October 5th, 2010

How to Put a Face to the Names on Your Family Tree Using Newspaper Obituaries

A while ago, I told you about Google News Timeline to help you with your genealogy research.  You can research specific events in history and all the related information in a timeline.  While the Google News Timeline is an excellent tool, sometimes you just have to go to the source itself.  Newspapers are valuable tools for filling in your family tree. Here’s how they help:

Using Newspapers for your Genealogy Research

Often overlooked in favour of more fashionable genealogy related resources, newspapers are in fact unsurpassed in genealogical value. Most newspapers have a contribution to make in our family search, from the larger national newspapers with their vast archives of events both national and international, to the small local papers which evolved during the nineteenth century. Newspapers have much to offer the family historian, but as with any genealogical resource, a bit of preparation is necessary to get the most of them.

There will be long hours of fruitless searching that can prove frustrating, but having some information to go by will alleviate much of that. Searching at random would be an exercise in futility; the chances of coming across a story with information on your relative in that way are zero to nil. If you have a specific event in mind however, and even better have a date for that occurrence, the possibilities are endless.

What Useful Info a Newspaper May Contain

The smaller local papers can be of the most valuable, as they featured local news, and often recorded births, deaths and marriages as well as less tasteful events such as court cases and law suits. In Victorian times, they would publish birth and death notices for a small fee. This was often the luxury of the upper classes however, and these sorts of findings may not reveal too much anyway.


You may though stumble across an announcement of an ancestor who had died overseas after emigrating; this was a common practice in many Old Countries. Newspapers of the time gave much more coverage to marriages though. Some of them published detailed reports, including a guest list, and these types of discoveries can be of immense value.

The reporting of deaths is where newspapers are the most valuable, however. Especially in Victorian times, people were fascinated by reading reports of the inquest, which was normal for newspapers to publish. If you ever come across the words “coroner” or “inquest” on a death certificate, it would be a good idea to search the relevant local paper if it’s available.

Newspaper Obituaries and Funeral Reports

Of course if your ancestor was a local dignitary or celebrity, the chances of finding published information on them are even higher. If you know the time of their death, checking the source published a week or two after may reveal further info on them. Newspaper obituaries can be a rich source of genealogical worth, you may find out where they went to school, what organisations they were members of, if any, even if they were in the military or a local sports star.

If you do find such information, don’t stop at this point, following an obituary, there may be coverage of the funeral. The funeral report will contain a list of mourners which could reveal further relatives. Besides introducing you to other family members, the funeral report will reveal where your ancestor was buried, opening up yet another avenue of adventure!


If your ancestor was a local businessman or tradesperson, they may have advertised their services in the local newspaper. Besides being valuable as information sources, ads of the time were usually very decorative, and can add a tasteful visual aspect to your documentation.

Legal announcements by solicitors looking for surviving heirs to a deceased person were also common at the time. People sometimes died leaving substantial amounts of money or property, and ads were placed asking for anyone related to that person to come forward. If your motives for this type of ad are monetary however, prepare to be disappointed, the line at the solicitors door would have been a long and winding one!

Comment below to tell me how Newspapers have helped your genealogy research.