Digging Up Your Ancestors: Cemetery Research with Newspapers

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott researches old newspapers to find out more about Woodland Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio where many of his relatives are buried.

Historical newspapers are incredibly helpful in our genealogy research, especially obituaries that provide information on our ancestors and, often, their extended family. But what else can we learn from other types of newspaper articles? Let me just answer that with one word: Plenty!

I happen to have over 150 family members interred at a cemetery by the name of Woodland Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio.

Tombstone of Karolina Porkony, Cleveland OH

1895 headstone (in Czech) for Karolina Porkony Vicha, one of the author’s ancestors, from Cleveland’s Woodland Cemetery. Image Credit: from the author’s collection.

I decided recently to research this cemetery in GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives—and I was not disappointed at what I learned!

The first discovery I made in my cemetery research was an article in an 1853 newspaper. It reported on the dedication of the Woodland Cemetery—and I was happy to learn when burials began in this cemetery. I also could not help but smile at these lines:

“The Ode was read by the Rev. Mr. Hawkins, and sung by the Choir. The singing was only tolerable, we thought.”

City Facts and Fancies Woodland Cemetery Dedication Article

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 15 June 1853, page 3

Shortly after this, I read an item in an 1854 newspaper. This old news article recounted a visit to Woodland Cemetery by some member of the newspaper staff. It gives us a very interesting look not only at the cemetery as a whole, but how they interred the indigent and poor citizens of the city as well as the children. My heart sank though when I read:

“Two long rows of graves stretch from one side of the enclosure to the other, containing the remains of 200 deceased persons, nearly all of whom fell before the epidemic.”

Visit to Woodland Cemetery Cleveland Article Excerpt

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 2 October 1854, page 3

I decided to take a look further and see what “epidemic” the newspaper article was referring to.

It wasn’t long before I came across an 1854 article with the headline “The Dread Epidemic,” which begins with:

“The cholera this year comes with dread punctuality.”

1854 Cholera Dread Epidemic Newspaper Article

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 19 June 1854, page 2

I picked up my Ohio history book and discovered that, beginning in the 1830s: cholera epidemics killed thousands; Cleveland was the first Ohio city to experience a cholera epidemic; and it was cholera that killed former United States President James K. Polk.

Next I found an article in a 1900 newspaper about a burial in Woodland Cemetery. It gives us a very intimate view of the celebration of a Chinese funeral at this time. Plus there was an interesting final sentence in this article, which reads:

“The body of Huie will be removed by and by and taken to China for final interment.”

Burial of Huie Gimm 1900 Newspaper Article

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 7 February 1900, page 5

While furthering my cemetery research I spoke with Michelle Day, the director of the Woodland Cemetery Foundation of Cleveland. She told me that, while there were hundreds of Chinese immigrants interred in Woodland Cemetery, nearly every single one was later disinterred and removed to China for final burial.

I then came across an interesting article from an 1892 newspaper. This somewhat humorous article gives us a nice view of just how reporters used to gather information for obituaries, and how some of the more “interesting” items get included that we often while doing genealogy research!

Facts for An Obituary Reporting Newspaper Article

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 20 May 1892, page 7

I closed out my cemetery research by finding an article from a 1984 newspaper. The columnist, Bob Greene, takes an interesting look at the fact that so many folks move, in their later years, to a Southern climate and makes note:

“…it must be strange to know one’s obituary is destined to appear in a newspaper that was never read in the house of one’s most vital years.”

A Story of Death and Life Newspaper Article

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 25 April 1984, page 17A

This made me think: I had better be sure to cast my geographical net wide when I am searching for an obituary for one of my elusive ancestors!

Good luck with your family history research, and comment here to let me know some of the intriguing facts you have discovered about your ancestral cemeteries and obituaries.

New Mexico Governor Wants More Federal Cemeteries

New Mexico Governor Susan Martinez is pushing to increase the number of federal military cemeteries in her state from two to ten.

Fort Bayard New Mexico National Cemetery

Photo: Fort Bayard, New Mexico National Cemetery. Credit: Wikipedia.

New Mexico is the fifth largest U.S. state in land mass, with 122,000 square miles. Given the long distances most state residents must travel to visit the two existing federal military cemeteries, Governor Martinez wants to create eight more cemeteries dispersed across the state to make it easier for family and friends to visit the gravesites. Read the full story about how Gov. Susana Martinez wants to build small veterans cemeteries throughout state in the Current-Argus (Carlsbad, New Mexico), 17 July 2013.

One of the state’s two existing federal military cemeteries is located at Fort Bayard, New Mexico, in the southwestern area of the state. That cemetery has burials from the 1800s to today.

The other federal military cemetery is the Santa Fe National Cemetery located in the city limits of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Burials there began in the mid-1800s.

New Mexico residents in the southern part of the state also use the Fort Bliss National Cemetery located in El Paso, Texas. The earliest grave in that cemetery dates from 1883.

Be sure to use the U.S. Veterans Administration’s National Gravesite Locator to search for details about the servicemen & women and their spouses buried in these federal military cemeteries.

Adeline Kemp - National Gravesite Locator Map

Credit: National Gravesite Locator.

These military cemeteries permit the burial of the service member and their spouse. The online index gives you the core information: each person’s name; dates of birth and death; name and rank of the person that served in the military; and the name and contact information for the military cemetery. All of this is available 24/7 online. This government cemetery website is updated daily.

For more information about cemetery websites see also the blog post: “Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 3: Burial & Cemetery Records.”

Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 3: Burial & Cemetery Records

Continuing our series on the top genealogy websites that will save you time and get you 24/7 access to the data you need and will rely on in your family history research, our next category is the best websites for cemetery and burial records: National Gravesite Locator, Find-A-Grave, and BillionGraves.

National Gravesite Locator Search Adeline Kemp

Credit: National Gravesite Locator, http://gravelocator.cem.va.gov/

This important website, created by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, lets genealogists quickly locate military and veterans’ burials from 1997 to today. This cemetery website is updated daily and includes all persons buried in the hundreds of officially-designated U.S. federal and state military cemeteries.

National Gravesite Locator Map - Adeline Kemp

Credit: National Gravesite Locator, http://gravelocator.cem.va.gov/

These military cemeteries permit the burial of the service member and their spouse. The online index gives you the core genealogical information: each person’s name; dates of birth and death; name and rank of the person that served in the military; and the name and contact information for the military cemetery. All of this is available at your fingertips 24/7 online. This cemetery website is updated daily.

Billiongraves Find a Grave

Credit: Find-A-Grave, http://www.findagrave.com/
Credit: BillionGraves, http://billiongraves.com/

These essential online cemetery websites rely on crowdsourcing to grow. As the above photo shows, individual genealogists take pictures of the graves that interest them and upload them to these two websites.

“Many hands make light work,” allowing these cemetery websites to grow quickly.

BillionGraves has over 4.2 million photographs of individual gravestones.

Find-A-Grave has roughly the same number of tombstone images, but also has included indexes to the names of persons buried in cemeteries across the country—boosting its name count to over 102 million “grave records.”

Billion Graves Sarah Whitehouse

Credit: Billion Graves, http://billiongraves.com/

Find A Grave Addie Estelle Morris Huse

Credit: Find-A-Grave, http://www.findagrave.com/

Genealogists using Find-A-Grave routinely add an image of the tombstone, and also old family photographs and a biography of the deceased. Since this content is all online photographs, documents and similar items may be added to each individual’s memorial page by all interested persons.

Find A Grave John Henry Kemp

Credit: Find A Grave, http://www.findagrave.com

I decided to test how easy it is to add photographs of a tombstone and of the deceased to these cemetery websites. Bang. Within just a few minutes I was registered on Find-A-Grave and uploaded a photo of my great-grandfather John Henry Kemp’s grave along with his portrait.

This was simple and easy to do.

I encourage all genealogists to hold nothing back: put all of your family’s information, documents, and photographs on cemetery sites like these, and on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.

It is essential that we preserve and protect our family history information by putting our genealogy records on multiple websites. Ensure that the information about your family tree that you have gathered over years of genealogy research is not lost, but is permanently available for you and the rising generations.

Old Tombstones Recently Unearthed from Forgotten Illinois Cemetery

Genealogists are always digging.

So are backhoe operators.

It was a good thing that the Fosterburg Water District was digging for a waterline in Prairietown, Illinois, because while digging they found a long-abandoned historic cemetery.

Amazing.

No one had remembered that there was an old cemetery there. The tombstones had fallen and over the years were buried and forgotten.

Old Tombstone from Prairietown, Illinois Cemetery

Credit: John Badman, The Telegraph (Alton, Illinois), 28 June 2013.

Credit: John Badman, The Telegraph (Alton, Illinois), 28 June 2013.

The dig for the waterline unearthed these long-lost gravestones. Anthropologist Dawn E. Cobb from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency began studying why these tombstones were there. She looked at old Illinois maps and quickly found that there was a cemetery located at that spot in 1873, and a church was shown there on an 1892 map.

Years ago St. Mary’s Roman Catholic parish was merged with a parish in Macoupin County, Illinois. Now she is investigating how many people were buried there and researching the old records to find their names and genealogical details. Read the entire story in The Telegraph (Alton, Illinois), 28 June 2013: http://bit.ly/1aZp9Ac.

How many small cemeteries are gone from our memories?

How many tombstones have tipped over—with solid genealogical information buried—waiting to be rediscovered?

Historic Cemeteries and Unmarked Graves Newspaper Articles

Take the time this summer to research and found out where the old cemeteries were in your area 150 and 200 years ago. Are they all still accounted for?

Let us know if you rediscover a “lost” cemetery and what you found in the comments.