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.

GenealogyBank Update: 13 Million Newspaper Articles Just Added!

Every day, GenealogyBank is working diligently to digitize more U.S. newspapers and obituaries, expanding our online archives to give you the largest newspaper archives for family history research available on the web. We just completed adding 13 million more newspaper articles to the archives, vastly increasing our coverage of life in America from coast to coast!

GenealogyBank's search box

Here are the details about our most recent U.S. newspaper additions:

  • A total of 29 newspaper titles from 17 U.S. states
  • 7 of these titles are newspapers added to GenealogyBank for the first time
  • Newspaper titles marked with an asterisk (*) are brand new to our online archives
  • We’ve shown the newspaper issue date ranges so that you can determine if the newly added content is relevant to your personal genealogy research

To see our newspaper archives’ complete title lists, click here.

State City Title Start Date End Date
CA Fresno Fresno Morning Republican 12/14/1890 12/31/1893
CA San Luis Obispo San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram 6/1/1907 9/30/1914
FL Miami Nuevo Herald 3/29/1976 12/31/1982
GA Columbus Columbus Daily Enquirer 1/1/1923 2/24/1926
GA Macon Macon Telegraph 3/12/1923 11/5/1925
GA Marietta Marietta Journal 11/27/1945 11/27/1945
ID Boise Idaho Statesman 1/1/1923 2/15/1925
IL Springfield Daily Illinois State Journal 1/4/1923 7/30/1947
IN Martinsville Reporter-Times, The* 02/02/2013 Current
IN Mooresville Mooresville-Decatur Times, The* 02/02/2013 Current
KS El Dorado Butler County Times-Gazette, The* 11/05/2013 Current
KY Lexington Lexington Herald 1/1/1923 10/31/1924
LA Baton Rouge Advocate 12/1/1985 12/31/1985
LA Baton Rouge State Times Advocate 11/2/1987 10/2/1991
MA Boston Boston Herald 12/2/1951 4/15/1992
MS Biloxi Daily Herald 1/1/1926 3/31/1928
NY New York Jewish Messenger 01/02/1857 12/26/1868
NY New York New Yorker Volkszeitung 04/01/1913 04/30/1923
NY Watertown Watertown Daily Times 7/14/1880 7/27/1921
NC Charlotte Charlotte Observer 1/1/1923 10/31/1924
NC Greensboro Greensboro Daily News 7/17/1921 2/29/1968
OH Columbus Lantern, The: Ohio State University* 08/03/1998 Current
OH Sidney Sidney Daily News, The* 09/15/2013 Current
PA Clarks Summit Abington Journal, The* 10/15/2013 Current
PA Dallas Dallas Post, The* 10/05/2013 Current
PA Erie Erie Tageblatt 05/05/1913 06/05/1916
VA Richmond Richmond Times Dispatch 4/11/1971 7/15/1983
WA Bellingham Bellingham Herald 1/1/1923 12/31/1925
WA Olympia Morning Olympian 9/7/1924 11/15/1924

Guide to Ancestor Middle Name Research for Genealogy

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this guest blog post, Duncan provides a guide to understanding your ancestors’ middle names, and how to use middle names in your family history research.

As a genealogy consultant, I often get questions about the significance of middle names. This article will cover many of the common reasons behind middle names, and discuss their usefulness when doing family history research. (Since I am discussing the middle names of ancestors, I have used the past tense in this article—but the information can apply to the present day as well.)

Middle names can offer significant and important clues about your ancestors. Or not. Let’s cover the cautions first.

Things to Remember When Researching Middle Names

The first thing to keep in mind is that not everyone had a middle name. Nor does every middle initial have a name associated with it. Harry S. Truman is a well-known example of this; the “S” did not stand for a middle name. Sometimes this was done to distinguish family members with common names, such as George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. George H. W. Bush brings up another point: it is possible for someone to have multiple middle names. A friend of mine has seven!

a photo of U.S. President Harry S. Truman

Photo: U.S. President Harry S. Truman. Credit: Wikipedia.

Is It a Middle Name or First Name?

Some names that appear to be middle names are actually part of the first name. In my own family and circle of friends the following double first names appear: Rose Marie, Mary Beth, Alice Ann, Mary Jo, Terry Kay, and Mary Ann. While these are more common among females, there are similar male names. Conversely, some of what appear to be middle names may actually be part of the last name. This is common in Latino names or some European names like Van Wagonen or Mac Graw.

Some middle names were used like a first name. A person named John David Smith may have never been addressed as John at all. He may have used the name J. David Smith or just David Smith or even David J. Smith. Sometimes this is done when the first name is also the parent’s or a relative’s first name. For example, the world knows this famous British author as Rudyard Kipling—but his full name was Joseph Rudyard Kipling.

a photo of British author Rudyard Kipling

Photo: British author Rudyard Kipling. Credit: Wikipedia.

In the U.S. South, the first and middle name could be switched back and forth making it unclear which name was originally intended for which purpose. It was also not uncommon for several siblings in a family to have the same middle name or, less commonly, the same first name with different middle names.

How Middle Names Are Chosen

It’s also possible that middle names may have no significance at all. In some cases, the parents just picked them because they liked the name and/or it sounded good with the first name. Middle names may have been influenced by the culture at the time. During the 1970s and 80s many girls were given the middle name of Marie or Ann simply because they were popular. Parents may have liked an uncommon name but didn’t want to give it as a first name, so they chose it as a middle name. These could include common words being used as middle names, nature-inspired themes, virtues, and so on.

The middle name may be a common name used among the family. My own middle name is the same as my mother’s. One of my brothers carries the middle name of our father and grandfather. But neither name has any real significance. Incidentally, neither my brother nor I liked the middle names we were given, and the tradition with those particular names ended with us. As in my family, the name may be another family member’s first name. Both of my sons have middle names that are also the first name of an ancestor or living relative. It is not uncommon for a son to have for a middle name his father’s or grandfather’s first name. This can also happen with daughters although not as commonly.

Is It a Middle Name or Last Name?

Sometimes the ancestor’s middle name appears to be a surname. This can happen for males or females. A surname used as a middle name may come from the mother’s maiden name. This is yet another reason why it is important to conduct research on everyone in a family and not just your direct line. However, don’t assume the unusual middle name is the mother’s maiden name as there are other reasons why this could occur. When you find a surname used this way, do some research on others in the area with that last name. You may discover that the parents just used the name because they liked it. Or you may discover a hidden secret. The following are three middle name examples I have found in my own genealogy research.

Middle Name Research Case #1

My great grandmother’s middle name was Bell. Initially, I believed this was a misspelling of the name Belle, which means beautiful. But then I discovered her father also had the middle name Bell, as did several other relatives. I have found many Bell families living near them as well. I now suspect that the name was “borrowed” from the Bell family, but at this point I have not yet found a clear connection. They may have just been friends or there may be another reason.

Middle Name Research Case #2

On another line of the family I found the middle name Bowles. Searching the neighborhood I found a prominent man named William A. Bowles. William was also the given name of my ancestor. It is possible that my 4th Great Grandparents named their son William Bowles after this man. So I did a little digging into GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives for more information on this man. I have to admit, I didn’t like what I found.

William A. Bowles became somewhat famous. He moved into the Indiana area in 1830, just two years before my ancestor bearing his name was born. William A. Bowles was a Mexican-American War colonel, newspaper editor, and prominent community leader. This William Bowles may have been a founder of the Order of the Sons of Liberty, a great-sounding name for what in reality was an abhorrent group of the Knights of the Golden Circle—a secret society in favor of slavery and against the Union. The hope of gathering Bowles and his followers to the Southern cause was one of the reasons Confederate General John Hunt Morgan marched his troops into Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio during the summer of 1863, a Civil War expedition known as “Morgan’s Raid.”

I had initially held some hope that my grandparents named their son after this man, but that was prior to my research revealing the extent of his pro-slavery beliefs. However, their son proudly used his middle name Bowles as his first name in the census returns following the Civil War. While I can’t prove the motivation for using this name, I can guess at the political leaning of my ancestor and am disturbed by it. While I am disgusted by their probable pro-slavery, anti-Union beliefs, I now know more about them than I did before investigating William A. Bowles.

obituary for William A. Bowles, Elkhart Weekly Review newspaper article 10 April 1873

Elkhart Weekly Review (Elkhart, Indiana), 10 April 1873, page 4

Middle Name Research Case #3

Sometimes babies were named after prominent political or community leaders to attract support from them. A poor family of several multiple births (twins, triplets, etc.) named two of their sons after political leaders. This was obvious in the name of one boy: Theodore Roosevelt Spyhalski. The plan to curry President Roosevelt’s favor was answered when he, a fan of large families, sent the parents a signed self-portrait as a congratulatory letter. The second son’s name was less obvious: Samuel Jones Spyhalski. However, a quick search in GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives shows that Samuel Jones was the mayor of Toledo, where the family was living. The plan worked very well when Mayor Jones offered a job to the struggling father and tried to help the family as much as possible.

So keep in mind that searching on an ancestor’s middle name may—in some cases—prove very helpful to your genealogy research, turning up family history information you might not have found otherwise, and sometimes leading you to additional, unexpected searches.

Do you have any genealogy stories or tips about researching ancestor middle names? If so, please share them in the comments.

List of 86 Online Boston Newspapers to Trace Your Family Roots

Founded by Puritan colonists in 1630, Boston has played a leading role throughout the history of the United States. The capital of Massachusetts and the largest city in New England, Boston was an integral part of the American Revolution—including such important events as the Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party, Siege of Boston and the Battle of Bunker Hill.

the painting “The Destruction of the Tea at Boston Harbor” by Nathaniel Currier

Illustration: “The Destruction of the Tea at Boston Harbor” by Nathaniel Currier. Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Are you researching your family history from Boston? GenealogyBank’s online Boston newspaper archives contain 86 titles to help you research your ancestry in “Beantown,” providing coverage dating back to the Colonial Period, all the way to Today.

a photo of the official city seal of Boston, Massachusetts

Illustration: official city seal of Boston, Massachusetts. Credit: Wikipedia.

Dig in and search for obituaries, birth announcements, marriage notices and other interesting news articles about your Bostonian ancestors in these historical and recent Boston newspapers online:

Search Boston Newspaper Archives (1690-1992)

Search Boston Recent Obituaries (1997-Today)

The following complete list of our online Boston newspapers is divided into two collections: Historical Newspapers (complete paper) and Recent Obituaries. Each newspaper title in this list is an active link that will take you directly to that paper’s search page, where you can begin searching for your ancestors by surnames, dates, keywords and more.

Discover a variety of genealogy records and news stories from Colonial and Revolutionary times that are exclusive to our extensive collection in these 81 Boston historical newspapers:

Search recent obituary records for your recently deceased relatives in these 5 Boston newspapers:

Click on the graphic below to download a PDF version of the list of our Boston Newspapers, for easy access to our online collection right from your desktop.

a graphic promoting GenealogyBank's online collection of Boston newspapers

How to Use My 5 FETCH Goals for Newspaper Genealogy Research

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott explains how he uses the acronym “FETCH” to remind him of his five goals when using historical newspapers for his family history research.

The beginning of a New Year is always such a grand time! Everyone is celebrating all that we accomplished in the year gone by, planning and resolving for the coming year, and looking at that clean slate of a whole year that stretches before us.

You can even see this feeling come through in an article published way back in 1791 in this Massachusetts newspaper, with its rousing opening sentence: “To our country, brilliant hath been the year that is just expired.”

And the centuries-old newspaper article ends with this wish: “Events have verified the fondest predictions of the friends of the General Government—and whilst we most cordially congratulate our countrymen on them—we devoutly wish that in the Year, this day commencing, they may experience a consummation of similar and more extensive BLESSINGS!”

New Year's Day, Columbian Centinel newspaper article 1 January 1791

Columbian Centinel (Boston, Massachusetts), 1 January 1791, page 126

The beginning of a New Year is also a perfect time to do some planning for your genealogy, ancestry, and family history. This was brought to my mind recently when someone asked me: “Scott, I see you using historical newspapers in your genealogy all the time. What are your goals when you do this?”

It wasn’t a hard question to answer since on the corner of one of my computer monitors I have a little piece of paper with the word FETCH typed on it as follows:

  • Focus on the 5 Ws
  • Expand out
  • Take your time
  • Capture all your leads
  • Have fun!

FETCH serves as a daily reminder to keep my top 5 goals in mind when I use newspapers in my genealogy research.

I use this acronym because every morning during my school years my father would begin his day by kindly asking: “Hey Scott, would you please fetch me the newspaper?” Years later I taught our wonderful Labrador retriever, Cinder, to fetch the newspaper. Now I am old-school and still enjoy the feeling of newsprint and ink in my hands, and like getting my printed newspaper at the end of my driveway each morning. So FETCH works perfectly for me!

Dick and Jane comic strip, Springfield Union newspaper 15 July 1984

Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 15 July 1984, page 55

Let me expand a bit on how FETCH reminds me of my 5 research goals.

Focus on the 5 Ws: The five Ws of journalism are: who, what, where, when and why. Read my earlier blog article Newspapers: A Brief History, the 5 Ws & Why I LOVE Them to learn more about the importance of the 5 Ws in newspaper reporting, and why that rule is a Godsend to our genealogy work.

While there have been attempts to change the 5 Ws, as you can see in this 1946 article from an Illinois newspaper, they have stood the test of time and we as genealogy fans benefit from Who, What, Where, When, and Why every time we open a newspaper article for our family history research!

MacDougall Spreads Theory [about Journalism's 5 Ws], Daily Northwestern newspaper article 16 January 1946

Daily Northwestern (Evanston, Illinois), 16 January 1946, page 3

Expand out:Another one of the benefits of using newspapers in your genealogy work is the fact that by nature newspaperwomen and men are inquisitive, so the “E” reminds me to expand out from what or whom I was originally looking for in that article since it’s quite likely more material was included than I was expecting.

Take your time: Like the sports figures in this 1916 Ripley’s cartoon, I always do my best to take my time when I login to GenealogyBank. There is simply so much to learn and take in from adjoining articles, etc., that the time spent in old newspapers for your genealogy is never, ever wasted!

Ripley cartoon about Father Time, Idaho Statesman newspaper 31 December 1916

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 31 December 1916, Section: second, page 4

Capture all your leads: Again, the inquisitive nature of newspaper reporters can pay genealogists huge dividends since reporters often provide us with all kinds of family history information in their articles. Names, ages, family, friends, addresses, maiden names, and historical tidbits abound in old newspapers, and are there for the taking to help us move through our work!

Have fun: Being a genealogical historian, I love historical newspapers for all they have to offer in my genealogy. By taking some time for fun I learn more too! Looking at old advertisements, reading the news of the times of our ancestors, and becoming more accustomed to how language and words were used in days gone by can reap huge rewards in all aspects of our family history and genealogy. Plus it is impossible to pass up the chance to read some of the old comics such as Pogo, Mandrake the Magician, Little Orphan Annie, Bringing Up Father, and so many others, like those I recently found in this 1930 Georgia newspaper.

comic strips, Augusta Chronicle newspaper 1 January 1930

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 1 January 1930, page 7

So as you work on your genealogy remember first to FETCH your GenealogyBank.com newspapers. Then delve into the family history treasures that you will be sure to discover and enjoy!

3 Genealogy Goals for 2014: Tasks & Tips for a Great New Year

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena describes three goals to get your 2014 genealogy research off to a great start: document your home sources, share your research, and update your family history information.

Wow! 2013 seemed to fly by and now it’s already 2014. What genealogy goals did you accomplish last year? What are your research resolutions for this year? While you may still not get that 500-page family history tome written, or trace your family tree back to 1500, there are some smaller tasks you can accomplish in a reasonable amount of time in the upcoming New Year. No need to feel dread when you think of all you want to do. There are still little things that will help you accomplish your overall genealogy goals.

To get you started, here are three ideas for reasonable genealogy tasks in 2014.

Document Your Home Sources

Home sources are the things that make up one of the first steps in putting together a family history. By definition a home source is simply any item with genealogical value that is housed in your home (though it could also be a close family member’s home for our purposes). I know, you’re probably thinking you don’t have any home sources. Even if this is so, expand your idea of a home source by considering items that will one day tell your descendants about their ancestors (you!). Also, include in your definition of a home source anything you have gathered through your own research such as photos, document copies, and books.

photo of various home sources of genealogy information: old photos and letters

Credit: from the author’s collection.

One day you won’t be around to convey the importance of these home sources to your family. So plan now to document these items. How can you do that? Digitize these items using a scanner or a camera, then write a description and history of the item. Let family members know the provenance (if any), stories behind the item, and care instructions. Take this information and put together a scrapbook or upload the information to a cloud storage website, and share it with family members.

In some cases it can be difficult to find the information we need to document an inherited item. A good case in point is those closely-cropped newspaper clippings that get passed down. Typically there is no information about the name of the newspaper or the date the article appeared. Take keyword phrases from those newspaper articles and use them to search in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. Once you locate the name of the newspaper and date, make sure to include that information when you digitize that clipping. Remember that some items, like newspaper clippings, degrade over time—so it’s important to preserve them now by scanning or photographing them.

photo of an old newspaper clipping

Credit: from the author’s collection.

Physical items, whether they are a prized heirloom, vintage family photos or newspaper clippings, help interest non-genealogists in their family story. Consider taking some time this year to preserve, document, and share them.

Start Sharing

Have you shared your family history research? What about those photos you scanned at your aunt’s home? Did you show everyone those cemetery photographs so that they can learn more about where their great-grandparents are buried?

Sharing your family history today is a lot different than in years past. Today, with the assistance of social media websites, cloud computing, and family tree websites, we can share all types of images with family far and wide.

Need ideas of where to share your family history information? How about using a social network website like Pinterest to upload family photographs? You can create virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest for cemetery photos, a specific family line, or photos of heirlooms. Invite family members to pin to these boards so that they can share what they know about the family. Need help learning more about Pinterest? See my GenealogyBank blog article 3 Steps to Using Pinterest for Your Family History.

screenshot of some of GenealogyBank's boards on Pinterest

Consider uploading documents and images to an online cloud storage website like Dropbox, Sugar Sync, Google Drive, or Microsoft’s SkyDrive. Share these private folders with family members. Once shared, they can then download what you have uploaded.

Don’t want to use social media or maybe you’re leery of uploading your family tree? Privacy, time, and effort are all considerations in online sharing of family information. Even if you don’t want to use online resources for sharing your family tree, don’t forget to make copies of documents, images and family history narratives that you have written. However you decide to share, remember that getting your family history in the hands of family members is beneficial. It helps to ensure that your genealogy research lives on after you have passed, and it provides a backup should something happen to your copy.

Review Your Genealogy Research

The beginning of the year is a good time to consider going back and reviewing those ancestors you researched when you first started working on your family history. Why? Since that time, new resources both on and off line have been made available, and most likely family members have shared additional information with you since you first started your research.

Choose one single family and then go through each person in that family and make sure that you have every census where they should appear, trace them in city directories, find appropriate newspaper articles, and verify everyone’s vital records information. As you enter all of your new findings in your genealogy database, make sure to cite your sources so that you and others you share your research with will know where to find that information.

Looking to work on your genealogy in 2014? Don’t get bogged down with large unrealistic goals. Genealogy should be fun. Choose a few small manageable tasks to kick off 2014. Take some time to document your home sources, share your research, and update your family history information. Here’s hoping you have many great genealogy discoveries in 2014!

2014 New Year’s Resolution: Find All My Ancestors’ Obituaries

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott shows how he is putting his New Year’s genealogy resolution into action: using historical newspapers to find obituaries for all his American ancestors.

Happy New Year! It is always a terrific feeling to start a whole New Year with a clean slate that holds untold potential! Nowhere do I feel this potential more than in working on my genealogy, ancestry, and family history.

Each year at this time, like most of you I am sure, I spend a few minutes making my New Year’s resolutions. I make my personal resolutions and then I also make a few genealogy-related resolutions. Among others this year I included the following:

I resolve to find an obituary for every one of my ancestors in America!

A tall genealogical order you say? I agree, but if I am going to take the time to make a New Year’s resolution I want it to be something that I can really sink my teeth into and enjoy all year long. Plus having just renewed my GenealogyBank.com subscription, I feel as though I already have a head start on my resolution because this collection of more than 6,500 online newspapers contains over 220 million obituaries and death records.

Here is how I am going to achieve success with this resolution in 2014: one person in our family tree at a time. I will start by moving back in time from my own entry on our tree. Just as a note, I created—and continue to build—our family tree using Family Tree Builder software, and I maintain it on a site through MyHeritage.com so that it is quite easy for me to review each document, photo, etc., which has been attached to our family members. These include any obituaries that I have already discovered. A quick review of some entries was all it took for me to realize that I was missing quite a few obituaries in order to make my family tree more complete.

Sadly, I have the obituaries for both my mother and father because I was asked to write them, so I moved back one more generation and found that I did not have an obituary for my maternal grandfather, Allan Vincent Evenden. While I was surprised that I had overlooked getting this entry for our family tree, once I thought about it I realized that I had fallen into the trap of having received firsthand knowledge of the event without following up and documenting it for future generations! You see, my mom lost her dad when she was only 13 and I had heard the story of his passing during the depths of the Great Depression not only from my mom, but also from my grandmother.

Let the ancestor obituary search begin!

And so I decided to put my New Year’s resolution in action, and began searching GenealogyBank’s newspapers.

It didn’t take me long to find a notice in a 1933 Ohio newspaper announcing the funeral for my grandfather and requesting his Masonic brethren to attend and “Please bring your auto.”

funeral notice for Allan Evenden, Plain Dealer newspaper article 21 August 1933

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 21 August 1933, page 17

This newspaper funeral notice rang a bell in my memory and led me to my jewelry box. There I pulled out the only heirloom passed down to me by my grandmother: my grandfather’s pocket watch. As you can see in this photo, there on the fob is a Masonic symbol which, after reading the above notice, gained new importance to me. By the way, the photo attached to the fob is the only photo we have of my grandfather, so this heirloom is quite a gem to me!

photo of the pocket watch and fob once belonging to Allan Vincent Evenden

Photo: watch and fob of Allan Vincent Evenden. Credit: Scott Phillips.

Genealogy Tip: Get the whole story

Then as I looked further for more information on my grandfather I was given a fun little genealogy lesson. My next discovery was again in the Plain Dealer, from 1942. It announced the marriage engagement of my mother, Laverne, the daughter of Mrs. Allan V. Evenden, on Christmas Day 1942 to Mr. Lincoln Nels Christensen. Whoops! While that is my mom and this engagement did occur, for some reason the marriage didn’t. So remember to always do that “reasonably exhaustive search” when you are working on your genealogy. It is important that we make sure to get the whole story from beginning to end.

engagement notice for Laverne Evenden and Lincoln Christensen, Plain Dealer newspaper article 4 January 1942

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 4 January 1942, page 50

Finding the obituaries of Grandma & Aunt Em

Then my New Year’s resolution dealt me my second genealogy lesson of the day. You see, one of my pet peeves has always been that up until college, all my history teachers ended their history lessons just before the timeframe they lived. Well, I discovered with my next family tree review that I was guilty of the same error! After attaching my grandfather’s funeral notice to our family tree, I clicked on my grandmother’s record and discovered I had made that same mistake—I had ended too soon. I was with my grandmother when she passed away and I had not documented the history I had lived. I was able to quickly correct my oversight when I found my grandmother’s obituary in the Plain Dealer from 1970. As an added genealogy bonus, there on the same page of search results was an obituary for my Aunt Em, another one that I had missed!

obituary for Mae Anne Evenden, Plain Dealer newspaper article 14 August 1970

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 14 August 1970, page 23

obituary for Emily Vanek, Plain Dealer newspaper article 11 June 1980

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 June 1980, page 83

I couldn’t be more thrilled with how my 2014 New Year’s resolution is working out, and it is only the first week of January. While it might take me all year to find all of my American ancestors’ obituaries, I already know that it is one of the best genealogy resolutions I have ever made!

What has been the best genealogy New Year’s resolution you have ever made? Add your comment here and let me know.

How to Find Tricky & Common Ancestor Names in Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary provides some tips and tricks to find ancestors that are difficult to search for because they have common names, such as Smith or Jones.

One of my favorite genealogical expressions is: “My ancestor must have been in the Witness Protection Program, as there is absolutely no evidence of him [or her]!”

I always feel for people when they can’t find even the tiniest tidbit about an ancestor when they search in an extensive collection of old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

Very often, information about the target ancestor is in the old newspapers—but the ancestor search may be made more difficult because their name may be tricky. This is especially true for ancestors with diabolically vexing common names, such as John Smith, John Jones, or William Scott (the name of one of my ancestors).

This blog article shows you some search tips and tricks to find these difficult ancestors with common names in newspapers.

Finding Your Target Smith or Jones

As is well known, Smith and Jones are incredibly common names, as are John and William. In this 1844 newspaper article, take a look at how many people named Smith and Jones attended this family’s Christmas party.

I can’t fathom how many historical characters were named John or William—and I know from first-hand experience, sorting them out is challenging.

Note how many Johns there were in this tongue-in-cheek account of an annual Smith Christmas party. Not only are there numerous family members named John Smith, but there seems to be an equal number by the given name of Charles, not to mention all of the John Joneses and their wives, famously known as “Mrs.”

article about an annual Christmas party for the Smith family, Commercial Advertiser newspaper article 8 January 1844

Commercial Advertiser (New York, New York), 8 January 1844, page 1

Although you may never sort out a complicated family such as the one attending the Smith Christmas party, let’s review a few genealogy tips on how you might proceed with newspaper searches for ancestors with common names.

One-Name Ancestor Name Studies

Although tedious, consider undertaking a one-name study for a specific area, and cross-reference the results with persons by the same name in the same location. It will serve as a prospective list, and help you determine who’s who.

For example, in the GenealogyBank search box do a search for all the John Smiths in the Boston area.

screenshot of a search for John Smith in Boston on GenealogyBank

By incorporating a date range, such as 1844-1846, and a location, you may discover births, marriages, deaths, and even charming stories—such as this one, found doing a different John Smith search using the date 1856.

The John Smith in this newspaper article was a mate of the good ship Sally, and one day when the captain discovered him sleeping during his watch, John reacted vociferously: “do you supposed that I’m a d—–d horse to sleep standing up?” This quick and witty response caused the captain to laugh all the way back to his cabin, thereby allowing John Smith to finish his nap!

article about John Smith, Times-Picayune newspaper article 5 February 1856

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 5 February 1856, page 1

Search for Ancestor Names by Category

Another useful technique is to narrow a query using the various newspaper article categories found on GenealogyBank’s Search Results page.

For example, when I did the search above for Boston and John Smith with the date range 1844-1846, this was the Search Results page.

screenshot of search results page on GenealogyBank for a search for John Smith in Boston

First of all, this Search Results page shows there are 844 records matching the query. Notice the box on the left-hand side of the page: it breaks these 844 results down into various categories to make your searching easier. The most popular historical newspaper categories are shown first, including these results:

Initial Search Results

  • Historical Obituaries 19
  • Marriage Records 8
  • Passenger Lists 48
  • Newspaper Articles 203
  • Legal, Probate & Court 15

That accounts for the first 293 results. And the rest? See below the list of initial search results, where there is a blue arrow and it says “551 More”? Click on that blue arrow to see the remaining 551 results organized by category.

screenshot of the expanded search results page on GenealogyBank for a search for John Smith in Boston

Expanded Search Results

  • Newspaper Letters 7
  • Poems & Songs 1
  • Ads & Classifieds 540
  • Commodity & Stocks 2
  • Political & Elections 1

To select a newspaper category, click on the blue link. Try not to rule out seemingly less interesting categories—even an advertisement can hold a clue to a family business or probate record.

When dealing with a return as large as 844 hits, it makes the task of examining the results easier if you break them down into smaller groups by category, then examine each category one by one—the lesser totals will help you retain your focus, and it’s quicker to examine results when they’re grouped by category because you know what to expect and can accelerate your examination.

Narrowing Your Ancestor Name Search

When an extended family has chosen to name many offspring with similar or identical names, sharpen your search by looking for nicknames and other appellations (such as Senior and Junior), along with search terms that denote a particular characteristic of your ancestor, in an attempt to find that one specific individual you’re searching for.

Ancestor Nicknames & Distinctive Physical Characteristics

If you think we have a hard time straightening out complicated families, so did our ancestors. One of the ways they avoided confusion was to give people nicknames. The following comical 1876 newspaper article illustrates a breadth of creative nicknames.

A “respectable-looking old gentleman from the Eastern States” was trying to find a man named Smith in Austin, Nevada. The boy assisting him wanted to know which Smith the man was looking for and made many helpful suggestions, including: Big Smith, Little Smith, Three-fingered Smith, Bottle-nose Smith, Cock-eye Smith, Six-toed Smith, Mush-head Smith, One-legged Smith, Bow-legged Smith, and many more.

The old gentleman retorted: “My son, the Smith I am in search of possesses to his name none of the heathenish prefixes you have mentioned. His name is simply John Smith.”

To which the boy promptly responded: “All them fellows is named John!”

Looking for Smith, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 2 June 1876

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 2 June 1876, page 3

Searching by Generational Suffix: Senior & Junior

A common genealogical trap is thinking that “Seniors” and “Juniors” are related. From a historical perspective, senior means older, or of an advanced age, which is exactly how our ancestors interpreted the generational name designation. Two people with the same name, one a senior and one a junior, were not necessarily related.

  • Senior: indicates that there were two or more persons by the same name living in a community, with the senior being older than the junior.
  • Junior: indicates that there was another person by the same name, who was older than the person under discussion.

Distinctive Physical Characteristics

As seen in the humorous account of the many John Smiths of Austin, Nevada, people are often associated with their distinctive physical characteristics, whether it be their hair color, weight or height. An example from my own ancestry is finding two William Scotts, both of Revolutionary War fame.

Although cousins, one of the William Scotts (my ancestor) was shorter than the other. Family and other historical accounts refer to him as “Short Bill,” and the other as “Tall Bill.”

Prefix Name Titles & Initials

If someone held a position of honor, the title or the given (first name) might be ignored or abbreviated. Here are some examples of common name prefixes, which you could incorporate into an ancestor search:

  • Gen. Smith
  • Col. E. Smith
  • Rev. Dr. Smith
Passengers, Charleston Courier newspaper article 7 September 1849

Charleston Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 7 September 1849, page 2

If you are searching for an ancestor with a common name, make note if you ever run across that ancestor’s nickname, title, or distinctive characteristic—then incorporate that information into your search. You just might get lucky and find that individual needle in the haystack of common names.

Search Photos to Find Your Ancestor with a Common Name

One advantage to large families with common names is that you might find a family reunion newspaper article and—if lucky—a reunion photograph. Here is an example, displaying the “Largest Family in Mississippi,” all related to William Smith and his wife Catherine Pinkie Smith—with each individual clearly identified.

Death Invades Circle of 'Largest' Family in Mississippi, Times-Picayune newspaper article 12 March 1922

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 12 March 1922, page 39

Search Locations, Dates & Publications

Finally, try searching for your ancestor with a common name by specific locations, such as New York or New Hampshire.

After selecting “New York” as a target area, I searched for my ancestor William Scott (he was from the Saratoga Springs area) and found some good information.

screenshot of search for William Scott on GenealogyBank

By expanding the search to all of New York, I found death notices in newspapers that were published outside of Saratoga Springs. These newspaper articles provided many exciting life details, including William Scott’s approximate date of immigration prior to the Revolutionary War, information that he had fought in the battles of Bunker Hill, Trenton, White Plains and Saratoga, and that he had 38 battle wounds!

obituary for William Scott, Orange County Patriot; or, The Spirit of Seventy-Six newspaper article 15 August 1815

Orange County Patriot; or, The Spirit of Seventy-Six (Goshen, New York), 15 August 1815, page 1

As in all genealogical searches, these death notices led to more searches with even more results, including information that William Scott had actually been captured at the Battle of Bunker Hill! If you search for more newspaper articles about him, you’ll even discover that he wrote an account of what happened to the prisoners of war. This is a pretty cool research discovery for an ancestor whose common name posed search challenges, isn’t it!

Here is one of the newspaper articles about William Scott that I found in my additional searches.

casualty list for the Battle of Bunker Hill, Pennsylvania Journal newspaper article 27 September 1775

Pennsylvania Journal (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 27 September 1775, page 2

So don’t despair if you’re trying to find information about an ancestor with a common name. Yes, your first search may have turned up so many results you felt hopeless trying to weed through them, looking for information about your target ancestor. But if you use the ancestor search tips and tricks discussed in this article, you just might make that family history discovery you’ve spent years searching for! Good luck and have fun ancestor name hunting!

Genealogy Records: A History of Regional Coverage in the U.S.

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this guest blog post, Duncan discusses the availability of genealogy records in various regions of the U.S. She concludes with a genealogy case study showing how old newspapers helped her break through a brick wall in her own family history research.

When researching family history in the United States, you will find vast differences in the availability of genealogy records in various regions. This is due to a myriad of reasons, including: who initially settled the area, what government was created, what occurred during the region’s history, what records were preserved, and the availability of those documents today to the researcher.

In this blog article, I’ll provide a quick overview of three major geographic areas in the United States: New England, the South, and the West. In each region, I will briefly discuss three issues from a genealogist’s perspective: settlement, government, and history. Keep in mind, to cover hundreds of years of history in such vast regions is not fully possible in a few paragraphs. Therefore, you will want to do additional research about your area of interest.

Although the extent of official government records and other vital records about your ancestors may vary from region to region, there is one constant that is true for all areas of the country: old newspapers, such as the large online collection in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, are a great genealogical resource.

At the end of this article, I’ll present a case study from my own family history research, showing how two 1895 newspaper articles let me finally break through a brick wall I had with one of my ancestors.

Genealogy Record Coverage in New England

the painting "Autumn in New England" by Maurice Prendergast

Painting: “Autumn in New England,” by Maurice Prendergast. Credit: Wikipedia.

Many diverse groups settled New England originally. Some came looking for the freedom to practice their religion, others to create a new utopia—but they had many things in common. The settlers generally believed that their local government was created for the benefit of society and should be actively supported, participated in, and abided by. Also, they were largely a well-educated people. These factors led to the creation of excellent community and church records, which delight current genealogical researchers.

For example, records exist for the large majority of marriages that occurred in New England prior to 1700! One book, New England Marriages Prior to 1700 by Gary Boyd Roberts, provides a “comprehensive listing of the 37,000 married couples, their marriage date or the birth year of a first child, the maiden names of 70% of the wives, the birth and death years of both partners and their residence.” From the earliest days of their settlements, these educated, orderly people were keeping detailed records. The keeping of vital records (birth, marriage, and death certificates) was instituted statewide in this region earlier than anywhere else in the country, beginning in the mid- to late-1800s in most cases. Contrast that history of record-keeping with some of the other regions of our nation, and you can see how unusual these records are.

New England has also had many thriving newspapers throughout its history, which provide coverage from 1690 to the present.

Genealogy Record Coverage in the South

the painting "A Home on the Mississippi" by Currier & Ives

Painting: A Home on the Mississippi, by Currier & Ives. Credit: Wikipedia.

The diverse groups that settled the South came for entirely different reasons than most New Englanders. They were here for economic reasons. The government and laws they created were primarily to protect their business interests. It was for the most part an elitist society where only the wealthy were allowed to vote and authoritarian rule was the norm. The majority of the population consisted of undereducated, poor workers and slave laborers who were not represented. Southerners were naturally distrustful of government and did not institute the official keeping of vital records until much later. Some Southern states did not begin recording this information until the early- to mid-1900s! Even census records can be challenging to use because Southerners would often provide middle names in one census and first names in the next, or only initials—particularly in the 1860 and 1870 censuses.

During the Civil War, Union soldiers intentionally targeted Southern courthouses to destroy records naming slaves as property. The first records that were reconstructed following the war were land and property records. Land was wealth that needed to be authenticated and protected. These reconstructed land records list the person currently owning the land and often an explanation of where they got it. This can include land received from a relative and, in some cases, their relationship to that person, which is invaluable documentation for genealogists. Land records are often called the “bread and butter” of the South by family historians, meaning they are the necessary documents to use in your research.

Tax records may have survived which will show men coming of age, and can be used to get an approximate age of an individual and the names of potential family members. Kentucky is one example where excellent tax records are available. Court and probate records, where they still exist, are priceless and can provide an abundance of crucial information. Southern church records can be another excellent source of birth, marriage and death information (as well as membership details). Of course, newspapers are also excellent records.

In addition to courthouses, Union soldiers also targeted newspaper printing presses, because newspapers were the main source of information for most people. Because they were in danger of destruction, some Southern newspapers temporarily suspended operation or moved further South where it was safer. The good news is that even if a particular newspaper and its archives were destroyed, many of its articles had been picked up and printed by multiple other papers and can still be found.

Genealogy Record Coverage in the West

the painting "Emigrants Crossing the Plains" by F. O. C. Darley

Painting: Emigrants Crossing the Plains by F. O. C. Darley. Credit: Wikipedia.

The West is an idea as much as a place; it brings up images of frontier towns and vast prairies. “The West” meant anything on the western border of civilization, which had different definitions during different time periods. It can mean the western edge of the colonies, west of British King George III’s 1763 proclamation line, west of the Mississippi River, etc. The people attracted to this frontier life were those escaping persecution from the rest of society, or those with a pioneering spirit. Although white people lived west of the proclamation line prior to the king’s declaration, the main western push was in 1798-1819. In addition to Dutch, German, and Polish people, one predominate group that settled west was the Scots-Irish. These people were often marginalized and used as a buffer between the Native people and the colonies. They had a fiercely independent spirit and were quick to move if an area became too populated, which can make them hard to track. They did not have “regular schooling” and did not keep many records. In fact, they were often hostile to record keepers such as tax collectors. News, on the other hand, was prized in these small communities and people often gathered to drink and share information. Newspapers played a vital role in communicating information throughout the West.

Other American Regions of Significance

Of course, this brief description of some of the larger regions of the nation excludes vital and colorful histories such as Texas, French Louisiana, Spanish Florida, and Native peoples, to name just a few.

Genealogy Research Tip

When conducting your own genealogy research, spend some time getting to know the area your ancestors lived in: why it was created, what government agencies had jurisdiction over it, what records were created, for what reasons, and where those records can be accessed. County histories are a valuable source of information, as are finding aids for the county in question. Try searching the county or city name on Google or Bing to see what information can be found. Look for all the records that might exist such as newspapers, land records, tax lists, church records, cemetery records, etc.

Tracing My Great Grandfather: a Case Study

Newspapers are a crucial genealogical resource for all time periods. Historically it did not cost readers anything to publish news in their local paper, and they used newspapers very much like we use Facebook and other social media sites today. Information in local newspapers can give the reasons behind events, and sometimes supply information to replace missing vital records. It is worth keeping in mind that news and information can travel, even if your ancestor did not.

A great example of this is the death of my great grandfather, Zachariah Nicholson. He disappeared from the records after the 1880 census, when he was an older farmer in a very small town in Indiana. I ran a search for him in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives from 1880-1900 hoping to find out when and how he died, and found these two articles:

obituary for Zachariah Nocholson, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 19 January 1895

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 19 January 1895, page 7

obituary for Zachariah Nicholson, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 19 January 1895

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 19 January 1895, page 3

There are a few things to note about these two newspaper articles.

First, you’ll notice that his name in one article is spelled “Zachariah” and in the other it is spelled “Zacariah” without the middle “h.” You will want to check multiple spellings for a name, or search using an asterisk (*) as a wildcard to cover various possibilities.

Second, you’ll notice that the articles give slightly different information, emphasizing the importance of viewing multiple articles about the same event. One tidbit in the second article is the term “wealthy farmer.” The 1860 census lists his estate at $2100, which is sizable but not outlandish. Apparently it had grown by the time he died.  This is a reminder that I should look through the probate records for his will.

Last but not least, you will notice that one of these articles was printed in a Michigan newspaper, while the other was from his home state of Indiana. And as I mentioned, Grandpa Nicholson was from a very small town in Indiana—and yet a Michigan paper reported his death! As far as I know, there are no family connections with Michigan. The Jackson Citizen Patriot appears to be publishing information that would appeal to their readers in general. Perhaps some of their readers were from Southern Indiana or had business interests there. The point is: begin by doing a wide search, because information about your ancestor might turn up in newspapers published where you would not expect it.

I was surprised to find something about my small-town grandfather by doing a nationwide search—but I’m awfully glad that I did. I am grateful for these newspaper articles about Zachariah because they are the only documentation I have found to show when and how he died.

Genealogy Research Tip

Newspapers publish information from all around the country. Make sure you cast a wide net when searching for your ancestors in GenealogyBank because you never know where you might find information about them.

50 Alabama Newspapers Now Online for Your Genealogy Research

Last Saturday Alabama celebrated the 194th anniversary of its statehood—the “Heart of Dixie” was admitted into the Union on 14 December 1819 as the 22nd state.

photo of the official state seal of Alabama

Illustration: official state seal of Alabama. Credit: Wikipedia.

If you are researching your family roots in Alabama, you will want to use GenealogyBank’s online Alabama newspaper archives: 50 titles to help you search your family history in the “Yellowhammer State,” providing coverage from 1816 to Today. There are more than 21 million articles and records in this online collection.

Dig into the archives and search for obituaries and other news articles about your ancestors in these recent and historical AL newspapers online:

Search Alabama Newspaper Archives (1816-1992)

Search Alabama Recent Obituaries (1992-Today)

Here is our complete list of online Alabama newspapers, divided into two collections: Historical Newspapers (complete paper) and Recent Obituaries. Each newspaper title in this list is an active link that will take you directly to that paper’s search page, where you can begin searching for your ancestors by surnames, dates, keywords and more.

Discover a variety of genealogy records and news stories in these 21 Alabama historical newspapers, listed alphabetically by city:

Search recent obituary records for your relatives in these 29 Alabama newspapers, listed alphabetically by city:

Alabama Newspaper Archives at GenealogyBank

Alabama Newspaper Archives at GenealogyBank