit their newspapers searches to the Chicago Tribune or the Sun Times because those papers have been the most widely read newspapers throughout our lifetimes.

The Tribune’s archives are digitized and accessible through many Chicagoland public libraries. We can easily query the digitized archive database for mention of our ancestors, but what do we do if we do not find the article or obit for which we are looking? Do we assume that if it didn’t make the Tribune, said obit or article must not exist?

Please don’t make this assumption.

Many papers have existed and been preferred by various groups (ethnic, political, religious etc.) throughout Chicago’s history.[1] Yet, even some of the city’s historically most widely read newspapers are often overlooked by genealogists, such as the Chicago Daily News.

Beginning in 1875 and running for over a century, Chicago Daily News actually enjoyed wider readership than the Tribune did for over 40 years. It was considered to be the “Independent” newspaper as opposed to the “Democratic” Sun-Times and the “Republican” Tribune.[2] At a penny an issue, the Chicago Daily News was low cost leader in the industry, and boasted an international news department second to none.[3]

Perhaps, for these reasons, my first generation immigrant ancestors seemed to have preferred the Chicago Daily News. In fact, the earliest family obit that I can find in the Tribune and Sun Times is dated 1952!

I recently had a quick opportunity to search some microfilms of Chicago Daily News at the Chicago History Museum. I was looking for three specific obituaries I had previously been unable to find in the other papers. To be honest, I doubted whether I would obits for which I was looking existed at all. Here’s why.

  1.  The first obit for which I was searching was for a working-class, first-generation German-American ancestor who passed away in 1919 (Influenza pandemic) just 30 years or so after he immigrated to the US. He and his family attended a German speaking church. I assumed if any obituary existed, it would likely only be in a German newspaper. I don’t read German, by the way.
  2. The second obituary for which I was searching involved a first-generation Irish-American ancestor who could not read, worked as hod carrier and laborer, and whose infant daughter was buried in pauper’s grave. I highly doubted his surviving family could afford to print a newspaper obituary.
  3. The third obituary involved a first generation Irish immigrant ancestor who passed away unexpectedly in the late 1930s (during the Great Depression). Although I am not certain what role the Depression played on his family’s economic outlook, I know he had at least achieved a middle class income prior to the Stock Market Crash. Since no obit could be found in the Tribune, I figured there probably wasn’t one.

But guess what?

I found Every. Single. One. In the Chicago Daily News.

Now, how many times have you thought in your research, “If only I could find an obituary for this person! That might shed some light on this mystery!”

Well, which newspapers have you checked?

 By the way, even though to the best of my knowledge you won’t find many pages of the Chicago Daily News digitized, many of the paper’s photographs are digitized and searchable through the Chicago History Museum website:


[1] Grace DuMelle, Finding your Chicago Ancestors, (Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 2005), 204-207.

[2] New World Encyclopedia contributors, “Chicago Tribune,” New World Encyclopedia, ,http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Chicago_Tribune&oldid=1003225 (accessed November 14, 2017).

Also, Wikipedia contributors, “Chicago Sun-Times,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Chicago_Sun-Times&oldid=810239739 (accessed November 15, 2017)

[3] Mark R. Wilson, Stephen R. Porter and Janice L. Reiff, “Chicago Daily News Inc., Dicationary of Leading Chicago Businesses (1820-2000), Encyclopedia of Chicago ( www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org : accessed 14 November 2017).

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