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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 4/30/2003

Where O Where Can the Obituary Be?

Despite the occasional omission or error in fact, obituaries are an excellent genealogical source. Searches for obituaries frequently focus on newspapers in the town where the person died. These nearby newspapers should only be the starting point in an attempt to locate a death notice or an obituary on a family member. There are other papers that should also be referenced.

This week we'll briefly discuss some other papers that should be referenced in an attempt to locate an obituary and then discuss two kinds of newspapers that are sometimes overlooked by genealogists.

Former Residences
Occasionally, someone's "hometown" paper will print an obituary or a death notice for a former resident. If the "hometown" is a small town and the "final residence" is a metropolitan area, the "hometown" paper may provide the most details about the person's life.

The County Seat
In rural areas, the paper in the county seat might publish obituaries or death notices of residents throughout the county, not just those who live in the county seat. These notices might not be as lengthy, but still may provide additional clues. Even if your ancestor lived a distance from the county seat, still consider searching papers for that town.

Nearby Large Towns
Large is a relative term. I have ancestors who lived in a small town about twenty miles from a town of forty thousand people. The papers from the small town were always searched, but I initially ignored the large town assuming my ancestor's obituaries would not be included. In some cases I was wrong and the ancestor did have an obituary in the larger town's paper. Sometimes there was a separate obituary and sometimes the person's death was noted in the "locals" column in the larger town's paper.

Morning and Evening
If your ancestors were city dwellers, make certain you search both morning and evening editions of the paper. One edition may contain a short death notice and another may contain an actual obituary. Do not quit searching when the first reference is located.

The papers we have discussed so far for the most part are what can loosely be termed "geographic" newspapers in the sense that their mention of non-national events usually were concentrated on a specific geographic area. Other newspapers that may be helpful are foreign language newspapers or religious newspapers. These papers might have had a focus that was not as narrowly defined geographically as other papers.

Some large American cities had foreign language newspapers for a quite a while, especially when the immigrant group speaking that language in the city was large. If your ancestor was German, a local German language newspaper might have been more likely to carry his obituary.

In my own research, I have a wonderful ethnic newspaper that has afforded me many genealogical clues.

One half of my ancestors were from an area of present-day Germany known as Ostfriesland. Beginning in the 1880s, a newspaper for these immigrants was published in Breda, Iowa—the Ostfriesische Nachrichten. This newspaper was received by Ostfriesen immigrants across the United States and by Ostfriesens who never left the homeland. It was a way for the Ostfriesen community to keep in contact with each other. Fortunately some of these newspapers have been microfilmed, especially through the early 1900s. Deciphering the script has been the only real problem. These newspapers are an excellent source and in many cases provide information not available elsewhere.

Local Paper Has No Obituary
My ancestor, Antje Fecht, died near Carthage, Illinois in May 1900. No obituary appears for Antje in her local English language newspaper. The obituary for Antje in the Ostfriesische Nachrichten provides her date and place of birth and other genealogical information.

There's More than Just Obituaries
Another ancestor, Focke Goldenstein, wrote letters to the paper. Unfortunately, most discuss the weather and the price of corn, but there are occasional details. One letter mentions that he and his wife attended the funeral of Hinrich Fecht. The reference indicates where in Germany Hinrich was from. Fortunately for me, Hinrich is an ancestor as well. What a find!

Antje's obituary and Focke's letter can be viewed here ( )

Not Ethnic?
Not all ancestors would reasonably be listed in an ethnic newspaper. If so, it is possible that mention of their death might have been made in a denominational newspaper. These newspapers might not have been published near where the deceased lived. Readers of the Ancestry Daily News may remember our recent saga on Wesley Jones. This Tennessee native who died in northern Missouri is not going to be listed in any ethnic newspaper. However, there is an obituary for Wesley in the St. Louis Christian Advocate, a newspaper affiliated with the Methodist denomination. Wesley's obituary provides a few scant sentences about his past and several verbose paragraphs about his faith and acceptance of the Methodist doctrine. The notice also indicates that Wesley's father was a Methodist minister. Of course, given Wesley's first name it is not surprising that his father was somehow affiliated with the Methodist church. A scan of Wesley's obituary is available (here )

How Do I Find These Things?
Some bibliographies and finding aids are listed below:

  • Printed Materials
    Clarence Brigham. History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820 (Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society, 1947)-in 1961 a small update was published—Additions and Corrections to History and Bibliography of American Newspapers.

    Edward C. Lathem, Chronological Tables of American Newspapers, 1690-1820 (Worcester, Mass., 1972).

    Newspapers in Microform: United States, 1948-1972, and 1973-1977, Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1973 and 1978.

    Karl Arndt and May Oldon, German-American Newspapers and Periodicals, 1732-1955 (2d rev. edition, Heidelberg, Quelle and Meyer, 1965)

  • Websites With Additional Information
    Afro-American Newspapers at the University of Georgia

    Links to state newspaper project bibliographies

    Michigan Newspapers,1607,7-160-17449_18643-53657--,00.html

    U.S. Newspaper Program Bibliography

    Guides to Newspaper Collections and Specialized Bibliographies of the American Press (Western Washington University)

    Identifying and Locating Newspapers (Emory University)
    (Some modern information and some are databases only accessible at the university, but there are some good finding aides listed)

    What Do I Do?
    Locating local or regional papers typically is not too problematic, given a map and a bibliography or another finding aid. Local foreign language or ethnic newspapers (if they exist) are typically not too difficult to find, either. Religious newspapers are potentially more difficult. The problem with religious newspapers is that they might have been published a significant distance from where your ancestor died in a town where your ancestor never lived. While the Ostfriesische Nachrichten was not a religious paper, it too was published a distance from where most subscribers lived.

    Determine your ancestor's likely denomination and then determine if there where any newspapers published by that denomination or groups affiliated with that denomination. Some of the finding aids listed above will help, but most are incomplete or might not provide the exact reference needed. Denominational archives may have further information or finding aids, even if they do not have the actual papers on microfilm. One can locate websites for denominational archives by visiting Cyndislist ( ) or searching at Google ( ) for "pickyourdenomination archives" (changing "pickyourdenomination" for the desired denomination).

    Some ethnic and religious newspaper obituaries have been published or indexed in print form. A search of large online library card catalogs such as the Family History Library ( ), the Library of Congress ( ), or the Allen County Public Library ( ) may be in order.

    There are some online databases containing information from ethnic and religious newspapers. Cyndislist ( ) has links to many, including
  • Cleveland Jewish News Obituary Database
  • Amish and Mennonite obituaries
  • American Friend Obituary Index

    Also consider searching and posting messages to the appropriate genealogical mailing lists at RootsWeb ( ). Another list member may be able to provide a reference or suggestion not listed on a website or in a published bibliography.

    We've just scratched the surface. Obituaries are a wonderful source for genealogists, but don't just consider the newspaper published in the town where your ancestor lived and died. There may be a whole world of information waiting for you in newspapers you have never thought to search.

    Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at: or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

    Copyright 2003, Inc.
  • Used by the author on his website with permission.

    Other Articles by Michael John Neill