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Dear Professor Gates:

I am trying to determine where Willie Wise Hargrove, the wife of my great-granduncle, died and is buried.

In 1910 Willie Wise was living in Charlotte, N.C., with her husband, Shedrick Hargrove. In June of that year he died. The death certificate indicated, “Suicide reported to be.” I researched the local papers, suspecting that the incident may have generated news coverage, and it did.

According to news accounts, the “husband hits wife with a clothing iron and thinking she was dead committed suicide.” The subtitle of the article reads, “Was a Worthless Negro.” The report goes on to say that he jumped off a bridge into a creek or river. He was found underwater with his hand firmly gripped around the handle of a gun. He was buried the following day at a ceremony in Charlotte. I contacted the cemetery, and he is the only one buried in that plot.

Back to Willie Wise Hargrove: I located records indicating that she was living and working in Springfield, Mass., as a domestic. The earliest record in Springfield was dated 1915. I don’t know what drew her to New England. Whether she traveled north with a Southern family is unknown.

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I was able to track her through census records and city directories through the year 1939. She was born around 1880; thus, in 1939 she would have been about 60 years old. 1939 is when the trail grows cold. As best I can tell, she did not remarry. I suspect she may have died in Massachusetts. Can you help me find her final resting place? —Byron Scott Harrison

Your family mystery is an interesting one, indeed! Like you, we found that Willie Wise Hargrove is not an easy person to track down. Finding out where and when she died requires casting a wide net—which is often the case with family tree sleuthing. The steps we outline below can be used by anyone attempting to find out what happened to a deceased ancestor.

Start With Death Indexes

Because you did not locate Willie Wise Hargrove in the 1940 U.S. census, it is possible that she died around that time frame. One database available through Ancestry.com (subscription required) is the Massachusetts Death Index, 1901-1980. However, a check of this database shows that the name Willie Wise Hargrove, including variant spellings of the surname Hargrove, is not listed in the Massachusetts Death Index for the years 1939-1980.

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Try Cemetery Records

Another source to search for death and burial information related to Willie Wise Hargrove is cemetery records. There are a number of cemetery databases available online, including Find a Grave, Interment.net and BillionGraves.

If one knows the name of the cemetery where the individual is buried, it is important to also check the website of that particular cemetery. Some cemeteries have searchable name databases on their websites that help one find the location of a particular grave or learn the names of those buried in the same plot. A number of listings for the name Willie Hargrove appear on these cemetery databases, but none are a match for Willie Wise Hargrove.

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Look at Death Notices and Obituaries

Searching death notices and obituaries is another way to determine a person’s date of death and burial information. Many libraries have local newspapers available on microfilm. Depending on staff availability, certain libraries offer research and copying services to patrons requesting a search of their newspaper collection for death notices or obituaries.

A number of newspapers are also available online through free and subscription websites, such as GenealogyBank, Newspapers.com and Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

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Searching Newspapers for Clues

Willie Hargrove is mentioned in several Springfield, Mass., newspaper articles. However, these articles were published prior to 1940, so they do not pertain to her death and burial. The first article, published in the May 26, 1928, edition of the Springfield Republican newspaper, is titled “Woman Is Charged With Liquor Sale: Mrs. Willie H. Hargrove Before Federal Commissioner—Case Continued.” She was brought before the United States liquor commissioner to answer charges of illegal possession and sale of liquor. It is noted that she worked as a laundress and cleaner. According to the May 29, 1928, Springfield Republican newspaper article about this case, the commissioner found her to be innocent of these charges.

Another article was published in the Aug. 7, 1937, edition of the Springfield Republican. It is noted that Willie Hargrove was the plaintiff in a civil court case against a man named Joseph E. Cheney for a fall she suffered down a flight of stairs. She was suing Cheney for damages due to injuries that resulted from the fall. According to this article, she lost the case.

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Extend the Search to Spouses and Kin

Another way to try to determine when Willie Wise Hargrove died is by researching other members of her family. One of the newspaper articles you located on the death of Shedrick Hargrove notes that Willie Wise Hargrove’s sister, Charlotte Humphrey, was residing in Charlotte, N.C., at the time of Shedrick’s death. It was reported that Charlotte Humphrey was the person who found Willie after Shedrick assaulted her. The family of Charlotte Humphrey is listed in Ward 2 of the city of Charlotte in the 1910 U.S. census. According to this census listing, Charlotte Humphrey was born circa 1865 and was the wife of Levi Humphrey.

Available through FamilySearch is the database North Carolina Deaths, 1906-1930. Charlotte Humphrey’s death record is not included in this database, but her husband Levi Humphrey’s death certificate is listed. He died in Charlotte, N.C., on April 6, 1921, and is buried at Pinewood Cemetery. He is listed as married at the time of his death, so we can conclude that Charlotte Humphrey was alive in 1921.

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You note that you contacted the cemetery where Shedrick Hargrove is buried and learned that he is the only one buried in that plot. You do not mention the name of the cemetery where Shedrick is buried, but consider contacting Pinewood Cemetery to find out which family members are buried with the Humphreys, and determine when Charlotte died. It is possible that Willie Wise Hargrove is buried with her sister’s family or other relatives. Once you learn Charlotte Humphrey’s date of death, if she died after 1939, her death notice or obituary may provide clues regarding Willie’s whereabouts if she is listed as a surviving family member.

Conducting research on Willie’s siblings and their families also may lead to information regarding her death and burial location. This research may also provide answers as to why Willie chose Springfield as the place to settle in the 1910s. In the 1920 and 1930 U.S. censuses, Willie Wise Hargrove is not listed in the same household as anyone from North Carolina, but it is possible that she lived with a close friend or family member in Springfield between the time she arrived circa 1915 and when the 1920 census was enumerated.

Consulting Marriage Indexes

Another avenue of research would be to see if Willie Wise Hargrove remarried. Massachusetts and Connecticut marriage databases would be good places to look, since Springfield is on the Massachusetts-Connecticut line. You can cross-reference any marriages that you find with possible newspaper articles regarding them. The database Massachusetts Marriage Index, 1901-1955 and 1966-1970 is on Ancestry.com, as are some historical newspapers. Also check the newspaper databases that we listed above.

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Good luck, and please let us know if you find Willie Wise Hargrove’s final resting place.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

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This answer was provided in consultation with Eileen Pironti, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.