“The venerable John Adams, late President of the United States, one of the ablest and most efficient advocates and supporters of the Revolution, an original signer of the Declaration of Independence, a patriot and statesman, whose career was full of honor, whose life, services, talents, and virtues were the pride and glory of the nation, expired at his residence in Quincy, Mass. on the 4th day of July, at the advanced age of 92.”
This famous opening to the obituary of John Adams in the New-York Statesman captures the life, accomplishments, and spirit of an American Founding Father. His status as a patriot who served his nation is celebrated, his impact on history canonized.
Obituaries often eloquently summarize the lives and times of those who pass, the words serving as testament to how people are remembered by family and friends.
In addition to memorializing the spirit of ancestors, obituaries are fertile sources of genealogical information. A simple obituary search in FamilySearch collections such as BillionGraves, Find A Grave, GenealogyBank, etc. can yield important clues that illuminate the lives of kin.
We asked genealogists for the most powerful ways they expand their family trees. They told us obituaries are one of the most significant resources to discover new genealogical lines and fill in details about little-known ancestors.
Use their suggestions to help power your family tree and collect richer family histories!
Open up new branches of your family tree
“Genealogists know that obituaries can significantly enrich the family tree and help it grow,” says Randy Seaver, founder of Genea-Musings. He notes that obituaries can be excellent sources of information about the deceased person’s spouse, parents, siblings, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. “All of these names can add content to the family tree.”
Randy was able to use an obituary to learn about the life and family of his second great grandfather, David Auble, who was born in 1817. Not much was known of David or his family before Randy found an 1894 death notice printed in a Terre Haute, Indiana, newspaper. Randy explains, “David’s obituary provided much more information about his life as well as his siblings’ names, his wife and her siblings, and his children’s names and residences.”
Randy observes that knowing the residences of still-living relatives, often provided in obituaries, can open up additional genealogical opportunities. “Contacting descendants of the deceased via telephone, email, or personal letter may result in more information about the family,” he says.
Look to open up new branches of your family tree by doing an obituary search using FamilySearch’s BillionGraves Index. In addition to recording names you may also find birth, marriage, and death dates of an ancestor.
Account for difficult-to-track family settlements and migrations
Beyond helping to discover new family lines, obituaries can allow you to track scarcely documented migrations of ancestors and better understand how they came to settle in a given place. Such was the case for Lisa Louise Cooke, founder of Genealogy Gems.
“When I was a little girl, my grandma told me a story,” Lisa says. “She said that after her family immigrated in 1910, they moved to Gillespie, Illinois, where my great grandfather, Gus Sporan (Sporowski), went to work in the coal mines. The goal was to earn enough money to buy a ranch out west.”
When the Sporans had saved enough money, Lisa explains, they were hit with a devastating setback: “The family purchased a ranch from a traveling real estate salesman and moved to California, only to discover that they had been swindled, and were left with nothing.”
Gus went to work at a ranch near Chowchilla, California, with his wife, Louise, working as a cook. Where the farm was, though, Lisa’s grandmother didn’t know.
“Decades later,” Lisa says, “I discovered Gus Sporan’s obituary on the front page of the Chowchilla weekly newspaper. This obituary is the only evidence I have ever found to verify the story Grandma told me. It has since led to a wealth of information and even a visit to what is now the Lazy K Ranch in LeGrand, California.”
Begin filling in the details of family settlements and migrations by doing an obituary search using FamilySearch’s US, GenealogyBank Obituaries Collection. Use obituaries to piece together how and why ancestors settled in a particular place.
Gain clarity around ambiguous census records
“It’s usually not difficult to find the parents of a U.S. resident who was born in 1923 and listed in the 1930 and 1940 censuses with a family,” Sunny says. “But my ancestor Jesse Dorton was listed both times (at age 7 and age 16) as a lodger.”
Why was Jesse considered a lodger, rather than a child of the family? Sunny didn’t know.
“There were a few Dorton couples living in the area who were of age to be his parents,” she explains, “but I had no evidence to hook them together. I was stumped – until I found Jesse’s obituary online.”
Sunny used the long list of names in Jesse’s obituary to reconstruct both of his father’s marriages and push the tree back another couple of generations. This information ultimately helped her understand the circumstances under which Jesse had been a lodger: “I learned that the Sheldon couple who raised Jesse as a ‘lodger’ were neighbors of his parents.”
“Obituaries often tell you much more than about the end of that person’s life,” Sunny observes. “In this case, an obituary helped me understand his beginnings.”
Do an obituary search using FamilySearch’s Find A Grave Index Collection to make sense of hard-to-decipher census documentation about people in your family tree. In many cases, an obituary may have been added to a person’s tombstone citation.
Now it’s your turn to expand your family tree. Start looking for obituaries in FamilySearch’s BillionGraves collection and begin search for known relatives, and see where the stories of your ancestors take you! Obituaries can be among the most powerful ways to open up new branches of your family tree and illuminate an ancestor’s life.
Pioneer Photo Credit: Victorian Traditions from Shutterstock.com