Ancestry.com recently added 20 million images to their newspaper collection. There are many genealogically significant items one can find in a newspaper, but we frequently turn to the obituaries. This week letâ€™s take a look at an obituary that was discovered in the newly uploaded additions to Ancestry.com and see how it can be analyzed for further clues and search ideas.
Conrad Krebs died in November of 1899 in Davenport, Iowa, and his obituary appeared shortly thereafter in The Davenport Weekly Leader of 21 November 1899Â (click on the image to enlarge it). As I looked at this newly found death notice, I was reminded of some things we should keep in mind when working with obituaries.
Read the Whole Page
Some of the newspaper results at Ancestry.com will highlight the name on the page, others will not. Regardless of whether or not this happens, scan the entire page manually. There may be more than one reference to a person on the same page and OCR searches do occasionally miss entries. For Conrad there was an obituary and, on the same page, a notice about the “Krebs Obsequies” (â€œobsequiesâ€ refers to the funeral service). If the obituary had not provided details about the service and I hadnâ€™t scanned the entire page, this information about the church and burial would have been overlooked.
Consider the Source
Most information in any obituary is secondary. Many of the details in the obituary are being reported years after the actual events and typically by individuals who were not firsthand witnesses. Even when it comes to “current” information, a newspaper can easily make an error.
Saving a digital copy of the obituary is best, but if you must transcribe, copy the obituary exactly and do not edit it. Include obvious errors as they were written and use the “sic” notation immediately after the likely mistake (e.g., “John Smith was born on February 30[sic], 1900”). This indicates that you were aware the information looked odd, but that it was not your mistake.
Create a Chronology
Ordering the information found in obituaries chronologically makes it easier to spot inconsistencies and opportunities for research. Hereâ€™s an abbreviated chronology for Conrad based upon his obituary:
- 1818 Born in Goldbach, Bavaria
- 1854 Came to United States, directly to Davenport
- 1881 Went into paper and bag business
- 1885 Wife dies
- 1891 Retires from paper and bag business
- 1891 Moves in with daughter, Mrs. Herman Hartz
- 1899 Dies at home of daughter in Davenport
Events in a chronology usually suggest resources to be researched or gaps to be filled.Â Generally speaking, it is best to use the chronology as a research tool beginning with the most recent event and working backwards. Each fact can be also be entered into your genealogical database, just remember to cite the obituary as the source.
Not only does an obituary tell me who is dead, it also tells me who is alive. Conrad was survived by three children, Mrs. Herman Hartz, Mrs. Mary Handel and Conrad Krebs. Two siblings, Mrs. Thekla Krausert and Joseph Krebs, also survived. In my genealogy database I can indicate they were alive at the time of Conrad’s death and include their residence as well (just cite the obituary as the source).
Take care when making assumptions regarding the spouse of a female based on the way the womanâ€™s name is written. Thekla Krausert is listed with her first name, rather than her husbandâ€™s as was often the custom, but was married and living with her husband in 1899. The use of the wife’s first name does after the word â€œMrs.â€ does not necessarily indicate she was widowed or divorced as you might think.
Follow-Up with Other Sources
The death date listed suggests locating a death record for Conrad–both at the county level and possibly at the church as well. His wife’s death date, also listed in the obituary, suggests the same sources should be utilized for her and the chronology also indicates her death took place in Davenport as well. Any moves should be listed in a chronology to avoid looking in the wrong location for a record.
Given the year of death and the year of immigration, Conrad and family should appear in federal census records between 1860 and 1880. There are also several Iowa state censuses available that should be checked as well.
City directories for Davenport may document any changes in residence for Conrad and may provide more information on his paper-selling business. As Ancestry adds more newspaper it is possible Conrad has advertisements appearing in it as well.
Conrad’s obituary provides a year of immigration for him and his wife. Since Conrad died before the census asked any specific immigration questions, this year of immigration should be used as a starting point in any searches of passenger lists. The obituary does not make any mention of a port where Conrad landed, so searches should include all available ports.
When searching the newspapers at Ancestry.com, remember the following:
- The collection at Ancestry is a work in progress. For some locations and for some time periods not all issues have been digitized. Remember to periodically check the database again and if looking for an item on a specific date, browse the individual images to see what dates are currently available. If that month has not been digitized, even the most creative online search will not find it.Â
- You can search by a location as well. This is especially helpful if there are several newspapers for the same town. It certainly made it easier in my searches as there are several papers on Ancestry.com for Davenport, Iowa.Â
- Remember these are OCR searches. A “u” can be read as an “n,” a “c” can be read as an “e,” etc. This makes it necessary to be creative in considering name variants.Â
- Remember nearby locations. For rural areas, search in towns near where the person lived—not just the town where they resided. Searching the county seat newspaper is also a good idea as they may run death notices for areas within the county as a whole.
Have you made a significant find in an obituary? Tell us your story in the comments section of the blog below.Â If it has been a while since you searched the Historical Newspaper collection, give it another try.
Michael John Neill is a genealogical writer and speaker who has been researching his or his children’s genealogy for more than twenty years. A math instructor in his “other life,” Michael taught at the former Genealogical Institute of Mid-America and has served on the FGS Board. He also lectures on a variety of genealogical topics and gives seminars across the country. He maintains a personal website at: www.rootdig.com