Newspapers offer a promising alternative, since such vital data has been traditionally published in birth notices, marriage announcements, or obituaries. A vital record is issued by the government in the event of a birth, marriage, or death. Each U.S. state has its own laws regarding the privacy of vital records, often restricting them from the public for a set number of years (for example, death certificates are restricted to next-of-kin relatives for 75 years in New York City; in Cook County, Illinois, it is 20 years). Most states did not begin issuing certificates for birth, marriage and death until the 1910s.
New York Observer (August 1, 1859)
"I'm looking for an obituary." This is one of the most popular questions librarians receive at the reference desk in Room 121. Also referred to as "death notices," obituaries are highly sought after because they are packed with genealogical data - the kinds of information people research when they research family history: biographical sketches, family relationships, predeceased & surviving relatives, ages, addresses, birhtplace and birthdate, place of burial, and cause of death.
For more details, it is also recommended to explore the resources and research methods in our division's guide: The Great Obituary Hunt: A Genealogy Research Guide.
There are a number of things to keep in mind when pursuing an obituary:
1. Also referred to as "death notices," obituaries were not always published. Patrons often assume that, when one crosses into the eternal realm beyond, an obituary is automatically published. This is the case for Charlie Watts, drummer for the Rolling Stones, sure, or Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But for the average person who is not the drummer for the biggest rock 'n' roll band of all time, nor a pioneering Supreme Court judge, a death notice is only published because it is paid for by a family member, loved one, organization, or concerned acquaintance.
2. To determine if an obituary was published, prior data about the death is required. When did the death occur? Where did the death occur? This way, you can narrow down the date range of your newspaper search, and zero in on newspaper titles published in a particular locale in a specific date range. In addition, was the individual a member of a club, church, professional organization, or trade organization? If yes, it is possible that the organization might have published a death notice in their own publication. Likewise, did they have an occupation that might have published a periodical related to that profession or industry? For example, the death of a school teacher might be noted in an annual report by the board of education, or a retirees' group, or even the yearbook.
3. Death notices are more likely findable in a local newspaper. In more rural or less populated areas, the locale might be a county or town; in urban, more populous areas, newspapers are often published that cover a specific neighborhood, like The Parkway News, "serving the Pelham Parkway community" in the North Bronx.
4. For more recent deaths (circa 2000-present), note the locale where the death took place, and google the name of the locale (county or city) and "death notices newspaper." There are often searchable death notice databases related to current online U.S. news publications that are accessible to the public. The Daily News has one going back to 2001. You can also use legacy.com to search death notices in current U.S. news outlets.
5. When you are unable to find an obituary, exhausting the resources and figuring that one was not published, note what pieces of information you were most hopeful to find in the obit. A maiden name? A birthplace? A cause of death? There are likely other resources you can pursue which will also have this information.
An estate file is a record related to whether the deceased died "intestate" - meaning, without a will. It regards the disposition, if any, of the assets, property, etc. in the possession of the deceased at the time of death. These records are filed in the Surrogate's Court of the county where the death occurred, typically. A will, or a probate record, will often list family relationships, details on real estate, and an inventory of the estate. Especially in the 19th and early 20th century, details of a will or probate record were published in the newspaper. Access to estate files can be difficult, depending on the location of the Surrogate's Court, and the rules of access: they are often not digitized, only available by submitting an request and fee, or only accessible by visiting the Surrogate Court records room at that locale. Searching a newspaper becomes a much more facilitated process to gain the same information.
For more details on researching estate files, see our division's Guide to Researching Probate Records.
Much less common than obituaries are notices of birth and marriage. If the newspaper is digitized, varying keyword searches of names should eventually bring up the notice, if it had been published. Local newspapers, especially in areas of smaller populations, may have more routinely published marriage or birth announcements in local papers, however the papers may never have been digitize or indexed - having a ballpark date range of the event will help narrow down your search parameters, day by day or week by week, noting the section where vital information is located. In addition, information about divorce proceedings published in the paper is potentially very useful since in many states divorce records are sealed and not accessible to the public.
Back in the ancient times, before the internet, indexes were published that extracted vital records data from local newspapers, arranged the index in alphabetical order by surname, and included a citation to where the information was originally printed. These can still be useful for newspapers that are not digitized, or when keyword searching proves frustrating and yields inaccurate results.