- Use cemetery inscriptions to fill in vital record gaps for the “shadow years’–1890’s and 1780-1840. Where county courthouses have burned and marriage records are missing or incomplete, the cemetery can provide dates and evidence of marriage. Tombstones are one of the few records that supply full dates of birth and death.
- Evidence of occupation, education, and training in skills and crafts. Look for tools carved in great detail out of limestone and mounted on the tombstone: carpenters hollow-handle handsaws, coopers adzes, stone carvers chisels and mallets, blacksmiths hammers and anvils, millers grinding wheels. Trains, pianos, motorcycles, weapons, plows and scythes of the farmer–they are to be found in the cemetery.
Fraternal symbols, military service medals as well as flags and plaques, marks and logos or their names and dates–usually carved at the very bottom of the stone or on the back. Watch for all of these. Some will be in foreign languages too.
- Inscriptions in German scrip, French, rather than English. In the early twentieth century, other European, Middle Eastern, and oriental languages will appear. If you don’t read the language, rub the stone or take clear photographs of the inscription. Example:
Here rests our father and grandfather, Joseph Knapp. He was born at Oldenburg, Selbach, Kreis Oderweiler, entered the German Army in 1814, served 1816-17 in the 15th Regiment, 8th Infantry Company, in England and France. God grant him eternal rest.
Translated from the German in “Observations in a Cemetery,” by Glenn R. Atwell. It was published by the Western New York Genealogical Society Journal VIII, No. 1 and reprinted in the Federation of Genealogical Societies Newsletter 7 (Mar 1983).
- Small children are frequently buried at the foot of a grandparent’s grave or in a small burial between grandmother and grandfather. When a child dies, the whole extended family grieves–watch for these graves and their proof of missing maiden surnames.
- Migration patterns apparent in places of birth for several generations can be seen in the same family plot. Or observed on the stones from the whole cemetery. People travel together and settle in clusters near each other. The burial yards will reflect the migration patterns with an accuracy no other source can match.
- Watch carefully for immigrant family members who die within a few days or weeks of each other. Two or three similar families, related to each other, travel together. When family members die, they create a blended family made up of the survivors. When you first begin your research, you are searching for the blended family! You might not recognize the original family units in the passenger lists unless you search the cemeteries and church records first.
Stay tuned for Part 3, your favorite New York genealogist, Arlene Eakle