A Vital Success in Pennsylvania

On 15 December 2011, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett approved Senate Bill 361, thereby amending the Vital Statistics Law of 1953 and providing public access to birth and death certificates after a certain number of years. With this law, Pennsylvania births become public records after 105 years and deaths after 50 years. A few short months later, indexes to the now-public records appeared online at the Pennsylvania Department of Health‘s web site; births from 1906 and deaths from 1906-1961.

The importance of these records is obvious. Given Pennsylvania’s geographic location, its sheer size and population, and its role in the growth and development of the national economy, these now-accessible records have transformed genealogical research in the Keystone State. So many of our ancestors, particularly those from Michigan and the Midwest states, have origins in Pennsylvania. Indeed, with my maternal line’s deep roots in the Pittsburgh area, this new law offered limitless opportunity to further my own research.

Two of my enduring family history mysteries are Frank and Mary Kamp. After living in Washington County, Pennsylvania at the time of the 1920 U.S. Census with their son, two daughters, and a son-in-law, the couple seemingly vanishes. I picked up the individual trail of each of the children in the 1930 Census, but Frank and Mary continually eluded my grasp; even a research trip to western Pennsylvania failed to shed much additional light. Of note, a conversation with my great aunt revealed that she had memories of her grandparents, and suggested that Mary had passed away long before Frank did.

With the Pennsylvania indexes now online, I scanned through the PDF’s year by year, hoping I would strike gold. Here is an entry for a Mary Kamp from the 1927 death indexes:

1927 death index entry for Mary J. Kamp, Pennsylvania Dept. of Health.

If this is my Mary, it would fit the timeline as suggested by my great aunt. In addition, Allegheny County is just north of where the family was in 1920 and Mary’s daughter Julia’s in-laws lived there in the county just south of Pittsburgh for many years. 16 to 18 weeks (!) and a small $3 fee later, I received a copy of the death certificate in the mail. Eureka!

Mary Jane Kamp death certificate, Pennsylvania Dept. of Health, 1927. #113673.

This death record both verifies existing data (parents’ names and birthplaces), but offers new information (exact birth date, age at death, exact death date, cemetery name, burial date, Frank’s address at the time of Mary’s death, undertaker). In a frustrating bit of irony, I was actually at Mt. Lebanon Cemetery a few years ago during my Pittsburgh research trip, yet I was focused on a different line in my research, so completely missed a chance with the Kamps. Oh, the irony!

Armed with this new information gleaned from the now-accessible death certificate, I will again attack the 1930 Census in a (vain?) attempt to locate Frank. In addition, I will continue to search in later years at the Department of Health’s death indexes, perhaps before the 1940 Census. The research never ends!

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!

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!

Local Societies and Their Publications

With the explosion of digital content available at FamilySearch, Ancestry, and other subscription sites, many researchers are left with the impression that an online query at those databases constitutes an “exhaustive” search. Clearly, that is not the case. Researchers that overlook local society publications, print or online, do so at their own peril.

One of my all-time favorite print resources is Hillsdale County Marriage Index: Hillsdale, Michigan, published by the Hillsdale County Genealogical Society. A two-volume set, one for brides and the other for grooms, the resource covers the years 1835-2000; a 2001-2005 supplement is also available. Here are a few entries from the book:

Hillsdale County Marriage Index: Hillsdale, Michigan (2001), p. 598.

Organized in 1835, Hillsdale County is located in southern Michigan on the border with Indiana and Ohio. This means that at the time this resource was published, it included every marriage recorded in the history of the county, a remarkable achievement. With each entry, researchers learn the name of the bride and groom, the year of marriage, and the appropriate liber and page number to be able to find a copy of the county marriage record. What a fantastic resource! I don’t have Hillsdale County ancestors, but I almost wish I did.

The real strength with this resource is the fact that it includes contemporary content, with marriages nearly up to the present day. The large subscription sites may have impressive collections of documents, but in many cases, they do not contain recent records like we see with this Hillsdale County example. We are fortunate here in Michigan, as other examples of local societies indexing their county’s vital records proliferate, including the Downriver Genealogical Society, Flint Genealogical Society, Huron Shores Genealogical Society, Genealogical Society of Monroe County, and a number of others. The critical point is that in many cases, the local society publications often include more recent genealogical information not readily available elsewhere.

One other important point with these society publications is that they often index the county-level records, which in Michigan is a different record than the state-level one; this is an important distinction, as each record set will have a unique citation and source information. I will explore the state vs. county conundrum in more detail in a future blog post.

To find these important society publications, be sure to visit the local society’s web site, the available titles for purchase are always listed. Research libraries, such as the Library of Michigan or the Allen County Public Library, also maintain impressive collections of local society publications.

For many years, local genealogical societies have worked tirelessly to index and make available the records for their respective community. Although more content continues to be placed online, it is important to remember that an overwhelming amount of information will still remain on the ground in courthouses, libraries, and archives. Researchers would be remiss to not utilize the local genealogical society and their publications catalog in the geographic area their family called home.