Feature Article: Find Clues to Women’s Lives in Obituaries
Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega shows how newspaper obituaries can provide many details and further clues when researching your female ancestors.
Researching female ancestors is hard – no doubt about it. Roadblocks like changing surnames due to marriage, and a lack of records about women in general, makes filling in that part of your family tree even more difficult. So what can you do to overcome those barriers?
Here’s one possible solution: search for your female ancestor’s obituary in old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. Sometimes that simple end-of-life announcement packs more information than any other record. What can you find in an obituary? Not all obituaries are the same, so what information they provide can be a surprise. But here are just a few details to be on the lookout for.
Her Maiden Name
One of the common laments of genealogy researchers is the inability to find a female ancestor’s maiden name. There are records that provide this information, such as marriage licenses, when and if they can be located. So without a marriage license what else can be done? Have you ever considered starting with the end of her life to learn what her surname was at the beginning?
Obituaries can provide us with names and relationships. In these articles there can be family history (Mrs. Smith was the daughter of G. J. and Henrietta Jones) or survivor information (Grieving her loss are her brothers John Jones and Lester Jones of Tuscaloosa).
This simple death notice from a 1910 Minnesota newspaper may be short but it has some great information, including the deceased’s possible maiden name. Here you will find the name of her husband, where she once resided, a clue to possible church records, and where she was buried. These are much-needed facts that can be followed up with additional research. The notice ends with the mention that her remains are at the home of her brother Mr. A. E. Piering. We now have enough information to start looking for Elizabeth Helm in the 1910 census, and in previous censuses under the name Elizabeth Piering.
Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 8 October 1910, page 14
Genealogy Tip: Don’t forget to search on a range of possible alternative names. Elizabeth could have been known by any number of nicknames including Liz, Lizzie, Beth, or Betty just to name a few.
Not everyone is lucky enough to find a long obituary filled with all kinds of great details that lead you on a research treasure hunt. But in almost every obituary or death notice there are vital clues. Don’t forget that obituaries may tell something of the history of the person. Take for instance this obituary from a 1903 Nebraska newspaper that includes the deceased’s birth date, her religious affiliation, and her daughter’s name and address.
Omaha World-Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 11 March 1903, page 8
This notice for Mrs. M. L. Day also provides an unexpected clue to the researcher looking for cemetery records. Although she died in Nebraska, she was buried in Boulder, Colorado. Most likely Colorado was her home state so further research would focus on that location.
Genealogy Tip: Whenever you see a notice requesting that other newspapers pay attention (such as, in the above example, the phrase at the end “Boulder papers, please copy”), that is an important clue that the deceased, no matter where they died, had a connection to the other location being mentioned.
Affiliations, whether they are religious, fraternal, or organizational, provide us with information about an ancestor’s life and a possible source of records. For example, learning that an ancestor was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union or the Dorcas Society can lead us to additional records found in manuscript collections. Even if we find an affiliation for a spouse, it’s still possibly an important clue. Don’t forget that a wife or even a daughter could have been a member of an auxiliary to a husband’s/father’s membership organization.
The following death notice from an 1889 New York newspaper is unusual: it includes an extra note requesting the attendance of members of the Shakespeare Lodge to the funeral of Tina Anderson. Her husband, Joseph Anderson, was a member of the lodge. The acronym “F. and A.M.” stands for Free and Accepted Masons. Don’t make the mistake of skimming over the initials in this notice. Members of the Daniel Webster Lodge of “IOFSof I” (International Order Free Sons of Israel) and Edward Everett Lodge of “IOBB” (International Order of B’nai B’rith ) are also invited to attend. These are Jewish fraternal groups which provide us with some clues to possible religious records.
New York Herald (New York, New York), 2 September 1889, page 1
Because the obituary indicates the husband was a Mason, I would also explore the possibility that his wife was a member of the Order of the Eastern Star. Tina is listed as the daughter of Mrs. Julius Harlam, indicating that she may have been predeceased by her father. Additional research in Google Books seems to indicate that her father also had ties to the same Shakespeare Lodge.
Where She Lived
In some cases information about the places your ancestress has lived can be found in an obituary. These might be simple mentions of where her surviving family lived at the time of her death, or that she was formally of a place, or there might be an actual address for her residence prior to her demise. Don’t forget about clues to other important family locations.
In this death notice from a 1909 Georgia newspaper, not only is the deceased’s (Georgiana Tweedy Barber) current address provided, but it’s also mentioned (and probably obvious) that she was formerly of Augusta. At the end there is an editorial note asking Savannah, Atlanta, Charleston, and Milledgeville newspapers to please copy, indicating that she had ties to those areas as well.
Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 3 March 1909, page 10
Start Searching Now
Where can some of the most important clues exist for a female ancestor? The answer: in her obituary. Long a mainstay of genealogy newspaper research, obituaries are just as important now as they were prior to digitized newspapers, and easier to find thanks to search engines. Start searching today in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives for articles that document her death to learn more about your ancestor’s life.
Note: FamilySearch International (FamilySearch.org) and GenealogyBank are partnering to make over a billion records from recent and historical obituaries searchable online. The tremendous undertaking will make a billion records from over 100 million U.S. newspaper obituaries readily searchable online. The newspapers are from all 50 states and cover the period 1730 to the present. Find out more at Family Search Obituaries