3 Tips to Uncover Hidden Genealogy Clues in Obituaries

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena shows how useful newspaper obituaries are for your family history research—and explains clues in obituaries that even some experienced genealogists might miss.

Obituaries are the newspaper articles that most genealogists cut their research teeth on. Even so, many genealogists don’t get all the information they could out of an obituary, or recognize the clues an obituary can provide for additional family searches. Could there be more to researching an ancestor’s death than just finding the obituary? My resounding answer is YES! As you look at your ancestor’s obituary consider some of the following research tips.

Analyze Obituaries for Genealogy Clues

When you look at an obituary don’t stop at the death date, place and the survivors. Analyze what is said that could point to other records or even additional articles. Of course there are and can be mistakes in obituaries but use the obituary as a clue to other possible records.

Take for instance this obituary for a Miss Emma Farlin from Butte, Montana.

obituary for Emma Farlin, Anaconda Standard newspaper article 7 September 1922

obituary for Emma Farlin, Anaconda Standard newspaper article 7 September 1922

Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), 7 September 1922, page 12

From this historical obituary you learn: she wasn’t married, her father founded a mine that he named after her, she was a teacher, where she taught, the names of six surviving relatives, the address of the family home where the funeral will be held, and the names of two of her classmates when she attended the Butte high school.

After reading this obituary I would put together a genealogy research plan that includes looking for employment records, searching censuses and city directories for family members mentioned in the obituary, and looking for additional newspaper articles after her death that might include information about the children she taught. I would also be curious about the mention of the two men she went to high school with long ago—why were they mentioned in her obituary? I would want to research them further to ascertain their connection to her, and see if that research helps me learn more about Emma’s life.

There’s More to Death than Just an Obituary

Although we automatically think of newspaper obituaries when we want to research an ancestor’s death, expand your search to include other types of newspaper articles that may also document an ancestor’s death. Not everyone had an obituary printed in the paper, but their name may be found in other newspaper articles such as a funeral notice, or a thank-you note from the family. Looking for a probate? Check the newspaper’s legal notices, those dense and small-typed notices found and often ignored at the end of the newspaper, for any probate notification.

Here is an example of a probate notice, from a newspaper’s legal notices section.

probate notice for estate of William Walker, Washington Bee newspaper article 9 May 1914

Washington Bee (Washington, D.C.), 9 May 1914, page 5

As you read your ancestor’s obituary, consider what other newspaper articles or official documents might have relevant genealogical information. In cases where a person died as a result of an accident or suspicious circumstances, a coroner’s inquest may be called and there may be court records available.

This newspaper article about the possible murder of a baby includes the names of the men serving on the inquest jury. In a situation like this tragic event, we can assume multiple articles about the suspicious death, and any justice served, were printed—and you’ll want to expand your search to track down all those articles.

coroner's inquest for the Wilson baby, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 18 April 1900

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 18 April 1900, page 1

Don’t Just Research That One Day

Once you find your ancestor’s obituary, don’t stop there. Depending on whether your ancestor lived in a rural area or a big city, and the time period involved, you may be able to dig up much more than just information on the actual death. Consider searching the days or even weeks leading up to their death—in cases where there was a lingering illness, or unusual circumstances, a series of articles may have been printed before your ancestor died.

This old news article gives some great information about those who were sick, many of them from the grip (flu). Details including who was hospitalized, who is feeling better, who isn’t, and the inclusion of some street addresses make this a valuable article to family historians.

list of sick people, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 9 March 1901

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 9 March 1901, page 5

There’s no doubt that searching for your ancestor’s newspaper obituary is a must for every genealogist. But remember that a death can lend itself to multiple articles—and that every article is a jumping-off place for additional genealogical research.

Genealogy Search Tip: Are Your Queries Returning Too Many Records?

GenealogyBank has grown from 160 million records since its inception to over 1.3 billion records today. That is a lot of articles to search through to find information about your family history. Genealogists often approach GenealogyBank with a direct search—using a surname—searching across the entire database to make sure we don’t miss any genealogy records about the family.

Sometimes, though, the simplest search query returns too many records for you to reasonably examine them all. When that happens, GenealogyBank has created over a dozen targeted search pages to help you narrow down the number of results you get back. Here’s a quick list of these helpful targeted search pages to get you started:

You can also perform targeted ethnic family searches with our African American, Hispanic and Irish American search pages.

Use these special search pages to narrow down your search to a particular type of newspaper article, as the following example shows.

Let’s say you’re searching for all the arrivals and departures of the ship Hector. If you search GenealogyBank just using the word “Hector,” you’ll get 400,000 hits. But, if you search the word “Hector” using the handy Passenger Lists link on our home page or in the left navigation pane of the Newspaper Archives category, you can narrow those search results to 14,000 passenger and ship records that specifically mention the ship Hector.

GenealogyBank Passenger List search for "Hector"

GenealogyBank Passenger List search for “Hector”

Even 14,000 records are a lot to examine. Limit the search again by a range of years when your relatives likely arrived on the ship Hector and you’ll have a manageable number of articles to sift through. Let’s say you are reasonably sure your ancestors arrived in America on the ship Hector sometime between 1820 and 1825—go ahead and use that date range in your search query.

GenealogyBank search results page for Passenger List search on "Hector" from 1820-1825

GenealogyBank search results page for Passenger List search on “Hector” from 1820-1825

Save time and zero in on the articles you need. GenealogyBank has more than a dozen targeted search pages: use them to focus your searches for the type of newspaper article you are looking for.

GenealogyBank targeted search pages

GenealogyBank targeted search pages

Periódicos en Español—Hispanic American Newspapers Online

GenealogyBank has the largest collection of Hispanic American newspapers to explore Latino family ancestry online. Our extensive Hispanic American collection currently contains over 360 newspaper titles. This is an essential newspaper archive for genealogists, supplementing the other newspapers on our genealogy website and helping to make it one of the most comprehensive resources for Hispanic genealogical research online.

The oldest surviving Hispanic newspaper is El Misisipi, first published in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1808. A masthead in Spanish from an 1808 issue of El Misisipi is featured below. The newspapers in GenealogyBank’s Hispanic American newspapers archive are a virtual goldmine to genealogists, providing a terrific resource for researching your Hispanic genealogy. You can easily search in every Hispanic newspaper issue online to find birth, marriage and obituary announcements, news reports about events that affected your Hispanic ancestors—even the vintage advertisements can be a helpful genealogical resource.

Here is a Hispanic American death notice in Spanish printed by the Bejareño (San Antonio, Texas) newspaper on 17 May 1856, page 2.

Here is a birth announcement en español printed by the Cronista del Valle (Brownsville, Texas) newspaper on 20 April 1925, page 1.
And here is a Latino marriage announcement in Spanish printed by the Amigo del Hogar (Indiana Harbour, Indiana) newspaper on 23 June 1929, page 1.

Did your Hispanic American family run a business? Look for their ads in the local Latino newspapers to get a glimpse into the lives they led. The following Hispanic newspaper ads were printed by the Cronista del Valle (Brownsville, Texas) newspaper on 20 April 1925, page 5.

As these Latino birth, death and marriage announcements have shown, the Hispanic American newspapers in GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives are important to genealogists because of their editorial focus on covering the cultural, social, religious and personal news that was of high interest to the Hispanic American community.

Latino newspapers are also good at providing specific historical information that can aid in tracing your Hispanic family tree. These Hispanic newspapers tend to be especially good at covering community news and events, giving genealogists the opportunity to find information about their Hispanic ancestors interacting with their neighbors and participating at the local level—stories that don’t appear in censuses and other government records, providing personal details about your ancestors’ lives.

NY Student History Research Contest Deadline Approaching

New York State Archives Sponsors 19th Annual Student Research Contest Albany, NY

This is a terrific opportunity to encourage students to use historical records.
The deadline for the contest is July 1st.
Awards go to individual students and to class projects.

GenealogyBank.com has over 300 New York (1719-Today) newspapers.

Click here to search all New York newspapers.

Use GenealogyBank to win this award.

The New York State Archives, a program of the State Education Department, is sponsoring the 19th annual Student Research Awards. The deadline for entry is July 1, 2009 and the contest is open to all New York students in grades 4-12 who use historical records in their research projects.

Three awards are presented each year: grades 4-5, grades 6-8, and grades 9-12. The awards consist of a framed certificate, a check for $100 from an endowment established by Regent Emerita Laura Chodos and her husband Robert Chodos, an invitation to have lunch with the Regents in Albany, and a behind-the-scenes tour of the State Archives.

Eligible projects are computer-based entries, such as websites or PowerPoint presentations; exhibits; documentaries; performances; research for a historical marker, property or district; and traditional research papers.

Student Research Award winners for 2008, Grades 4-5, were: Walden Elementary School (Orange County) students Jenalee Amundsen, Sarah Baker, Brianna Canto, Nicholas Cavallucci, Annalise Cardish, Felix Cepeda, Isaiah Skyler Chapman, Alex Clum, Frank Cook, Jr., Ilyssa Daly, Michael Daly, Brandon DiSimone, Sara Donovan, Abigail Hardy, Antonio Jackson, John lamb, Shiann Malvasi, Joshua Metzger, Jad Moumen, Sammy Moumen, Anthony Newton, Alyssa Rosario, Nyle Rose, Sarah Savasta, Brianna Sheehy, and Mary Sherman for their entry Capron, He’s My Street.

Grade 6-8 winners for 2008 were Persell Middle School (Chautauqua County) students Mark Brombacher, Jennie Gross, Taylor Estrada, Michelle Ferry, Alex Hoagland, Justin Hodges, Holly Johnson, Nick Myers, Jacob Perkins, Marisa Pope, Lucas Raak, Lindsey Rensel, Olivia Sinatra, Johnna Vanstrom, and Ben Whitney for their entry The Lost Neighborhood Project.

The Grade 9-12 Student Research Award winner for 2008 was Alexandra Rheinhardt, a student from Cooperstown Central High School (Otsego County), for the documentary, Sounds of Conflict: A Cultural Divide.

Julie Daniels, coordinator of the awards program, explained that in order for an entry to be competitive, a substantial portion of the research should be based on historical records from archives, historical newspapers, museums, historical societies, libraries, local governments, or other organizations. She offered some examples of historical records: original letters, diaries, and photographs; meeting minutes; police and court records; ledgers, census records; and wills.

For information about this year’s program, click on “Education” at www.archives.nysed.gov, call (518) 474-6926 or email archedu@mail.nysed.gov.

Genealogist, Mary Sue Green Smith (1933-2009)

Prominent Nashville, TN genealogist, Mary Sue Green Smith (1933-2009) has passed away.

She was President of the Middle Tennessee Genealogical Society. She published eight books between 1994 and 2006; mostly reference works to be used in tracing one’s roots in Nashville. She indexed tens of thousands of pre-Civil War civil court records, which added to standard genealogical resources, many families whose names don’t otherwise appear in records.

Tennessean, The (Nashville, TN) – April 25, 2009
SMITH, Mary Sue Green Age 76 of Nashville, TN, died Friday, April 24, 2009. She was a genealogist, whose contributions helped African-American families with Nashville roots to trace their families back before the Civil War.


She was preceded in death by her husband, Burrell G. Smith and one of her sons, Robert Shelton Smith, who died in 1972. She is survived by three sons, John Kennedy Smith and wife Barbie of Indianapolis, Stephen Thomas Smith and wife Barbara Ann Mech of Nashville, and Richard Douglas Smith and wife Julie of Fairbanks, Alaska.

Her surviving grandchildren are John R. Smith of Big Bear, CA, Michael B. Smith, midshipman at the Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD, Thomas Shelton Smith and wife, Anne Kindt Smith of Knoxville, Katherine Holly Smith of Nashville, Andrew Kennedy Smith of Nashville, Jennifer Sue Smith of Fairbanks and Robert Elias Smith of Sault Ste. Marie, MI.

Her surviving sisters are Dorothy Strange of Loudon, TN, Barbara Butler of Nashville and Pam White of Nashville. Mary Sue Smith was a native of Nashville.

She graduated from David Lipscomb High School and attended David Lipscomb College, where she met Burrell G. Smith, who had served in the Army paratroopers in World War II. They were married in April, 1950. Hers was the first wedding in the newly built Otter Creek Church of Christ, at the corner of Otter Creek Road and Granny White Pike. Her father, the late Sam Kennedy Green, was an elder there.

The couple raised a family in Bellaire, MI. Burrell was an educator and a social worker. Sue served as clerk of the Antrim County Selective Service Board during the Vietnam War. She served on the mental health board of the county. After Burrell’s death, Sue returned to Nashville in 1986.

Sue was a genealogist and had served as President of the Middle Tennessee Genealogical Society. She published eight books between 1994 and 2006, mostly reference works to be used in tracing one’s roots in Nashville. She indexed tens of thousands of pre-Civil War civil court records, which added to standard genealogical resources, many families whose names don’t otherwise appear in records.

Her work made it possible for many African-American families to trace their parentage back into the years when persons held in slavery were listed, as property, in wills.

Memorial services will be conducted Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 3 p.m., at Woodbine Funeral Home, Hickory Chapel, 5852 Nolensville Road, by Tommy Daniel. Memorial contributions may be made to the charity of your choice. Visitation will be Sunday from 1 – 3 p.m., at WOODBINE FUNERAL HOME, HICKORY CHAPEL Directors, 615-331-1952; Still Family Owned.

Copyright (c) The Tennessean. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Gannett Co., Inc. by NewsBank, inc.