Why You Should Dig Deep into the Obituary Archives

George Foster Sawyer served in the U.S. Navy and died in La Spezia, Italy, in 1852. He was a native of Burlington, Vermont.

Hmm…so where do you look for his obituary?

Since Sawyer was a native of Vermont, you’d expect to find his obituary in a Vermont or other newspaper from New England.

I did find an obituary for him in a Vermont paper, but it was brief and to the point.

Weekly Eagle 26 July 1852 Deaths

Weekly Eagle (Brattleboro, Vermont), 26 July 1852, page 3

I was hoping to find more information about Sawyer, so I kept on looking around in the obituary archives.

Then I found another obituary for him, this one published in a New York newspaper. It gives us more of the details of his life, like the name of the ship he served on, the date it sailed—and even the fact that his ancestors served in the American Revolutionary War.

Plattsburgh Republican 24 July 1852 George Foster Sawyer

Plattsburgh Republican (Plattsburgh, New York), 24 July 1852, page 3

It turns out his obituary was picked up by newspapers up and down the coast, each giving a little bit more information than the short Vermont obituary.

Genealogy Tip: Keep digging in the obituary archives—don’t limit your search to just the hometown area of the deceased. Obituaries can be published in newspapers you would never expect, far from where your ancestor lived or died.

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Written by Thomas Jay Kemp

Thomas Jay Kemp

Thomas Jay Kemp is the Director of Genealogy Products at GenealogyBank. Tom Kemp is an internationally known librarian and archivist – he is the author of over 35 genealogy books and hundreds of articles about genealogy and family history.

He previously served as the Chair of the National Council of Library & Information Associations (Washington, DC) and as Library Director of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

An active genealogist, he has been working on his own family history for 47 years. With the rapidly growing online archives at GenealogyBank – it is a great day for genealogy!

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4 thoughts on “Why You Should Dig Deep into the Obituary Archives

  1. Great point for sure, Tom! But Plattsburgh, New York WOULD be Burlington, Vermont’s “hometown area”, as it’s right across Lake Champlain, 21 miles northwest by seagull. Even today, the TV channels are Burlington/Plattsburgh. So, just saying that this is a poor example to emphasize a great point. Now, if it was a BUFFALO paper… “Know your geography” should precede this tip, as I would’ve looked at the Plattsburgh papers as well during the INITIAL search for Mr. Sawyer’s obit. Ditto for St. Albans, Vermont, where the original Plattsburgh obituary appeared.

  2. Thanks John.
    As you say – this is a great example. We see that too many researchers limit their research to only ‘one’ state or ‘one’ city. If they did this using this example they would miss these important articles that gave key information about their ancestors.

    It’s important to be flexible and not restrict the geographic too tightly.

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