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Finding Walter Gibson - Starting with a single document

How do you start a research project when you know little about the person you're researching? Genealogists who reunite orphan heirlooms to a descendent face this problem. This funeral card is an excellent example of how to start to identify a person, when you know only a few facts.

Take a moment to look at this funeral card.

Walter Gibson Funeral Card 1 Walter Gibson Funeral Card 2

As you see, there is nothing on the back, but the front includes

  • A design (dove, leaves, banner, etc.)
  • A name: Walter Gibson
  • A death date: December 24, 1907
  • An age: 54 years, 11 months, 16 days
  • A poem:

We miss thee from our home,

dear father,

We miss thee from thy place:

A shadow o'er our life is cast:

We miss the sunshine of thy


We miss thy kind and willing


Thy fond and earnest care:

Our home is dark without thee,

We miss thee everywhere.

  • A copyright notice

So just using that information. What do we know about Walter?

  • A father, Walter Gibson, age 54 years/11 months/16 days, died on 24 December 1907.

We know his name, his age, his death date, and that he was a father. Although the poem is a nice sentiment, likely not written by family, it does mention"father." 

Now what?

So with that, what can we do? What would our research question be? A few omissions make this difficult to research. For example, we don't know the location, and the name, Walter Gibson, isn't unique, so a place would help. A death date might not be enough to answer our research question.

What more can we do with the information on this card? We have his age, which could lead us to a birth date, which may lead to the correct Walter Gibson. His age is 54 years, 11 months, 16 days. We need to translate that into a month/day/ year .

Several tools will help you do this. One online free tool that is easy to use is an Age Calculator found on RootsWeb. To use this, enter his death date and age. The birth date was calculated to be January 8, 1853. Now obviously, this may not be correct. The funeral card could have the age wrong, but for now, we know: 

  • A father, Walter Gibson, born 8 January 1853, age 54 years/11 months/16 days, died 24 December 1907.

This might be enough to find information on Walter. Since it's best to start with the last thing we know about a person and move backward in time, we may want to consider a death certificate or obituary for the next step. An obituary might provide us with other family members' names and confirmation of the birth and death date. Because we don't know a location, we could search newspapers using his name and the year 1907 so that we focus on an obituary for a 54-year-old man named Walter Gibson, who died on December 24th. I'm also making an assumption as I research. I'm assuming that I am looking for a Walter Gibson in the United States but this could be wrong.

Utilizing several websites with newspaper collections, I found mentions of a Walter Gibson's death in Lawrence, Kansas, including this obituary in the December 25, 1907 issue of the Lawrence Daily World.


Lawrence_Daily_World_Wed__Dec_25__1907_ Walter Gibson

This obituary confirms the death date, age, and birth date (January 8) we already know about the Walter Gibson from the funeral card. Unfortunately, no mention of his family. However, the mention of his lengthy illness is confirmed in newspaper articles like this one in the Lawrence Weekly World from November 14, 1907, that he has been "quite ill for the past few weeks."

Walter Gisbon ill MyHeritage Lawrence Weekly World November 14 1907

Is this the right Walter Gibson? I think there's a good chance it is though it is in the realm of possibilities that there could be a similarly named man who died the same day. But with the correct date of birth, death, and age, I think it's him.

Next Steps

Now where do we go from here? We could continue exploring newspapers for his illness. We could search for a death certificate and burial information. These records might help uncover the names of his family. A quick search on MyHeritage reveals his gravestone.

Walter Gibson-3

So with just a few clues from the funeral card, using an online tool to calculate his birth date, and searching through historical newspapers, we now have information about Walter Gibson that we can use to further this research and even reunite the family with their ancestor's history.

Tell us about the research you've done from a single document or limited information!


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.



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I have done this a few times with pictures of soldiers of the Civil War. Generally, all I have to go on is their name and unit. 'Sgt. Edward H. Chase, 7th Illinois', his picture was in a box of family pictures from the 19th century. "Jacob 'Jake' Ward's name was in a Civil War letter from a great-great uncle. They were in the same unit, Co. G., 15th Ohio. I wondered what their connection to the family was. I haven't found a connection other than they were in the same unit and the great-great uncle's mother was a Ward. Still not sure if they were related.
Edward Chase's mother was Delia Conger. She was the sister of Clarissa Conger, the wife of my great-great-grandfather's stepson and cousin.
From what I gather, many family pictures migrated to my family home when the other lines died out.

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