Using Obituaries to Find Children Missing from Your Family Tree

Occasionally in your family history work, you will come across a relative who has, for whatever reason, been left off your family tree.

Such was the case for me. I used an old obituary to discover a missing son of my cousin Edward Rutledge (1858-1932), who had died just days before Christmas in 1891. That must have been a very tough Christmas for them.

He had been left out of our family records. Fortunately, with the help of GenealogyBank, finding these missing children and other relatives – and adding their information to our genealogical records – is easier than ever.

I knew that Edward had emigrated from Ireland to San Francisco, so I began by searching for his name in the old California newspapers.

A screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page showing a search for Edward Rutledge
Source: GenealogyBank

This search led me to an obituary for a child missing from the family tree: the 6-year-old son of “Edward J. and Mary E. Rutledge.”

That was them.

An obituary for Edward Rutledge, San Francisco Bulletin newspaper article 21 December 1891
Source: GenealogyBank, San Francisco Bulletin (San Francisco, California), 21 December 1891, page 3

Edward J. and Mary (Fay) Rutledge had five children listed in the family history. With the help of GenealogyBank, I was able to locate their first child and add him to the tree.

Sadly, the obituary mentions that little Edward died of diphtheria just five days before Christmas. Diphtheria was a major killer for centuries in America, and according to Wikipedia the disease still kills about 5-10% of people who are infected with it worldwide. At the time when little Edward died of diphtheria, the vaccine was only just beginning to be distributed worldwide.

According to Wikipedia, the “first cure of a person with diphtheria is dated to the 1891 Christmas holiday in Berlin” – the same month and year that Edward Rutledge died. A vaccine was available – but it was on the other side of the world from San Francisco. “Von Behring won the first Nobel Prize in medicine in 1901 for his work on diphtheria.”

Genealogy Tip: Obituaries for young children as well as old-timers can help you fill in the details of your family tree. Use to make sure every apple on your family tree is found and their story included.

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7 thoughts on “Using Obituaries to Find Children Missing from Your Family Tree

  1. Black Americans are rarely in obituaries because many newspapers refused to print them, particularly if they lived in rural areas. I have been looking for years to what happened to Bran Few (female) who lived in Upson County, GA (ca 1919-). When she died, her father Simon refused to put the casket in the ground, and he then had a wooden vault built to house the casket. Of course, this was long before modern vaults were used.
    I know all about her funeral, as it was told to me by my mother, as well as Lula Few — another one unknown to GenealogyBank, etc.

    1. The wonderful thing about GenealogyBank’s extensive newspaper collection – is that you never know what you will find.
      It is more common than we realize to find obituaries, biographies and other references to our relatives – even if they lived quite unobtrusive lives and were not well known in their communities.

      See my recent article on former slave obituaries here: and look for an announcement soon of an eBook we are publishing giving details on the many published obituaries of former slave.


  2. In years gone past, many young children died soon after birth and were mentioned only on a tombstone or as an entry in the Family Bible.
    Unless you happened upon one or the other, you would not know of the child at all.

    1. That is what is important about using the old newspapers – they routinely published obituaries/death notices for the young children that died as infants.

      Finding these family references is especially important when the tombstones themselves do not survive or cannot be read – and when the family Bible may way have survived but is now held by distant cousins unknown to you.

      Fortunately GenealogyBank has preserved, indexed and put online millions of the pages from old newspapers from across the country – just like the example I wrote about.


  3. I know this family story isn’t from GenealogyBank, but for years our family did not know there was a baby born within two years before my grandmother. It wasn’t until we were looking at all the names on the tombstones at one cemetery where family is buried that we saw there was a baby who died three days after birth. Wow! Now we have another child to add in the middle of all the other children who lived long lives. Yours is a very interesting article. It makes a good point that you never know about the past because the family kept some things quiet — and then years later a descendant finds something fascinating about the family!

    1. Thank you for sharing your family history discovery with us.

      I have found that families can only pass down so many stories. While they may have mentioned and described more of the details of the lives of our extended families – only a few of them get passed down to the rising generation. That is why I think it is important to document and record each one online – so they can be permanently found by all of the extended family.

      Each time we find another previously unknown child and add them to the online family tree – our combined family history is that much more accurate. As they say, ‘leave no child behind.’

      Thank you for writing in and sharing your family history.

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