Friday, February 3, 2012

A Matter of Record

I’m always in search of a record…sometimes it is a death record or burial record or perhaps a marriage record or birth record.  The search for these records can sometimes lead down a hopeless path of defeat and other times it can be an exultant triumph.  The triumphs are way too few…but enough that you keep trying.

I primarily research in four parts of the country where my ancestors lived prior to 1900.  These sections are:
  • Appalachia – Primarily Johnson Co., TN, Carter Co., TN, Sullivan Co., TN, Jefferson Co., TN, Ashe Co., NC, Grayson Co., VA, & Washington Co., VA
  • West Virginia – Nicholas Co., WV, Fayette Co., WV, Greenbrier Co., WV and Raleigh Co., WV
  • New England – New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, & Massachusetts
  • New York – Albany Co., NY, Schenectady Co., NY, Schoharie Co., NY & Montgomery Co., NY

Record from Vermont recording the birth of my great grandmother Shirlie Louisa Pope.
If you are looking for a birth record, you are quite fortunate to locate records prior to 1900.  Most areas did not keep official records and although you can find indexed records of baptisms or christenings, various church records, etc. it is still rare to find an actual birth record.  New England is probably the best source for these types of records...outside of New England - the record keeping is not so good.  The only birth records that I have of my direct ancestors before 1900 come from New England. 

Death record of my 4th great grandmother, Susan Harden Gallup from  NY.
robably the oldest official death record that I have.
Death records can be just as elusive.  New York has records that can be ordered from 1880 on but they can be very expensive and the old ones can be very hard to read.  Hopefully there are small clues into the family that might lead you to further your research. However, most areas don’t have these records prior to 1900 or usually about 1904.  It has been my unfortunate luck to try and get some of these records and be just months short of the date that they were officially kept.  Then there are areas like Iowa where you have to be a direct descendant to get the official death record.  My great great grandfather died in 1873 and he had only one sibling that lived past 1930, but I can’t get her record because I am not her descendant.  Since I have no proof of their father’s name, this is particularly frustrating. 

Marriage records seem to be a bit more obtainable and usually of an earlier vintage.  I suppose it is because these records recorded marriage bonds and money had to be paid to obtain the bond or license.  I have copies of some of these records reaching back to the 1700’s in North Carolina. There are also several books that have indexed these records.  I have a copy indexed marriage records from Johnson Co., TN and Grayson Co., VA as well as access online to several other indexes. 

Burial records are also a wonderful resource….if you can get them.  I don’t have many books on burials in the New England, New York, or West Virginia areas.  Sites like can be very helpful as well as fellow researchers like Midge Frazel, Stephan Laskey, Jon Saunders, and Peggy Blais (and many others) who have helped me see photographs of some of my earliest ancestors.  You are also lucky if the area that you are researching has published cemetery records.  I own two such volumes from Grayson Co., VA (3 large books) and Ashe Co., NC (2 large books) and there are several others that I would love to get a copy of that are no longer in print.  These books aren’t always completely accurate but the usually the data is very good and corrections are always being made.  The growth the availability of these records in the last 15 years is incredible.  More and more people are sharing their photos and information online with others. 

One of the most important things to remember with any of these records is that there are mistakes on many of them.  Sometimes they are as simple as typo mistakes or mistakes from the transcriber in trying to read handwriting from a bygone era or faded documents.  Death records are mostly obtained at some of the most difficult times for a family.  I even made the mistake on my mother’s death record of giving the incorrect middle name of my grandmother.  If anyone should have known better is was me.  Keep track of your record keeping as well.  If you have tried to get the death record of your great great great grandfather in Washington Co., VA and am told that there is no record, despite the fact that he died in 1928 – make a note of your attempt. You never know when another source might appear.  Keep a journal or notebook with the dates and availability of records that you are searching for.  Each county in each state has its own method of keeping records and it is only within the last century or so, that these have been standardized.