For beginner family historians, uncovering clues about their ancestors can feel like a frustrating uphill battle. Every missed hint feels like a piece of the puzzle slipping through their fingers.
Fortunately, it’s possible to unlock hidden clues without feeling overwhelmed or frustrated. Using the right tools can make all the difference.
In the past, families traditionally sent birth announcements to friends and family. These cards were typically mailed within the first year of a child’s birth and included the name, date of the baby’s birth, the parent’s name, the place of the delivery, and a photograph. Some cards also indicated whether the parents were married or single.
Many genealogy societies and governments are digitizing birth records for their online databases. While these sites are a great resource, the documents still need to be wholly indexed and may be challenging to navigate for those seeking a particular ancestor. Accessing public birth records is common for individuals conducting genealogical research or needing official documentation to establish identity or lineage.
Another good source of information about individuals is a review of their obituaries in local newspapers. The obituaries printed in small-town newspapers are often more detailed than those found in metropolitan newspapers and can provide clues to help locate an ancestor’s family members.
Local, state, and national libraries are good sources of information about an individual or family, including compiled genealogies and other reference materials. Some libraries and archives have special collections of rare or specialized material. Check your library’s online catalog and ask the staff to assist you in finding these resources. Also, many libraries offer an interlibrary loan service that will mail books from their collection to yours. Finally, visit or call local family history centers and historical and genealogical societies. These groups are often an excellent source of information and can help direct you to the best resources for your specific research needs.
Obituaries offer valuable clues about family relationships and can be a good substitute for official vital records. They also tell us about a person’s work, hobbies, social issues, and cultural values of the era. For example, a sudden or debilitating illness or accident in an obituary may point to more detailed sources such as hospital or doctor’s office records.
Obituary information may reveal a deceased person’s military service, occupation, and other significant events that could help researchers break down genealogy “brick walls.” Reading an entire obituary to see if it provides meaningful information about a deceased person is essential. This is especially true when searching for ancestors who lived in other countries or remote areas where genealogical research can be challenging.
Obituaries often contain clues to living relatives who can collaborate with research and volunteer to participate in DNA testing to prove a lineage. It’s also helpful to pay attention to nicknames and spelling variations when examining obituaries. Also, look for clues such as a spouse’s maiden name, parents’ names, and children’s names to help establish family trees. In addition, obituaries can provide information about a person’s church, hobbies, and community involvement. They can also be beneficial in identifying burial grounds and finding family members buried near an ancestor’s death.
While most genealogical research is done online, there are still opportunities to advance your work by doing onsite research. One excellent resource is a local library, mainly if it houses a collection focused on the town from which your family hails.
Local libraries are often rich repositories of information, including published town and county histories, city directories, and even newspaper collections. City directories are snapshots of the town’s residents and addresses for a specific year. They can reveal much about an individual’s life, especially during those crucial years between censuses.
Depending on the publisher, these directories can include names and occupations, birthplaces, relatives, and other significant information. The guides often contain maps showing the location of cemeteries, schools, churches, and other important sites. They also list the city clerk, mayor, and police department. Many city directors have been digitized and can be located on genealogy websites and other large databases.
If the library you are researching needs the directory you need, consider contacting other nearby towns to see if they have copies that can be sent to you. Alternatively, try searching the state or university library that may be located in your ancestor’s hometown. Those larger repositories frequently contain collections from smaller towns and can make your job easier by providing that elusive puzzle piece that only the small town library had.
For those passionate about genealogy, a search through historical newspapers can reveal a wealth of detail on an ancestor’s life. This is particularly true for obituaries. These small articles offer a posthumous piece of an ancestor’s history by detailing their birthplace, final resting place, family members, occupation, religious affiliation, volunteer work, and other exciting aspects of a person’s life.
In addition to containing notices of birth, marriage, and death (obituaries), newspapers often report on local news, such as the opening of a new business or the passing of a notable citizen. Many people who lived in the same area for a long time will have their names appear in the same obituary several times. This is especially true in smaller towns where most citizens know each other.
Before beginning a newspaper search, write down what you already know about your ancestor. This will help you filter out results based on known facts and allow you to focus your search. For example, knowing that your ancestor was born in 1880 can narrow your search to only those obituaries that occurred that year. In addition, most newspapers have a “community news” section that reports on family events and gossip. This is an essential resource for genealogical research because it gives us a glimpse into everyday life in a given time and place.