Regardless of an immigrant's age at arrival in America, the one fact that virtually all immigrants share is that they died in their new country. That is why the various records of the deaths of our immigrant relatives are so important for our research. We have already discussed government vital records, and church death records (burials).
There are still at least two other key sources created when an individual dies: cemetery inscriptions and newspaper obituaries. For nineteenth century immigrants, obituaries are one of the most significant sources available for immigration information, often including the town of origin.
For many of our immigrant relatives, the obituary is the only biographical sketch ever written. The bonus for our research is that women are just as likely to have an obituary in the late nineteenth century (or later), as were the men. Even those who died young may be fully profiled in an obituary, especially if the death was the result of an accident.
The very fact that obituaries may contain information found in no other record should propel all researchers to seek obituaries for all of their ancestors, not just those who immigrated. Given the difficulty of locating information about immigrant relatives, the information in obituaries is even more important. This is truly a significant resource.
The Nature of Obituaries
Obituaries are, of course, any report of a person's death published in a newspaper or other periodical. Journals, magazines and even yearbooks include obituaries. However, for the purpose of this lesson, we will focus on newspaper obituaries.
The content of an obituary varies greatly. Many factors influence it, these include the time period, residence at death, importance of the deceased, local newspaper policy, availability of information and the size of the population covered by the newspaper. Not every person who died was mentioned in the local newspaper but, beginning about the 1870s, an increasing amount of local coverage was provided for local deaths.
At a bare minimum, these notices gave:
- date of death (sometimes only giving the day of the week)
- family information
- names of survivors
- church or mortuary holding the service and/or cemetery
It was also not uncommon for them to include biographical information about the deceased. This could include his or her parents' names, occupation, military service, affiliations with local clubs, fraternities, or associations, when he or she settled in the local area and, perhaps half the time, birth information. It is this information we are seeking for our immigrants.
Of course, the inclusion of birth information for immigrants may not mean that a specific town is named. Some obituaries only mention that the deceased "came from Ireland in 1849," or "came to this country when still a young lad." While frustrating, even this information may be new to you, and helpful in finding the immigrant on a passenger list.
Searching for Obituaries
An immigrant's obituary may have appeared in any of several newspapers (or other publications). These would include general interest newspapers, as well as those that serve a specific ethnic or religious group.
Still, the first problem you usually have is determining when an immigrant died. While it is possible to search for obituaries without a death date, it is much more difficult and time-consuming. Rather, if family sources do not provide a death date, seek the immigrant in government vital records, church death records, or cemetery records (more on this topic in the next lesson).
Key: Because you should already know the death date before seeking an obituary, you should normally not make obituaries the first source you seek.
What if you don't know the death date?
- If you don't even know where or about when a person died, check the census records first. Determine if the person disappears from a locality or if the spouse appears as a widow or widower.
- Probate records from the last known residence may also help. Vital record indices are often arranged year by year, and can be tedious to search. Note that probate indices generally cover several decades.
Once you find a record of the immigrant's death, you will likely also know the place of that death. The specific town is necessary for successful obituary searching.
Find an Index, If Possible
The next step is to determine if obituaries have been clipped and saved and/or indexed for that locality. Usually the local library or historical society can help with this step. Sometimes they even have a large index or clipping file that you (or they) can search, even when the death date is unknown.
Newspapers have always been a great source of information about the specific locality where the paper was published and the people who lived in that area. However, they are difficult to search when you are seeking information about a single, specific person.
Over the past 20 years, an increasing number of genealogists have poured through individual newspapers collecting genealogically-significant information about the local people. They have then published their findings as newspaper abstracts. These sources can be invaluable for locating the existence of immigrant obituaries. Your local library will have addresses to libraries and societies.
Abstracted Obituaries and Death Notices
Often abstracts do not include all the information in the newspaper article. Therefore, they serve best as only an index to the articles. However, they often cover many years in one publication, allowing researchers to easily locate a significant amount of death information a newspaper may have published.
There are three good places to begin your search for published abstracts of death notices:
- Betty M. Jarboe's Obituaries: A Guide to Sources, second ed. (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989). This is a listing of published death notices, as well as local, unpublished, obituary files. However, the author's definition of obituaries is very broad, and she includes many cemetery listings as well.
- The Family History Library Catalog is perhaps the most comprehensive listing of published newspaper abstracts. Although the library does not collect newspapers themselves, they aggressively seek and obtain published collections of births, deaths, marriages, and news notices with genealogical information taken from newspapers. These are listed in the catalog under the locality where the paper was published, under the heading "Newspapers."
- Of course, don't forget to check the Periodical Source Index (PERSI). This million-entry index to virtually all English-language genealogy magazines and journals will help you locate periodical articles which are abstracts from local newspapers, rather than book-length collections.
Finding the Newspapers to Search
Most researchers begin the search for an obituary with the general newspapers in the area where the immigrant died. However, they often do Gravenot realize that there may have been several different newspapers which covered that geographic area. Today, most towns and cities have only one newspaper, but during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, most towns actually had two, three, or more newspapers.
Be sure to learn about all the newspapers that served the area. Sometimes you can contact the current newspaper and they can tell you about earlier papers. However, this is often not the best approach. Your local library has bibliographies which list the many newspapers that have served America. Most surviving newspapers have been microfilmed and are accessible through inter-library loan so you can now access many from your local library.
Ask first about Winifred Gregory's American Newspapers, 1821-1936, 1937 reprint (New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1967). This is a fairly comprehensive listing of nineteenth century newspapers.
- Many newspapers have indices, or partial indices at the newspaper office. These are the subject of Anita Cheek Milner's Newspaper Indexes, 3 vols. (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press 1977-82). In this guide, the author lists newspapers by state and town, and then identifies the scope and location of any indices. Most of these include obituaries.
- Seek out Newspapers in Microform: United States, 2 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1984). This reference identifies thousands of newspapers, by state and city, that are available on microfilm. The microfilms are usually at libraries and archives near where the papers were published. Ask your local library to order the copy of the newspaper with the appropriate dates through inter- library loan.
- You might have to contact a local library to learn about the availability of microfilm copies. When you contact them, ask for the name of a local researcher who can search the films for you -- especially if you cannot obtain the films yourself.
- Major universities often have excellent collections of newspapers on microfilm. However, they tend to collect only the newspapers from major cities, as well as those of the state where the university is located.
- Ethnic and religious newspapers often can be more difficult to locate. Fewer of them are on microfilm. Begin your searches at the archives and libraries which specialize in collecting materials for that group. If the newspapers are not in their collection, they should know where they are.
What If There is No Index?
Usually you will have to search the newspaper page by page. If you have learned when the immigrant died, begin your search with the newspaper on Tombstonethe day he or she passed away. While they likely won't be listed, this assures you won't miss an entry, even if the death date you have is a day or two off. Also, in some papers you might find a story about the accident that the immigrant would die from a few days later.
Generally, obituaries appeared within a couple days of the death. You need not read each page in each paper each day. After reviewing one or two issues, you will find that obituaries usually appear on the same page or in the same section each day. However, you should also watch for death notices, which may be on a different page, often near the classified advertisements.
A day or two after the funeral, you might find a "Card of Thanks" or similar expression from the family. While these notices seldom indicate the town where an immigrant died, they may mention surviving family members, when the obituary may not have provided such a list.
Remember, in the nineteenth century, most newspapers were not published each day. Many were weekly, while others published two or three times each week. In such cases, the next issue of the paper might be several days after the death. If the immigrant died one or two days before an issue was published, you should check that issue, as well as the two or three later ones.
Always try to locate the newspaper(s) published in the same town where the immigrant died. While not every town had its own newspaper and neighboring newspapers covered the news in towns with competing newspapers, the best coverage comes from the most local paper. However, in your efforts to be thorough, you will want to check the papers from neighboring towns as well.
If the immigrant died in a large city, your search could be less successful. Large city newspapers did not record every death, or may have provided less space for an obituary than would a smaller newspaper. Remember, the larger the city, the more likely that there were competing newspapers. Be sure to search every possible newspaper. One consolation of large city research is the presence of other newspapers that may provide more coverage for an immigrant's obituary.
First among additional newspapers to consider are papers which focused on a particular ethnic group. For example, it was common in most Midwestern cities for German language newspapers to exist side-by-side with general newspapers. Occasionally they were published by the same company, on the same presses.
Ethnic newspapers exist for every ethnic group that came to North America. As we have noted in previous lessons, immigrants often settled near others from the same country or ethnic group. Eventually these became significant demographic groups with a support network that often would include foreign language newspapers.
There were Polish newspapers in Detroit, a Lithuanian paper in Chicago, French papers in New Orleans, Italian papers in New York City, Swedish papers in Minnesota, Dutch papers in Iowa and Michigan, and German newspapers almost everywhere, even in smaller cities. Wherever there was an interest in a particular language, and a reasonably large population, ethnic newspapers sprang up.
These are especially useful sources for immigrant obituaries. Because the ethnic community was smaller than the general community, these papers could spend more space on the people in their community. Also, if an obituary were published in an immigrant's native tongue, the spelling of place names would more likely be correct.
Be prepared to encounter some difficulty reading ethnic newspapers. Of course, the language is not English, but for many Germanic languages, some papers used a gothic type font, in which the letters look quite different from the roman fonts we are used to. You may need to study the language and printing styles, but the results are very worthwhile.
Key: Remember, you already know the immigrant's name, and that is likely to be the headline of an obituary. You can search the newspaper without knowing the foreign language. Once you find the obituary, you will have all the motivation you need for getting it translated.
Do not overlook the many religious newspapers that were published in America. 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 support one or more newspapers in the nineteenth century. Larger denominations, such as Catholics and Lutherans, often had newspapers in every major city, and several minor ones.
Religious newspapers can be a great source for persons belonging to a denomination, such as Baptists or Methodists, which kept fewer records of individual members. Although most of our immigrant ancestors did not belong to such denominations, some later joined these churches. If they were actively involved in their local church (say as one of the ruling Elders, or on the board of Deacons), determine what denominational newspaper covered that synod, district, or conference.
Finding an immigrant's obituary may be more difficult than many of the other searches you will make for him or her. However, it stands a better chance than most other sources of providing you that elusive town name, so it is worth the work. In addition, you will almost always learn more about the person and family than you previously knew, and that is all part of the process of successfully locating the immigrant.
In one case, there was no obituary, but the immigrant's death was front page news; he had hung himself after a fight with his wife. While his town of origin was not given, the article gave his year of immigration. Since the census said that he came from Mecklenburg, he was on the Hamburg departure lists. Given his age and year of immigration, he was recognized in the lists, which gave his home town. Without learning that crucial immigration date from his "obituary," it would not have been an easy task to find a German immigrant named Schultz.
Take your information about a nineteenth century immigrant to your local library and determine which newspaper(s) served the town(s) where he or she died. One standard technique is to draw a circle on a photocopy of a map (current with your ancestor) with a 30-mile radius around the ancestor's town. Now try to locate newspapers published in those towns. Ask the librarian about the reference books noted in this lesson, and see if they will order a microfilm copy of the newspaper for your immigrant relative's date of death.
Best of luck! You'll be pleasantly surprised with what you find.