What Obituaries Have to Offer Genealogists

Obituary Section

Example of an old newspaper obituary section from 1898.

Super Bowl Sunday!  Which team was everyone rooting for? I don’t follow either team, but I guess I was going with the 49ers.  Mostly I just enjoyed eating good food, kicking back a refreshing adult beverage or two, and watching the game with friends. By the end I was antsy to get to bed so I could be up early for work on Monday.  Why isn’t the Super Bowl on a Saturday night?

Continuing in my Blake Family research, I’m starting to realize I may be at a brick wall for my Great-great grandmother, Matilda Blake (maiden name Williams).  I spent more time this week trying to find records of her whereabouts from 1930 until her death, which, for some un-sourced reason, I show as happening in 1953.  Her youngest children, George and Bessie, would have been roughly 19 and 14 years old in 1930.  From the stories my grandfather told me, the kids stayed with their mother when she and Nelson split.  Did she move with them out of the area? I haven’t been able to find 1930 census records for Matilda, George or Bessie.  However, Bessie showed up again in the 1940 census living in Oak Park, Ill., married to Tom Borth.  The plot thickens…

On a positive note, I found a site where I could purchase copies of the Detroit Free Press newspaper articles from the 1800s.  There were many articles that mentioned Nelson’s father, Patrick Blake, but for the time being I only purchased a few.  These articles turned out to be the most exciting thing I’ve found since I’ve gotten into genealogy! Each article provided great insight into his life and what was going on at the time, but I’ll just summarize the best one – his obituary.

This was more than just the typical obituary summarizing his life, mentioning his parents and who survived him.  This article gave a full narrative.  It says he was born in Dublin in 1833, which matches what I’ve found before, but this article states that his father (John) died prior to his mother (Catherine) bringing him to Canada.  As mentioned in a prior blog, I had previously thought that Patrick’s father joined them on the trip to Canada and then passed a few years later.  I’d still like to find some sources to prove which account is correct.  Patrick came to Detroit around the age of 20 (1852-1853), and opened a shoe store.  He won first prize at the first state fair held in Michigan for a pair of shoes he made.  Apparently the family planned to keep them as an heirloom after his death.  He eventually gave up the shoe business to open a furniture store.  His furniture business expanded in 1865 to include building caskets for families to use when their loved ones passed away.

At the time there was not much of an undertaker profession, so families would often handle their funerals and burials as best they could on their own.  Patrick saw this as an opportunity and gave up his furniture business to be an undertaker around 1873.  According to the article, he was a successful undertaker for twenty years, and developed many of the practices we now see as common in the undertaking business.  It was estimated that he may have conducted 20,000 funerals in those 20 years.  At that rate, he would’ve averaged almost 3 funerals per day, 7 days a week for 20 years.  I’m guessing it may actually be less than that, but either way, he must have done a lot!

Finally, Patrick died at his summer home near Amherstburg in Ontario, Canada in 1903.  This was roughly 30 miles from Detroit, and explains why his death report that I mentioned earlier said he died in Essex County, Canada.

Obviously, I was extremely excited to find this.  However, there is still one unsolved mystery. All of these articles say Patrick had nine children instead of 10.  Nelson is the one missing from each story.  Yet Patrick is listed as his father in the 1880 census and the Illinois Deaths and Stillbirths Index.  Interesting…

I hope everyone has had a great post-Super Bowl week!


Family Tree Firsts is an ongoing blog series featuring newbie genealogist Brian Parotto of Hampshire, Ill.


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