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!

Research Trip Preparations

With my research trip to Chicago coming up later this year, I have a lot of preparatory work to do before I ever set foot in the Windy City.

I prefer to work on one family line or geographic location at a time, not only to help me keep things straight in my head, but also to keep my research focused and streamlined. With my deep ties in Chicago on both sides of the family, I am currently exploring both my paternal and maternal lines during their time in the city, beginning in the 1880’s and continuing on up through the 1950’s. A tall order, to be sure.

Everything starts, however, with my research agenda. Is there a particular ancestor I want to focus on? Is there something specific I’m looking for? What do I hope to find? What things have I looked at already? What gaps do I have in my ancestor’s timeline? How I answer those questions will lead me to particular print resources or online tools as I progress in my research – probate, land, naturalization, church records, directories, etc.

My next step is to explore, from home, online web sites and databases, keeping in mind my answers to those research agenda questions above. FamilySearch, Ancestry, Fold3, and Mocavo are just a few of the sites I explore and constantly revisit to see if any new content has been posted that addresses my research needs. Of particular interest to me is the recent addition at FamilySearch of Archdiocese of Chicago records for dozens of area Catholic parishes.

Despite the wealth of information available online, I still have a number of unanswered questions, which brings me to my next – and favorite – step in my research trip preparations: the library. In addition to my daily access to the Library of Michigan‘s collections (on my lunch hour!), I am fortunate to be a short 2-hour drive from the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

In anticipation of my next ACPL visit, I will spend hours poring through the online catalog, looking for and identifying titles of interest, and then adding their title, author, and call number to an Excel spreadsheet. One of ACPL‘s many strengths is their unparallelled collection of local society journals and newsletters from across the United States, indexed in PERSI. Depending on the family line I’m researching, I often compile an expansive list of journal citations to explore.

As a librarian myself, I encourage patrons to come to the library “armed and dangerous,” ready to attack their research immediately upon arrival. Equipped with their priorities, exact titles, call numbers, and the like, researchers can then quickly find and pull their titles of interest. The key is to spend as little time getting organized once onsite, instead maximizing the limited research time at the library, archives, or clerk’s office. Those researchers that arrive at the library unprepared and without a clear sense of what they’re looking for will likely have a more uneven experience than those that come equipped with a clear agenda and research priorities.

I will arrive at the library with my research agenda and Excel spreadsheet, sorted by call number, and get to work. With my next visit to ACPL coming up in just a few days, I look forward to finding new information and genealogical leads, and in the process better preparing me for my visit to Chicago later this year.

With my new iPhone (my old phone used two cans and a string), I’m playing around with having my research available right on my phone. My research agenda and title list will be right at my fingertips, although I haven’t pulled the trigger on an actual family tree app yet. I suppose that’s something I can write about in a future blog article, so stay tuned!