Recently I decided to learn more about my great-uncle Paul McClellan, my grandfather’s brother. After World War II, Paul left his Idaho hometown for Pennsylvania. Surviving relatives know hardly anything of his life or family.
The census only takes me through 1940 and he lived through the 1970s. Pennsylvania vital records are pretty tight-lipped. So almost immediately, I found myself looking for obituaries.
Our online community tree at FamilySearch told me when and where he died. I emailed the local history and genealogy contact at the public library in that town. I heard back within a day and had this obituary within a week.
I’ve seen a lot of detailed obituaries. But perhaps because I’m so thirsty for information on Paul, the level of detail in this obituary made me especially happy. I see his:
- Street address
- Hospital where he died and length of stay there
- Birthplace and age
- Parents’ names, including mother’s maiden name
- Employer and retirement date
- Membership in local civic organizations
- WWII Army veteran status
- Surviving widow’s name, including maiden name
- Names, spouses and residences of surviving siblings
- Name of funeral home and officiator of funeral
- Cemetery name
Wow! Some of these details confirmed that I had the right guy: his age, birth data, relatives’ names. Others open new avenues of research for me. I’ve already started following leads to the civic organizations, funeral home and cemetery.
You know, what is NOT said in this obituary may also prove important as I continue my research on Paul. First, there are no surviving children or grandchildren listed. This disappoints me as I was told he did have children by at least one previous marriage. If he did have children, the informant (his widow?) either didn’t know about them or didn’t choose to mention them. Second, the informant did know a lot about Paul’s kin. Maybe Paul and his wife didn’t totally lose touch with the folks back home–it just seems so years later.
Have you worked much with obituaries? Do you know how to find them? Learn more in Lisa’s book How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, available in print or as an e-book. There’s an entire chapter on online digitized newspaper collections, and one on online resources for finding newspapers (either online or offline). Yet another chapter is devoted to African American newspapers. This book will teach you to find all those elusive obituaries–and plenty more mentions of your family in old newspapers.
This Sunday, August 9 at 9/8c TLC will air actress Alfre Woodard’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?
In the episode, Alfre Woodard sets out to learn more about her paternal grandfather’s family, which she knows little about since her grandfather died before she knew him. She uncovers the triumphant story of her great-grandfather Alec, who endured the horrors of slavery and ascended from servitude to successful landowner, an extraordinary feat of his time.
Next week, TLC will air a special episode of the series entitled ‘Into The Archives.’ The special digs into its archives, featuring highlights throughout the past seasons, including triumphs and tragedies, delightful discoveries and sobering moments. This special episode also unveils outtakes and never-before-seen footage from the series’ vault.
Ready to get started learning about your own family history? Listen to our free Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast here. Also available through iTunes.
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If you’re like me, you were happy to see the return of Who Do You Think You Are? to our TV lineup this past summer. You might have thought to yourself as you watched, “They make it look so easy! I wonder how long it took them to find that record?”
Well there have been some great articles written by the researchers behind the scenes at WDYTYA? For example, this post tells how it took more than 1000 hours of research for Cindy Crawford’s one-hour episode.
“It took months to research Cindy’s tree,” says the post at ProGenealogists, Ancestry’s official research arm. “Only the records that were essential stepping stones could be included in her story, and a few important steps we took along the way didn’t make the final cut.”
A post on Matthew Broderick’s episode, which aired in 2010, introduces us to using military records to find our family history. Matthew appeared in the 1989 Civil War film “Glory” but his great-great-grandfather experienced the real thing: he died while serving as a Union soldier. Other episodes bring up other episodes in the history of the world: Lisa Kudrow’s past includes the horrors of the Holocaust, Rosie O’Donnell’s covers the experience of a poor family in an Irish workhouse that was able to escape to Canada; Emmitt Smith’s probes the dark depths of African-American slavery. The post on Emmitt is a particularly detailed account of how this family was found.
You can click on similar posts relating to other WDYTYA guests, both past and present: Chris O’Donnell, Zooey Deschanel, Chelsea Handler, Christina Applegate, Kelly Clarkson, Tim McGraw, Vanessa Williams, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lisa Kudrow, Brooke Shields, and Susan Sarandon.
If you haven’t tuned in to WDYTYA yet, check it out on TLC on Tuesdays at 9pmEST. Or learn more about it and watch episodes at TLC’s website.