Seeking Those Michigan Ancestors…

As a Reference Archivist and librarian, it is always exciting to discover a new family history web site, database, or print publication that can assist me in my personal research or professional work. It is particularly thrilling, then, when that new database is actually released from my place of employment.

Just last month, the Archives of Michigan released the next set of Michigan death records at Seeking Michigan. Covering 1921-1952 and including more than 1.6 million records, the actual death certificates from 1921-1939 are now freely available, with index-only data from 1940-1952. The 1921-1952 index data has been available at FamilySearch for some time, but the certificates themselves are only available at Seeking Michigan. Additional certificate images will be released each year at Seeking Michigan as privacy restrictions are lifted; for example, 1940 images will be released in January 2016, 1941 in January 2017, and so on. Together with the records from 1897-1920 that have been available at the site for years, this new collection of free death records makes Seeking Michigan the one-stop destination for more than 2.6 million death records for Michigan genealogical and historical research.

Luminaries like Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, and James Vernor (Vernor’s Ginger Ale) can all be found in the new database, but for me, I’m excited with William Alderson. I’ve written about my great-grandfather several times in the past, including “William the Fisherman” and “Intersecting Ancestors”, but an index abstract of his 1951 death certificate can be found below and at Seeking Michigan:

William Alderson in "Death Records, 1947-1952." Seeking Michigan: Accessed 30 April 2015.

William Alderson in “Death Records, 1948-1952.” Seeking Michigan: Accessed 30 April 2015.

Although I’ll have to wait until 2027 to see the death certificate online (!), I could in the meantime pay the small exorbitant fee to get a copy from the state or county. Regardless, my family can be found online alongside master illusionists, auto magnates, and a “deliciously different” beverage pioneer.

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!

X Marks the Spot

As a local history librarian, I have worked very closely with the Death Records, 1897-1920 collection available online at Seeking Michigan. Totaling nearly 1 million certificates, this collection covers a critical period in Michigan’s history, the point where the state became the worldwide epicenter of the automotive industry. Drawn by the lure of steady work and wages, thousands of families migrated to Michigan from all over the United States and around the world.

As a family history researcher, I am particularly fascinated with off-the-beaten path records, those unintended, peculiar, or otherwise accidental certificates. One terrific example at Seeking Michigan is Edith Constance Fraser, who died in Windsor, Ontario on 24 January 1900. Born in Canada in 1867, Ms. Fraser was the daughter of Alexander and Mary Fraser, and was buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit on 26 January 1900.

Edith Fraser death, 24 January 1900, Wayne County, MI

So what is an Ontario death doing amidst a collection of Michigan records? The large “X” across the certificate indicates that the record is invalidated, suggesting that a true “official” record exists elsewhere under a different jurisdictional authority; in this case, Ontario, Canada. For whatever reason, a Michigan record was filed under Wayne County for Ms. Fraser, perhaps because the burial took place in Detroit. In the recent past, finding this example would have been next to impossible, as the existing indexes only included valid certificates; today with online access, researchers can easily find any certificate in the collection, whether an official record or one branded with an “X.”

Now let’s explore the corresponding “official” Ontario death record for Edith Fraser.

Edith Fraser death, 24 Jan 1900, Essex County, ONT (009289)

This record not only reinforces some of the data gleaned from the Michigan certificate, but also offers new information, including Ms. Fraser’s residence in Essex County and her religious affiliation. All good material, but more important is what is NOT shown – parents’ names, cemetery, name and address of undertaker, and date of burial – information all provided on the Michigan record.

When comparing the Michigan and Ontario records side by side, although each provides unique information, one can argue that the Michigan record offers far more genealogical value than the Ontario one. The point here, then, is that in some cases, there may be a second – and possibly quite different – record; this would be true particularly with families near a county, state, or international boundary, or ancestors that are buried in a different location than where they lived. The invalid or “X” record may provide important fields of data, such as parents’ names, that the official certificate does not. Depending on the state and time period, then, perhaps the accidental record is superior to the official one, much like the Edith Fraser example above.

Other out-of-state examples abound in Seeking Michigan, including death certificates from as far as Oakland, California, St. Louis, Missouri, and Cleveland, Ohio. In the case of Edith Fraser, a genealogy researcher would be delighted with her paper-trail legacy of dying twice. Each record provides unique insight into her life and family, while simultaneously opening new avenues of research. What more could one ask for?