Use Hyphenated Search

Tip – Use Hyphenated Search

Finding your ancestors in newspaper articles is an art, as well as a science. One must be clever and resourceful to get around the limitations in old newspapers, whether they be poor original quality, copies of copies as sources for scanning, as well as the limitations of the OCR process.

Another “feature” of older newspapers is the use of the hyphen. Hyphenated words were often used because of fixed width type as well as the experience and capability of the typesetter. Hyphens are less utilized today but were heavily used years ago.  Let’s look at a paragraph or two from a newspaper over 100 years old and notice the abundance of hyphenated words at the end of several lines:


This example is for two paragraphs, where there is a total of 22 lines and 6 of them contain hyphens.  That is a large percentage of the lines. What that means is that you are not obtaining the maximum number of search results if you do not spend the time to search for parts of hyphenated words.

The suggestion is that if you search for a portion of your ancestor’s surname (if it is multi-syllabic), rather than the entire word, you may get additional results. For example, if your ancestors name was “Jorgenson” try searching for “Jorgen.” The typesetter may have split the word so that at the end of one line are the letters “Jorgen-” with the hyphen, and the next line may start with “son”.

I have ancestors with the surname “Braunhart”.  Many times, an article may have a line that ends with “Braun-” and the next line starts with “hart”.  There can be additional challenges though, as “Williamson” may be split up as “William” and “son”.  Both sets of letters end up being very common words, so your results may be too numerous to be of much help.

Even a short word like “others” can be split up, so you would search for “oth”.  This may lead to too many results but is worth a try. And always consider that the “break” may not always be in the logical place in the word.
Be open minded about where the split may occur.  In the case of McDonald, I wouldn’t think that the name would be split with “McDon” and “ald”, but searching for odd splits may lead to many more results.

Don’t give up; let hyphens give you additional opportunities and additional searches.  You will indeed find more articles this way. Be creative! Don’t be bogged down by 21st century logic. Also, remember that the split may be different than you would think it should be.