Obituaries and death notices

Another death in our family this past week. I was given the privilege of writing my mother-in-law’s obituary. This task of love let me to reflect on obituaries and death notices as sources of information. In this post, I share my reflection with you.

Genealogists cull information about individuals and their families from these notices, usually published in local newspapers. What’s the difference between a death notice and an obituary? The answer is simple. A death notice usually gives only basic information about the person and their death. An obituary typically provides more information about the person and their family.

Death notices can still provide clues for follow up. Here is one example from my dad’s family. [1]

Other documents and her gravestone[2] show her name as Esther, maiden name Brown. The notice was published on Friday, February 14, 1840; her date of death- ‘Tuesday last’- means Tuesday, February 11, 1840.  The family should be found in or near Stroudsburg on 1840 census. Burial at Friends Graveyard means that Esther and Thomas were Quakers. My question is:  if she died and was buried in Monroe County, why was her death notice in a Pike County newspaper? Pike County and Monroe County are geographically close to each other. This led me to explore how county lines changed and to search for more information about a Brown family in Pike County. Age at death is sometimes listed. This example shows how even limited information can be used to discover information about a person and their family.

Obituaries give us a glimpse into the person’s life and family.  Often, you will read about the person’s occupation, hobbies, military service, religious affiliation, professional and social organizations, honors and awards as well as birth and death information. Names of parents, siblings and children are usually included. You may learn how long the person was married and whether the named relatives are dead or alive. Cause of death is sometimes included. “A sudden death” may suggest an accident or acute illness. “A long (or lingering) death” suggests one or more chronic illnesses. Photos are a more recent inclusion.  Today, funeral homes post obituaries online.

Siblings’ names can be used to uncover a woman’s maiden name.  One woman’s brothers had two different surnames, suggesting that one was her step-brother. The married name of a sister led to more records about the sister and, eventually, the names of their parents.

Also of interest is what information is not included. I found a marriage record for a person[3] on my mom’s family tree. His obituary[4] did not mention his wife. My best guess is that the marriage did not last long and that there were no children.

For more information about death notices and obituaries:

Writing obituaries:

To summarize, published death notices and obituaries are important sources of information for the genealogist. Glean what you can and offer thanks to those who provided the information.


Another long week for our family, actually a long month as mother-in-law went from hospital to rehab, back to hospital and then to hospice care.   Family members asked me to write my mother-in-law’s obituary. This was a labor of love as well as an awesome responsibility. I had previously written obituaries for both of my parents and my father-in-law. As a genealogist, I am acutely aware of how much can be learned and/or surmised from these sources.

I may have posted something similar earlier but am too emotionally exhausted to look for it.

What I Learned (again):  the difficulty of capturing the essence of a person in just a few words.

What helped: I am a fairly skilled writer with a large vocabulary. Online and print thesaurus to help me choose just the right words. Getting to know my mother-in-law better during last few months that she has lived with us.

What didn’t help:  sleepless nights. Need to get it right quickly in only 1 or 2 drafts.

To-do: Save copies of print and online obituary with appropriate citations.


[1] Hester Postens death notice.  Published in The Jeffersonian Republican, Milford, Pike County, Pennsylvania on 14 February 1840.  Page number not included with photocopy obtained from Monroe County Historical Association, Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.

[2] Grave marker for Esther Postens, Friends Burial Ground (Stroudsburg, Monroe, Pennsylvania); photo by Jerry L. Ellerbee; information read by Susan Posten Ellerbee, 15 August 2017.

[3] New York, Episcopal Diocese of New York Church Records,” database with images, Ancestry ( : accessed 16 August 2018 ), entry for Arthur H. Smetts & Claudia J. Mertens; citing The Episcopal Diocese of New York Church Records, New York, NY; names Arthur’s parents as Jacob Smets, Rose Maurer of New Brunswick,NJ and Claudia’s parents as Charles H. Mertens & Johanna Hack, 1433 Glover Street; marriage date 2 June 1926.

[4] “ARTHUR H. SMETTS,” obituary, Central New Jersey Home News, 19 November 1936, deceased; online images, (http:/// :  accessed 6 January 2021).

© Susan Posten Ellerbee and Posting Family Roots blog, 2021

BSO follow-up reveals hidden treasures: Henry Renk and Rosina (Maurer) Smetts

Genealogists ask questions and try to find answers. Often, more questions arise as we search. This was the case as I explored the lives of Rosina Maurer and her husband Wilhelm Jacob Smetts. I reported that journey in a February 2018 post. As I searched local newspapers, I found the name of Henry Renk connected with Rosina. I made a note that this was a BSO to be explored another day. Now three years later, I found the answer. In this post I describe what I found and how I found it.

The newspaper clipping that generated my interest in 2018 was from a 1949 New Brunswick, New Jersey newspaper. [1] It said  ”Henry Renk attended funeral services for Mrs.  Rose Smetts at the home of Mr. and Mrs Robert Smetts in Matedeconk Thursday evening.” Rose/ Rosina was sister of my maternal great-grandfather, Herman Maurer.  Robert Smetts was one of Rosina’s children. I posed the question – What is Henry ‘s relationship to Rose?

In November 2020, a distant cousin saw my post about Rosina and Jacob and contacted me. He asked for more information about the children of Rosina and Jacob.  That’s when I rediscovered Henry Renk.  Rosina and Jacob’s youngest child, Robert Earl Smetts married Ethel Renk, the daughter of Henry Renk and Carrie Culver.  In 1949, Henry attended the funeral of his daughter’s mother- in- law. Henry had been a widower since 1917[2].  Henry, born 1873, and Rosina, born 1868. were of the same generation. He probably empathized after her loss of both a son and husband within the space of one month in 1936. [3] Both had been born in the United States to German immigrant parents.

In June, 1950, Robert and Ethel Smetts held a family reunion party in their home ” in honor of the 77th birthday anniversary of Mrs Smetts’ father, Henry Renk of Ridge road near here [ Monmouth Junction, New Jersey]”. [4]  Forty-five guests attended including Earl Renk, Edgar Renk , Albert Renk and their families. I imagine that the house overflowed with “14 grandchldren and eight great-children.”

Henry Renk died 27 November 1960[5] and was buried in Kingston Cemetery, next to his wife. [6] I have more information about Henry, his wife Carrie and their family. However, I am not going to delve into that here. I added their names to the family tree on Ancestry.


A mystery solved and a BSO addressed. I realize the value of keeping record of BSOs. You never know when something will prompt you to look at it again, even years later. This was not a high priority item but does help to round out our family’s story.

What I learned:  keep good notes and include your sources. Obituaries and those personal notes in older newspapers are treasure troves of information.

What helped: Previous work and my notes.

What didn’t help:  Not having either paper or digital copies of all newspaper articles.  

To-do: Keep digital and/or paper copies of newspaper articles. Add URL for those articles to research logs.


[1] “Henry Renk attended funeral services”, The Central New Jersey Home News (New Brunswick, New Jersey”, local newspaper (9 Jul 1949): p. 7; PDF images,  (http://www/  :  accessed 10 Feb 2018), key word Mrs. Rose Smetts.

[2] Find A Grave, database and images (  : viewed 28 January 2021), memorial page for Carrie Renk, Find A Grave Memorial # 44168202 , citing Kingston Presbyterian Church Cemetery (Kingston, Somerset County, New Jersey), memorial created by Wayne Irons, photograph by Wayne Irons.

[3] Jacob Smetts obituary. “”William J. Smetts”,” death notice, The Central New Jersey Home News, 14 December 1936, death date, death of son, funeral information; digital images, (  : accessed, downloaded, printed 16 February 2018); citing The Central New Jersey Home News. p. 17, column 4.

[4] “Reunion is attended by 4 generations ”, The Central New Jersey Home News (New Brunswick, New Jersey, local newspaper (28 June 1950): p. 4; PDF images,  (http://www/   :  accessed 6 Jan 2021).

[5]. “Henry Renk,” obituary, The Central New Jersey Home News, 28 November 1960, Henry Renk . . . died yesterday; (  : viewed & printed 30 January 2021).

[6] Find a Grave. Find A Grave, database and images (http://www.findagrave  : viewed 28 January 2021), memorial page for Henry Renk, Find A Grave Memorial # 44168201, citing Kingston Presbyterian Church Cemetery (Kingston, Somerset County, New Jersey, USA), memorial created by Wayne Irons, photograph by Wayne Irons.

© Susan Posten Ellerbee and Posting Family Roots blog, 2021

Remember the babies

October is Family History Month. Did you know that October is also Pregnancy & Infant Loss Awareness month? This is an especially poignant time for me as I recall my several miscarriages- i.e. pregnancies ending before 20 weeks of gestation.  We only know the gender of one of those babies- a girl with multiple genetic anomalies.  My sons know about these losses. My stories will probably fade with time and could be totally forgotten within a generation or two. In this post, I explore ways to remember those babies who died before, during or within a year or two of birth.

Before the days of effective birth control methods, women often bore children about every two or three years.  Babies breastfed for about a year which provided some contraceptive protection.  Some groups prohibited (or at least, discouraged) sexual intercourse while a mother was breastfeeding. Many children died before the age of 5.

Look at the birth dates of known children in your own family tree.  If there is more than a 2- or 3- year gap, suspect pregnancy and/or infant loss.  A young child (less than 5 years old) recorded on one census but not on the next may have died in the interim. Consider events such as war when men might be away from home for years at a time.  If the husband returned home briefly during war time, a pregnancy may have occurred. 

Records documenting losses due to miscarriages, stillbirths and premature births are not easily found.  In 1900 and 1910, census takers recorded the number of children born to a married woman and the number still living.  In my case, the record would show 2 children born and 2 living with no mention of the number of pregnancies.  One example from my family tree – Mattie Williams Johnson reported as mother of 7 and 5 living in 1900[1]; mother of 9 and six living in 1910[2].  Assertion – two children died between her marriage year of 1882 and 1900, one more died between 1900 and 1910. How can I find these children?

Obituaries of women sometimes state “She was preceded in death by an infant son [or daughter]”. Mattie died in 1936. Her obituary says that she is survived by four sons and one daughter.[3]  This roughly corresponds to the six living children reported on 1910 census.  A daughter, Laura Alice Johnson Alewine, died in 1925 at the age of 35.[4]  So, I am no closer to identifying the 3 children who apparently died young.

Earlier and later census records did not record childbirth information. Look through local newspapers and browse beyond obituaries and death notices.  Following a sentence about Sunday school attendance in the Point Enterprise section, The Mexia (Texas) Weekly Herald for 24 October 1930 reported—“The infant son of Mr. and Mrs. George Johnson was buried at this place Sunday morning with Rev J.E. Gore officiating.” [5] Later, I found the death certificate for this boy, Edward Johnson, who was stillborn. [6]  Edward was Mattie’s grandson, son of George A. Johnson and Bertha Freeman.

Search online cemetery records for persons with birth and death dates close together.  Some gravestones mark the date of death and ‘infant’ or ‘son/ daughter of _______.’  Older gravestones often list the person’s age, such as ‘age 2 months  3 days.’  I found one of Mattie’s children, Everett, born 1903, who died when he was 5 years old.  Everett’s gravestone has this information – s/o [son of ] Mattie and G.W. Johnson.[7]  Although not an infant when he died, he is one of Mattie’s three dead children.

What about Mattie’s two other children? Online trees show dates but no other information and no sources for the information provided. My preliminary, and certainly not comprehensive, searches reveal nothing further.

Where else to look for information about infant deaths? Family Bible entries may contain the only record of a child’s birth and early death.  A distant cousin graciously shared digital copies of pages from an 1876 Bible.[8]  One page has this entry:  “John Uzemer Ellerbee died December 7, 1871, aged 3 years, 3 months, 8 days”.  John’s parents were James John Ellerbee and Elizabeth Hayes.

Print sources are not always available online. Other places to check:

  •  Local genealogical and historical societies:
    •  Books of cemetery listings and obituaries published by the local society.  For example, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society publishes several books of cemetery inscriptions. Example –  Dutchess County NY Cemetery Inscriptions of Towns of East Fishkill, Fishkill & Wappinger (Kinship Books, KS-273 ISBN:1560123060).
    • Vertical files kept by these societies. Send a donation if you ask their staff to search for you.
  • Local libraries and County Clerk Offices.  Staff may or may not be able to search for you, especially if you don’t know a specific name or date.  Enlist the help of a relative or someone from a local genealogical or lineage society, if needed.
  • Walk local cemeteries. Carefully record what you find, even unreadable gravestones. A small stone next to adults could mark the grave of a child.

To review, discovering those children who died young is a challenge. Use a multitude of online and print resources. Search widely and deep. Document sources for yourself and others. Even ‘unsourced’ online trees give clues. Remember to tell the stories of all the babies, not just those who lived beyond infancy and early childhood!


I am sad as I recall my own miscarriages. As a registered nurse, I worked with new mothers and both well and sick babies.  Every loss is painful. Family stories are not complete until we tell the stories of the children who never lived to have children of their own.  In this post, I primarily reported about children who died in the 20th century. However, I believe that you can use my suggestions to search for those who died in earlier times.

What I learned:  Use print resources more!

What helped:  Information already in my paper and digital files.

What didn’t help: Continuing frustration with unsourced information in online trees. Even a note “I got this from XYZ online tree; not confirmed” would be nice!

To-Do:  Add unsourced information about Mattie’s 2 other children to BSO list. Keep my eyes open for any clues.

© Susan Posten Ellerbee and Posting Family Roots blog, 2020


[1] 1900 U.S. Census, Limestone county, Texas, population schedule, Armour, enumeration district (ED) 63, p. 9B, dwelling 167, family 168, George Johnson; digital images, Ancestry (  : viewed 8 August 2020); citing National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, D.C. microfilm publication T623_1655.

[2] 1910 U.S. Census, Limestone county, Texas, population schedule, , enumeration district (ED) 32, p. 15B, dwelling 213, family 219, George W. Johnson; digital images, Ancestry (  : viewed 8 August 2020); citing National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, D.C. microfilm publication, T624_1573.

[3] “Mrs. Johnson, 75, dies on Monday,” obituary, Mexia (Mexia, Texas) Weekly Herald, 30 October 1936; digital images, (  : viewed & printed 25 July 2020); citing The Mexia Weekly Herald newspaper.

[4] Find A Grave, database and images (  : viewed & printed 20 October 2020), memorial page for Laura Alice Johnson Alewine, Find A Grave Memorial # 34526511, citing New Hope Cemetery (Limestone, Texas), memorial created by Geno-seeker, photograph by PFDM.

[5] “Pt. Enterprise: The infant son . . . . “, Mexia (Mexia, Texas) Weekly Herald, 24 October 1930; digital images, (  : viewed & printed 25 July 2020); citing The Mexia Weekly Herald newspaper.

[6] “Texas, Death Certificates, 1903-1982,” digital images, Ancestry ( : accessed & downloaded 21 October 2020), entry for Edward Johnson; citng Texas Department of Health Services, Austin, Texas.

[7], database (  :  accessed & viewed 19 January 2012), Horn Hill Cemetery, Limestone County, Texas, listing for Everett R. Johnson, b. 6 Oct 1903, d. 23 Aug 1909, citing Horn Hill Cemetery (Groesbeck, Limestone Co, Texas), compiled by Bruce Jordan, 1 November 2004.

[8] Family data, Demarious Albina Ellerbee Family Bible, Holy Bible, (New York: American Bible Society, 1876); original owned in October 2016 by Darby Blanton, [address for private use].

Is Sarah’s grave marker inscription true?

A person dies and is buried or cremated. Family members place a marker at the grave.  Over time, engravings on stone markers become harder to read. Information often includes the person’s name, birth and death dates or age at time of death. Information such as ‘wife of William’ or ‘husband of Rachel’ is a bonus.  In the absence of other sources, we assume that these dates are correct. In this post, I present one case in which the death date on a marker is wrong and the discovery of that error by others and myself.

NOTE: I requested permission to use the original photograph but haven’t received approval to do so. This is a re-creation of that grave stone

Sarah Creager was born 24 December 1799 in Washington county, Kentucky, the first of eight children born to John George Creager and Margaret ‘Peggy’ Myers. [1] She married Joseph Holcomb, son of Joel Holcomb, on 30 September 1820[2], presumably at Hempstead, Arkansas. [3]  About 1843, the family moved to Texas, where three of their 12 children were born. Both Sarah and Joseph died at Cherokee county, Texas and are buried in the Holcomb cemetery at Alto, Texas. [4], [5]

Look at my re-creation of Sarah’s grave marker above.  On the original stone (as photographed for Find A Grave website), her death date is clearly marked as 1881.  However, multiple records show that she died in April, 1870. Corrected information has been posted on Find A Grave website.

I did not discover this discrepancy. Elizabeth Earl Roddy Cecil reported it on a message board in 2000. [6] Ms. Cecil wrote: “Her [Sarah Holcomb] marker has the incorrect date of death. When the family replaced the old markers, they put the same year as Joseph Holcomb’s monument instead of 1870.”

Since no source was given for the obituary, I searched for it.  I found it on PERSI (Periodical Source Index) at the Oklahoma Historical Society Library. In July 2011, I ordered and received a print copy of the relevant pages.[7]  The first paragraph reads:

“A mother of Israel has fallen.  Sister Sarah Holcomb, consort of Bro.Joseph Holcomb, and daughter of George and Margarett Creager, was born in Kentucky, December 24, 1799, joined the M.E.Church in 1819, was married September 30,1820, and died at the residence of her husband, on Box’s Creek, in Cherokee County, Texas, on the 24 day of April 1870; aged 70 years and 4 months.”

The 1870 Mortality schedule[8] confirmed the month of Sarah’s death as reported in her obituary.  

Transcription: Holcomb, Sarah, 72, F[female], W[white], M[married], Birthplace: Ky [Kentucky], month of death: April; cause of death: Consumption [a.k.a. tuberculosis].


What about census records? The 1870 census in Cherokee county apparently took place after Sarah’s death in April of that year.  Joseph Holcomb, age 74 is recorded as living with his son, J.W. [Joseph Wilson] Holcomb and his family. [9]  The 1880 census, dated 10 June, again showed Joseph, living with his son, Joseph Wilson and family. [10]  The entry included this information:  Joseph Holcomb, 84, father, widower.  Again, evidence that Sarah died before her husband.  

September 2020 provided an unexpected gift. I received a scanned copy of Sarah’s obituary, as printed in a local newspaper, from another descendant of Joseph and Sarah.[11] The circle is now complete –  from an uncertain death date to an obituary reported without a source to a secondary source and, finally,  a scanned copy of the original obituary.

SUMMARY:    Why is the grave marker date wrong? Perhaps Sarah’s grave marker was placed after Joseph’s death. Does the date represent a re-burial of her remains?  The new marker shows the dates as found on the original stones.  Corrected information has been posted to Find A Grave website but is not readily available at the Holcomb Cemetery.  Future genealogists may or may not be aware of the discrepancy.

For more information about PERSI (Periodical Source Index), read this article:


This post was prompted by recent email exchanges with another descendant of Joseph Holcomb and Sarah Creager. He provided new (to me) information about one of their sons. I am saddened that descendants did not have the correct information before engraving the new stone. However, I do not find fault.  They used the information available to them at the time.

 What I learned:  Grave marker information is not always correct. Confirm information with other sources, if available.  PERSI as source of information.

What helped:  Previous information, fairly well documented, in my files. Elizabeth Cecil Roddy’s reporting of Sarah’s obituary on message board.  Online resources at Oklahoma Historical Society Library.

What didn’t help: Message board entry without source of information.

To -do:  Continue Genealogy Do-Over file clean-up on this branch of husband’s family tree.  Remember to add sources when posting to a message board!

© Susan Posten Ellerbee and Posting Family Roots blog, 2020


[1] “Obituaries: A mother of Israel has fallen, sister Sarah Holcomb,” Yesterdays, Journal of the Nacogdoches [Texas] Genealogical Society, vol.  19, issue 2 (September 1999): pp. 11-12.

[2] Bonner, “Obituaries: A mother of Israel has fallen, sister Sarah Holcomb,” p. 11.

[3] Twigsmmi,”Holcomb/McNally Tree,” Ancestry (      14 September 2020), “Sarah Creager,” marriage data with no source listed.

[4] Find A Grave, database and images (  : viewed, printed, downloaded 10 September 2020), memorial page for Sarah ‘Sallie’ Craiger Holcomb, Find A Grave Memorial # 75971922, citing Holcomb Cemetery (Alto, Cherokee, Texas), memorial created by Tricia the Spirit Chaser, photograph by Denise Brown Biard Ercole.

[5] Find A Grave, database and images (  : viewed 10 September 2020), memorial page for Joseph Holcomb, Find A Grave Memorial # 75971827, citing Holcomb Cemetery (Cherokee county, Texas), memorial created by Tricia the Spirit Chaser, photograph by Denise Brown Biard Ercole.

[6] Elizabeth Earl Roddy Cecil, “Sarah Creager Holcomb,” Creager (aka Krieger) Discussion List, 18 July 2000 (  : accessed & printed, 16 March 2011).

[7] Bonner, “Obituaries: A mother of Israel has fallen, sister Sarah Holcomb,” p. 11.

[8] 1870 U.S. Census, Cherokee county, Texas, non-population schedule; mortality schedule, Beat 1, Sarah Holcomb age 72; digital images, Ancestry ( : accessed & downloaded 10 September 2020); citing National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, D.C., microfilm publication T1134 roll 55.

[9] 1870 U.S. Census, Cherokee county, Texas, population schedule, Beat 1, p. 42 (ink pen), dwelling 285, family 285, Joseph Holcomb 74; digital images, Ancestry (http;:// : accessed & downloaded 9 September 2020); citing National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, D.C. microfilm publication M593_1578.

[10] 1880 U.S. Census, Cherokee county, Texas, population schedule, Justice Precinct 7, enumeration district (ED) 018, p. 444C (stamp); p. 7 (ink pen), dwelling 64, family 68, Joseph Holcomb 84; digital images, Ancestry (  : viewed & downloaded 9 September 2020); citing National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, D.C. , microfilm publication T9, roll 1295.

[11]  “A mother of Israel has fallen,” undated obituary for Sarah Crieger Holcomb, ca. 1870, from unidentified newspaper; privately held by John Taylor, [address for private use,], Jacksonville, Texas, 2020. Provenance uncertain. Scanned copy sent via email to Susan Posten Ellerbee, 6 September 2020.

A Death in the Family

My post this week is very short. One week ago today, a family member died. Jerry Donald Ellerbee, aged 81 years, 1 month, 1 day, died on 17 February 2019. He died peacefully in his sleep at home. I am blessed to have known Jerry as my father-in-law.  His commitment to family reaches far.


When I was a novice genealogist, Jerry shared many stories of his family, especially the Ellerbee side. I remember walking the Mount Hope Cemetery in Wells, Texas, with him. He pointed out graves of many relatives and knew exactly how all of the distant cousins were related to him. I am the proud owner of an Ellerbee family history because of him.

SOURCE: Ronald William Ellerbe. The Ellerbe Family History. Baltimore, Maryland: Gateway Press, 1986.

Jerry related that he knew his maternal grandfather’s name, Clay Simmons, but little else about the Simmons family.  So, I decided to find out for him. In 2014, my husband and I traveled to east Texas as part of that search. We discovered that the Simmons family had migrated to Texas from Alabama just before the Civil War. Migration of Simmons FamilyI even found an Oklahoma connection. Jerry’s  third cousin, Gappa Malachi Rushing,  moved to Oklahoma before statehood and practiced medicine in Durant, Bryan county, Oklahoma.  For Christmas, 2014, I gifted a scrapbook about his Simmons ancestors to Jerry. page 93_John E Ellerbee legacy_Ellerbee scrapbook_Jan 2018

I promised Jerry that I would do more research about the Ellerbee family.  For his 80th birthday, Jerry received that scrapbook about the Ellerbee family. It was my privilege to share the information with him.


It’s been a long week for all of us left here. So, here’s my brief tribute to Jerry Donald Ellerbee, my father-in-law. Thank you for sharing your family stories with us. Thank you for the honor of being your family’s genealogist.

Susan Posten Ellerbee, daughter-in-law

©Susan Posten Ellerbee & Posting Family Roots Blog, 2019



“It runs in the family”: Family health history pedigree

Did you inherit grandpa’s nose?  Are your eyes the same color as great-aunt Anna? Your genetic inheritance determines these, and other, physical characteristics. Medical conditions can be inherited as well as the risk of developing certain diseases.  As a genealogist, you collect a lot of information about your ancestors.  We tend to focus on dates and places – birth, marriage, death, occupation, travel. Do you also record information about illnesses?  What do you do with that information?

October is Family History Month.  It is a time for collecting and organizing information about your family. I suggest that you also develop a systematic plan for gathering and recording your family’s health history.  Thanksgiving is National Family History Day, as declared  by the U.S. Surgeon General. [1]

What are some genealogical sources of health information? Well known sources include death certificates and obituaries.  Less well known sources include various census records and county histories.

  1. Death certificates. Usually list cause of death and contributing factors.
  2. Family members. At your next family gathering, ask questions about your ancestors’ medical and health histories.  Someone might remember that your cousin twice removed had kidney stones and that her mother died from the same thing! Label this information as ‘tentative’.  Remember to cite source and date.
  3. Obituaries. Cause of death sometimes listed.  “A lingering illness” suggests illnesses such as cancer, chronic obstructive lung disease/ emphysema, dementia, heart failure, kidney disease, neurologic disease or stroke. Following an accident, people may survive for years with various levels of disability.  “A sudden illness” suggests a more acute condition although the person may have had symptoms for days, weeks or months.
  4. Birth certificates. May list weeks of gestation, which could indicate prematurity. May also report complications of pregnancy suffered by the mother.
  5. County death records. Usually a list of names, dates  and cause of death.  Availability of these records varies widely.  I found some county death records in Texas for the years 1917-1920 when causes of death were overwhelmingly ‘influenza’ and ‘pneumonia’.
  6. Look for information in newspaper social columns.  “Mrs. Mary Adams returned home Tuesday from Oklahoma City where she attended  the funeral of her sister, Susie, who died from pneumonia.”  A brief death notice may follow an earlier story about an accident or that the person had been admitted to the hospital.  Obviously, before our recent privacy laws went into effect!
  7. Published and unpublished family and county histories. Look for details that may lead you to search for other records.  “John James died after falling off a horse. He lingered, speechless, for three days.”   “Marilyn Samuels spent her last years in a tuberculosis sanitarium.”
  8. Reports of a woman’s death soon after giving birth. Sarah Ostrander Richards, my great-great grandmother, probably died from complications associated with childbirth.  Here is the evidence:  “Mr. [Nathaniel] Richards second wife was Miss Sarah Ostrander, born June 20, 1801 and died March 27, 1836. She had one son, Ostrander, born March 20, 1836.” [2]

CENSUS RECORDS show limited health information.

  1. Decennial Census records. Some included space to check if the person was ‘deaf, dumb, or blind’.[3]  (1850 census, column 13; 1860, column 14; 1870, column 18; 1880, columns 16-19; 1885, columns 16-29). If person is ‘inmate’/ patient of hospital or other institution, search for other clues about why person is there.
  2. Census mortality schedules,  data gathered from 1850 through 1885.[4] In general, these schedules listed persons who died within 12 months before the census.  Cause of death was one recorded item.
  3. 1880 census supplemental forms:  Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes (wording as posted on NARA website): [5]   Information limited to the named categories.
    1. Schedule 2: Insane
    2. Schedule 3: Idiots
    3. Schedule 4: Deaf- Mute
    4. Schedule 5: Blind
    5. Schedule 6: Homeless Children
    6. Schedule 7: Prisoners
    7. Schedule 7a: Pauper and Indigent

How do you document your family’s health history?  One method uses the U.S. Surgeon General’s website, My Family Health Portrait.   


Other websites that you may find helpful (listed alphabetically by author):

Centers for Disease Control:  Family Health History.

Family Search Blog:  4 steps to starting a health history.  Includes a downloadable Family Health History form.    URL:

Genetic Alliance: An easy to follow booklet, “Does it run in the family: A guide to family health history.”     URL:

Laura Landro, 30 March 2014, New Tools to Track Your Family Health History, Wall Street Journal,

Donna Prezcha,  Tracing your health history, URL:

Why is it important to know my family medical history?   URL:

Vibrant Life, 6 Medical History Questions You Should Ask Family,  Article 6, 19 July, unknown year;


In this post, I presented  common and less common sources of family health information.  Add to your to-do list:  Develop method to collect and record family health information.  Add family health information to records. Use multiple sources.



I collect family health information but haven’t routinely documented  the information in a meaningful way. Until I used the Surgeon General’s website, I only vaguely understood the importance of a genetic health history.  ‘Cause of death’ is an item on forms that I use.

What I learned:  nothing new at this time.  However, my learning curve for this information has evolved over the past 5-6 years.

What helped:  Knowing about the Surgeon General’s website. I presented this information to nursing students for many years.

What didn’t help:  nothing really.

TO- DO:  Review family health and medical information collected to date.  Use more diverse sources of information.  Record individual health and medical information on research logs.


[1] Surgeon General’s Family Health History Initiative website,  URL:

[2] J. B. Stephens, Compiler, History and Directory of Newton and Ransom Townships, Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania (Montrose, Pennsylvania: J.B. Stephens, 1912), p. 86; digital images, Pennsylvania State University Libraries Digital Library Collections, ( : accessed, viewed, downloaded 2 July 2010; Nathaniel Richards family – 3 wives and their children.

[3] Blank copies of Census forms available from National Archives and Records Administration:

[4] See note number 3.

[5] See note number 3.

© Susan Posten Ellerbee and Posting Family Roots, 2018

Kate, Stephen, and Aunt Viola’s family history

My ongoing quest is to confirm information provided by maternal great-aunt Viola Maurer Tucker via a handwritten 8-page genealogy.[1]  Her manuscript created the foundation for research about my mother’s family. I can confirm much of what she wrote. Surname misspellings are common but not unexpected.  Viola was in her late 60s when she wrote this document.  I believe that she recorded what she remembered.  My job now is to confirm and add to this family history.  Using processes outlined in Genealogy Do-Over, I am about  halfway done with the Tucker-Maurer family.  When completed, I will post Viola’s original document with my additions.  Here is a report of my latest findings.

According to Viola’s history (page 3):

Katherine (Kate) married Steven Scheffle.  They had 5 children:   Steven, Gertrude, Agnes, Edward, & Charles.

Viola did not report any other information about Kate and Steven or their children. I began with census records which then led to birth, marriage, and death records. Eventually, I remembered to search for obituaries.  Kate’s obituary named four surviving children and answered an important question:  Did her daughters marry or not?  Viola almost got it right – Stephen and Kate had 6 children, not 5.

Katherine Anna Maurer, 3rd child and oldest daughter of German immigrants Valentin Maurer and Anna Katharina Korzelius, is sister of my maternal great-grandfather, Herman Maurer.  Valentine and Anna initially settled in New Jersey, the birthplace of Katherine’s older brothers, Valentin and Hermann[2] . By 1866 (the year of Katherine’s birth), the family had moved to Brooklyn, New York, the birthplace of Katherine, her younger brothers Joseph and Edward, and her sister, Rosina. The year 1880 finds 14-year-old Kattie working as a box maker. [3]  Earning pennies, her wages helped to make the family’s existence a little easier.

Katie’s future husband, Stephen L. Scheffel (note the surname spelling variation from Viola’s report)  and his German immigrant parents also lived in Brooklyn. The couple may have met at church. Katie and Stephen, both in their early 20s,  married about 1889.[4] They brought up their children in the Roman Catholic church.

Maurer_Katherine_Stephen_ScheffeL_wedding_from BRozier

Photograph labelled as Katherine Maurer & Stephen Scheffel wedding. Privately held by Susan Posten Ellerbee [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE}, Yukon, Oklahoma, 208. Photographs originally held by Mercedes V. Tucker Bunce, Ms. Ellerbee’s aunt, and sent electronically to Ms. Ellerbee by Barbara Bunce Rosier, daughter of Mercedes. V. Tucker and Mahlon Bunce, May 2018.

The babies came frequently:  Stephen J in March 1890, Gertrude in April 1892, Agnes in June 1893, Edward in December 1894, Charles Henry in April 1896 and William Valentine in December 1898. June 1900 finds the family living in Brooklyn, Kings county, New York. [5] The census taker recorded that Kate was the mother of 6 children with 6 children living. An amazing feat considering infant and child mortality rates of the era.[6]  Katie not only survived the births of 6 children in 10 years but also kept all 6 of those children alive. This adds one more child, William, to Viola’s list. More challenges faced Katie.

Katie’s husband, Stephen L. Scheffel, died a year or two later. One witness to Stephen’s will, written in 1901, was Joseph Maurer, Katie’s brother.[7]  The probate case file, dated 1903, does not record the date of Stephen’s death.  I haven’t found a death record but suspect that Stephen probably died in 1902 or early 1903. Given that he wrote a will in 1901, he probably expected to die soon.  Thirty-six year old Katie now found herself a widow with six children under the age of 13. The better life promised to her immigrant parents must have seemed out of reach.

The children assisted as much as they could. By 1910, four of Katie’s children held jobs. [8] Stephen J, age 20, worked as a magazine agent. Gertrude and Agnes held positions as bookkeepers. Edward was an office boy in a business house. Stephen, the oldest, was also the first to marry. He married Marion H. Schick, daughter of German immigrants, in 1916.[9] The year 1920 held slightly more promise for the family.  Katie’s other 5 children still lived with their mother. [10]

During the next decade, Katie’s children gradually left home.   Agnes married James H. Callahan, a lawyer, in 1927. [11].  Edward married Margaret Gross in 1926 [12]and had a daughter, Alice Marie in 1928. [13] William married about 1929 to Madeline.

Katie was now grandmother to 5 grandchildren, four children born to Stephen & Marion and one daughter born to Edward. These may be her only grandchildren.

The 1930s brought financial ruin to many. Unemployment skyrocketed. How were Katie and her children affected? Their financial circumstances probably became even more difficult. Personal tragedies would also mark this decade. By 1930, Stephen and his wife, Marion had separated. Stephen and his 2 sons moved in with Katie. [14]  Marion and their 2 daughters moved to Orangetown, New York, where she worked as a live-in housekeeper. [15]  What caused this split? Money? Other issues?

In May 1931, Edward died, leaving his wife and daughter.[16] I found a September 1932 death record for Stephen J. Scheffel in San Diego, California.[17] Had he followed others in search of work? In 1936, Stephen’s wife, Marion, married Frank Kuhn, the man for whom she worked as housekeeper in 1930. [18] Where were Gertrude and Charles in 1930? That remains a mystery.

By 1940 and still living in Brooklyn, Katie’s son, Charles,  cared for his aging mother.[19] Katie experienced the difficulties of being an immigrant’s daughter in the 1870s and 1880s.  She saw the nation at war. At least two sons, Edward and Charles, fought in World War I.  She lived through the Roaring 20s and the Great Depression.  She buried her husband and two of her six children. Katie would not experience another war. Katherine Anna Maurer Scheffel, 75 years old, died 4 December 1941, [20] on the eve of World War II.  She was buried two days later in St. John’s Cemetery in Brooklyn.


Obituary for Katherine A. Scheffel, printed in Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) on 4 December 1941, page 15, column 4, under ‘Deaths’. Accessed from on 2 September 2018.

What of Katie’s surviving children- Charles, William, Gertrude and Agnes?

  • Charles: SSDI record for Charles H. Scheffel, born 22 April 1896; died 19 March 1957 in Florida. [21]  New York birth record for Charlie Scheffel , son of Stepfan Sheffel and Kathy Anna Maurer implies that this is the same person. [22]
  • William: born 26 December 1898. [23] Died 24 September 1946 in Brooklyn per obituary.[24]
  • Gertrude: born 3 April 1892. [25] Died in February 1973 in Brooklyn per SSDI.[26] Gertrude probably remained single throughout her life.
  • Agnes: SSDI record for Agnes Callahan, born 3 June 1893; died October 1985 in New York. [27].  Corresponds to New York birth record for Agnes Scheffel, daughter of Steffen Louis Scheffel and Katy Anna Maurer Scheffel. [28]

Katie’s life was not glamorous. She did not gain notoriety or extreme wealth. In an era of high maternal and infant mortality, she successfully negotiated the trials of childbirth six times. Similarly, all six of her children grew to adulthood. Did she ever become depressed? Or, am I projecting today’s values on her? Sad? Yes.  I believe that her children’s needs helped to overcome those feelings. Her Roman Catholic faith may also provided strength and solace.

In summary, I used multiple types of records to confirm and add to information reported by great-aunt Viola. Katie’s obituary was a large missing puzzle piece to tell the story of Katie and her children. I began this puzzle in 2016. Now, two years later, only a few small pieces remain to be found.

Attached is a family group sheet for Stephen Scheffel_Katharine Maurer  and their children. A detailed group sheet with sources is available upon request.



I considered various ways to present this information. Katie’s obituary, found recently, gave me the lead I needed to discover Agnes’ marriage. Obituaries can be a rich source of information.  Perhaps a topic for another post?  I continue to find that Viola’s history is an excellent structure with only a few inconsistencies.  I am a perfectionist and want everything to be complete and solid.  I am beginning to accept that I can leave questions unanswered and holes left open.  I try to do the best work that I can with the tools that I have available. And, so, I leave work for future generations.

I used indexes extensively. I may not have financial resources to order all of the original records.  Digital copies of some records may be available at a local Family History Center of the LDS Church. If doing a formal report, the original records should be obtained. The blog turned out longer than I planned. The extensive source list seems almost too much!

What I learned/ relearned:   Look for obituaries earlier in the process.  Ancestry and FamilySearch will not lead me to all records about a person.  A slower data entry process forced me to look at documents more thoroughly.  I sometimes found information that I had previously overlooked.

What helped:  Viola’s history.  Online access to multiple records and indexes.  Creation of research logs for each child. I applied lessons from Genealogy Do-Over. Specifically, during each work session, I saved and labelled digital records, added information to RootsMagic on my computer, and filled in research logs. Although this temporarily slowed forward progress, I won’t have to re-do it later! Finding obituaries for Edward and Charles, even though it was 1 a.m.!

What didn’t help:  Continued temptation to ‘point-click-save’ without thoroughly reviewing information in the document.

To-do list: Continue search for Stephen Scheffel’s death certificate circa 1901-1903. Confirm death dates and locations for Stephen J. Scheffel and Gertrude Scheffel.  Locate Charles and Gertrude in 1930 census.


[1] Viola Blanche Maurer Tucker, “Maurer-Tucker Family History,” 8 pages; MS, 1800s to 1980s, Huntington, Suffolk County, New York; privately held by great-niece, Susan Mercedes Posten Ellerbee, [address for private use], Yukon, Oklahoma, 2017.  Carbon copy of original document created ca. 1975-1980 sent to Ms. Ellerbee by her great-aunt.

[2] 1860 U.S. Federal Census, Atlantic county, New Jersey, population schedule, Galloway, p. 291 (penned), dwelling 2238, family 2205, Valentin Maurer age 31 digital images, Ancestry ( : accessed, downloaded, printed 31 January 2018); citing National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, D.C., microfilm publication M653_682.

[3] 1880 census. 1880 U.S. Census, Kings county, New York, population schedule, Brooklyn, enumeration district (ED) 182, p. 42B(penned), sheet325B, dwelling 161, family 465, Mauiner [Maurer] Kattie, age 14; digital images, Family Search ( : accessed, printed, downloaded 13 August 2018); citing National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. microfilm publication T9, roll 0852.

[4] Marriage year based on birth of oldest child in 1890. “New York, New York City Births, 1846-1909,” database, , Family Search ( : 11 February 2018 : accessed & printed 30 August 2018), entry for Stephan Scheffel, born 8 March 1890; citing New York Municipal Archives, New York City, New York

[5] 1900 U.S. Federal Census, Kings County, New York, population schedule, Brooklyn Ward 21, enumeration district (ED) 0331, p. 5A (penned), 185 Hopkins St, dwelling 19, family 100, Kate Scheffel age 24; digital images, Ancestry ( : accessed, printed, downloaded 7 February 2018); citing National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, D.C., microfilm publication T623, roll 1058.

[6] In 1900, approximately 165 babies died for every  1000 babies born.  “Infant mortality and life expectancy.” Accessed from PBS (   : accessed 9 September 2018).

[7]  Kings County, New York, Surrogate’s Court, Probate Case Files, Will and witness documents for Stephen L. Scheffel ca 1901-1903; “New York, Wills and Probate Records, 1659-1999,” digital images, Ancestry ( viewed, printed, downloaded 20 May 2016); Wills, Vol 0305-0307, 1902-1903. Probate Place: Kings, NY.

[8]  1910 U.S. Federal Census, Kings County, New York, population schedule, Brooklyn Ward 30, enumeration district (ED) 1064, p. 5A (penned), dwelling 69, family 112, Katherine A. Scheffel head; digital images, Ancestry ( : accessed, downloaded, printed 20 May 2016); citing National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, D.C. microfilm publication T624_985.

[9]  New York City Clerk’s Office, New York, New York, “New York, New York, Marriage License Indexes, 1907-1995,” digital images, Ancestry ( : viewed, printed, downloaded 29 August 2018), entry for Stephen J Scheffel; citing 1916 BKLYN S Jan- Apr; License number 2026.

[10] 1920 U.S. Federal Census, Kings County, New York, population schedule, Brooklyn, Assembly District 9, enumeration district (ED) 484, p. 13A (penned), house number 245, Catherine Scheffe [Katharine Scheffel] head; digital images, Ancestry ( : accessed, printed, downloaded 17 July 2016); citing National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, D.C. microfilm publication T625_1157.

[11] “New York, New York, Marriage License Indexes, 1907-1995,” database, Ancestry ( : accessed 5 September 2018), entry for Agnes M. Scheffel; citing New York City Municipal Archives, New York City Clerk’s Office, New York, New York; License Number: 9506.

[12] New York Department of Records/ Municipal Archives, “Extracted marriage Index, 1866-1937,” database, ( : viewed & printed 1 September 2018), entry for Edward Scheffel; citing Index to New York City Marriages, 1866-1937. Indices prepared by the Italian Genealogical Group and the German Genealogy Group..

[13]. 1930 U.S. Census, Kings county, New York, population schedule, Brooklyn, enumeration district (ED) 0881, p. 1B (penned), Edward Scheffil age 35; digital images, Ancestry ( : viewed, printed, downloaded 17 July 2016); citing National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, D.C. microfilm publication T626, roll 1538.

[14] 1930 U.S. Census, Kings County, New York, population schedule, Brooklyn, enumeration district (ED) 1754, p. 13B (penned), dwelling 158, family 596, Kathrine Scheffel; digital images, Ancestry ( : downloaded & printed 9 February 2018); citing National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, D.C. microfilm publication T626, roll 1508.

[15] 1930 U.S. Census, Rockland county, New York, population schedule, Orangetown, enumeration district (ED) 44-27, p. 12 B (penned), dwelling, 236, famiy 249, Marian Scheffel housekeeper, age 34 in household of Frank Kuhn; digital images, Ancestry ( : accessed, downloaded, printed 29 August 2018); citing National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, D.C., microfilm T626.

[16] “SHEFFEL, EDWARD,” obituary, The Brooklyn (Brooklyn, New York) Daily Eagle, 4 May 1931; online images, ( : viewed, downloaded, printed 1 September 2018), Deaths; citing The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. page 17, column 2.

[17] California Department of Health and Welfare “California, Death Index, 1905-1939,” index, online database, Ancestry ( : viewed & downloaded 17 July 2016), entry for Stephen J.Scheffel, birth year abt 1890.

[18] New York, New York State Department of Health, “New York State, Marriage Index, 1881-1967,” digital index, Ancestry ( : accessed, printed 29 August 2018), Marion H. Scheffel, Frank M. Kuhn, certificate no. 40937.

[19] 1940 U.S. Federal Census, Kings County, New York, population schedule, Brooklyn, enumeration district (ED) 24-1128, p. 4B (penned), household 78, Catherine Scheffel head; digital images, Ancestry ( : accessed, printed, downloaded 9 February 2018); citing National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, D.C. microfilm publication T627_2575.

[20] New York, Bureau of Records, Department of Health, Borough of Brooklyn, Certificate of Death no. 23456 (4 December 1941), Katherine A. Scheffel; Muncipal Archives, New York City, New York.

[21] Social Security Administration, “U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007,” database, Ancestry ( : viewed & printed 12 July 2016), Charles H. Scheffel, 0891444136.

[22] “New York, New York City Births, 1846-1909,” database, Family Search ( TT2 11 Feb 2018), Charlie Scheffel, 22 Apr 1896; citing Manhattan, New York, New York, United States, reference cn 6142 New York Municipal Archives, New York; FHL microflim 1,324,428.

[23] “New York, New York City Births, 1846-1909,” database, Family Search ( SQD 11 Feb 2018), William Scheffel, 26 Dec 1898; citing Manhattan, New York, New York, United States, reference cn 357 New York Municipal Archives, New York; FHL microflim 1,984,423.

[24]  “Deaths, Scheffel, William,” obituary, Brooklyn (Brooklyn, New York) Daily Eagle, 25 September 1946; database with images, ( : accessed & printed 2 September 2018); citing The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, page 15, column 2.

[25] “New York, New York City Births, 1846-1909,” database, FamilySearch ( X6l: 11 February 2018), Gertrud Scheffel, 03 Apr 1892; citing New York, United States, reference cn 3738 New York Municipal Archives, New York; FHL microfilm 1, 324,409.

[26] Social Security Administration, “U.S. Social Security Death Index,” database, Ancestry ( : viewed & printed 17 July 2016), Gertrude Scheffel, 147-18-1503, New Jersey (before 1951).

[27] Social Security Administration, “U.S. Social Security Death Index,” database, Ancestry ( : accessed, printed 5 September 2018), entry for Agnes Callahan, 067-01-6266, New York (before 1951).

[28]  “New York, New York City Births, 1846-1909,” database, , Family Search ( 11 February 2018 : accessed 13 August 2018), entry for Agnes Scheffel; citing New York Municipal Archives, New York, New York

©© Susan Posten Ellerbee, Posting Family Roots blog, 2018.