One of the–I think–most overlooked and underappreciated resources when doing German-American genealogy, or genealogy in general, are newspaper obituaries. Especially when the obituaries are printed in the newspapers of smaller towns in rural areas, they can contain a cache of golden information.
Some of the most important pieces of information a newspaper obituary might offer are: birth place, birth date, maiden name, parents’ names, date and place of immigration, earlier residences and migrations, marriage date, marriage place, names of current (and sometimes previous) spouses, date and place of naturalization, employers, church membership, death date, death place, cause of death, funeral home in charge of arrangements, burial place, names (and maybe even death dates) of family members who preceded them in death, names and residences of people who came to attend the funeral from a long way away (which can give great clues on finding long lost branches of cousins), and names, spouses, and residences of family members who survived them.
Always check the two issues of their town newspaper printed after they died. If an edition of the newspaper was printed on the exact day of their death, check that one too, because sometimes the newspaper was able to report it on the same day that it happened.
Older, rural newspapers were not necessarily as organized and compartmentalized as today’s newspapers are, so even if your ancestor’s obituary doesn’t appear on the same page as the other obituaries, read the whole paper. Their obituary might have made front page news, or it might be hidden in the “local news” or “neighborhood gossip” section.
There are many great websites (almost all of which require paying subscriptions, of course) that have digitized millions of newspapers, such as Newspapers.com, NewspaperArchive.com, and GenealogyBank.com. (As a professional genealogist, I have subscriptions to all three and rely heavily on them.) News.Google.com/newspapers also has a collection of free digitized newspapers that can come in handy for a researcher, although they are mostly from large cities. There are also smaller, more specialized websites (often hosted by local universities or historical societies) that offer free access to digitized local area newspapers (such as NYheritage.org/newspapers for New York papers, or the Florida Digital Newspaper Library, just to name two).
When searching online newspaper databases for obituaries, keep in mind that your ancestor’s name may have been misspelled. Also, online newspaper databases often use a program that looks at the image and tries to recreate a pure text version of the print. These newspaper images are sometimes faded or blotchy, so the text transcription of the newspaper is probably riddled with errors. When searching for your ancestor’s obituary on an online newspaper website, try as many different spelling variations of their name as you can. Especially if they were an immigrant, try spelling their name phonetically. Also, if you know where your ancestor was buried, you can try searching for mentions in the newspaper of the cemetery where they were buried. Try other combinations of words you think might be in their obituary (“funeral,” “burial,” “died,” “death,” “survived,” “interred,” “cemetery,” etc.). Don’t rely entirely on web searches. If you think you know the issue of the newspaper where the obituary might have appeared, try pulling up the actual image of the newspaper and reading it line for line yourself.
Far from all of the newspapers in the country have been digitized, so just because you can’t find a town newspaper online, it doesn’t mean you can’t get ahold of it. You may need to contact your state’s historical society library, or use Google to hunt for a large university library in your state, because these institutions often have newspaper on microfilm. You might then be able to make a trip to your state historical society library or university library and view old issues of these newspapers on microfilm, or you might be able to go to your local town library and request an interlibrary loan of those microfilms. In certain cases, newspapers may have been neither digitized nor microfilmed, but the local library in the town where the newspaper was printed may store old physical copies of the newspaper, so try contacting them as well.
Try searching all of the different newspapers in the area, because often, multiple newspapers in the same town printed different obituaries for the same person, each obituary with unique information. If you don’t have luck finding a newspaper obituary for your ancestor in the town where they died, look up the town on Google Maps, find nearby towns, and search for newspaper obituaries for your ancestor in those nearby towns as well. Towns sometimes printed obituaries for deceased individuals from other nearby towns.
My last point of advice is to realize that newspapers were not the only ones who printed obituaries. You might be able to find an obituary that wasn’t in a newspaper. Contact the funeral home that handled your ancestor’s funeral arrangements–they might have stored an obituary for your ancestor. Contact relatives who might have attended this ancestor’s funeral–they might have kept a funeral pamphlet, which could have had an obituary printed on it. Find out what religious denomination your ancestor was a member of and contact that institution–many churches and religious denominations printed their own nation-wide newsletters and sometimes printed obituaries after the death of one of their church members.