6 Steps to help you find an obituary
By Luke Sprague
April 3, 2015
Obituaries are a gold mine of clues for the family historian. I wrote this article to help family historians find obituaries.
Family members usually author these short articles that contain unique information about the family member who passed on. The “obit” for short, may include all kinds of information, birth date, marriage date, graduation date, divorce information, parent’s names, maiden names, children’s names, places lived, and occupations had.
Often there is specific information on occupation or military service, both excellent clues that point to other types of government records. You want to pick out these clues and follow them.
Keep in mind, obituaries are just a starting point for finding clues, they are not a record with reliable primary information. A couple of things to keep in mind about obituaries in general:
- Not everyone has an obituary, it is a paid service
- An obituary is just secondary information at best, sometimes laden with errors, lies, and outright exaggeration. BUT, an obituary points to the source records that contain the primary information that you are looking for to establish identity, relationships, and activities in your family history.
Think of it as useful information that needs further investigation. This why family historians and genealogists love obituaries, index them, and collect them. An obituary can provide a kind of soft starting point for someone wanting to research their family history. In all cases, be sure to cite your obituary source for the benefit of your family’s future genealogists.
For today’s example, we are going to use my favorite family historian, Clifford R. Sprague who passed away April 3, 2004. My grandfather served with distinction in World War 2 and was an inquisitive and methodical genealogist. It is with him in mind that I reach out to you today to help you with your family research.
The 6 Steps-
Okay, I am going to teach you a skill that you can apply to ANY type of historical research, it is really easy, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t get it. This technique is called using the five Ws: Who, What, When, Where & Why, and you may have learned this in grade school. We know “What” we are looking for- obituaries, and we know “Why” we are looking- because we love family history research.
That leaves us three Ws to define and help us limit our research scope. Remember, the more accurate and limiting the information the quicker we will complete the search. Keep in mind this is not a cookie-cutter technique but instead a loose method that you can adapt to your particular research.
STEP 1: Who are we looking for?
Write down on a piece of paper the person’s full name, be sure to include first, middle, and last names. Keep this piece of paper on hand as we are going to add more information to it.You are going to use variations on this name to help your search by changing them to broaden your search.
List first the most detailed name you have for the family member. In this case my deceased grandfather’s name:
“Clifford R Sprague”
And less specific variants:
“Cliff R. Sprague”, “Cliff Sprague”, “C. R. Sprague”, “C. Sprague”
Remember start with the most specific and broaden your search to the less specific only as necessary. You should also be ready for:
- Misspellings of the first name and/or family name, for example “Spragg” or “Clif”
- Different spellings of the family name, again “Spregue”
Remove the period on the middle name initial
STEP 2: Where are we looking for them?
What specific city, town, township, village, or county did this person live in at their passing? Remember, you are trying to find the local newspaper for wherever they were living, so think in those terms.
This becomes tricky for people who lived most of their adult lives in one place in the United States, let’s say Scranton, Pennsylvania, and then move to Tampa, Florida in their retirement.
They may have spent their entire working lives in Scranton (sixty plus) years and then moved to Tampa, Florida for the remaining five years of their life. Generally, Americans will post an obituary where they worked (Scranton) and also where they retired to (Tampa).
Start with wherever they spent the most amount of time, Scranton in this case, and then look locally in the Tampa newspapers. So, for our example we chose my grandfather and he spent the majority of his life in:
“Stevens Point, Wisconsin”
Let’s add to this the county, as the county or parish often acts as a means of organization for local obituaries particularly with the Roots web site and local genealogical/historical societies.
“Stevens Point, Portage County, Wisconsin”
STEP 3: When are we looking for them?
This is a little bit tricky; you want to get your search as close as possible to the actual passing date of the person, but not necessarily limit the search to the exact date. The reason why I say this is you can literally limit yourself out of the obituary by making a date too specific. A short range is better, like a week after and prior to date of the passing.
So, with our example “March 20, 2004” to “April 10, 2004” is a good range.
Remember, a huge range like, “I don’t know sometime after 1900,” is way too broad. The technique I use is to zoom in as close as possible with an exact date if using humans for the obituary search.
But, if I am using an automated computer search, and I am not sure of the exact date, I will “zoom in” and then “back out” a month or two to broaden the search. The computer search can work thru being off by months or even years with brute force computing; whereas, most humans are not that patient to visually scan newspapers for years—nor paying someone to do it.
Write down this range on your piece of paper.
STEP 4: Find the names of the local newspapers
Try to find out the names of the local newspapers that would likely publish the obituary using the “Where” you wrote down. Many small towns in the nineteenth and twentieth century had two or more newspapers! Usually, the family would publish the obituary in the newspaper that their friends and family read.
See websites like: www.50states.com/news/ to find newspaper titles.
Newspapers could divide along ethnic and religious lines, but even more common were divisions based upon political leanings, especially in post-civil war America. This division along political lines holds right up to this day and only began to blur as newspapers closed and merged due to other forms of media. An example of this political division is the Walla Walla Union and the Walla Walla Statesman.
Another thing to remember is that the newspaper names, owners, and editors can change rapidly within a year. For example, in Lewiston, Idaho, between 1874 and 1877 you have the Idaho Signal, that then becomes the Northerner for a short time, and later the Lewiston Teller.
If these newspapers are not found at the Library of Congress or other online sites you may want to call the closest local historical society or university archive—they may have copies. Ask them, they will help you!
Usually, recent newspapers “born digital” from 2000 to the present day appear in some type of more modern cloud storage. Their “historical” cousins prior to 1999 wind up in some type of historical archive (or someone’s garage). Keep this in mind.
The struggle for historical societies, museums, and university archives of course is to get this historical content digitized and available to the public online. The issue here is getting the public to pay for those efforts when they expect the content for free.
So, no, not everything is online, in fact a large percentage of it is not, and may never be, so keep this in mind when reaching out to organizations. In any case, it is a good idea to try and figure out what is the most likely paper that the obituary would appear in.
For our example, I happen to know that the most likely paper for my grandfather’s obituary would be the:
“Stevens Point Journal”
Add this to your paper containing the other search parameters.
STEP 5: Use free resources!
I cannot stress this section enough; use the free resources that you already have at hand. Using what is free, does two things, first and foremost, it saves you money, second and just as important the process teaches you how to do the research.
I am listing the resources below in a rough order that tends to work for me, you may want to shuffle this list around, and you find what works for you. Remember each person’s search technique will be unique, though it should follow a general pattern.
So, using the search elements we’ve written down in our example, add the term “obituary:”
“obituary, Clifford R Sprague, Stevens Point, Portage County, Wisconsin, March 20, 2004 to April 10, 2004, Stevens Point Journal”
Let’s get started:
Putting the above search string into Google Search:
I wind up at on the “D” surname page listing for the Stevens Point Area Genealogical Society Roots Web site, which actually is a great result. I could continue my research working with the local genealogical society; however, I want to get the obituary with the least amount of effort, so I “back out” my search string a little to:
“obituary, Clifford R Sprague, Stevens Point, Portage County, Wisconsin, 2004, Stevens Point Journal”
Low and behold, someone in Portage County Wisconsin lists my grandfather and even shows where he got the information on his family-history website:
Look carefully at his entry; it states that he got his information form the Portage County Gazette, a newspaper I did not know existed. So, let’s back out the search string a little further by eliminating the Stevens Point Journal:
“obituary, Clifford R Sprague, Stevens Point, Portage County, Wisconsin, 2004”
And that takes us directly to the page with his obituary:
Remember, sometimes you can give Google too much information to work with in the search string, so use my “back out” technique, and you may be more successful in your search. Okay, so what do we do when searching for someone who died a little further back in time? We’ll look at that next.
Library of Congress, Chronicling America Project
The Chronicling America Project by the Library of Congress is an extremely valuable resource for finding information on family members from 1836 to 1922 and should be a stop on your obituary search if appropriate. See the site at: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/
So, my grandfather’s example for a 2004 obituary is not going to work, so let’s move back in time to my great-great grandfather: Almon L Sprague. I go to the website and type “Almon L Sprague” in the search box:
And I come up empty “0 Results were found for the search ‘Almon L Sprague’” I back out the search string to “Almon Sprague”
And I get the following result from the Mower County Transcript (Lansing, Minnesota) on August 26, 1908:
Look in the lower left corner. I happen to know that his is my great-great grandfather in Minnesota, so we have a match. This is seven days after his death, so remember what I said about limiting your time frame too much in your obituary search.
Local library: ProQuest, World Cat, and Interlibrary Loan
Use your local or university library, use the heck out of it, it is a great resource! So, often with a library card you will gain access to online databases like ProQuest or Heritage Quest that provide access to historical newspapers.
There are even more resources you can get from the library for your genealogy research. WorldCat.org is a powerful search engine that literally scrubs the libraries of North America and can show you in one search who holds the copies of a particular newspaper.
Once you know where the newspaper is you can request what is called an Inter Library Loan (ILL) thru your local library usually free or very low cost. If the remote library will not lend to your local library, you can request a photocopy or scan of particular pages, usually at cost.
So let’s look at the holdings for our first example:
Notice on the WorldCat.org search results, they point to an online resource called: infoweb.newsbank.com. Newsbank.com is a subscription service usually accessed thru a local or university library.
You will find that establishing a working relationship with the local ILL librarian can be very useful to you in your family research.
Family Search / Family History Library (FHL):
FamilySearch.org is a free website that provides a couple of different ways to get at an obituary. The first way is if one of the users is literally sharing an obituary on the website itself. This can be of two forms, either, the original obituary in an image format or in a derived copy from the original obituary.
User added recent obituaries below:
The second way you can use FamilySearch.org is to point at local obituary indexes. Here is an image of the obituary page for Stevens Point Wisconsin:
Finally, FamilySearch.org can help you by directing you to the local Family History Library (FHL) that contains that obituary index. Often, if the obituary index is not at the local FHL and it will appear at the Salt Lake Family History Library as it does below:
Cyndi’s List- Obituary Page
Cyndislist.com has an entire page that lists regional obituary resources that could be of value to you. I would recommend looking at the A-to-Z list from a couple of different angles, in my case I chose “Wisconsin” from our example:
US Gen Web to Roots Web to local volunteers
Start with the USGenWeb.org page, this will point you to individual states and people who can help you with your obituary search.
This will in turn point you to people at the state level:
After this, you should be able to find the local county coordinator that will usually be a Roots Web website:
Often, there will be a form you can submit to the local coordinator who can help you with your obituary search.
You may find the obituary that you are looking for in an index or if you are very lucky, a copy of it hosted on the local web site. Remember, the people who work these obituary submissions are local volunteers, so try to be as specific as possible with the information that you have.
In my example, I’d submit ALL the information to help the local researcher limit their search:
“Clifford R Sprague, Stevens Point, Portage County, Wisconsin, March 20, 2004 to April 10, 2004, Stevens Point Journal”
Local genealogical and historical societies
By far, one of the most valuable resources to a family historian can be the local historical or genealogical society. These are often gold mines of information, clues about your ancestors, and usually the cost for using them is free.
If you are struggling with your family research and have hit a brick wall, I DARE you to call or email the local historical/genealogical society and ask them what they have on your family name. Usually, if the society is well organized and indexed they can help you in ways you can only dream of.
For example, very often a historical/genealogical society will have a biographical file on individuals from the community. This file is usually called a biographical, genealogical, or obituary file. These files may also contain family trees, family group sheets, photographs, biographical sketches, and/or copies of the obituary.
A good starting point at a historical/genealogical society is the obituary index that usually orders the obituaries by surname and then points to where they are found.
Commonly, the obituary index will contain even more information in notation form, like graveyard or occupation. Ask the archivist if you can handle these records so that you miss none of this valuable information. Often the person who volunteered spent years indexing these individuals. It is also likely that the person at the historical/genealogical society is the same person who you found on Roots Web or knows that person firsthand.
Also found at historical/genealogical societies are scrapbooks that contain copies of family obituaries, these are often found a using computer search or manual index at the society in question.
These societies often contain heirloom family histories written by local family members that may not be widely available elsewhere. Keep this in mind.
Use the local historical/genealogical society to the greatest extent possible. Find and request as much as you can at a distance, commission a local researcher (like me), or be fully prepared to spend days onsite to do your research. Make sure you are prepared for your research and let the archival staff know two weeks in advance that you are inbound. Go into your onsite research already knowing specifically, “I am going to pull that book, that file, and that index.” Plan your research and time usage at the society.
STEP 6: Use paid resources sparingly
Okay, the trick with using a paid resource, usually found behind a “paywall,” is to use it effectively to find the obituary you are looking for. See if you can find out exactly what newspapers and years are available via online access thru the paywall.
Sometimes there will be a trial period, often this works well to determine if the service that you are subscribing to will be of value to you. Content providers allow trial periods for this exact reason, they want you to get value out of their content. With that in mind, manage your trial, make sure you don’t go over your time limit, OR limit your trial period to the shortest time possible.
Also, some providers allow a certain number of copies/downloads, this can also be a way of managing your costs. Does the content provider carry that newspaper title? Does the provider carry that newspaper in the time frame you are looking for?
In the past, I have had success using this site for research and keeping my costs down.
This site also includes another useful newspaper, Stars and Stripes, that may be used for researching veterans and military history. See starsandstripes.newspaperarchive.com:
Unfortunately, for our example:
“Clifford R Sprague, Stevens Point, Portage County, Wisconsin, March 20, 2004 to April 10, 2004, Stevens Point Journal”
NewspaperArchive.com does not include the year I am looking for; therefore, in this case I would consider a different paid service.
This is another newspaper source that you could use to find an obituary; however, in this case it does not include the 2004 year for the Stevens Point Journal.
Ancestry.com is a subscription service that contains the United States Obituary Collection.
So, instead of necessarily searching newspapers you are looking at a document extracted from the original obituary and then back linked to that source. In the example we have been using, we get a hit:
Below a couple of things of note, Ancestry.com provides the citation and this is valuable to citing your source.
However, the back link to the source is no longer valid, not surprising given the fluid nature of websites. The amount of information is limited from the original, but this may be good enough for what you are trying to accomplish if it contains the information that you are interested in.
Remember this is a derivative copy; not that it matters a whole lot as I stated earlier. The obituary is an unknown-authored work with indeterminable information. In laymen’s terms, we don’t know who wrote it and we don’t know where he/she got their information from.
GenealogyBank.com is another paid subscription service that offers access to newspaper archives.
Unfortunately, even after widening out my search with GenealogyBank.com I was unable to find an obituary based on our search string example.
Legacy.com appears to show more recent obituaries and tributes.
As such, though Legacy.com carries the newspaper of my grandfather’s obituary it did not contain it.
And, no, ironically enough this not my grandfather’s obituary in Tampa Bay Times.
In summation, start with free resources and work your way into paid sources that are specific to your need. You may find that different types of sources, like birth, death, and marriage records require similar techniques using the five Ws but require different avenues to get.
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Luke Sprague is a family historian at HistoryMint and recently went to press with his 326-page hardcover the Schultheis Odyssey: From Bavaria to the Pacific Northwest. Click here to find out more about what services he offers.