Census records are one of the most popular resources for identifying ancestry. Conducted every 10 years from 1790, United States Federal Census records can provide a wealth of information. Depending on the year they were taken, census records may contain the names of those living in the household, their ages at last birthday, and places of birth. When you look at a series of consecutive years for the same family, you can glean other information like occupations, level of education, and year married. You can also learn whether your family stayed in place or moved to another location. Census records do, however, have one major limitation: they are only available to 1940.
You see there’s this rule. Instead of paraphrasing, I’ll quote directly from the U.S. Department of Commerce website.
“The U.S. government will not release personally identifiable information about an individual to any other individual or agency until 72 years after it was collected for the decennial census. This ‘72-Year Rule’ (92 Stat. 915; Public Law 95-416; October 5, 1978) restricts access to decennial census records to all but the individual named on the record or their legal heir.”
The 1940 census was released on April 2, 2012, a great day for us family historians. The next one won’t be released until April 1, 2022. That’s a mighty long time to wait to see where Uncle Moe ended up.
Finding ancestors who were born after 1940 is one of our biggest challenges. Fortunately we have a tool that can fill in the gaps. It’s called the obituary.
Now I know we all hate talking about death so I won’t harp on it. Nevertheless, we need to understand that genealogy is predominantly focused on finding dead ancestors. It’s how we learn where we came from. Keeping that in mind, know that I won’t judge you while you sit before your computer and look up obituaries. I won’t think you (too) creepy.
Obituaries can be found in most newspapers. As more and more funeral homes join the digital age, we can find obituaries at their sites, too. These short biographies can help you identify missing cousins, aunts, or uncles. Here’s an example from my family tree.
Clarence John Vail was born 31 Mar 1901 and died 08 Jul 1996 in Derby, New York. He married, about 1926, Ruth McCullor. Ruth was my first cousin, two times removed. She was the daughter of Ralph McCullor and his wife, my great grandaunt, Elizabeth H. Fischer. Her sister Bertha married George Frederick Habicht, my great grandparents.
What I knew about Clarence and Ruth was limited to the 1940 census. You’ll notice that in addition to husband and wife, we have children Clarence Jr., Robert, Marolyn, and Thelma.
What I didn’t know was that Clarence and Ruth had additional children who were born after 1940.
By using Internet resources – specifically Fultonhistory.com – I located Ruth (McCullor) Vail’s obituary. She died 19 Oct 1979 in Derby. Her obituary confirms the accuracy of the 1940 census by listing Clarence, Robert, Marolyn and Thelma. In addition, it adds four additional children: Barbara, Marcia, Joyce, and Allen. Not only that, it notes the husbands of the girls.
This is information that would have been missing had I not found the obituary.
From there, we can look up these additional names in newspapers. If we are lucky, we may find marriage or birth announcements that add additional depth to our family. Heck, you may even find some of these folks on Facebook!
Use all the resources you have to develop your family story. Obituaries are one piece of the puzzle that can significantly boost your history.