Truly Personal Obituaries from the Recent Obituary Archives

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over nine years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” In this blog post, Duncan searches GenealogyBank’s recent obituaries collection and discoveries some truly interesting – and sometimes funny – passages in some of these obituaries.

Writing an obituary can be a painful and unexpected event. It can also be a healing one. More and more families are rejecting a dry, formulated writing style for their loved one’s obituary, taking instead a more personalized approach. It is challenging to compact a person’s life into a few lines. It is even more difficult to try to convey that person’s unique sense of being onto the printed page. Here are some marvelous examples of more personalized obituaries; I found these while browsing in GenealogyBank’s Recent Obituary Archives.

passage from Donna Smith's obituary urging people to be kind to one another

Humorous Life Philosophy

Sometimes an obituary shares a person’s philosophy.

Donna Smith’s obituary passed on this humorous life philosophy:

Do what’s right and do what’s good. Be kind and help others. The world can always use one more kind person. And if you can take it one step further, please do it for people grandpa’s age.

Donna Smith

obituary for Donna Smith, Salt Lake Tribune newspaper article 18 December 2014

Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah), 18 December 2014

Jokes Help

The family, or even the person themselves, may try to lighten up the situation by making a joke.

In his obituary, Aaron Joseph Purmorts’s family stated that he:

died peacefully at home on November 25 after complications from a radioactive spider bite that led to years of crime-fighting and a years long battle with a nefarious criminal named Cancer, who has plagued our society for far too long. Civilians will recognize him best as Spider-Man, and thank him for his many years of service protecting our city. His family knew him only as a kind and mild-mannered Art Director, a designer of websites and t-shirts, and concert posters who always had the right cardigan and the right thing to say (even if it was wildly inappropriate).

Aaron Joseph Purmort

obituary for Aaron Joseph Purmort, Star Tribune newspaper article 30 November 2014

Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 30 November 2014

Unusual Final Requests

Others leave behind unusual requests in their obituaries.

B. H. Spratt’s family suggested:

In lieu of flowers, tune-up your car and check the air pressure in your tires – he would have wanted that.

B. H. Spratt

obituary for B. H. Spratt, Florida Times-Union newspaper article 23 October 2011

Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Florida), 23 October 2011

Lisa Schomburger Steven’s family asked:

that you spend time with your children, take a walk on the beach with your loved ones and make a toast to enduring friendships lifelong and beyond. That is what Lisa would wish for you.

Lisa Schomburger Stevens

obituary for Lisa Schomburger Stevens, Charlotte Observer newspaper article 19 December 2005

Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina), 19 December 2005

Tom Taylor Jr.’s family stated:

One of his last requests to his good friend Scott, was to contact the Cremation Society to ask for a refund because he knew he weighed at least 20 percent less than when he paid for his arrangements.

Thomas J. Taylor Jr.

obituary for Thomas J. Taylor Jr., Sun News newspaper article 27 August 2008

Sun News (Myrtle Beach, South Carolina), 27 August 2008

Tom Brady Fan

To make an obituary more personal, family members sometimes add a line about a person’s passions or strongly held beliefs.

Enter Last Name

Patricia M. Shong was a fervent New England Patriots fan. Her family stated this wish in her obituary:

She would also like us to set the record straight for her; Brady is innocent!

Patricia M. Shong

obituary for Patricia M. Shong, Worcester Telegram & Gazette newspaper article 24 May 2015

Worcester Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Massachusetts), 24 May 2015

Patricia’s defense of Tom Brady put a smile on everyone’s face, as reported at the end of her obituary.

obituary for Patricia M. Shong, Worcester Telegram & Gazette newspaper article 24 May 2015

Worcester Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Massachusetts), 24 May 2015

Another Football Fan

Michael Sven Vedvik’s family did their best to lighten things up by saying in his obituary:

We blame the Seahawks lousy play call for Mike’s untimely demise. Mike was greatly loved and will be dearly missed.

Michael Sven Vedvik

obituary for Michael Sven Vedvik, Spokesman-Review newspaper article 5 February 2015

Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington), 5 February 2015

The Dog Ate It

Norma Brewer’s obituary contained this humorous remark:

Norma Rae Flicker Brewer, a resident of Fairfield, passed away while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. She never realized her life goal of reaching the summit, but made it to the base camp. Her daughter, Donna, her dog, Mia, and her cats, came along at the last minute. There is suspicion that Mrs. Brewer died from hypothermia, after Mia ate Mrs. Brewer’s warm winter boots and socks.

Norma Brewer

obituary for Norma Brewer, Connecticut Post newspaper article 31 January 2015

Connecticut Post (Bridgeport, Connecticut), 31 January 2015

Losing a loved one is never easy. Helping others to see that person the way you did can help ease your sorrow at their passing. You may even consider helping your family out by writing your own obituary!

Do you have a touching or funny obituary you’ve come across in your genealogy research? If so please share your obituary finds with us in the comments.

Related Articles:

ad for gift subscriptions to GenealogyBank

Sukey, I Never Knew You

This obituary caught my eye for several reasons.

obituaries, The Balance and Columbian Repository newspaper article 15 October 1801

The Balance and Columbian Repository (Hudson, New York), 15 October 1801, page 87

First is the header, with its poem and graphic.

“The Knell.”
Not “Deaths” or “Died” – which are very common headers for obituary notices even today – but instead “The Knell,” as in death knell.

Crisp. An excellent choice of words that immediately tells us this newspaper editor took time with the layout and content of each issue.

The poem also is on target to the newspaper’s audience.
It is mournful but upbeat.

Next is the illustration, centered toward the top of the article.
It evokes an image of the somber tone of the obituaries we are going to read in this newspaper article.

The tombstone, leaning to the side – the setting sun – the barren tree – all framed by the grass and the outline of the ground.

Striking.
Remember – this was published in 1801. What a memorable graphic.
This is a good example of the care that “Sampson, Chittenden and Croswell” – the newspaper’s publishers – took with this newspaper.

Enter Last Name

The other part of this obituary that caught my eye was the first death notice:

In this city, Mrs. Sukey Smith, wife of Mr. Matthew Smith, aged 35.

Sukey – that name sounds so familiar – but at the same time, I don’t think I’ve ever met a person named “Sukey.”

I wondered if it was an abbreviation.
No, according to the dictionary it is “a Hebrew baby name… [and means] Graceful Lily.” (Source: SheKnows.com)

Hebrew name? So I checked the Bible to see if there were any women named Sukey who were mentioned in the Bible. Nope – no one named Sukey is listed in the Bible.

A quick search of GenealogyBank showed that there are only 6 people with the name Sukey in the Social Security Death Index; there are over 150 marriages and nearly 400 obituaries involving a person named Sukey.

Maybe “Sukey” sounded familiar to me because of Sukey Tawdry from the lyrics of “Mack the Knife” by Bobby Darin.

Do you have a Sukey in your family tree?

Note: FamilySearch International (FamilySearch.org) and GenealogyBank are partnering to make over a billion records from recent and historical obituaries searchable online. The tremendous undertaking will make a billion records from over 100 million U.S. newspaper obituaries readily searchable online. The newspapers are from all 50 states and cover the period 1730 to the present.  Find out more at: http://www.genealogybank.com/family-search/

ad for gift subscriptions to GenealogyBank

His Life for His Son’s: The Story of My Cousin Isaac Smith

I recently found compelling newspaper articles about a local New York baker who lost his life while saving his drowning son.

A distant cousin wrote me last week and mentioned that a mutual cousin of ours, Isaac Smith, had died while trying to rescue his son back in the 1800s. I thought, that sounds like a story that a newspaper would pick up – so I headed to GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to find the rest of that story.

I quickly found not one – but three articles on this tragedy.

article about W. Isaac Smith drowning while strying to save his son, New York Herald newspaper article 24 June 1895

New York Herald (New York, New York), 24 June 1895, page 5

The drowning happened at a company picnic at Oakland Beach in Rye, New York.

According to the newspaper article, Isaac never took time off from his bakery. The picnic he organized was his first break from work in ten years. The news article goes on to describe the grim details of his death while rescuing his drowning son.

article about W. Isaac Smith drowning while trying to save his son, Watertown Daily Times newspaper article 24 June 1895

Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, New York), 24 June 1895, page 1

According to the other two articles I found, Isaac died of a heart attack – likely brought on by the urgency, fear and stress of finding and rescuing his son Gordon Smith, who was 15 years old.

Enter Last Name

Thanks to these old newspaper articles, my connection to William Isaac Smith went beyond the dates and places. The details and people involved in saving Gordon Smith’s life helped me see into the lives of my relatives in a unique way that is now preserved forever. These newspaper articles provided more than the “facts” so that I could see my relatives as they lived – and died. I got the details of this tragedy – but also sprinkled through there were the details of William Isaac Smith’s character, work ethic and business success that led him to open not just one bakery, but two more in neighboring towns.

article about W. Isaac Smith drowning while trying to save his son, New York Herald Tribune newspaper article 24 June 1895

New York Herald Tribune (New York, New York), 24 June 1895, page 7

Isaac ran a “wholesale bakery” in White Plains that branched out with bakeries in Tarrytown and Port Chester. By the young age of 43, he had provided financial security for his wife and children, and served his employees faithfully. These newspaper clippings on the accident provide amazing details that I would not have found anywhere else – describing not just this tragic incident, but details of the character of my cousin.

GenealogyBank has become a core “go-to,” reliable resource for learning about and writing the history of your family. Newspapers are the only place that genealogists can find the stories of their relatives.

Beyond the dates and places and news of the day are the stories of our grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Only GenealogyBank provides access to over 1.7 billion newspaper records that tell the stories our ancestors cannot. Thanks to our digital archival technology, our records can be made available to you at the click of a mouse. Sign up today and discover stories you might otherwise never have known about your family. Start your 30-day trial now!

Related Articles:

ad for gift subscriptions to GenealogyBank

Nellie Tayloe Ross: the Nation’s First Female Governor

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to learn more about one of the pioneering women in American history: Nellie Tayloe Ross, the first woman governor in U.S. history.

It would seem fitting that the first U.S. state to inaugurate a female governor was Wyoming. Wyoming, whose motto is the “Equality State,” approved female suffrage prior to statehood in 1869. In 1924, after the untimely demise of her husband, then-Wyoming governor William Ross, Nellie Tayloe Ross was asked by the Democratic National Committee if she would run for governor.

photo of Nellie Tayloe Ross, 1922

Photo: Nellie Tayloe Ross, 1922. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

While she was discouraged by others close to her, in the end Nellie – who had two sons to support and bills to pay – decided to add her name to the ballot. The race would be tough for a Democratic woman since Wyoming was largely a Republican state and many did not see politics as a place for women. On top of that, her campaign relied largely on friends and advertisements since the recent widow was not ready to actively promote herself.

However, Nellie won the election on 4 November 1924 and was inaugurated on 5 January 1925.

Enter Last Name

Two Women Running to Be Nation’s First Governor

During that 1924 election year, Wyoming wasn’t the only state looking to elect a female governor. In Texas, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson was also campaigning to become the nation’s first female governor.

This article from the Evening Star reminds readers that Wyoming was first in granting women’s suffrage: “Thirty-four years ago, Wyoming Territory felt sufficiently grown up to put on the long pants of statehood, and the strangely assorted group of cowmen, homesteaders, prospectors, and lawyers who framed her progressive laws cudgeled their brains for some gesture with which to demonstrate their superiority over the backward and decadent East.”

article about Nellie Ross and the Wyoming election of 1924, Evening Star newspaper article 18 October 1924

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 18 October 1924, page 4

In the 1924 election, Texas’ Ma Ferguson was elected governor in her state’s race. Interestingly, her husband had also been governor years earlier but was impeached. That didn’t stop Miriam from winning her race and becoming the first female governor of Texas. However, Nellie was inaugurated in Wyoming 15 days before Ferguson was in Texas, giving her the title of the nation’s first woman governor.

Nellie, the Governor

After her overwhelming win, Nellie continued to work on some of her husband’s projects including enforcement of prohibition. In addition she promoted her own agenda that included “…requiring cities, counties, and school districts to have budgets; stronger state laws regulating banks…obtaining more funds for the university; improving safety for coal miners; protecting women in industrial jobs; and supporting a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would cut back on child labor.”*

Nellie’s brief stint as Governor of Wyoming (she was governor for two years) was not without its detractors. One might expect that many men who believed that politics was no place for women would be hyper vigilant to point out her foibles and mistakes, but women were also among those who were unhappy with her performance. Their complaints included that she had not done enough to assist women in the political sphere, including her lack of female political advisors.**

One issue that women’s clubs had with Nellie was her position on prohibition. In this article boldly titled “California Women Snub Nellie Ross” about a Southern California chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), they had “by resolution…declared Mrs. Nellie Tayloe Ross inconsistent in avowing herself a prohibitionist and at the same time campaigning in the California presidential primary in behalf of the candidacy of Governor Al Smith, of New York.” They want on to say: “We deplore the position taken by Mrs. Nellie Tayloe Ross, former governor of Woyming [sic], who is now in California proclaiming herself a prohibitionist and in favor of enforcement of the prohibition laws of the United States and yet is speaking publicly in support of the presidential candidacy of Governor Al Smith, of New York, whose record on nullification of the prohibition law and whose personal sentiments in opposition to prohibition are well known to the people of the entire nation.”

article about Nellie Ross and prohibition, Macon Telegraph newspaper article 20 April 1928

Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), 20 April 1928, page 1

Public Life after Being Governor

After Nellie served two years as governor, she continued a high-profile life that included the lecture circuit. In this 1930 South Dakota engagement reported by the Aberdeen Daily News, she was addressing the issue of women in politics. She said: “Political emancipation in the 19th amendment gives recognition of women as thinking, intelligent human beings.” She went on to talk about the fact that it wasn’t easy for women to enter roles that had been traditionally held by men. She stated that “men have felt the responsibility resting upon them for so many years…that it is hard for them to allow women to enter in.”

article about a speech by Nellie Ross, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 27 June 1930

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 27 June 1930, page 7

Nellie went on to be the vice-chairman of the Democratic National Committee and then, in 1933, was the first woman appointed to head the U.S. Mint, a job she held for 20 years until 1953.

Enter Last Name

There’s no doubt that Nellie enjoyed many firsts in her life. She was written about in newspapers throughout the United States for the various events and activities she took part in. She also made the news in 1976 when she turned 100 years old.

article about Nellie Ross turning 100, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 26 November 1976

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 26 November 1976, page 2

Nellie died at 101 years of age in Washington D.C. Although she had been Wyoming’s governor for only two years, her title of first woman governor was one that was repeated in almost every newspaper article about her throughout her life – including her obituary.

obituary for Nellie Ross, San Diego Union newspaper article 21 December 1977

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 21 December 1977, page 36

Note: FamilySearch International (FamilySearch.org) and GenealogyBank are partnering to make over a billion records from historical obituaries searchable online. The tremendous undertaking will make a billion records from over 100 million U.S. newspaper obituaries readily searchable online. The newspapers are from all 50 states and cover the period 1730 to the present.  Find out more at: http://www.genealogybank.com/family-search/

—————-

* Rea, Tom. The Ambition of Nellie Tayloe Ross. WyoHistory.org. http://www.wyohistory.org/essays/ambition-nellie-tayloe-ross. Accessed 28 December 2014.

** Ibid

ad for gift subscriptions to GenealogyBank

Tracing Female Ancestors: The Mother of All Genealogy Research

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, to help celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend, Gena provides genealogy search tips to find information about your female ancestors.

There’s no doubt that tracing female ancestors can be difficult and sometimes near impossible. Unlike men who were documented via different types of transactions throughout their lives, women can seemingly disappear just by marrying an unknown-to-you spouse or spouses.

Let’s face it, finding a certified Mother of the Year might be easier than finding most of our female ancestors, but consider the following genealogy search tips to help you find success as you embark on your family history research.

Mother of the Year (Mrs. Elias Compton), Boston Herald newspaper article 12 April 1939

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 12 April 1939, page 1

Finding Dear Old Mom in the News

First, consider the relationship your ancestress had to others. She may have been a wife or several men’s wife. Maybe she was a mother and a grandmother. Likely as a younger woman she was a student, perhaps a volunteer, and a church or organization member. Don’t forget that she was also somebody’s daughter and friend. She can be in all kinds of different newspaper articles based on her activities and relationships at the time.

Enter Last Name










As you consider all this, remember that her name will “change” according to her relationship and time. A non-married woman will be listed by her given name and surname (a.k.a. maiden name), while a married woman might be listed as Mrs. [insert husband’s first name or initials and surname]. A widow may revert back to using her given name, so that Mrs. John Smith or Mrs. J. W. Smith becomes Mrs. Grace Smith after his death.

An example of this is the obituary for Mrs. Emily Ann Smith, a widow who was living with her daughter Mrs. W. E. Gilchrist when she died. Note she is not referred to as “Mrs. Sanford Smith.”

obituary for Emily Smith, Daily Register Gazette newspaper article 17 December 1921

Daily Register Gazette (Rockford, Illinois), 17 December 1921, page 6

Rarer is a news article such as this next one, in which the deceased is referred to by both her own name (Mary Smith Keenan) and her married name (Mrs. James Keenan). Because this is rare, make sure that you are searching all variations of a female ancestor’s name—because some articles will have her name one way, and some will have it another; very few will have both versions.

obituary for Mary Smith Keenan, St. Albans Daily Messenger newspaper article 5 February 1906

St. Albans Daily Messenger (St. Albans, Vermont), 5 February 1906, page 7

Start Research with the Basics

As you research, use a timeline of dates and places to help you find newspaper articles that you may miss just searching by a name, due to misspellings or name variations. Find the corresponding newspaper articles for your timeline that document the major events in her life: birth, engagement, wedding, children’s births, major anniversary milestones, and death.

This engagement notice from 1939 for the appropriately named Mary Love Jones gives great information—not only about her but other women in her life: her mother, sister, aunts, and other family and friends. Note that not all of the women are listed by their given names. Plus, this article provides a photograph of Mary as a young woman—what a great find if she’s one of your ancestors!

engagement notice for Mary Jones and Truett Bishop, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 29 October 1939

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 29 October 1939, section III, page 6

Avoid Making Assumptions about Your Female Ancestors

Stay away from making assumptions about your ancestor’s life. Don’t fall into the old “she was just a housewife” syndrome. You might be surprised to find what she was involved in during her lifetime.

For example, I love this front page montage of photos of teachers and women from the local PTA of Greensboro, North Carolina. What a great find for a descendent who may not be aware of their ancestor’s school involvement.

article about women in the local PTA, Greensboro Daily News newspaper article 15 May 1938

Greensboro Daily News (Greensboro, North Carolina), 15 May 1938, page 37

Another great example of “women’s work” making it into the newspaper is this article about  Red Cross volunteer Mrs. D. P. Beyea, who spoke to groups about her experience nursing soldieries overseas during World War I. Known as the “Little Mother of the First Division,” she is said to have been one of the first to volunteer. You get a sense of her accomplishments from the newspaper article and a reminder that a woman’s activities may have depended on the time period.

article about WWI nurse Mrs. D. P. Beyea, Lexington Herald newspaper article 9 November 1919

Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 9 November 1919, section 5, page 1

Again, the issue of name is important here. The old news article isn’t clear whether D. P. (later listed as D. Pirie) is her husband’s initials or her own. A newspaper search on just one version of her name might easily miss this informative article.

Enter Last Name










Use Clues in Newspaper Articles to Find More Information

Continuing our genealogy search for Mrs. D. Pirie Beyea by searching Google, we can learn even more about her life. For example: click here to see a copy of her lecture brochure digitized and made available through the University of Iowa Libraries Digital Library. This is a great brochure complete with personal information, charming photos, and testimonials by those who heard her speak.

Genealogy Search Tip: Once you find your ancestor listed by a certain name or involved in an activity in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, make sure to continue your search in Google and Google Books for any other mentions of them.

Consider Your Ancestor’s Activities

It’s hard to know what activities your ancestor may have been a part of since some groups that would have been familiar in her time are all but unknown today. Consider that she may have been a member of a group that was an auxiliary to one her husband was a member of (The Daughters of Rebekah, Order of the Eastern Star, Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic), a religious benevolent group (Dorcas Society, Relief Society), a cause she believed in (Women’s Christian Temperance Union, National American Woman Suffrage Association), a heritage association (Daughters of the American Revolution, Colonial Dames, Daughters of the Confederacy), or just a local group that may have done anything from hold cultural events to provide a social outlet. These groups may have had articles published in the newspaper that listed members or officers, meetings, special events, or persuasive missals.

The following newspaper article reports on the Spinsters, a social group for young unmarried women.

Miss King to Head Thalian Spinsters, Greensboro Record newspaper article 12 September 1939

Greensboro Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 12 September 1939, page 7

The historical news article above is from this newspaper’s “Women’s Activities” page which has some great articles about women’s groups, wedding notices, and personals that list names of women and mentions of vacations and visits.

Women's Activities page, Greensboro Record newspaper 12 September 1939

Greensboro Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 12 September 1939, page 7

There’s So Much Genealogy to Explore

Having trouble finding genealogical information about your foremothers? Newspaper collections are an excellent place to start because newspapers recorded the happenings of a community. Can’t find anything about your female ancestors? Remember to search the archives for your ancestress with applicable name variations—and keep checking back: GenealogyBank adds more newspapers daily. Even though you may not find anything about your ancestry today, tomorrow could reveal your “aha” genealogy moment.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Related Articles about Tracing Your Female Ancestry:

ad for gift subscriptions to GenealogyBank

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!

Did Grandma & Grandpa Write Letters to Santa Claus as Kids?

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary searches old newspapers to find some of the cute, funny, and heartwarming letters our ancestors wrote to Santa Claus.

In our genealogical quests, we often overlook valuable sources of family history—such as time-honored childhood traditions like writing to Santa Claus (once known as Saint Nicholas).

I recommend you include “Letters to Santa,” published in hometown newspapers, as part of your genealogy research. Can you imagine finding a letter to Santa Claus written by Grandma or Grandpa when they were tots? It would certainly bring a jolly twinkle to your eyes this holiday season!

Yes—it’s very possible that you might find a letter to Santa your ancestor wrote in the historical newspaper archives—and you might even find one with a home address!

Fact: Many Letters to Santa Were Shipped to the North Pole

The U.S. Post Office, not knowing what to do with the abundance of letters to Santa they received throughout the Christmas season, often shared them with newspaper publishers. After air travel became feasible, many letters were (and still are) sent to the North Pole in Greenland, often causing overtime for postal workers. This article from 1950 reports that as of mid-November that year, over 70,000 letters had been received in Copenhagen, Denmark; by Christmas they were expecting about 200,000.

Mail for Santa Claus Keeps Postoffice in Denmark Busy, Boston Herald newspaper article 17 December 1950

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 17 December 1950, page 47

Letter to “Dear Old Man” (Santa Claus) from Tom (1888)

Here is an early letter to Santa published after the 1887 Christmas holiday. Although it doesn’t reveal “Tom’s” surname, it has an interesting description about the custom of using a chimney post office for the children’s letters.

The little boy made it clear he didn’t care for peppermint sticks, and had some interesting requests—including this instruction to Santa: “Don’t put my things in Jim’s stockings. My stockings are red, with holes in the knees.” Tom also advised Santa Claus: “Ma and Pa are always foolin’ about Christmas Eve, but come along and don’t mind them.”

The Letters Santa Claus Receives, Haverhill Bulletin newspaper article 2 January 1888

Haverhill Bulletin (Haverhill, Massachusetts), 2 January 1888, page 2

Santa’s Letter Box (1899)

The previous letter to Santa seems more of a novelty, as it was published in the newspaper after Christmas. Around the turn of the century, delightful children’s correspondence to Santa became a regular feature in many newspapers in the United States, and their letters were printed in the weeks leading up to Christmas. In the following 1899 newspaper article, you can read these letters to Santa:

Albany, Tex., Dec. 15.—Dear Santa Claus: Will you please send me a doll, if you have one to spare? I want one eighteen inches long, kid body and bisque head, light hair or dark will do. Yours truly, BESSIE TILGHMAN.

Oak Cliff, Tex., Dec. 15.—Dear Santa Claus: Please send me a toy cannon, train, magic lantern and a small boat, some candy, nuts of all kinds, apples, oranges and some fireworks. I am a little boy 6 years old. Your little friend, JULE BERAND.

Dallas, Tex., Dec. 17.—Dearest Santa: Though I look older, I am only 4 years old. I don’t want a doll, but I want a watering pot and a carpet sweeper, and some ginger-snaps and jaw-breakers. Yours lovingly, BROOKSIE T. SMITH.

Santa's Letter Box, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 18 December 1899

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 18 December 1899, page 5

Notice the letter authors are clearly identified by first and last name. Are any of these letters to Santa written by your ancestors?

Georgie Freeman and Charlotte Ostan from Evansville, Indiana (1905)

These children had been very good all year, one performing night work and carrying in meat, and the other who didn’t want her five-year-old brother Tony Ostan forgotten.

Letters to Santa Claus, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 15 December 1905

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 15 December 1905, page 6

Almira and Kenton Christopher from Belleville, Illinois (1919)

As we all know, many families have a tough time at Christmas. Not wanting to disappoint their children, Mom and Dad often make up cover stories to explain the lack of presents, as shown in the following letters to Santa Claus.

In 1919, the Christopher children wrote that they were sorry Santa’s reindeer were sick, and that he wouldn’t be coming this year. However—just in case—Almira did wish for a coat, hair ribbon, dress, cap, shoes, fruit and nuts, and some other items, including a little piano.

Among the presents Kenton hoped for were a popgun, new suit and cap, an auto, bicycle, football suit, and a tree. He also added, “Do not forget to leave something for my sisters, brother and parents.”

letters to Santa Claus, Belleville News Democrat newspaper article 15 December 1919

Belleville News Democrat (Belleville, Illinois), 15 December 1919, page 7

Ruby Grace Coker from Marietta, Georgia (1923)

Some letters to Santa are purely fun, such as this one from a little girl who lived in Marietta, Georgia:

Dear Santa Claus—Christmas, I want you to bring me a doll that walk, talk and sleep. I want a pair of skates, and I want a box of water colors. Please bring some fruits, nuts and candy of all kinds. There is one more thing I want and that is a raincape. I won’t ask for anything else, because there is lots more little boys and girls that you have to see, but remember mother, daddy, brother and my little baby sister.—Your friend, Ruby Grace Coker.

letter to Santa Claus, Cobb County Times newspaper article 20 December 1923

Cobb County Times (Marietta, Georgia), 20 December 1923, page 6

Letters to Santa Claus Contest (1937)

With so many children’s letters to Santa sent to newspaper editors, the competition to be published was fierce. Not wanting to disappoint, some newspapers created contests—such as this one from the Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper, which offered a first place prize of $5 and a second place prize of $3, with six runners-up to receive $1 each. (I wasn’t able to locate the winning entries, but perhaps some of our readers would find them and report it on the blog.)

Letters to Santa Claus Entered in New Contest, Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper article 12 December 1937

Heraldo de Brownsville (Brownsville, Texas), 12 December 1937, page 2

Letters from the Echo of Richardson, Texas (1941)
In this collection of letters from 1941, many children told Santa Claus that they love him. (Don’t we all!)

Dear Santa Claus: I have been good. Please come to see me. Fill my stocking with fruit and candy and toys. Don’t bring me very much, but don’t forget other boys and girls. I love you, Ray Johnson.

Dear Santa Claus: I have been good. Please come to see me. Fill my stocking with fruit and candy and toys…I love you, Sylvia Jean Terry.

Letters to Santa Claus, Richardson Echo newspaper article 19 December 1941

Richardson Echo (Richardson, Texas), 19 December 1941, page 5

There are so many letters to Santa Claus in the newspapers, I hope you’ll take time to research them—and please let us know when you find any of these priceless family treasures!

Search Tips

Try entering your ancestor’s first and last name in combination with “letters to Santa” or “letter to Santa” in the “Include Keywords” field on GenealogyBank’s Newspaper Archives search page to get started.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page, looking for letters to Santa Claus

You might also try searching for your ancestors’ letters to Santa from the Newspaper Letters search page.

Christmas card from Mary Harrell-Sesniak to her blog readers

Hope you have a wonderful holiday season!

Merry Christmas!
Mary

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jackie Robinson & Rosa Parks Obituaries

During this October week in American history three pioneering activists died who had a big impact on American society:

  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton, American women’s rights activist, died at 86 on 26 October 1902
  • Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson, American baseball player and civil rights activist, died at 53 on 24 October 1972
  • Rosa Louise McCauley Parks, American civil rights activist, died at 92 on 24 October 2005

Newspapers are filled with obituaries and profiles that help us better understand the lives of our ancestors—and the famous people who lived during their times. You can use historical newspapers to research their public careers and trace their family trees. The following old newspaper articles about these three famous Americans are good examples.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902)

An activist from an early age, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was involved in the abolitionist and temperance movements—but the cause to which she primarily devoted her considerable powers was women’s rights and their equality before the law, especially the right to vote. She was instrumental in organizing the first women’s rights convention: the Seneca Falls Convention, a two-day meeting convened on July 19, 1848, in Seneca Falls, New York.

Over 300 people attended the women’s rights convention, whose highlight was the reading and discussion of a statement of women’s rights called the Declaration of Sentiments, primarily written by Stanton. After much debate, the declaration (deliberately modeled after the Declaration of Independence) was signed by 100 of the participants: 68 women and 32 men.

Of the 12 resolutions debated and approved at the convention, the most controversial was the ninth, written by Stanton. It read: “Resolved, that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.” Women’s suffrage was a divisive issue and many of the convention’s participants opposed its inclusion, fearing that an element this controversial would weaken support for women’s equality. However, others argued persuasively in favor of supporting women’s suffrage—and in the end the voting rights resolution was approved.

Stanton met another pioneering suffragist, Susan B. Anthony, in 1851, and the two women were close friends and allies in the women’s rights movement for the rest of Stanton’s life.

This obituary was published the day after Stanton died.

Woman's Rights Loses Venerable 'Mother' [Elizabeth Cady Stanton], Denver Post newspaper obituary 27 October 1902

Denver Post (Denver, Colorado), 27 October 1902, page 3

This old newspaper obituary included a tribute penned by Susan B. Anthony: “Through the early days, when the world was against us, we stood together. Mrs. Stanton was always a courageous woman, a leader of thought and new movement. She was a most finished writer and every state paper presented to Congress or the state legislatures in the early days was written by Mrs. Stanton. I cannot express myself at all as I feel, I am too crushed to say too much, but if she had outlived me she would have found fine words with which to express our friendship.”

This tribute to Stanton was published two days after she died.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Worcester Daily Spy newspaper article 28 October 1902

Worcester Daily Spy (Worcester, Massachusetts), 28 October 1902, page 6

It concluded: “Mrs. Stanton fell far short of her aim, in what she actually accomplished, just as Susan B. Anthony finds herself far short of the goal toward which she has struggled [the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, was not ratified until 1920]. The world is not ready to grant their contention in its fullness, and indeed is still to a great degree hostile toward it, but the two remarkable women long ago won recognition of the principle by which they were inspired, and through that recognition extended the power of women in public affairs to a wonderful degree, and made great progress toward establishing women in a position more equitable with that of men so far as property rights are concerned.

“Work like that carried on by Mrs. Stanton cannot cease with her life, nor can it end when Miss Anthony, her illustrious co-worker, passes away. It is everlasting, and will constantly bring fresh benefits to womankind.”

Jackie Robinson (1919-1972)

A superb all-around athlete and a man of strong principles, Jackie Robinson is most remembered as the African American who broke baseball’s color barrier when he started a game for the Brooklyn Dodgers on 15 April 1947. Despite vicious racial taunts and threats, Robinson played the game with great intensity and excellence, gradually winning the respect and admiration of most of his peers and helping to advance the cause of the Civil Rights Movement in America.

During his 10-year baseball career, Robinson played in six World Series, had a lifetime batting average of .311, won the Rookie of the Year award in 1947, and was the National League Most Valuable Player in 1949. He became the first African American player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame when he was accepted in 1962, in his initial year of eligibility.

After his professional baseball career ended, Robinson continued to break racial barriers with a series of firsts for an African American: baseball television analyst; vice-president of a major American corporation (Chock full o’Nuts); one of the co-founders of an African American-owned financial institution called the Freedom National Bank; owner of a construction company that built housing for low-income families.

Robinson died a much-respected figure on 24 October 1972 of complications from diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease at the young age (for a prime athlete) of 53. After his death tributes poured in for the man who had accomplished—and endured—so much.

This tribute, published in the newspaper the day after Robinson died, told a story about his minor league playing career with the Montreal Royals that showed how much testing Robinson had to endure.

Fear of Failure Motivated Jackie [Robinson], Springfield Union newspaper article 25 October 1972

Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 25 October 1972, page 32

“There was the exhibition game against Indianapolis, and Paul Derringer, the one-time Cincinnati ace, was pitching against Montreal. He was a friend of [Montreal Manager Clay] Hopper’s and he said:

“‘Tell you what I’m gonna do, Clay. I’m gonna knock him (Robinson) down a couple of times and see what he’s made of.’

“Robinson had to eat dirt to avoid a high, inside pitch his first time up, but then picked himself up and singled. Derringer decked him again the next time up, but Robinson bludgeoned a screaming triple to left-center.

“‘He’ll do, Clay,’ Derringer hollered into the Montreal dugout.”

This tribute to Robinson was penned by famed sportswriter Red Smith.

Unconquerable Spirit [Jackie Robinson] Pierces Gloom in Philly, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 25 October 1972

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 25 October 1972, page 70

Calling Robinson the “black man’s fighter,” Smith wrote: “Jackie Robinson established the black man’s right to play second base. He fought for the black man’s right to a place in the white community, and he never lost sight of that goal. After he left baseball, almost everything he did was directed toward that goal. He was involved in foundation of the Freedom National Banks. He tried to get an insurance company started with black capital and when he died he was head of a construction company building houses for blacks. Years ago a friend, talking of the needs of blacks, said, ‘good schooling comes first.’

“‘No,’ Jackie said. ‘housing is the first thing. Unless he’s got a home he wants to come back to, it doesn’t matter what kind of school he goes to.’”

This Jackie Robinson obituary article was published the day after he died.

Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson Dead at 53, Plain Dealer newspaper obituary 25 October 1972

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 October 1972, page 61

It included a tribute to Robinson from the head of baseball: “Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said Robinson was unsurpassed in contribution to sports. ‘His entire life was courage. Courage as the black pioneer of the game. Courage in the way he fought for what he believed.’”

Rosa Parks (1913-2005)

When Rosa Parks, an African American woman in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her bus seat to a white person on Dec. 1, 1955, her act of resistance ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott—which in turn accelerated the Civil Rights Movement and forever changed America. It was not that Parks was too physically tired to move that evening, though it was the end of another long day working as a seamstress in the Montgomery Fair department store. Nor was she old and infirm; at 42, she was a strong and healthy African American woman. She had simply had enough of the city’s segregation laws that gave whites more rights than blacks.

Her arrest for refusing white bus driver James Blake’s order to give up her seat on the bus galvanized the African American community in Montgomery. Thousands of leaflets were distributed calling for a boycott of the city’s buses until the Jim Crow segregation laws were changed. The boycott was led by a young minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., who soon rose to national prominence as a civil rights leader. After 381 days the segregation laws were finally changed and blacks once again rode Montgomery’s buses—but that victory was only the start of a movement much, much bigger.

The Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, and Rosa Parks went on to receive national recognition—including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

This 1955 news article reported on her arrest, fining, and the subsequent bus boycott.

Negro Woman [Rosa Parks] in Segregation Case Fined, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 5 December 1955

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 5 December 1955, page 44

The newspaper article about the Montgomery bus incident reported: “The woman was taken off a bus and jailed last Thursday night after refusing to leave a section reserved for white passengers. The [Montgomery] City Code requires segregation in all forms of public transportation and gives bus drivers police powers to enforce the law.

“Meanwhile, other Negroes boycotted city buses in protest against the woman’s arrest. Police cars and motorcycles followed the busses to avert trouble.”

This obituary and appreciation was published in the newspaper two days after Parks died.

Rosa Parks Inspired Generation, Register Star newspaper article 26 October 2005

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 26 October 2005, page 1

It reported: “Attorney Vernita Hervey, a civil rights activist, said Parks’ defiance of Alabama’s Jim Crow laws sparked an uprising that ‘probably was the defining moment in African-American collective action.’”

To honor Parks, this drawing graced the editorial page of the Register Star.

editorial cartoon paying respects to Rosa Parks, Register Star newspaper illustration 26 October 2005

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 26 October 2005, page 5

Today there is even an American holiday in Rosa Parks’ honor.

Newspaper Obituaries provide personal details about someone’s life that can’t be found elsewhere—whether they are stories about our ancestors or articles about famous people we’re interested in. GenealogyBank features two collections of online obituaries:

Dig into these obituary archives today and see what you can discover about your family tree and the famous people you admire most!

Remembering Robert E. Lee, John Denver & Wilt Chamberlain with Newspapers

During this October week in American history three giants—one quite literally—died who had a big impact on America:

  • Robert E. Lee, American soldier and Confederate general, died at 63 on 12 October 1870
  • John Denver (Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr.), American singer-songwriter, died at 53 on 12 October 1997
  • Wilt Chamberlain, American basketball player, died at 63 on 12 October 1999

Newspapers are filled with obituaries and profiles that help us better understand the lives of our ancestors—and the famous people who lived during their times. The following newspaper articles about these three famous Americans are good examples.

Robert E. Lee (1807-1870)

Around 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 12, 1870, Robert E. Lee, the beloved Confederate general who had spent his years after the Civil War serving as the much-respected president of Washington College, died. He was 63. Lee had suffered a stroke on September 28, and in his debilitated state contracted pneumonia, which did him in. He died in Lexington, Virginia, the home state he loved so well.

Robert E. Lee is one of the giants in American history. He had a remarkable 36-year military career, mostly with the U.S. Army (fighting in the Mexican-American War and reaching the rank of colonel) while the last 4 years were spent in the Confederate Army (fighting for the South in the Civil War, the general who led the famous Army of Northern Virginia).

As shown in Lee’s obituary below, it is easy to see why U.S. President Abraham Lincoln offered Lee command of the Union Army on April 18, 1861, the day after Virginia voted to secede. Lee was torn between his oath to serve the U.S. and its army, and his deep love for Virginia—but Virginia won out, and on April 20, 1861, Robert E. Lee resigned from the U.S. Army and headed home to become commander of the Virginia military forces.

Death of Robert E. Lee, Cincinnati Commercial Tribune newspaper obituary 13 October 1870

Cincinnati Commercial Tribune (Cincinnati, Ohio), 13 October 1870, page 4

This obituary provides a good review of Lee’s military career:

“Although not unexpected, the death of General Robert E. Lee, which is announced in our telegraphic columns, will create a profound sensation. General Robert Edmund [Edward] Lee, whose name a few years ago was on all lips, when he was at the head of the so-called Army of Northern Virginia, was born in that State, of distinguished parents, in the year 1808 [1807]. After receiving a liberal education, he was admitted into West Point, as a cadet, in 1825; entered the United States Army, as Second Lieutenant, in July 1829; was made First Lieutenant in September 1836; and Captain in July 1838. He was appointed a member of the Board of Engineers in 1845; Chief Engineer of the Army in Mexico in 1846; was made Major, April 18, 1846, for gallant conduct at Cerro Gordo; Lieutenant Colonel, August 20, 1847, for bravery at Contreras and Churubusco; and Colonel, September 13, 1847, for gallant conduct at Chapultepec. At the end of the Mexican War he was reappointed a member of the Board of Engineers, and in1852 was raised to the post of Superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point, which he held till March 1855, when he was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of Cavalry. He was appointed Colonel of Cavalry on the 16th of March, 1861, but resigned his commission in the United States Army a few days afterward under circumstance with which most of our readers are familiar. What General Lee did for the cause of the Rebellion during those eventful four years which will never be effaced from the memory of Americans, will be judged by history; and history, furthermore, will pass at a future day upon his military talents that opinion which his contemporaries will hardly be able to give.

“Soon after the close of the war he accepted the Presidency of Washington College, Virginia, and sustained a position of becoming dignity in regard to the past. Southerners almost universally entertained for him an affection that perhaps was not equaled in its intensity excepting by that in which General Thomas was held by the people of the North.”

To mark the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s birth, this Texas newspaper published a series of poems celebrating his life and commemorating his death.

Robert Edward Lee: One Hundredth Anniversary of His Birth, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 20 January 1907

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 20 January 1907, page 7

One of the poems about the famous Confederate general presented, “The Death of Lee,” begins this way:

The drapery of heaven hung low

In dark and gloomy shrouds,

And angels used the weeping stars

In pinning back the clouds.

The shades of gloom and woe prevail

O’er all the land and sea,

And eyes so long unused to tears

Now wept for Robert Lee.

 

A Christian soldier, true and brave,

Beloved near and far,

He was first in time of peace

And first in time of war.

Virginia never reared a son

As good and brave as he,

Save one, and that was Washington,

Who lived and died like Lee.

 

His peaceful sword is laid away,

His work on earth is done,

He loved the people of the South,

They idolized their son.

There’s not a woman, man nor child,

I care not where they be,

Throughout this still sweet, sunny South

But loves the name of Lee.

John Denver (1943-1997)

John Denver was a giant in the American music industry in the 1970s and 1980s, one of the leading stars of the acoustic singer-songwriter genre. He recorded more than 300 songs in his long, successful career, writing about 200 of them, including “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Rocky Mountain High” and “Sunshine on My Shoulders.”

Denver also appeared in movies and numerous television shows, and was a humanitarian, advocate for space exploration, and a crusading voice for environmental protection. He was as passionate about flight as he was about music—sadly, his life was cut short at the age of 53 in a fatal accident while flying his personal aircraft solo off the California coast near Pacific Grove.

The below profile and obituary from the Register Star said of Denver: “His trademark wire-rimmed glasses and handsome smile—sort of a clean-cut hippie who could appeal to all generations—made him a winner on countless TV specials.”

profile and obituary for John Denver, Register Star newspaper articles, 14 October 1997

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 14 October 1997, page 13

As reported in the news article below, more than 2,000 people attended Denver’s funeral in Aurora, Colorado: “It was the kind of day he loved to sing about: plenty of sunshine, the peaks of the Rockies in sight, and lots of family and friends around.”

His ashes were scattered in the Rocky Mountains he loved so much.

On Sunny Day, Service Honors John Denver, Register Star newspaper article 18 October 1997

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 18 October 1997, page 8

Wilt Chamberlain (1936-1999)

It is no exaggeration to say Wilton Norman “Wilt” Chamberlain was a giant of a man. During his years playing center for the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, Chamberlain stood 7 feet 1 inch and weighed 300 pounds. In his long professional basketball-playing career, which began with the Harlem Globetrotters in 1958 and ended with the Lakers in 1973, Chamberlain set numerous scoring and rebounding sports records. He performed feats on the basketball court that still astonish us today—he once scored 100 points in a single NBA game, the only player ever to do that. Chamberlain is the only player in the history of the NBA to average at least 30 points and 20 rebounds per game in a single season. No one else has ever done it—Chamberlain did it nine times, and in fact averaged 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds per game for his 14-year NBA career!

The below obituary recounts a funny story from New York Knicks center Darrall Imhoff, who had the unfortunate task of guarding Chamberlain the game he scored an amazing 100 points:

“I spent 12 years in his armpits, and I always carried that 100-point game on my shoulders…After I got my third foul, I said to one of the officials, Willy Smith, ‘Why don’t you just give him 100 points and we’ll all go home?’ Well, we did.”

Wilt Chamberlain Dead at 63, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper obituary 13 October 1999

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 13 October 1999, page 25

Chamberlain was known for more than his prowess on the basketball court. As reported in the below news article, about 800 people attended Chamberlain’s memorial service in Los Angeles: “Wilt Chamberlain was remembered Saturday more for his curiosity, intellect and quiet generosity than his unparalleled abilities on the basketball court.”

Memory of 'Stilt' Honored, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 17 October 1999

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 17 October 1999, page 47

Chamberlain’s fierce rivalry with Boston Celtics center Bill Russell was legendary. At the memorial service, Russell told the crowd:

“‘I knew how good he was and he knew that I knew how good he was,’ Russell said, drawing laughter. ‘I’ll just say that as far as I’m concerned, he and I will be friends through eternity.’”

Newspaper Obituaries provide personal details about someone’s life that we can’t find elsewhere—whether they are our ancestors or famous people we’re interested in. GenealogyBank features two collections of obituaries:

Dig into these obituary archives today and see what you can discover about your family tree and the famous people you admire most!

Tips & Tricks to Search Online Newspapers at GenealogyBank

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary shows some of the search techniques she uses when researching GenealogyBank’s newspapers collection—to help our readers do more efficient searches and save them time with their family history research.

Every American family has a heritage to celebrate—whether it is a connection with a specific event, such as the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620; a military event, such as the Civil War of 1861-1865; a particular country of origin; or person of interest, such as a president, suffragette or abolitionist.

I’m lucky to have proved connections in my family history to many of the above (alas, no president), and like most family researchers have jumped for joy at finding the documented proof.

Once we find the genealogical connections (sometimes with the help of others’ research), we feel enormous satisfaction. However, many genealogists don’t realize that search engines can be tweaked to shorten searches and make family history research more efficient— in particular the genealogy search engine within GenealogyBank.

The trick to more efficient searching is to experiment with specific targeted keywords, related to events or ancestry, along with adding wildcards (more on that below) that accommodate for variations.

Keyword Search: Lineal Descendancy

Let’s start with searches related to specific descendants, using the keywords “lineal descendant,” with or without an added surname.

In this example (long before lineage societies became popular), we read that Mr. Michael Kett, a Quaker, was a lineal descendant from Robert Kett, described as the famous tanner and political reformer in the reign of King Edward the Sixth.

Michael Kett obituary, Providence Gazette newspaper article 27 March 1784

Providence Gazette (Providence, Rhode Island), 27 March 1784, page 2

Doesn’t an ancestral report like that get a genealogist excited!

Most of us are happy to research to an immigrant’s arrival in America, but this gentleman had reportedly traced his ancestry to King Edward VI of England, whose brief life occurred between 1537 and 1553, having been crowned at the young age of nine.

Search Newspapers for Events

Another suggested query is to incorporate the word descendant with a specific event, such as the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620.

Enclosing the search in quotes, “Mayflower descendant,” produces a different result than if you searched on each term without the quotation marks. The difference is that when you simply input terms without quotes, the search engine will find results whenever the two words are located anywhere within the same article—but if you enclose the terms in quotation marks, the terms have to be next to each other in an article in order to show up on the search results page.

Note: generally the “s” is ignored, along with capitalization, so don’t worry about entering “Mayflower descendants” or “mayflower descendant”; either will suffice.

Mayflower Descendants, Daily Inter Ocean newspaper article 14 April 1896

Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), 14 April 1896, page 10

This obituary for Sarah Harlow of 13 March 1823 mentions that she was a descendant from “Mr. Richard Warren, who came in the Mayflower, in 1620, of the 4th generation.” It was found without using quotation marks around the words Mayflower and descendant.

Sarah Harlow obituary, Repertory newspaper article 13 March 1823

Repertory (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 March 1823, page 4

Accommodating Spelling Variations with Wildcards

Try variations of queries that accommodate spelling variations, by using either a question mark (?) or an asterisk (*). Known as wildcards, the first option replaces a single character in a word, and the other takes the place of several characters.

For example, “Harrell” can be spelled in a variety of ways, such as “Harrall” or “Herrell.”

If you want to search for all of these variations at once, substitute vowels with question marks. In addition, many early newspapers sometimes abbreviated “Samuel” as “Saml,” so try entering the given name as “Sam*” or “Sam*l.”

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box looking for Samuel Harrell

When I search for American Revolutionary War patriots, I often find the war described in various ways. One article might mention the Revolution, and another might describe someone as a Revolutionary War patriot. The solution is to abbreviate the term and add a specific surname.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box looking for Gilman

Don’t forget that you can direct the genealogy search engine to ignore certain words using the “Exclude Keywords” box.

If you are looking for one of George Washington’s namesakes, it might be useful to ignore the title President, whether it is abbreviated or spelled in full. And if you are repeating a previous search, you might wish to limit the query to the content added to GenealogyBank since your last search. Simply select the “Added Since” drop-down arrow, and limit by date.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box looking for George Washington

These newspaper search techniques usually carry over to your favorite Internet search engines.

Many search engines, such as Google Chrome, have advanced search options. However, if you can’t spot how to do that, you can still succeed. Without complicating things, you can apply what is known as a Boolean operator to a search query.

The three most common Boolean operators are AND, OR and NOT (in capitals).

  1. AND is usually a given in searches, but if you wish to be specific for search engines that ignore certain terms, be sure to add it.
  2. NOT is equivalent to adding a minus sign (-), and indicates that you want a search that does not include something.
  3. OR is an option that tells the search engine to find one thing or another.
  • Harrell OR Herrell OR Harrall
  • “George Washington” NOT President
  • “George Washington” -President
  • George Washington AND Adams

Occasionally you’ll find additional operators, such as the mostly undocumented NEAR in Bing, or AROUND in Google, as well as the ability to search by date ranges.

  • “Susan Smith” 1940…1950 (finds references for this person between two dates)
  • “Egbert Jones” 38…48 (finds a range of numbers connected with this person, such as a specified age)

You’ll need to experiment with the various search engines, and browse their help features. Click here to find a reference on search operators from GoogleGuide’s list: http://www.googleguide.com/advanced_operators_reference.html.

In addition, you’ll find that many popular social network and e-mail programs have additional shortcuts and search options that can be useful for searching.

Please let us know your favorite search techniques in GenealogyBank. Other readers may find them useful!