The other day I was reading the blog, GeneaJourneys, and a post titled, Feeling Nostalgic for an Ancestor I’m Still Getting to Know…. This post was discussing the author, Patricia’s, grandfather, who was a mason in and around Chicago and helped rebuild Chicago after The Great Chicago Fire of 1871. While reading this I couldn’t help, but to think of my own family roots and how my great-great-grandfather, Felix Johnson of Brookline, Massachusetts, owned and operated a masonry business called Johnson Brothers. I reached out to the Patricia by way of her blog’s comment section and shared how my family has a masonry background as well. I also then described in my comments how I discovered some of the buildings Johnson Brothers played a role in building in and around Brookline, Massachusetts through an obituary. Patricia’s blog stirred some of my own thoughts on how obituaries played an extremely vital role in uncovering family history and open some new windows into my personal genealogical research when I first started my research.
If you happen to read obituaries in the paper or online today you may notice they follow a standard format. An obituary acts as a high level overview of a person’s life. Generally an obituary provides the following information about the deceased
- When/where they were born.
- What did they do for a living.
- Notable accomplishments.
- Who the surviving family members are.
- Names of spouse and children.
- Who their parent’s were.
- Perhaps some background on military experiences (if applicable).
- Occasionally a picture
This is an incredible amount of information to have especially from one source when you are conducting family research.
When I first started researching my family in 2008 my first major breakthrough came while researching an obituary. You may recall a previous blog post regarding my great-great-grandfater, Christopher McNanny, and his pension record. Before thoroughly researching Christopher I knew only four things about him.
- Last name began with Mc or Mac.
- Served in The Civil War in some capacity and lost both legs.
- Lived in northern New York – somewhere near Malone.
- Had a daughter, Sarah, who was my great-grandmother.
To make a long story short, sometime in early 2008 my mother pulled Sarah’s, Christopher’s daughter, marriage record from the Brookline, Massachusetts Town Hall. This record allowed us to determine Sarah’s maiden name was McNanny and also allowed us to see she was from a small town called Madrid in Northern New York. As fate would have it I was finishing up my graduate studies at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York which is 11 miles south of Madrid. After completing my studies and graduating, my parents and I spent a few extra days in the area researching Christopher and his family. Prior to heading over to Madrid we contacted the town’s historical society and they located Christopher’s grave stone before our arrival. Finding Christopher’s resting place allowed us to determine when he was born (1822 – though this date is still up for debate) and when he died (1909). It also helped us to determine he did in fact serve in The Civil War. The information on the stone was crucial in helping with our next step.
The next stop on our research excursion was The Madrid Town Library to determine if they had an information that could be researched. In fact, the library had on microfilm, The Madrid Herald, which was published from May 1904 t0 September 1918. Christopher’s death fell within this time frame and so there was a good chance his obituary may have been in The Herald. Fortunately The Madrid Herald was a weekly paper which meant I potentially had to comb through 52 1909 editions of The Herald and off I went going through the microfilm until found Christopher’s obituary in the April 8th, 1909 edition. The information in this obituary was jaw dropping and really opened new windows. If you may recall, earlier in this post I bulleted four items on what I knew about Christopher and one of them was he had a daughter, Sarah. Well this obituary revealed not only did Christopher have Sarah, but he also had six other chidden as well and where they were living in 1909. Interestingly enough none of them remained in Madrid and where scattered across The United States.
Not only did the obituary reveal his children, but who is wife was, Margaret White and her parents, Michael White and Sarah Savage. Christopher’s obituary also revealed his rank which was private, and that he didn’t lose both legs, but just his left leg.
All this information was in a short obituary, but lead to a long road of research. After reading Christopher’s obituary I had to find out more about his other six children, what happened to them, and did they have offspring. Through my research I was able to connect with a couple of lines of family which stemmed from Christopher. Reading the obituary was the foundation for my research and as I said, led to many openings.
To gain access to obituaries you can try one of a few resources:
- First, you can try your local library which may have copies of older papers on microfilm.
- If you cannot go to the library in person you can try to see if your ancestors obituary is on http://www.legacy.com.
- Another source which has a large database of newspapers (access is free for some while others requires a fee) is The Library of Congress.
- If you happen to be researching Northern New York, the Northern New York Library network has a great database of historical newspapers: .
- Lastly if you are not near the local library for the area you are researching and you cannot seem to access you ancestor’s obituary online you may want to consider hiring an expert through ancestry.com’s service ProGenealogist.
Please take advantage of obituaries if you have a chance. They are an extremely valuable source of information and most everyone who has passed away has had one. Remember before discovering Christopher’s obituary remember how little I knew. Hope you have the same experience.