Sunday, August 23, 2015


Oftentimes, a person who has minimal information on a grandparent or great-grandparent will say to me, “I’ve tried looking in the censuses, but I can’t figure out which person is the one I’m looking for. I think Grandpa lived in Virginia, but there are so many John Smiths there… I don’t know which one is mine. 

This is when I ask them what they do know for certain about Grandpa’s life, like whether or not his wife was living or deceased, where he lived at the time of his death, and when he died. “Oh, Grandpa Smith lived in Jamestown, Virginia with my Grandma Mary, and he died in December of 1999,” they might tell me. 

And that is when I can tell a person that while they think they have encountered a brick wall, what they’ve just given me is a stepping stone to more information. I go to the Social Security Index next, and perhaps I’m fortunate enough to pin down a date of death for a John Smith of Jamestown, Virginia, for December 5, 1999. 

The nice thing about recent ancestors such as grandparents and great-grandparents, as they most definitely are not a lost cause when it comes to gathering information. Those generations are, perhaps, the most documented (besides you and your parents) you will find, and a great place to start if the only facts you have are a name, place, and death date, is the newspaper. 

At that point, with the information given about, I would perform a Google search for the Jamestown Virginia public library, not in quotes and not with any punctuation marks. Once I find a website for the library, my next step is to see if they offer any databases. Some offer extensive databases including indexes to vital records and newspapers. If they do, I take down the information I need to find the record and/or article, or other relevant item, that refers to my grandparent. 

Once I have that information or if they don’t offer such databases, my next step is to reach out to the reference librarian and let her know what I need. My request generally looks like this:

To Whom it May Concern, 

I am writing to inquire about an obituary for John Smith, who died December 5, 1999 in Jamestown, VA for genealogical purposes. If you are able to locate such an obituary in your newspaper holdings, would you email me a PDF or mail me a print-out? Also, please let me know the fee or requested donation for this service, so I can send it to you promptly. 

Wendy L. Callahan 

If there is no requested donation or fee, I still like to mail the library a token donation of $5 to show my appreciation.  I’ve had librarians who have done both as far as sending me an obituary – emailed a PDF or mailed a physical copy. They are usually very willing to assist and respond to inquiries. 

That obituary for Grandpa Smith will most likely list his place of birth and the names of his parents, not to mention any siblings. This allows you to put together a family group sheet together now, showing the entire family for John Smith – his wife, his parents, and his siblings – as well as filling in dates and places of the events you have. Even the smallest amount of information is a gateway to much, much more. Don’t underestimate what you can find with just a few “iffy” facts.

Copyright (c) 2015 Wendy L. Callahan

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