It’s amazing what you can find out about your family history online. With a few clicks of your mouse, you can see census and vital statistics records that allow you to trace your genealogy back for decades-even sometimes for hundreds of years. And by using popular research sites like Ancestry.com, you can piggy-back onto the research of others to quickly learn where your family tree leads. When I began my own genealogical research, I learned a great deal by using these online methods-including one fascinating story about my great-great-great grandfather, John Randall. Grandpa John was a Union soldier during the Civil War, and according to several sources, he “died at the hands of Bushwhackers” in Missouri in 1863.
This story didn’t just send chills down my spine-it intrigued me, and I wanted to know more. It was at this point that I discovered that census records and vital statistics, while providing a great start, leave a lot to be desired when you’re looking for the nitty-gritty stories of your ancestors’ lives. With a little ingenuity and a lot of digging, however, I managed to find out quite a bit more about John Randal and his family. Here’s some of what I found out-and how you too can take your genealogical research quest to the next level:
I’ll admit, the nature of genealogical research is a bit morbid. We are, after all, researching people who are … well … dead. And what better way to learn about dead people than to read their obituaries? To find obits, you need to know the approximate date and place of death. Your next step is to find out what newspapers were being published at that time and place. You can find some good online sources that tap into newspaper achieves. If you are a member of Ancestry.com, you can access many newspapers through the site. Another good online source is newspaperarchive.com, where for a small membership fee, you can browse an extensive database.
Unfortunately, there are hundreds of historic newspapers that are not yet available online. But don’t give up if you can’t find what you are looking for while sitting at your keyboard. Remember that old fashioned device called the telephone? (It’s the thing that the teenagers text with nowadays.) Find out if the area you are researching has a public library and make a call. Often, libraries have microfilm copies of their local newspapers, and I’ve found that most librarians are more than willing to pitch in and help a researcher. There will probably be a small fee, anywhere from $3 to $5, but the information you can find is priceless. Check out local historical society and museums as well to see if they have access to historical publications that might hold valuable information about your ancestors.
So what can you learn from an obituary? There are the obvious details such as place of birth, career path, marriage dates and so on. But if you learn how to read between the lines, there can be so much more you can glean from old obituaries. For instance, obituaries are a great place to learn details about your female ancestors. Let’s say you know that your great-grandmother had a sister named Myrtle, but you have never been able to find out what happened to her because you don’t know her married name. If your great-grandmother’s obit mentions that she was survived by a sister, “Mrs. Harold Zimmerman of Tucson, Arizona ,” you now know that your great-grandmother’s sister Myrtle married a man named Harold Zimmerman, that she outlived your great-grandmother (because she is listed as a survivor), and that she lived in Arizona. With this information in hand, you can branch out into a whole new line of research.
One interesting note about obituaries is that the older they are, the more interesting they might be. Modern obituaries are standardized; quite literally, the “gory details” are edited out. Not so with obituaries from the 1800s and early 1900s. Not only did obituary writers go into details about the life of the deceased, they often provided speculation about how and why the death occurred, the progression of illness, the level of grief experienced by the family, and even morbid details about the state of the body after an accident. Certainly we would consider this a violation of privacy today-but it is sure interesting to see those details 100 years later.
Take a Road Trip
When I learned the story of John Randall, I wanted to know more about what happened to his family after he died. I knew what happened to his daughter Permelia-she went on to become my great-great-grandmother. I also knew what happened to George, Permelia’s brother, as he was listed as a survivor in her obituary. But I didn’t know what happened to the other three children, Mary, Johnnie and Sarah. I couldn’t find details about them from internet sources, and the only thing I found in my great-great-grandmother’s obituary was that they preceded her in death.
However, I knew that John Randall and his wife Nancy were buried in Mount Zion Cemetery in Johnson County, Missouri, and I thought that I might learn something if I actually went there. Granted, driving 700 miles to go grave hunting might put me in the “weird” column in some people’s book. But cemetery tourism can actually be quite fun. For one thing, if your destination is within driving distance, it’s cheap. No admission fee to a cemetery after all. And If you can find a friend who will humor you and ride along, you’ll probably end up with some great memories.
It turned out that my trip to Missouri was not just fun (thanks to my good friend Linda for riding along!) it paid off quite handsomely. Along with the graves I knew were there, I discovered the grave of Johnnie Randall, my great-great uncle. I Iearned that he had died in May of 1882 at the age of 17. Of course my curiosity was peaked about what had happened to such a young man. After I returned from my trip, I was able to locate an article about his death-which turned out to be the result of a suicide. While this was somewhat shocking and sobering to learn, it did provide an important detail in the story of John Randal’s family. So then I had just Sarah and Mary to find.
Trace the Lines Forward
Usually when we think of genealogical research, we think about tracing lines backward in time into the more and more distant past. I’ve found though, that one of the most effective way to learn about ancestry is to find someone who is (surprise!) still alive. Of course, take advantage of any relatives you already know who might have details about your family tree. I’m lucky to have a 90-year-old grandmother who is still doing well and who is a wealth of information. But everyone from the John Randall side of my family was already gone. I knew, though, that there were probably distant relatives out there-people I had never even heard of-who had information they could share. The trick was, how in the world could I find them?
The answer again goes back to vital records, census data and, of course, obituaries. I had discovered the stories of three out of five of John Randall’s children, but I still didn’t know what had happened to Mary and Sarah. All I knew about Mary was that her married name was Toomey. I was able to locate her on a census in the late 1800s and I discovered that she had five children. While I spent time researching each of Mary’s children, the one that started to take shape was her son James. I found his date of death and was impressed to learn that he had lived to be 100 years old. I made a few phone calls and was able to get a copy of his obituary. There I learned the married name of his daughter, as well as her residence at the time of her father’s death. She lived in a small town in Idaho-a search of the white pages online turned up an address and phone number for just such a person.
I carefully crafted a letter explaining who I was and what I was looking for. I also took the time to explain how I had found her name and address. This is important when you are reaching out to elderly people who don’t know you and who might be taken aback by being contacted by a stranger. However, I’ve contacted several of my distant relatives in this manner, most of them in their 80s and 90s, and the response has been tremendously positive. I’ve found that, even if they don’t have exactly what you are looking for, they love to share whatever they do know, and are delighted that someone has taken the time to reach out to them. Some of my connections have gone from just exchanges of letters to phone calls and even in-person visits.
After a few weeks, I was thrilled to get a large envelope in the mail from my distant relative in Idaho. Included were copies of research she had done years before, including great information about John Randall’s daughter Mary, who had been a teacher as well as a mother of five. She also included a photo of my great-great grandmother Permelia-to date the only one I have.
That left just Sarah. I wish I could end this by saying that I have followed a trail and that I found herr, but she continues to be the evasive child of my great-great grandfather, John Randall. I know, though, that someone out there knows what happened to her, and somehow, I’m going to find them.