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   How to Find Family Names Using Newspapers and Obituaries

If your ancestor died after 1820 your best bet is to search for a newspaper obituary. Newspaper obituaries often give many family names, the age of the deceased at death, date of death, family relationship information, names of surviving family members, church or mortuary for funeral service, and place of burial. Many times the date and place of birth is also given. It is not unusual to see a biographical sketch as part of the obituary. The biographical sketch may include the parents' names, the your ancestor’s occupation, military service, affiliations with local clubs, fraternities, or associations, and when the your ancestor settled in the local area. Many times you can find obituaries for women when no other records are available. These obituaries may give much more detail than any of the traditional vital records about your family name.

Prior to 1820 few obituaries for everyday citizens were published. Just about the only obituaries printed were for prominent citizens like judges, ministers, and politicians. However, if your ancestor died from an accident or some other unusual circumstance, look for your family name in news stories in local papers where your ancestor lived. Newspapers then as now thrived on shocking stories of pain and suffering and other startling events. Children would frequently merit a news article or obituary especially if they died from an accident, and, of course, the parents' names will be mentioned in those stories.

Generally, the obituary will appear within a couple of days of the death. However, if your ancestor died after a long illness, accounts of his ill circumstances may have appeared in the newspaper days before his passing. After you have looked at one or two issues of the publication, you will discover on which pages the obituaries usually appear. Death notices which are paid announcements often appeared on a different page, usually near the classified advertisements. During the 1800s, most newspapers were not published every day. Some were weekly, while others printed two or three issues each week. Therefore, the next issue of the paper might be several days after the death of your ancestor. So be sure to check for the family name in a number of issues after the death date.

If your ancestor died in a large city it would be unlikely that an obituary would be published in the city newspaper. Look for small newspapers that might serve only a portion of the city where your family lived, or your family’s ethnic or religious denomination may have had a newspaper.

Remember the information you get from the obituary is only as good as the knowledge of the writer of the obituary itself. Today most obituaries are written and posted to the newspaper by the funeral director using facts about the deceased and information about family names and relationships. The funeral director gained the information for the obituary from interviews with the next of kin. Prior to the 1940's this responsibility was often shouldered by a close family member or a professional obituary writer. Beware, obituaries even when written by family members may contain errors in the information. Be sure to corroborate all facts with other sources from your family history resources.

key to finding family names The key to finding an obituary is knowing the death date and death place of your ancestor.

What to do if you do not know where or when your ancestor died.

  • For the time period after 1949 search the Social Security Death Index to find the death date and possibly the death place. The last place of residence or place where the lump sum payment was sent is usually listed in each result and may be a lead to the death place of your ancestor. (If you are searching for a female be sure to use her married family name when searching the SSDI.)
  • For time periods 1880-1930 search the federal and state census records to determine when your ancestor is listed as a widow and in what locality. Then look for the family name in obituaries of that time period.
  • If your ancestor died the year before the Census was taken check the Indexes for the Mortality Schedules for that Census.
  • For time periods 1809-1907 in certain localities the WPA has indexed death, probate, and many other records which might list your ancestor with the parents' names.
  • Use other clues from your research to estimate the year of death, for instance the obituary of your ancestor's son or brother may say that he is still living at the time of the event, or the death record of his spouse may list him as the informant.
  • For time periods prior to 1850 church and cemetery records are the best sources for the death dates of your ancestors.
  • Probate records from the last known residence may also help. Probate indexes usually include several decades.
  • Check the place listed on the death or cemetery record of a near relative of your ancestor, such as a sibling or child. The place of death may be the same death place as your ancestor's.
  • The place listed on the birth or marriage record of one of the children of your ancestor may be a clue to the place your ancestor died.
If you know the death date and place of your ancestor the next step is to find the newspapers that were published in that locality for that time period. The local library in the town where your ancestor died can provide this information. Sometimes they will also have the newspaper microfilm available and for a small fee will search it for you. (It cost me $3.80 for the Carnegie Library in Washington County, Indiana to have them search and copy my ancestor's obituary.)

Your local library has an index of most of the newspapers that have been printed in the United States. Many of these newspapers have been microfilmed and can be requested for viewing at your local library through their Interlibrary Loan (ILL) program. If the newspaper is still in publication the Ayer Directory of Newspapers and Periodicals will give you the date the paper began and whether it is a weekly or a daily.

University libraries often have extensive collections of newspapers and periodicals on microfilm. A few years ago while working as a family history consultant at BYU, I saw firsthand how searching old microfilmed newspapers for obituaries can payoff. One patron not only found her great-great grandfather's obituary but also a front page article with pictures of him and many family names.

If the newspaper is still being published you can contact them to see if they have a lookup service for their older issues or better yet check online to see if they have posted their Obituary index. A Listing of newspapers according to locality can be found at Newspaper Links Online or NewsLink. You will find that many newspapers are starting to publish their obituaries online. Unfortunately not many of them have content older than 1999, but you may find a few with older content online or a family name obituary Index from older issues. It's worth a look.

If the index or microfilm for the newspaper you need is only available at the newspaper office and they have no one to search it for you, call a library near the newspaper office and ask for the name of a local researcher who can search the films for you. I did this and for $10 received a huge amount of information on my family name, more than I requested.

Don't forget to search for the obituaries of the siblings of your ancestor. The family names of the parents may be mentioned along with other valuable family information.

Obituary links are too numerous for me to list here. The best advice for finding obituaries on the web is to use your favorite search engine. Mine is Google. Enter the search parameters "obituary index" and "Pike County" (substitute the name of the county in which you are interested), and the state name. Don't forget to put the quotes around the phrases. This tells the search engine that you are only looking for that phrase and not the individual words by themselves.

Here are a few sites for searching obituaries:
RootsWeb - Click the Obituary Daily Times link
Obituary Collection
Obituary Archive

An obituary may be the only record of death that you can find, especially since the states did not begin death registrations until the 1900s. And it is likely the only biographical sketch ever written about your family name. It can be a valuable genealogical source and worth your searching effort.

P.S. I have neglected to mention Funeral Home Records. Even though Funeral Home Records are not open to the public, sometimes if you talk to the Funeral Director, he will provide a copy of the record for you. These records often contain biographical information about your family name and may even contain a copy of the obituary.

Another source for finding parents names is the application that your ancestor filled out to get a Social Security number. Find your ancestor's name in the Social Security Death Index. When you find his record click the "Request Letter" link. A letter will be created for you to send for a copy of this application. The Social Security Administration charges $27 to fulfill your request.

Copyright (c) 2008-2015 Cindy Carman. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of this article may be used without the express written permission of the author.

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