Obituaries matter when it comes to genealogy research

I am blessed to have a small army of genealogy foot soldiers when it comes to researching my Edgefield County, South Carolina ancestry. This army of researchers are all cousins spanning the melanin range. I’m grateful to have their enthusiasm and expertise. Edgefield is the Mount Everest of genealogy.  Hands down, it has given me the most challenges and barriers.  Oh yeah, it’s given me plenty of grey hairs and headaches over the years. It’s also made me grow and develop my working practice as a genealogist.

Edgefield is challenging for quite a few reasons. The first reason is everyone in Edgefield and the Old Ninety-Six region of South Carolina are related.  Cousins married cousins over and over again down the generations. The second reason is the use of family names. Pretty much every branch of these big, inter-connected families, had a fondness for the same handful of family names when it came to naming their children.  Take the name Willie, for example. It was (and is) widely used for both males and females in my Edgefield family. I’m not kidding when I say I can easily come across dozens of Willie Petersons or dozens of Willie Holloways when I’m trying to find details for a specific individual by that name.

When it comes to the African American branches of my Edgefield family, we can add 3 big pulses of migration out of Edgefield to the mix.  The first pulse came at the close of the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era.  The second pulse was the between 1920 and 1930 as the Jim Crow laws really bit down hard. The third was between the 1940s and 1950s – partly due to Jim Crow and partly due to new job opportunities in the northern states during, and immediately after, World War II

These migration pulses provide some of the most challenging barriers when it comes to researching the descendants of Edgefield.  For instance, if I’m researching a Willie Mae Peterson, born in Blocker, Edgefield, South Carolina in 1919…is this the same Willie Mae (Peterson) Gilchrist who was born around 1920 and living in Greenwood, South Carolina? Or is she the same Willie Mae (Peterson) Blocker who was born about 1917 and living in North Augusta, Georgia?  Or the same Willie Mae Peterson, born about 1919, living in Washington, DC. Or the same Willie Mae (Peterson) Settles, born around 1916, living in Baltimore, Maryland?  Or one of a dozen other Willie Mae Petersons living in Boston, Newark, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York City, Dayton, or a dozen other places where southern migrants settled?

Add to the mix that all of these women will more than likely be part of the same extended family.  However, in and amongst this myriad of Willie Mae Petersons, I’m trying to research a single individual.

Enter obituaries. Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that reading through hundreds of obituaries is more than a little morbid.  But hey, we’re researching people who are no longer among us.  So it’s part and parcel of the research that genealogists do. Believe it or not, obituaries are also a goldmine of information.

When it comes to my Edgefield ancestors and kin born after 1870, it’s become my practice to start researching and finding obituaries for the males in a family first.  I do this simply because their surname doesn’t change.  Well, not usually, at any rate. It’s easier for me to find obituaries for them.  From there, I can find crucial information – the names of parents, where they born and raised, details about their spouses and children….and details about their siblings. This leads me to other obituaries which plug further information gaps.

Let’s take a look at this in practice with the obituary below.

susie-anna-holloway-obit

click for larger image

Susie is my second cousin, three times removed.  Her husband, A P Scott, is also my cousin. Her parents are my cousins.  Both of A P Holloway’s parents are also my cousins. That’s classic Edgefield.

I found Susie (Holloway) Scott’s obituary via an obituary for her father.  In his obituary, she appeared with her married name. Using Newspapers.com, and searching for her under her married name, I found her.

From there I could update my tree with information about her children and her surviving sibling.

Obituaries have some pretty basic information which is sometimes overlooked:

Death dates

An obituary provides a date of death – or at least a month and a year – and town and/or county of death. Plugging this information into Susie’s page on my Ancestry.com tree resulted in finding the correct death certificate for her, as well as relevant census, social security, and other records.

Last known place of residence

The places where her children were residing at the time of her death. I’d spent an age trying to research her son, Lawrence.  I’d been searching for him in Edgefield, Greenwood, Abbeville, and Newberry in South Carolina.  I couldn’t find him.  And there was a very simple reason why.  He wasn’t in South Carolina.  He was in the Bronx in New York City. When I added his residence as the Bronx in 2008, I found him and information about him (notably New York City directory listings).

Married names for daughters, sisters, and mothers

When it came to her daughters, I found their married names – enabling me to research them and their families.

It’s not unusual for me to discover that the women in the family married more than once due to the premature death of a husband. Which explains why I struggled to find them in additional records after a certain date. There was an additional  marriage to the one I already knew about.  I had no reason to suspect that she had re-married. This meant I was looking for these women under the wrong name. In just about every case, I found the additional records for them that I was seeking once I had a new married name.

Clearing up how people wanted their names spelt

Last, but by no means least, I can confirm how my kin preferred to spell their name. For instance, that Ocie Peterson used ‘Ocie’ and not Ossie or Osie. It may seem like a small, seemingly insignificant thing.  I like to honor the ancestors by using the form of their name they preferred and used.

Turning names into people

I can also learn a little something about them: what their interests or hobbies were or their various occupations and achievements. This lifts their story above the usual dates of residence, birth, marriage, or death. It makes them 3 dimension people. In Susie’s case, that she was a member of the Springfield Baptist Church, which is a church founded by the ancestors. I’ve heard quite a bit about this church and its community from various Edgefield cousins.  That she was a member of one of the committees of this church tells me a little something about her standing in the community.  And, of course, her picture is priceless. Her features reminds me of people from my immediate family with roots in Edgefield. It’s a connection to a person I’d never met nor heard of until I began researching the family.

Thankfully, I have 3 Edgefield cousins who are super sleuths when it comes to finding obituaries for our very extensive and complicated family.  If I ever become stuck, I know I can call on them to find an obituary when I struggle to do so.  They do so, and we all share them on Facebook when we find them, because we all know just how important they are in our research.

So if you’re not using obituaries as part of your own family research…I heartily recommend that you do. They are worth the effort it takes to find them.

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