HOW TO USE AN OBITUARY INDEX
TO BUILD A FAMILY HISTORY:


WHAT IS AN INDEX?

An index is an alphabetized listing of surnames or other data found in a publication. Unfortunately, newspapers of past centuries did not index their obituary notices. This is where the dedicated members of Rock County Genealogical Society (RCGS) come in. They have painstakingly extracted vital information (birth, marriage and death) found in local newspapers and inexpensively published these indexes for sale. These society volunteers spent months in libraries building this index so that others could locate ancestors' obituaries in a matter of minutes. A good index helps advance your family research quickly and efficiently.

WHERE CAN I FIND OLD OBITUARIES?

Once you've located an ancestor in an RCGS index, you can use the specific information from the index to obtain copies of the obituary. Not surprisingly, old obituaries are found in old newspapers. The pages of these old newspapers have been recorded on microfilm (photographed in miniature on rolls of durable plastic "film"). These many microfilm rolls are sorted by newspaper name and date of publication. The microfilm can be read on a machine called, aptly, a microfilm reader. Both the Wisconsin State Historical Society in Madison and Janesville's Hedberg Public Library have microfilm of Rock County newspapers and microfilm readers available at no charge. Some microfilm readers are connected to printers. So, for a small charge (usually 10 cents per page), you can take home a full-size picture of a newspaper article, photograpg or obituary.

WHAT KINDS OF INFORMATION ARE IN OLD OBITUARIES?

In past times, obituaries often contained lengthy and elaborate discussions of the life and death of the recently departed. Rich sources of data are often included: dates and locations of birth, marriage and death, military service, elected offices, residential addresses, employment history, church, social and business memberships, and burial location. Obituaries may list pallbearers, surviving family members, spouses and their cities of residence. Sometimes, the name of the funeral home is included. In contrast to today's obituaries, a history of illnesses and the specific cause of death are commonly found.

WHY DO I NEED AN INDEX TO FIND MY ANCESTORS' OBITUARIES?

A visit to the local library, State Historical Society or a Family History Center will reveal thousands of rolls of microfilm. And each microfilm roll has hundreds of obituaries. Therein lies the problem. Without an index, hunting an ancestor's obituary is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Even if you have a general idea of the date of death, you can spend whole days slowly searching roll after roll of microfilm, hoping that the boredom and fatigue don't dull your senses as the one obituary you seek finally comes into view. Bottom line: you DON'T NEED an index; obituaries can be found by slow, manual, trial and error searching. But without an index, you DO NEED a great deal of time, tremendous powers concentration, and a love of hardback library chairs

WHAT WILL THE INDEX DO FOR ME?

In and of itself, a newspaper death index is just a tool. It will quickly help you locate obituaries and death notices. It is in these newspaper articles that treasure lies, however. Here are some examples of how an index can advance your family history research:

Want to know where great grandpa Asa is buried? His obituary will probably include the Rock County cemetery name (or city name, if elsewhere). Your next step: the cemetery sexton (caretaker) or one of the Rock County Genealogical Society cemetery publications.

Ever wonder if great grandma Radle from Rock County had brothers and sisters? Her obituary is likely to tell you siblings names, their spouses' names and cities of residence. And the obituary index will also list Radles (related or not) who died here. You may identify relatives you didn't even know existed. Your next step: the Rock County Courthouse.

Ever wanted to walk the floors of your great grandparent's home or the fields of their farm? The obituary will frequently leave you a street address or farm location. Again, your next step: the Rock County Courthouse or a Rock County Genealogical Society city directory, atlas or land plat reprint.

Curious about your Rock County ancestor's religious affiliation. The obituary will usually tell you - and give you an additional avenue of investigation: a church name, a pastor and location. Your next step: many churches still stand with their records intact. The Rock County Genealogical Society has a publication entitled Rock County Churches and Cemeteries, too.

Wish you knew whether great-great uncle Hiram served in the Civil War? The obituary will reference military service records and GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) membership. Your next step: the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has detailed military, pension and correspondence records available.

Obituaries nearly always list memberships in fraternal organizations, farm associations, clubs and societies. Your next step: many of these societies still exist; those long gone may have donated their records to a local museum, archive or library like those shared by Rock County's Genealogical and Historical Societies.

Need to know more about your family medical history? Obituaries of the past were often very explicit about lengths of illnesses, causes of death - even autopsy findings! Even today, medical sleuths use these graphic accounts of ancestors' demise to anticipate a family's predisposition for certain inherited diseases!

 
 

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