“Victory” in World War I

With the absence of U.S. Army service records from the World War I-era, family history researchers are faced with scrambling for other extant records to recreate their ancestor’s military career during the First World War.

One such record that can serve as an effective substitute is the Victory Medal application. Designed as a symbol of the Allies’ unity and common cause, the medal was to be awarded to those who saw active duty in the war. In the United States, this included all officers, men, surgeons, clerks, and nurses who served in the Army, Navy, or Marines from 6 April 1917 until 11 November 1918. Here is an image of the medal’s front:

World War I Victory Medal. Courtesy of "World War I Victory Medal (United States) at Wikipedia.com.

World War I Victory Medal. Courtesy of “World War I Victory Medal (United States)” at Wikipedia.org.

Men who later served in revolutionary Russia, including the “Polar Bears,” were also eligible; battle clasps were worn to indicate participation in the major battles of the war, such as Cambrai, Meuse-Argonne, and Ypres.

According to Christina Schaefer’s outstanding book The Great War: A Guide to the Service Records of All the World’s Fighting Men and Volunteers, only a few states have available collections of these Victory Medal applications: Georgia, Maine, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Michigan.

Housed at the Archives of Michigan, the Michigan records are arranged alphabetically, part of a larger collection of material from the Adjutant General Division of the Michigan Department of Military Affairs. Here is one example:

Bowen, Fred C., Application for Victory Medal (RG 85-78, Box ??), Archives of Michigan.

Bowen, Fred C., Application for Victory Medal (RG 85-78, Series 5, Box 27), Archives of Michigan.

Of note, we can see Bowen’s unit, serial number, his signature, as well as his residence at the time of the application in 1920. More importantly, we can see what major operations he participated in (Aisne-Marne), as well as his exact time spent in the Alsace defensive sector. In short, we get a fantastic glimpse into Bowen’s military service in France, information not readily available in other sources from the era.

Michigan is rich with other World War I-era genealogical resources, including a statewide census of veterans and veterans’ bonus files. The Victory Medal application is just one important piece to the larger puzzle of recreating an ancestor’s World War I military service.

Spreading the Word in Michigan

With a full slate of programs this week, including stops across Michigan in South Lyon, Charlotte, Davisburg, and Boyne City, I have a number of opportunities to reach out to and interact with library patrons, family history researchers, local societies, and their members.

This busy week comes at a most opportune time. With the transfer of the Abrams Foundation Historical Collection to the Archives of Michigan nearly complete, the time has arrived to promote the terrific collection and the many outstanding resources still available to family history researchers.

One popular misconception is that because it is an archives, all the resources are in closed stacks. False! Approximately two-thirds of the collection will be in glorious open stacks, allowing researchers to browse and discover the resources they are looking for; the remaining one-third will be available for quick retrieval. All of the heavy-use items, including family histories, local histories, and passenger list indexes, will be on the open stacks. Here is a picture of one row of book stacks at the Archives:

Archives of Michigan, Abrams Foundation Historical Collection

After a quick check-in at the front desk, researchers will find family histories (Michigan, too), passenger list resources, military indexes, city directories, getting-started handbooks and manuals, and local history and genealogy resources for dozens of states. States of particular strength include those with strong ties to Michigan and it’s early migration patterns: the New England region, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. All of these resources fit seamlessly with the Archives’ already existing foundational collection of Michigan state, county, and local histories.

Researchers may wish to begin by browsing ANSWER, the online catalog. Please note that the locations in the catalog are still being updated to reflect the Archives’ new holdings. In the interim, researchers are encouraged to contact the Archives staff, who will be happy to assist you in finding the source of interest.

The print resources that have moved over to the Archives are a complement to the already-outstanding collection of manuscript source material for Michigan, including such genealogically rich records as naturalizations, rural property inventories, state prison registers, county court case files, tax assessments, and Michigan vital records.

The digital platform for the Archives can be found at Seeking Michigan. Including Michigan state census records (in-process), Michigan Civil War regimental records, death records (from the Library of Michigan) covering 1897-1920, and naturalization indexes for more than 30 counties, this online destination for Michigan research will continue to grow. Visitor information, including contact numbers, street address, and open hours, can also be found here, at the “Visit Us” link under the Seek tab.

This collection transfer to the Archives of Michigan would not have been possible without the continued support of the Abrams Foundation, the Michigan Genealogical Council, the Records Preservation & Access Committee, and the management team of the Michigan Historical Center. Researchers with roots in the Great Lakes State and beyond owe a great debt of gratitude to these forward-thinking organizations.

With the uncertainty of the last few years now behind us, this is an exciting time for family history research in Michigan. Archives staff will be working hard to make this transition as seamless as possible, and we encourage researchers to stop by, take a look around, and perhaps discover something new. We look forward to assisting you in your family history journey, whether it takes you to Michigan, the Great Lakes region, or beyond. And perhaps I’ll see you this week on the road!

Friday Find: A Civil War Relief Book

As a librarian and archivist, one of the joys of my profession is finding a new source, discovering a hidden collection, or unearthing a mysterious ledger book. Even if it doesn’t tie into my own family research, perhaps it can help me down the road in an unexpected and invaluable way.

Earlier this week, one such resource jumped out at me at the Archives of Michigan. Found deep within a collection of records, largely assessment rolls, from the Ingham County Treasurer’s Office, one resource stood out. Indeed, only 1 volume in a collection of 314, the Civil War Relief Book lists detailed information about the Civil War soldier, the remaining head of household still residing in the area, other family members and their ages, and the amount of relief required.

Here is an example from the volume:

Entry for Milo[w] Smith in Volunteer Relief Book, Fund Report, 1861-1865. Ingham County Treasurer’s Office. RG 80-10, Vol. 312. Archives of Michigan.

And the rest of the entry:

Part 2: Entry for Milo[w] Smith in Volunteer Relief Book, Fund Report, 1861-1865. Ingham County Treasurer’s Office. RG 80-10, Vol. 312. Archives of Michigan.

38 years old at the time of his 3-year enlistment in Lansing in August 1862, Milo Smith served in Company A of the 20th Michigan Infantry. Louisa Smith became the temporary head of the family until Milo’s return, with Fanny Smith and a Harvey Tussell also in the residence. The family required $15 of relief per month while Milo was off at war.

Here is the family in 1860 in Lansing:

Milo Smith and family. 1860 U.S. Census (M-653, r. 545), Lansing, Ingham, Michigan, p. 202.

Milo Smith unfortunately did not live to see the end of the war. According to the 20th volume of the Record of Service of Michigan Volunteers in the Civil War, 1861-1865, Smith died on the hospital boat “Tycoon” on the Mississippi River on 4 August 1863. Here is that entry:

Record of Service of Michigan Volunteers in the Civil War, 1861-1865 (Vol. 20): Twentieth Infantry, p. 88.

This information found in the Civil War Relief Book adds a certain level of context to the home front and the family members those Civil War ancestors left behind. Indeed, many of our ancestor’s stories are not found on the battlefield, but rather back home as those remaining family members endured their own wartime struggles. The volume discussed above is full of other compelling examples and, although some stories end tragically, others end with the veteran soldier returning to family life in Ingham County and beyond.

 

Michigan Vitals at FamilySearch

With so much amazing genealogical content available online for free at FamilySearch, it is easy to get sidetracked, distracted, or otherwise off the beaten path. This is especially true for Michigan researchers, as we are incredibly fortunate to have such a robust collection of vital records databases from which to search in. Yet having a large collection to search is one thing, understanding what it is you are searching is something else. Let’s spend a few minutes and explore the Michigan vital records databases available at FamilySearch, outlining what is there and the differences between state-level and county-level records.

There are a few things to consider before we get much further. First, Michigan state-level records are created based on the information provided to the state by the counties. This offers researchers two different record sets – and sources – to find their ancestors’ vital record information; the statewide record and the one held locally at the county. Second, full compliance with the Michigan vital records registration laws was not achieved until the late 1800’s; this means that although an ancestor may have been born, married, or died in the state, there may not be an “official” record for the event. Finally, as with other sources in genealogy research, Michigan vital records have evolved over time. Not all of the critical data, such as parents’ names, are found in the early returns. Death records, in particular, are problematic; with those returns, the parents’ names are not typically identified on the state-level record until certificates were first used beginning in mid-1897.

Here is a screenshot of the Michigan databases at FamilySearch, an impressive list. The camera next to the database names indicates images are available, too.

Michigan databases available at FamilySearch.

Let’s start with the death records databases first. “Michigan, Deaths, 1867-1897″ contains images of state-level records of death for that 31-year time period. Deaths from that era were recorded in large ledger books, with each horizontal entry covering two pages. The originals of these state-level deaths are housed in Lansing, and microfilms of this statewide collection can be found at the Library of Michigan, via the network of Family History Centers, and elsewhere.

With such a huge date range, researchers are immediately drawn to the other Michigan death record database available at FamilySearch – “Michigan, Deaths and Burials, 1800-1995.” Yet as the database’s “Learn More” link shows, the content here is not statewide, nor does every county contain records for that enormous nearly 200-year time period. This database, then, is largely based on abstracts (not the images) of the county-level records of death available at the various county clerks’ offices around the state. Each entry will then refer researchers to the original source of information; most of these county-level death records fall in the mid-to-late 1800’s and early 1900’s date range, although there are certainly examples from before and after.

“Michigan, Deaths, 1971-1996″ is an index (not the images) to the state-level records housed with the Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH) in Lansing. The records themselves are not widely available, so researchers will need to contact MDCH for records of ancestors found in this database.

The Michigan births databases are arranged very similarly to the deaths. “Michigan, Births, 1867-1902″ contains images of state-level records of birth for that 36-year time period. As with the deaths, births were recorded in large ledger books, with each horizontal entry covering two pages. The originals of these state-level births are housed in Lansing with the Michigan Department of Community Health, and indexes to this statewide collection can be found at the Library of Michigan, via the network of Family History Centers, and elsewhere.

As with deaths, there is a similarly vast FamilySearch database for Michigan births: “Michigan, Births and Christenings, 1775-1995.” It, too, is also not statewide nor all-inclusive for that huge 220-year time period. Rather, these abstracts of the county-level births found in courthouses around the state are still an important resource offering critical dates and pointing researchers to the original source.

The Michigan marriage records at FamilySearch are particularly strong, including images of both state-level and county-level records. “Michigan, Marriages, 1868-1925″ contains images of the state-level record of marriage, and much like the death and birth collections discussed above, each return is recorded in large ledger books with each entry covering two pages. The originals of these state-level marriages are housed in Lansing, and microfilms of this statewide collection can be found at the Library of Michigan, via the network of Family History Centers, and elsewhere.

“Michigan, County Marriages, 1820-1935″ is a recent addition to the suite of FamilySearch databases, and an excellent one at that. Here, except for 15 counties, researchers have access to the actual image of the marriage record on file with the county. In Michigan, these county-level marriages are particularly important, because in many cases, the county began recording marriages well before the state required it.

“Michigan, Marriages, 1822-1995″ is much like the similarly large deaths and births collections at FamilySearch. These abstracts of county-level typically fall in the mid-to-late 1800’s and early 1900’s date range, although there are examples both before and after. Depending on the county and time period, however, researchers find better results exploring the records themselves in the “Michigan, County Marriages, 1820-1935″ database discussed above.

Let’s look at one particular marriage, as shown in 3 different FamilySearch databases. Frederick Grobner and Annie Spohmholz were married in July 1900 in St. Joseph, Berrien County, Michigan. The couple apparently crossed the state line into Michigan to get married before quickly returning to Chicago. Here is the Michigan state-level marriage record, as found in the “Michigan, Marriages, 1868-1925″ database.

Frederick Grobner and Annie Spohmholz, 12 July 1900, Michigan Return of Marriages, Berrien County, p. 252A, record 518.

p. 252B.

Here is a different record for the same marriage, as held by Berrien County. This was found in the “Michigan, County Marriages, 1820-1935″ database.

Grobner marriage.

Finally, here is the entry for the same marriage, as found in the “Michigan, Marriages, 1822-1995″ database.

Abstract of the Grobner/Spohmholz marriage.

In conclusion, Michigan researchers have an impressive array of free online databases to search at FamilySearch. Three databases include the actual state-level record of birth, marriage, and death, three different databases have abstracts of county-level vitals covering huge time periods, one database has county-level images of marriages, and one collection indexes recent death records from the mid-to-late twentieth century. As a local history librarian and family historian, I encourage researchers to start with the known quantity that is the state-level record. Researchers should check each database, but not be discouraged if they are unable to locate their ancestor, as there are dozens (hundreds?) of other alternative sources to look at. Good luck!

Index to Michigan Masonic Deaths

Michigan family history researchers are fortunate to have a wealth of free death records available online at their fingertips. Between FamilySearch and Seeking Michigan, researchers have free digital access to every state-level death recorded in the state of Michigan from 1867 to 1920. However, a significant gap exists between 1921 and 1970, before the Michigan Deaths, 1971-1996 collection (available at both FamilySearch and Ancestry) begins.

Some of that nearly 50-year chasm can be crossed with the excellent FamilySearch database “Michigan Deaths & Burials, 1800-1995,” but not all of it. Indeed, with that particular database, “Michigan” is not statewide, nor does every county include that impressive two hundred year collection of records. Many of the abstracted county-level records go up to the 1920′s and beyond, but again, only for selected counties. Other counties have additional years, other have fewer, it depends on the particular county of interest.

Therefore, researchers interested in a death record from the 1930′s, for example, are presented with a quandary. With no online database for the time period, researchers need to utilize alternative sources that can identify their ancestors’ exact date of death.

One such alternative is the Index to Michigan Masonic Deaths available here at my web site. Containing more than 8,200 extractions from the Transactions of the Grand Lodge of Free & Accepted Masons of the State of Michigan, the site currently covers the 1933-1936 volumes, which largely includes deaths from 1932-1935. Researchers will find the decedent’s name, death date, lodge name, number, and location in Michigan, all important clues for finding obituaries, death records, and much more.

Let’s take a look at one example.

Entry for Christian Vahs.

Listed in the 1936 volume of the Transactions, Christian Vahs died on 9 August 1935 as a member of Bellevue Lodge No. 83 in Bellevue.

Once the death date and local lodge are identified, locating a newspaper is fairly straightforward. The largest collection of Michigan newspapers can be found onsite at the Library of Michigan in Lansing. According to the Library’s web site, their Eaton County newspaper holdings include the Bellevue Gazette. After a few minutes of scanning the microfilm in early August 1935, the Vahs obituary is found. Success!

Bellevue (MI) Gazette, 15 Aug 1935, p. 1, col. 4.

The extensive obituary continues on and reveals Christian’s wife’s name, where they married, surviving family members, fraternal membership, funeral date, and the cemetery name. Add in the military service information and birthplace in Germany, we are presented with quite the genealogical haul!

Using the death information revealed in the obituary, a researcher could then easily find the county-level death record at the Eaton County Clerk’s office or the state-level certificate at the Vital Records Office of the Michigan Department of Community Health. Michigan counties’ vital records fees are typically less expensive than the state’s.

Using the Michigan Masonic death index here at this site can serve as an alternative source to help researchers locate their ancestors’ death record, particularly during the 1930′s. The 50-year gap facing Michigan researchers is now not as insurmountable as at first glance.

I’ll be adding additional years to my death index, so stay tuned!

Michigan Masonic Deaths

Between Seeking Michigan (Deaths, 1897-1920) and FamilySearch, Michigan is fortunate to have a robust online presence for vital records research. Factoring in the many outstanding obituary indexes that also exist from across the state, including Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Saginaw, researchers have several fantastic online options when looking for a vital record date.

That being said, the post-1920’s are a particularly problematic era for online genealogy research here in Michigan. First, the statewide death records available at Seeking Michigan end with 1920 (with very few exceptions). Second, although many county-level death records have been indexed and are abstracted at FamilySearch in the database “Michigan Deaths and Burials, 1800-1995,” the impressive holdings there are not statewide, and each county does not contain records during that entire two hundred year time period. Finally, although a number of local societies and county clerks’ have placed indexes to their local records online, including Genesee, Macomb, and Washtenaw, that number is still only a small percentage of the state. Thus, researchers are presented with a significant post-1920 online research gap.

Enter the Masons. Each and every year, dating well back into the 1800’s, the Grand Lodge of Michigan of Free & Accepted Masons held an annual meeting in the state to discuss lodge business, finances, news, and local activities. As with other large fraternal societies, such as the Grand Army of the Republic, a published proceeding documenting the annual state gathering soon appeared. Impressive runs of the annual Transactions of the Grand Lodge of Free & Accepted Masons of the State of Michigan can be found onsite at several research libraries in the state, including the Library of Michigan and the Bentley Historical Library; digital copies of pre-copyrighted years can also be found online at the HathiTrust web site. Buried within each volume is an “In Memoriam” section, which identifies all of the known members of the Michigan masonic community that died in the previous calendar year. Granted, not everyone’s ancestors were Masons, but a significant number were, as the membership statistics would indicate; the 1936 statewide membership was over 123,000. The potential value of these volumes, particularly in the post-1920 time period, should be readily apparent.

However, the Memoriam section is often challenging for genealogists not familiar with their ancestors’ lodge name or number, as the decedent’s names are sorted by lodge number. With more than 500 lodges in existence across the Upper and Lower Peninsulas, scanning through each lodge’s entry represents a significant time commitment.

To make this important resource more accessible to researchers, I have compiled a master index of the deaths that appear in the volume(s), sorted by last name, and posted a PDF of the file here at my web site: genealogyKris. It is also accessible via the home page from the link along the top: “Mich. Masons: Deaths.” Researchers will find the decedent’s name, death date, lodge name, number, and location in Michigan, all important clues for finding obituaries, death records, and much more. Here is a sample entry:

Sample extractions from the Grand Lodge of MI Transactions.

Looking through the Bay City, Detroit, Flint, and Roscommon newspapers around the dates of death should quickly yield obituaries for the men listed in the sample image above.

To date, my site contains more than 2,000 extractions from the 1936 volume, which largely contains 1935 deaths. Additional volumes and years will be added regularly as they are input. Stay tuned!