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  • Writer's pictureGail S. Blankenau

How Did the Flu Epidemic of 1918-1919 Affect Your Ancestors? Part 2: Using Newspapers

Walter Reed Hospital Flu Ward (Photo by Harris & Ewing via Library of Congress)

In the absence of personal stories garnered from family sources, local newspapers are a great starting place for learning how ancestors were affected by the 1918 epidemic. Not only obituaries, but also social columns carried news about illness and recoveries. There may be a health columns, or general articles—all of which can provide important context for your ancestor’s story.

At Chronicling America, there are large numbers of digitized newspapers . Before starting your name search, click on “All Digitized Newspapers” to see if your ancestor’s hometown (or the largest town nearby) has a newspaper on the site. You can also narrow your search to certain years.

To the right: A springboard of ideas for your 1918 influenza search. Use alone or in combinations, adding your ancestor's name when needed.

Context for Your Family History

Remember, even when you do not have an ancestor or family member who died during this time, they still may have had the disease and recovered. Moreover, they may have family members who were affected. Your ancestor’s hometown newspaper may have a column that reported illnesses and recoveries. Even when your individual ancestor does not “make the news,” you may other details such as school and library closings.

Barnstable Patriot, January 20, 1919
Local Library Closed for Flu

Barnstable (MA) Patriot, January 20, 1919.

This item appeared in the Barnstable Patriot’s local column for Osterville, announcing that the public library would open after a two-week closure due to the influenza.[1]

This blog and website maintained by Kenneth R. Marks is another good place to look for updated lists of available online newspapers, arranged by state, county, and town. hI use this resource often when searching for possible newspaper sources for obituaries and context. I find the nearest digitized newspaper to my target locality and do my searches. Ken also has some great articles on how to do effective searches.

You can also google Ancestor Hunt, the state, and historic newspapers and you can go to that listing right away. For instance, “Ancestor Hunt” Iowa historic newspapers -- will bring up the page for Iowa.

Many local public libraries are adding digitized newspapers to their collections. For some, you need to subscribe, for others, you need a local library card, while still others provide them as a free service. As the genealogist for the Nickerson Family Association I regularly use the Sturgis Library online newspapers for our book project and it works just as well for searching about how the influenza epidemic hit that area.

Yarmouth Register, January 4, 1919, online at

Free access is always good, but there are also subscription databases with numerous resources, including, and I find that each website has strengths in certain geographic areas, so if you have a lot of ancestors, say in Iowa, check which database has the best coverage for your area.

Just one page containing news about Omaha Nebraska's South Side is full of context (below):[2]

Omaha (NE) Bee, October 20, 1918 available at Chronicling America

No fewer than four obituaries appeared on the same page of the Omaha Bee (above), three of which specifically mentioned Spanish flu. They were all young adults, so even the one that did not mention a cause of death warrants investigation.[3]

Because of our current conditions, this piece emphasizes online resources you can use from home. Of course, not all local newspapers can be found online. Look at websites for state historical societies and local libraries to see if staff there can help you retrieve obituaries. At this writing, my regular archive haunts are closed. But when they open, they are worth a look. Some archives or societies may charge a small fee to retrieve an obituary for you. For those who perform the service for free, I still provide a donation, well worth it to keep these valuable local resources afloat.

[1] Barnstable (MA) Patriot, January 19, 1919, p. 3. [2] Omaha (NE) Bee, October 20, 1918, p. 5, Cols. 1 -3. [3] Omaha (NE) Bee, October 20, 1918, p. 5, Cols. 1 -3.

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