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!

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 missing Kamp

With the release of the 1940 Census now less than 40 days away (!), many researchers are anxiously awaiting the opportunity to explore the records, make new discoveries, and reconnect with lost ancestors.

In my research, there is one couple I am particularly anxious to reconnect with. Frank and Mary Kamp lived in Washington County, Pennsylvania (about 15 miles south of Pittsburgh) at the time of the 1920 Census. Here is the Kamp family in 1920: Frank, Mary, Albert, Jane, and Julia with her husband William Alderson.

The Kamp family, 1920 Census, Peters Twp., Washington Co., PA (ED 209, p. 2B)

Following that enumeration, however, I have been unable to find evidence of either Frank or Mary in any records. By 1930, their son Albert had moved to California, daughter Jane had remained in the Pittsburgh area, and daughter Julia had moved to Chicago. Yet Frank and Mary have continually evaded detection and proven to be my genealogy kryptonite.

The one question from the 1940 Census that I’m most interested in is the “In what place did this person live on April 1, 1935?” query. Think about the value of that question! Given the post-1920 gap in my research, this question could unlock the mysteries surrounding my Kamp research.

Over the years, I’ve had several promising leads and a few educated guesses about Frank and Mary’s whereabouts in 1930 and beyond, but nothing has ever panned out. I’m hoping that, if still alive then, they will represent my first 1940 Census research triumph. Here’s hoping the 1930 Kamp mystery will finally be solved a decade later!