The similarities between family historians and detectives run deep. Just as detectives rely on sound information to break a case, genealogists must be able to find and interpret clues to make meaning of the past. Obituaries often provide the leads that help unlock secrets and open up new lines of discovery.
We all know obituaries typically contain birth, marriage, and death dates as well as parent, spouse, and child names. Beyond this basic information, details within death notices can present new avenues of genealogical exploration that can lead to a richer family history. Obituaries often provide “aha” moments that allow you to piece together ancestors’ lives and solve long-standing family mysteries.
To help you sleuth out details of your family history, we sought obituary search tactics from prominent genealogists. Read on to discover advice that can spur big breakthroughs in family history cases that have gone cold. Then begin an obituary search within FamilySearch collections such as Find A Grave and BillionGraves.
Pro Obituary Search Tactic #1: Use Obituaries as Stepping Stones to Richer Family Histories
Joshua Taylor, Genealogy Roadshow genealogist
You never know what you’ll discover while searching your family history. Just when the trail of clues seems to have dried up, new information can break open a genealogical case and cause a rush of excitement.
Joshua Taylor, a genealogist on the popular PBS program Genealogy Roadshow, had such an experience. “One of the first ancestors I ever traced, John Washington Allison, was someone whom I had ‘closed the book on’ (so to speak) when it came to research,” says Joshua.
“Based on vital records, census, and other records,” Joshua continues, “I thought I had his life fairly documented between Ohio and Iowa. It wasn’t until I discovered his obituary that I learned he was a sheriff for a brief time during his life, and spent time in Colorado during the Civil War as part of a new business venture. I am literally still uncovering his few years in Colorado.”
“The obituary is a stepping stone to so many other clues,” Joshua says. “Look beyond the names and residences and into the associations and organizations the individual might be involved in. These organizations can lead to amazing offline resources that can provide all sorts of details you will not find on a standard census or vital record.”
For example, Joshua says, “If someone is a member of a veteran’s organization, like the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), you have a clue about their involvement during the Civil War that can lead to some fantastic finds in local and state GAR records.”
In addition to providing information about a person’s service, GAR records include information such as residence at the time of enlistment that can help you find the soldier’s family in census, land, and church records. With these new places to take your search, you never know what you might find.
Begin an obituary search using FamilySearch’s BillionGraves Index. Use information you find in death notices to uncover clues about relatives and unravel family mysteries.
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