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!

Lovin’ My Flip-Pal Scanner

A few months ago at the Historical Society of Michigan’s Local History Conference, I purchased a Flip-Pal mobile scanner from my good friend and fellow genealogist Karen Krugman. As a Flip-Pal independent reseller, she’d earlier given me a demonstration when she came to research at the Library of Michigan, and had also written about and talked up the portable and versatile scanner.

Like any child on Christmas morning, I held the device in my hands, excited about the possibilities. Visions of grandeur danced through my head, scanning this, scanning that, transforming my entire collection of genealogical images and documents into a digital paradise in a matter of days.

Well….as it often does, life got in the way. Fast forward to a few weeks ago – the kids were asleep early and I’m suddenly left with an open evening (!). What’s a genealogist to do? I pulled out the Flip-Pal and finally got to work.

My first target was an old photo album from Leona Hansen, my great-grandmother. Born in Chicago in March 1897, she married Fenton Harvey Russell in October 1918, and died in Michigan City, Indiana in February 1981. Leona’s photo album contains hundreds of images, all taken roughly between 1916-1918, most of them in or around Chicago. As with many scrapbooks and albums from that era, the photographs were pasted or taped to the black construction paper pages; as the years have passed, the strength of the pages has deteriorated, leaving many frayed corners, separated pages, and loose pictures. As a result, I’d been reluctant to further stress the album’s binding and pages, yet still wanted to transfer the album into a digital format using affordable technology.

Enter the Flip-Pal. Removing the scanner lid, I laid the scanner face down on each page and, with minimal pressure, quickly scanned the album in its entirety. Although the scanner bed is a fair size, it did take several scans to capture each page from the album. With the scanning completed, the fun really begins: stitching together multiple scans. After selecting which images to piece together, the software does all the work and in just a few moments presents a new image, digitally re-creating the album’s page in its entirety. Easy!

Here is one example from the album, where three separate scans were stitched seamlessly together.

Page from Leona Hansen photo album, c. 1916-1918.

Here we have Rose Hansen on the left, her husband Sophus in the middle, and finally, Leona herself on the right. If you can make it out on the bottom left hand corner, the penciled-in date reads August 1917. Leona is therefore 20 years old, about one year before her marriage to Fenton Russell.

Battery powered, easy-to-use, portable, and affordable, a combination that can’t be beat. With this first album scanned and stitched, I can’t wait to get started on the rest of my collection!

A Likely Public Charge

Early in my research, my father shared with me the family story that his grandmother – Wladyslawa (Winifred) Tobolski – was detained at Ellis Island until her brother (or was it her brother-in-law?) came from Chicago to claim her. That always struck me as odd, until I found her arrival record and discovered the pages at the end, the “Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry.”

Wladyslawa Tobolska was born in Kazmierz-Biskupi, Poland, the daughter of Wojciech and Katherine Jachnek Tobolski. She immigrated to the United States aboard the Vaderland, arriving at New York from Antwerp in May 1906. Quickly settling in Chicago to live with her older sister and her family, Wladyslawa later married Stanislaus Piotrowski in April 1915 in Gary, Indiana.

Yet when Wladyslawa first came to the United States, she was only 8 years old. I think of my daughter, approximately the same age now as Wladyslawa was then, and I am simply amazed. The fear and excitement that must have gripped her during the trans-Atlantic journey!

Wladyslawa Tobolska, arr. New York, 29 May 1906, Vaderland, p. 100.

At first glance, Wladyslawa appears to be part of the Barizinska family, but we can see Tobolska written in a smaller font and at a slight upward diagonal, suggesting the surname was written in later at some point. The “Admitted” stamp on the left indicates that Wladyslawa and her traveling companions can be found in the Likely Public Charge pages at the end of the Vaderland‘s manifest. Marian Smith’s outstanding “Manifest Markings” articles provide additional information on this fascinating sub-story of the immigration phenomenon.

The family story, as told by my father, is indeed supported by the evidence. Being so young and unable to provide for herself, Wladyslawa was indeed detained by Ellis Island officials. Claimed by someone, perhaps her brother as the family tradition suggests, Wladyslawa reappears in the 1910 Census, living with her sister and her family in Chicago.

My father does not recognize the Barizinska name, nor has it come up elsewhere in my research. Here is an image from the “Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry” at the end of the Vaderland manifest.

Wladislawa Tobolska, arr. New York, 29 May 1906, Vaderland, p. 139.

That being said, there appears to be a family connection, as the “cous” mark shows next to Josefa’s entry. Perhaps Josepha (and Fanina) are cousins and traveled with Wladyslawa to ensure her safety in the long voyage across the Atlantic. Regardless, I have some new names and avenues to explore, both in the United States and in Poland.

A Famine Family

Years ago, one of my very first genealogical finds was a biographical entry for Frank Kamp in a Washington County, Pennsylvania history. It offered amazing details on the Kamp family, but, unexpectedly, the Hopper family. A new surname in my research! The Hopper’s linked to Frank Kamp’s wife, Mary Hanna, and her grandfather was James Hopper.

Born in County Derry, Ireland, in 1788, James Hopper immigrated to the United States with his wife and children in June 1849, first settling in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania before moving south to Peters Township in Washington County shortly thereafter. Over the years, his Washington County farm expanded to 135 acres, and James died in 1885 at the youthful age of 97.

Hopper family, New York passenger list, arr. 30 June 1849 on the Ashburton

Above is the passenger list for the Hopper family, arriving at New York from Liverpool aboard the Ashburton on 30 June 1849. The family’s ages are a bit fluid, but this is clearly the correct family.

For a rookie genealogist, as I was at the time, the biographical entry in the Washington County history was simply overwhelming; it included birth and death information for James Hopper’s wife and 9 children, the county of origin in Ireland, the family’s year of immigration to the United States, details on the homestead in Peters Township, church affiliation, even the delightful comment that Hopper’s mother had once been the oldest woman in Ireland on record. Yet in my initial excitement, I missed perhaps the most critical piece of information: the historical context.

1849, the year that the Hopper’s emigrated to the United States, was no ordinary year in the history of Ireland. Already in full destructive force, the Great Famine traced back to the failure of the potato crop in 1845. With the population so dependent on the one crop, and coupled with the ineffective response from the British government, the situation soon became cataclysmic. As a result of the Great Famine, Ireland’s population dropped more than 20%, a staggering statistic; more than 1 million people died, and nearly 1 million more left the country, many emigrating to the United States. My family was among those that traveled to America, what a compelling and equally tragic story.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of my research on the Hopper family in County Derry. I’d like to learn more about the local conditions before, during, and after the Famine, how many other families from the area emigrated, and how long the Hopper’s had lived there before departing for the United States. With a trip to Salt Lake City planned for next year, my research agenda will most definitely continue to grow.

A Crowded House

As I’ve written about before, both sides of my family have deep roots in Chicago. One personal area of interest is learning more about the South Side neighborhoods my family lived in, and particularly in finding images of my ancestors’ homes.

Although certain Windy City streets resonate throughout my family’s history, one of the most important is Kimbark. According to the Chicago city directories, Sophus and Rose Hansen first appear at 7042 S. Kimbark Avenue at the dawn of the twentieth century, a few years after they married in 1895. Over the years, Sophus and Rose raised their family there on Kimbark, and also sheltered Rose’s parents in their later years. Leona, a daughter, married Fenton Russell in 1918, and they, too, resided at the house while starting their own family. A crowded house, indeed! In all, the family spent approximately 50 years at the S. Kimbark Avenue house.

Finding historic images of the Kimbark house and the neighborhood has been challenging. Although several family photographs show the front step or other features of the home, I have been unable to find an historic image that displays the house in its entirety.

Enter the Cook County Assessor’s Office. With their free online database, users can search by address, neighborhood, PIN, and a number of other options. A quick search for 7042 S. Kimbark returns the property details for the home, including the assessed value, market value, building description, type of construction, square footage for both the home and property, even the number of bathrooms. Most importantly, it identifies the approximate age of the home, as well as a recent photograph of the structure.

7042 S. Kimbark Ave., Chicago (IL)

According to the Assessor’s Office entry for 7042 S. Kimbark, the house is approximately 109 years old, which dates its construction to c.1903. Although not exactly aligned with the Hansen’s first entry in the city directory, it is close; further research is certainly needed. I’ll need to review the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for the neighborhood, and land and property records are near the top of my research agenda for my upcoming Chicago research trip later this summer.

The image above was taken in March 2007. When I first discovered the Cook County Assessor’s database, the image then displayed for 7042 S. Kimbark was dated March 2000. I may not currently have an historic image of the Kimbark home, but I at least have two contemporary images, giving two different views of the structure.