Old newspapers are an excellent source for finding obituaries of our ancestors. As any genealogist knows, these obituaries are wonderful sources of information about our long gone relatives….usually. Every now and then, you will find a simple death notice with only a name, age, and maybe the name of a parent, parents, or spouse. Even that can be helpful if you did not previously have the information, or know the person existed. Those death notices, simple though they may be, can alert you to known children or spouses of ancestors.
However, most old obituaries have at least a little more family information in them than that. You can use that information to fill out quite a bit about your ancestors and their lives on your family tree. However, you first have to find the obituary, and then you have to fact-check the information in it. Just because it was printed in a newspaper does not mean it was true. Even our venerated ancestors were not above embellishing the facts to make a family lineage sound more illustrious, and sometimes they simply did not have the information necessary to build a detailed obituary for someone.
So, old obituaries are essential genealogical research tools. However, you have to find them first, and then fact-check them to be sure they are correct. Here are some tips on how to do both.
Finding the Old Obituaries
Locating an old obituary in an online newspaper database may seem like a simple thing, and it usually is. You just type in a name, maybe with a date or date range, and a location, and you will be presented with the obituary of the ancestor you were researching. That is usually how it will go when searching for old obituaries if they exist (sometimes, they simply never existed, and you will not find them no matter what search techniques you use, but this is the exception rather than the rule). Sometimes, though, you know there should logically be an obituary, and you know the correct name, date range, and location, and are still getting nothing. Here’s what to do to conduct a more productive search.
Search the names of other relatives — If you know the names of an ancestor’s spouse or children, or even their siblings or parents, try searching for those names instead. Those names might have been included in the obituary as survivors or as people who pre-deceased the individual in question. The names will show up in an online database search even if they are merely included in an obituary, and not the subject of one, and this will allow you to find the obituary of your ancestor. Just be sure you get the date range and location correct when searching this way.
Search initials — It was common for people to go by their initials in public in the old days, especially for men. While their family may have used their first or middle name in private, the public knew men by their initials, and therefore, it would not have been uncommon for initials to be used in an obituary. After all, that is how the public knew them, and the family already would know the person had died, so initials were a good way to let the public know, as well.
Search husband’s names when looking for wives — It was the norm for women to be known publicly as “Mrs. Husband’s First and Last Name” in the old days, much as it was common for men to be known by their first and middle initials. If you cannot find a woman by her given name, try searching using her husband’s name. You may find her obituary under “Mrs. Husband’s First and Last Name.” In fact, it was so common for women to be known this way in generations past that the woman’s first name may not appear anywhere in the obituary at all.
Search a date range and location using only a first or last name — Maybe your ancestor had a first or last name that was unusually spelled, often misspelled, or was spelled phonetically in several different ways. If an obituary was being dictated to a newspaper worker, they could have misspelled a name. The family may have even spelled the name a number of different ways, and if they sent in a written obituary, it may not be spelled the way you expect. By searching a date range and location, along with only the first or only the last name (whichever was more likely to be spelled correctly), you have a better chance of finding the obituary for which you are searching.
Fact-Checking the Obituaries
Once you have found the obituary you want, you have to fact-check it to make sure it is accurate before putting the information in your family tree. You want your genealogy to be correct, after all. As an example of how families may have embellished obituaries to make the lineage seem more distinguished, my own family tree has a branch with the surname Lee. Generations of the family have been told they are descended from Robert E. Lee of Civil War fame. Even distant cousins I’ve never met but have connected with online have grown up hearing this rumor.
A study of my Lee line decades ago revealed no known Robert E. Lee connection, but I found the source of the rumor in the 1904 obituary of my great-great-great grandmother, whose maiden name was Lee. Her surviving husband put it in the obituary that she was a Robert E. Lee descendant, even though she was not. He likely did it because he was a prominent man in his community, and wanted to seem even more elevated because of the supposed lineage of his late wife.
Besides studying an entire family line, you can also fact check birth, death, and marriage dates in an obituary by looking at census and vital records, other old newspaper articles, and even family Bibles. Just do your due diligence on any information given in an old obituary, and you can be sure you are putting accurate information on your family tree.