Feb 12, 2020
February 2020 Blog Post
Locating Records for Your Ancestors
One of the most important steps that a new researcher can take is to learn what resources are available for the state in which they are conducting research.
For example, I began genealogical research in the Fall of 2016. I didn’t know anything except to start my research on a genealogical supersite such as Ancestry.com. After several weeks I began to notice a pattern: If an ancestor died in Philadelphia then I was likely able to locate their record on Ancestry, but if an ancestor died in New Jersey then I didn’t find any record, or if I could not determine any date or place of death then it was likely that the ancestor died in New Jersey. A quick visit to the New Jersey Department of Health and New Jersey State Archives websites put things in perspective for me. The websites explained that most of their records are not available on the internet and require either a written or electronic request along with a fee. Deaths that occurred less than one hundred years ago were on file at the New Jersey Department of Health and deaths that occurred more than one hundred years ago were available at the New Jersey State Archives. No wonder I couldn’t find death records or indexes for all of those second great grandparents who died in Camden, New Jersey sometime between the 1920 and 1930 census reports!
I found it curious that there was an abundance of records online for the state of Pennsylvania, so I wanted to understand what the difference was between this state and its neighbor, New Jersey. I learned that the Historical Society of Pennsylvania manages many record collections for its state and believes that genealogical records should be available to family researchers without hassle. In fact, many death record images for Pennsylvania are available at familysearch.org at no charge.
New Jersey and Pennsylvania kept records much earlier than other states. For example, obtaining death records from the 1850s from either of these two states is completely within reason, but other states such as New York did not officially keep records until much later. Family Search offers a state-by-state guide on what you can expect to find in online collections such as this New York Guide to Online Genealogy Records: https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/New_York_Online_Genealogy_Records
I am currently conducting collateral research on my husband’s Miskell ancestors (collateral research is where you research extended family in hopes of finding more information on your direct ancestors – I will discuss this in another blog post). Patrick Miskell was related to my husband’s third great grandfather, Thomas Miskell, and was an early settler of Perry County, Ohio. Patrick died sometime between the 1860 and 1870 US census reports, but I was not able to locate a death record for him on Ancestry or Family Search. I sent an email to the Ohio State Archives asking for more information on death records during this decade and received a response the next morning stating that Ohio did not officially keep death records until 1867 along with a list of resources for finding death information prior to 1867. I now knew that Patrick Miskell most likely died between 1860 and 1867, but I needed to continue my search elsewhere.
This is where local resources such as libraries and county historical societies prove helpful. Many local libraries can provide additional information such as an obituary or city directory listing at little or no charge. County historical societies usually offer research services for around $25 per hour. I knew that Patrick Miskell lived in Perry County, Ohio so I sent a research request to the Perry County District Library and received an immediate response that they were passing my request onto the Perry County Chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society. A researcher from the Perry County OGS sent me an email with the family's burial information which included death dates that I did not have for the family along with the family's probate information. This was important information that I would not have found otherwise.
I contacted the Onondaga Historical Association for information on my fourth great grandfather, Henry Herbener, who died in 1884 in New York State. I knew that there was no death record for him, but I was hoping to find an obituary. The association located an awesome obituary for Henry which stated information about his musical career in Germany, the year that his family immigrated and the reason why they left their homeland (cholera outbreak). Historical societies often have access to local newspapers that are not currently online or part of an historical newspaper subscription service.
The Camden County Historical Society helped me locate the death information for my second great grandfather, Henry Altenbrant. I knew that Henry died sometime between the 1930 and 1940 US census reports in New Jersey, but I did not know exactly when he passed. The Camden County Historical Society has death ledger information in their collection, and they found that Henry died on March 4, 1931 in Camden. The society also located his obituary in one of their local newspapers. His last name was badly misspelled and would have never been found in a keyword search.
In summary: find out which records are available for your state and when they were recorded. If no records exist for the time period you are searching then reach out to historical societies and local libraries for additional assistance in locating vital record information.
Cemetery records are also a great way to locate death information when no death record is available. I will discuss that topic in my March blog post.
Feel free to contact me with any questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
List of resources mentioned in this blog post:
New Jersey Dept. of Health: https://www.state.nj.us/health/vital/order-vital/genealogical-records/
New Jersey State Archives: https://nj.gov/state/archives/index.html
Historical Society of Pennsylvania: https://hsp.org/
Family Search: https://www.familysearch.org/en/
Ohio State Archives: https://www.ohiohistory.org/learn/archives-library/state-archives
Perry County District Library: https://www.pcdl.org/
Onondaga Historical Association: https://www.cnyhistory.org/
Camden County Historical Society: https://www.cchsnj.org/