Genealogy Immigration/Migration: Using obituaries in researching immigrant ancestors

Immigration/Migration: Using obituaries in researching immigrant ancestorsBy Barry J. Ewell

The following are records and resources that genealogists find extremely helpful and full of clues to find immigrant ancestors. The information is designed to provide a quick reference and direction of where to find and search for records as probable places to find information.

For many of our immigrant relatives, the obituary is the only biographical sketch ever written. Men and women both are likely to have obituaries written about them. Those who died young may be fully profiled in an obituary, especially if the death was the result of an accident. You will often find information written about your ancestor that you will not find anywhere else, thus making the obituary a very important resource.

When you think of newspapers to use in your research, remember that in addition to community papers, there are also two other common categories: ethnic and religious.

Ethnic Newspapers. Additional newspapers to consider are papers that focused on a particular ethnic group. For example, it was common in most midwestern cities for German-language news-papers to exist side-by-side with general, English-language newspapers. Occasionally they were published by the same company on the same presses. Ethnic newspapers are usually printed in the language of the community. Remember that while you may not be able to read the language, the name of the deceased is usually in the head¬line. Find what seems to be a relevant article, then have the article translated if you don’t speak the language.

Religious Newspapers. Often our immigrant relatives were more religious than their descendants. They often participated in their church’s activities on a regular basis. Therefore, the death would be major news within the religious community. Most denominations supported one or more newspapers in the nineteenth century. Larger denominations, such as Catholics and Lutherans, often had newspapers in every major city and in several minor ones. Religious newspapers were often published for denominations such as Baptists or Methodists.

Obituaries can be found in newspaper journals, magazines, and even yearbooks. Obituaries started to be mentioned in local newspapers during the 1870s. You should be able to find the following information in most obituaries:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Date of death (sometimes only giving the day of the week)
  • Family information
  • Names of survivors
  • Church or mortuary holding the service or cemetery

In addition, it wasn’t uncommon to find biographical information, so you might be able to find information such as the following:

  • Names of parents
  • Occupation
  • Military service
  • Affiliations with local clubs
  • Fraternities or associations
  • When person settled in the area
  • Birth information (for example, “came from Ireland in 1849” would tell you that the person was likely born in Ireland)
  • Clues to locating documents such as passenger lists

It’s not uncommon to find obituaries in several papers in the area the person lived. It is important to review obituaries from all the newspapers that you can find. It is not uncommon for obituaries to contain slightly different or additional information.

If you don’t know the death date of an ancestor, consider the following ideas to narrow the scope of where and when to search:

  • Check the census records to see if 1) the person even appears in the locality or 2) if the spouse appears as widow or widower.
  • Check probate records from the last known residence.
  • See if your state has online vital record databases to search for death records.

Once you have a date, then you can continue your search with the following steps:

  • Check with local libraries and historical societies to see if obituaries have been clipped and put on file.
  • Check with local libraries and historical societies about newspapers that served your area during the time period of your ancestor’s death. It’s not uncommon to have newspapers go in and out of business.
  • Check to see if the local paper has been microfilmed, which can then be exchanged through library loan.
  • Check online. It’s not uncommon to have obituaries abstracted and posted to the Internet.
  • Check to see if local indexes have been published that will tell you if and where obituaries were published.

Many libraries offer the services of looking in microfilm for an obituary. Of course, for them to do this search, you will need to provide the date of death. The cost of service is usually less than $10.00.

Don’t overlook ethnic, religious, or professional papers. If these papers are not part of the local library collection, libraries should be able to tell where to locate them.

Depending on the region of the country, you may find several postings for the person’s death: an obituary within a few days of the person’s death, a profile of the person’s funeral a week later, and a thank-you card from the family expressing appreciation to family and friends.

Your chances of finding an obituary will increase depending on the size of the town. The larger cities did not usually print the obituaries of every person’s death.

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