Genealogy

Death Certificates

Death certificates are one of my favorite tools to find when working on my family tree.  Granted it’s always sad that your ancestor passed away, but death certificates offer so much information that when you find them it’s like hitting the family history jackpot.

Different States, Different Availability

The downside of death certificates when searching in the United States is that each state differs when they began keeping vital statistic records, and their availability for each is different as well.  I am fortunate that I live in the state of Ohio and we can go and get a birth certificate from anywhere, at any time.  There are limitations, like you have to be in the county where the person died (my grandfathers are both eluding me as one died in Jefferson County and the other in Monroe), or if the person passed away between 1908-1953 you can find them on FamilySearch but if they died between 1954-1963 you have to contact the Ohio History Center in Columbus to obtain those.  The cost is $7 plus tax but I can honestly say when I mailed in my check for the two I needed, I sent away on a Thursday and my death certificates were emailed to me the following Monday (my check hadn’t even cleared yet).

Most of my relatives are from Pennsylvania which has a much stricter policy for the release of their vital statistics.  Birth certificates are available 106 years after birth.  Death certificates are available 50 years after they die. Next year I will finally be able to get my grandmother’s birth certificate as she was born in 1914.  I will be ordering my grandfather’s at the same time as he was born in 1912.

Make sure you check with the state you are researching to find out when you are able to obtain these valuable vital statistics records and find out how much it will cost to obtain these records.  In Pennsylvania, it is presently $5 each.

Birth Certificates vs. Death Certificates

Though birth certificates are very important (when recently coming across my great-aunt’s birth certificate on Ancestry, I discovered that her father was not my great-grandfather). Death certificates give you birth dates, death dates, spouse, parent’s names, where they are buried, if they are buried, when they were buried, how they died, where they lived, where they were born.  Granted, the information is only as reliable as the informant, but it gives you something to go with as far as your person is concerned, especially if you know little about the person.

My Most Memorable Death Certificate

My most surprising death certificate I found using Ancestry Library Edition.  I am fortunate for my local library to have this, and so I would often go to my local branch and spend an hour or more at least once a week utilizing the records they had.  This is when I came across my second cousin twice removed’s death certificate.

RalphReedDeathCertificate

Discovering that one of your relatives was executed by the state of Ohio is always a little alarming.  I am sure if I ever find another (I truly hope I don’t) that I will be just as amazed.  (And I know I’ve shown this before, but some surprises you just never get over).

However, look at all the information that you can discover on the above death certificate.

  • Name: Ralph Reed
  • Birth Date: 1 Jun 1921
  • Place of Birth: Johnstown, Cambria, Pennsylvania
  • Father: Thomas Reed
  • Mother: Margaret Phillips
  • Occupation: Baker
  • Date of Death: 4 May 1949
  • Place of Death: Columbus, Franklin, Ohio
  • Cause of Death: Electrocution by Legal Execution
  • Informant: Mrs. Margaret Reed (his mother)
  • Burial: Headrick Cemetery
  • Date of Burial: 7 May 1949

All this information is from one piece of paper. Now in Ralph’s case, we are fortunate that the informant was his mother so it was a person who had a great deal of knowledge of his life.  Many times we aren’t as lucky.  So often I find “I don’t know” or “Unknown” for a parent’s name because the children of a person aren’t always aware of their grandparent’s names, especially if they passed away before they were born.

It is highly recommended that you gather all the vital statistics that you can for each member of your family.  These include birth certificates, marriage licenses, and death certificates.

New England States

Most states began keeping death records between 1900-1930.  If you are lucky enough to have relatives in the New England states where religion was the backbone of the community, you will be fortunate to have ledgers with birth and death dates.  When I was finally able to leave Potter County, Pennsylvania and go to Franklin/Hampshire County, Massachusetts, I was amazed at how many vital statistic records I was able to obtain for my family where they were absent in PA.

The Frontier

As settlers moved west towards the new frontier, keeping records wasn’t at the top priority.  As far as religion went, most of these areas had itinerant ministers.  These circuit riders went from community to community, performing weddings, baptisms, and possibly funerals, but the documents weren’t always filed.  This is why records throughout the mid-west are more challenging to find.

In Bedford County, Pennsylvania, where a majority of my father’s family came from, records are available in a handwritten book from 1890 to 1905.  But anything before that is a mystery, often relying on gravestones for the answers for vital records, along with census records for birth dates.

Sources for Family History

Though there are many important documents to find in genealogy, I find that death certificates are one of the more important ones.  Death certificates don’t always have the answers you are seeking for your people, but they are still valuable documents to have in your possession to obtain needed information about your ancestors.  I know I presently have a death certificate for my second great-great-uncle and it is the only hint I have of what my third great-grandmother’s name is (I’m still hoping to hunt down her fourth living child in a hope of his death certificate giving me the same name).  Both Ancestry and FamilySearch provide online images of death certificates so utilize these valuable sources, you never know what kind of interesting facts you will discover about your ancestors.

Genealogy

Giving Your Ancestors a Life

A big difference between my husband and myself is how we relate to our families.  He has just started, so maybe I shouldn’t judge him so harshly, but he views his ancestors as names on a screen.

Names on a screen!

Then there is me, I sit there and though they may initially be names on my tree (I will confess my aunts, uncles and distant cousins I do refer to as filler people until I get to know them a little better), I enjoy finding out what I can on them, where they lived, how long, did they marry.  I especially try to find out as much as I can on the little ones.  You know, the ones who pass away before they ever have a birthday, I fear they may be the easiest for time to forget.

The more I research my ancestors, whether it be government documents, city directories, or newspaper articles, I enjoy getting a sense of who they are.

Harold Fairhurst – My Grandfather

Within the last few weeks Newspapers.com was free for a few days and I so enjoyed learning new things about my relatives.  One article that ran in the Akron Beacon Journal on September 17, 1964, referred to when my grandfather, an area golf pro, hit a hole in one.  It was interesting as when I had found it my Aunt Debbie had relayed how he had hit one and won a years supply of Pepsi. He had only hit a hole in one once, so this had to be the time.

The_Akron_Beacon_Journal_Thu__Sep_17__1964_

When I threw my grandfather’s name to find articles about him I was floored when I saw how many hits I received.  My mother had always told me he was a golf pro, but I never realized he held course records in my hometown and was a semi-serious contender.

Alberta Lou – My Grandmother

I found out some interesting bowling information on my mom’s mother too!  I knew my grandmother was on a bowling league but I never knew she was on a league of women bowlers where you had to bowl a 600 series.  My uncle (her son) he gave me the information after I found and shared the following article with him.  It was posted once again in the Akron Beacon Journal on March 14, 1971.

The_Akron_Beacon_Journal_Sun__Mar_14__1971_

Orienta Gustin Warner – My Great-Great-Great-Grandmother

I learned some juicy information about my relatives too.  Again, visiting my mother’s side of the family, this time it was my great-great-great-grandmother, Orienta Gustin Warner who is mentioned in the following article from the Potter Enterprise that ran on February 11, 1904, along with her daughter, Jeanette Warner (Nettie) my second great-great-aunt.

The_Potter_Enterprise_Thu__Feb_11__1904_

Real-life stories of your ancestors help to put them into perspective far more than just dates and names on a computer screen.  The aforementioned Orienta Gustin Warner lived here in Akron, Ohio for the last 6 years or her life.  She passed away at 644 Carpenter Street and I’ve driven past the house, which is less than 5 minutes from my own home.

I’ve used Google to see what all the houses look like (most are still standing, some have been torn down). Once I figure out locations for homes in other areas I plan on doing the same.  This is when technology is at it’s best.

Samuel & Mazie Randol

By using the city directories, I saw how my great-great-grandmother let her daughters move in with her when their marriages failed, I saw her and her husband, Samuel, finding a new house to live in while her daughters stayed in their old one with their new husband, and I saw the pattern repeat. So to me, this shows me Mazie was truly a good person, going out of her way for her girls.  And taking them back in when they needed help and support (and yes, after a while I got a little judgy as I think Mazie and Samuel might have had 2 years alone before he passed away in 1938).

Speaking of Samuel, my father gave me a box of mementos that belonged to my mother’s side of the family. He had no need for them after my mom passed last year, so about 2 months ago he handed the photos off to me.  Inside the box was the book from the funeral home from when Samuel Randol passed away.  He was a trucker when he died in Decatur, Illinois.  He apparently became ill, went to the hospital, and died within a short period of time.  I’ve not ordered up his death certificate yet, I may have difficulty as he is not a blood relative and I think Illinois laws may be a bit more strict than they are here in Ohio. Anyhow, never had I seen so many names in a book of those who visited the funeral home as those who paid their respects to Samuel.  I was dumbfounded.  To me, it’s further proof that he and Mazie were good people.

Ralph Reed

To be fair I’ll throw in the black sheep of my dad’s side of the family.  In the early months of my going to the library and using Ancestry Library Edition to search about my family, I came across the following death certificate for my second cousin twice removed.  His name is Ralph Reed.

RalphReedDeathCertificate

Notice his cause of death?  Electrocution by Legal Execution.  I used a link using my library’s resources which has an academic version of Newspaper Archive on their website.  It’s nice as I was able to use it for free from home using my library card number.

Turns out Ralph and his friends decided to rob a company payroll office one day when companies still paid with cash.  Problem was they beat the cash there, decided to rob the office workers and Ralph shot the one worker in the back (yes, the headlines were man murdered for $60).  They drove off in their getaway car but nearby some telephone repairmen were fixing a wire and watched exactly where they drove off too.  Ralph was sentenced to death while the others had life in prison.  I don’t think the punishment held for all of them though, as I believe at least 2 may have been released (I’ve not thoroughly researched them yet, I will need to take a day to travel to the Ohio History Center in Columbus to find out more details. In 1948 the accused were tried, sentenced and put to death all within a years time.  On May 4, 1949 Ralph was electrocuted. Below is his photo (courtesy of the Ohio Pentitentiary in Columbus, Ohio).

RalphReed-PrisonPhoto

Resources to Use

Maps, probate records, newspaper articles, city directories, all these useful sources can help provide background information on your ancestors.  Even if you can’t find stories directly about them, you can see where they lived using old maps, you can find out what the weather was like reading articles about the area, and if they fought in wars, even if it wasn’t their personal account, reading the diaries of others fighting in the same war can give you insight as to what they went through.

So take the time to search through newspapers, you can get a subscription to such sites as the aforementioned Newspapers.com, GenealogyBank.com or visit the free Library of Congress website ChroniclingAmerica.org to see if you can find some information (trust me, sometimes they just pop right out, other times you have to go through lots of names to find what you are looking for).

Check out your library to see if they give you access to resources such as Newspaper Archive that I mentioned previously.  Sometimes you can get access to library editions of other searching tools such as MyHeritage or Fold3 as well.

Government Records

Government records work too – the census gives you where your ancestor is at a specific point in time, probate records can illustrate how their life was at the end and who their relatives are/were, if they are males registrations for wars come in handy as it lets you know next of kin, eye color, height, any interesting marks (such as scars, birthmarks, etc), all of this can give you a better indication of who your ancestors were.

So now I’ve given you more reasons to analyze those documents you’ve found to find out the story behind the story of your ancestors.  It’s worth going the extra mile because they become far more memorable when you have a story to tell than if they are just a name on the screen.

Have you found out anything interesting about your family?  Share with me in the comments below.