German Genealogy Tip #19: How to Find an Ancestor’s Newspaper Obituary

October 18, 2014 Josiah Schmidt German Genealogy TipsTutorial

Part of a Newspaper Obituary

Part of a Newspaper Obituary

One of the–I think–most overlooked and underappreciated resources when doing German-American genealogy, or genealogy in general, are newspaper obituaries. Especially when the obituaries are printed in the newspapers of smaller towns in rural areas, they can contain a cache of golden information.

Some of the most important pieces of information a newspaper obituary might offer are: birth place, birth date, maiden name, parents’ names, date and place of immigration, earlier residences and migrations, marriage date, marriage place, names of current (and sometimes previous) spouses, date and place of naturalization, employers, church membership, death date, death place, cause of death, funeral home in charge of arrangements, burial place, names (and maybe even death dates) of family members who preceded them in death, names and residences of people who came to attend the funeral from a long way away (which can give great clues on finding long lost branches of cousins), and names, spouses, and residences of family members who survived them.

Always check the two issues of their town newspaper printed after they died. If an edition of the newspaper was printed on the exact day of their death, check that one too, because sometimes the newspaper was able to report it on the same day that it happened.

Older, rural newspapers were not necessarily as organized and compartmentalized as today’s newspapers are, so even if your ancestor’s obituary doesn’t appear on the same page as the other obituaries, read the whole paper. Their obituary might have made front page news, or it might be hidden in the “local news” or “neighborhood gossip” section.

There are many great websites (almost all of which require paying subscriptions, of course) that have digitized millions of newspapers, such as Newspapers.com, NewspaperArchive.com, and GenealogyBank.com. (As a professional genealogist, I have subscriptions to all three and rely heavily on them.) News.Google.com/newspapers also has a collection of free digitized newspapers that can come in handy for a researcher, although they are mostly from large cities. There are also smaller, more specialized websites (often hosted by local universities or historical societies) that offer free access to digitized local area newspapers (such as NYheritage.org/newspapers for New York papers, or the Florida Digital Newspaper Library, just to name two).

When searching online newspaper databases for obituaries, keep in mind that your ancestor’s name may have been misspelled. Also, online newspaper databases often use a program that looks at the image and tries to recreate a pure text version of the print. These newspaper images are sometimes faded or blotchy, so the text transcription of the newspaper is probably riddled with errors. When searching for your ancestor’s obituary on an online newspaper website, try as many different spelling variations of their name as you can. Especially if they were an immigrant, try spelling their name phonetically. Also, if you know where your ancestor was buried, you can try searching for mentions in the newspaper of the cemetery where they were buried. Try other combinations of words you think might be in their obituary (“funeral,” “burial,” “died,” “death,” “survived,” “interred,” “cemetery,” etc.). Don’t rely entirely on web searches. If you think you know the issue of the newspaper where the obituary might have appeared, try pulling up the actual image of the newspaper and reading it line for line yourself.

Far from all of the newspapers in the country have been digitized, so just because you can’t find a town newspaper online, it doesn’t mean you can’t get ahold of it. You may need to contact your state’s historical society library, or use Google to hunt for a large university library in your state, because these institutions often have newspaper on microfilm. You might then be able to make a trip to your state historical society library or university library and view old issues of these newspapers on microfilm, or you might be able to go to your local town library and request an interlibrary loan of those microfilms. In certain cases, newspapers may have been neither digitized nor microfilmed, but the local library in the town where the newspaper was printed may store old physical copies of the newspaper, so try contacting them as well.

Try searching all of the different newspapers in the area, because often, multiple newspapers in the same town printed different obituaries for the same person, each obituary with unique information. If you don’t have luck finding a newspaper obituary for your ancestor in the town where they died, look up the town on Google Maps, find nearby towns, and search for newspaper obituaries for your ancestor in those nearby towns as well. Towns sometimes printed obituaries for deceased individuals from other nearby towns.

My last point of advice is to realize that newspapers were not the only ones who printed obituaries. You might be able to find an obituary that wasn’t in a newspaper. Contact the funeral home that handled your ancestor’s funeral arrangements–they might have stored an obituary for your ancestor. Contact relatives who might have attended this ancestor’s funeral–they might have kept a funeral pamphlet, which could have had an obituary printed on it. Find out what religious denomination your ancestor was a member of and contact that institution–many churches and religious denominations printed their own nation-wide newsletters and sometimes printed obituaries after the death of one of their church members.

3 Responses to “German Genealogy Tip #19: How to Find an Ancestor’s Newspaper Obituary”

  • Doris Waggoner says:

    If it weren’t for the Methodist newspaper, I would know nothing about the first wife of my gg grandfather, who died in Monrovia, Liberia, in 1850. I’m not descended from her, as he remarried, and I’m descended from his second wife. Still, I’m grateful for this obit, which came down to me in some family papers. I know from other sources that the couple was sent to Monrovia as missionaries in the fall of 1849, where 6 weeks later they lost to “African fever” the 18 month old only child of their 13 yr marriage. Her name was Sarah Miller, waaay too common a name in those days. He left Monrovia in Jan 1850 to report to the Mission Board in NYC, but she stayed behind to teach her class of female students, dying in March. He wrote her obit on board a ship heading home to IL in Sept. From it I learned her birthplace and approximate date, and that she moved “with family” from TN to IL, and the year. It also says that she was a teacher, and a tutor to the children of a famed Methodist evangelist. Since I found a reference to my gg grandfather in this man’s published autobio, this is probably how they met. The major problems with this long obit are that he doesn’t name the family members with whom she migrated to IL, which would have allowed me to trace her family, and that he doesn’t give her parents’ names. While the town she ended up in had many Sarah Millers in that time period, the source where I found that doesn’t separate them by families, so I still can’t tell who she is. All my efforts to hunt her down in TN have been for naught. I know from the length of the obit how brokenhearted he was, and what a good Christian she was, but what I wouldn’t give for some more specific biographical details! Even so, I’m grateful for what he does say, because it fills in more than the bare dates of birth and death which would be all I’d ever have otherwise.

    This same gg grandfather died in 1884, still a minister, but now in the Disciples of Christ, and still in the saddle. He was working as an interim minister a long way from home, though still in IL. Someone found an obit for me, which gave me a date of death one day off from what I had. He must have died sometime during that night. This led me to get his death certificate, which was a gold mine. Two different newspapers had interesting articles. He’d only been in town for two weeks when he died, and fell sick before he could preach. There was a “church fight” over who should pay for the funeral propriety required he had to have, and to send his body home. All very interesting info!

    Thanks also for your suggestion to check, for more modern obits, at the funeral home. Sometimes for current deaths this is the only place to get one, as newspaper obits in big cities are so expensive that families chose to publish only short references to the funeral home website. There sometimes you can find comments by family and friends that tell stories you’d never know. In the case of an aunt who died about 5 yrs ago, I learned that the church she’d been a member of for years before moving away was having a lutefisk supper when the word of her death was passed from one person to another. This gave me a chuckle, and the buzz as the news passed told me something about how loved she’d been. Those nuggets are priceless.

    • Thank you, Doris, for your fascinating comment! If you have any ideas what county your great great grandfather’s first wife was from, either in Tennessee or in Illinois, you should try searching for old county history and biography books from the 1800s, because many of these have biographies of some of the individuals and their families who lived in the county. Many of these old county history and biography books from the 1800s have been digitized and are now available to view online for free. Some of them are hosted on Google Books: http://www.google.com/books. Some of them are hosted on the Internet Archive: http://www.archive.org. And some of them are hosted on FamilySearch.org (go to http://www.familysearch.org, hover your cursor over the “Search” option at the top of the webpage and wait for a dropdown menu to drop down, from the dropdown menu click “Catalog”, then search in the search field for the county where your great great grandfather’s first wife was from–for instance, if it was Shelby county, you would write, “Tennessee, Shelby,” and then wait for the option to drop down beneath the search field and then click on it, and then click the blue Search button. Then go down to where it says “Search these Family History Centers” and underneath it, click the dropdown menu, and click the “Online” option, then click the blue “Search” button again. This will bring up the resources for that county that FamilySearch.org offers online. There will likely be some options under the “History” and “Biographies” headers to the right. Follow those links and you might find some old county history books that are available online, and those books might have biographies of your ancestors or their families.)


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