Genealogists start with death—meaning that we generally
research ancestors from their deaths and moving back in time. But
death-record searches can be challenging for several reasons,
including when relatives died before statewide vital record-keeping or their
names were recorded oddly.
If you can’t find a death certificate for a relative, look for other death records
for the time and place he died. If you’ve found one death record, look for others.
Different types of records might have different details, and they provide additional
documentation that you have the right death date and place.
You’ll learn how to find and analyze death information in Family Tree University’s
three-day crash course, Tricks
and Treats in Death Records.
Here are nine kinds of old death records to look for (including examples I’ve found
in my research):
The State Death Certificate
Once statewide death recording began (in the early 1900s for most states), counties
created standard-format death certificates and sent copies to the state vital records
office. Our free
downloadable Vital Records Chart lists when these official death certificates
began for each state. You can order them from county and state vital record offices,
possibly with privacy restrictions (such as proving a relationship to the deceased)
if the death was less than 25 or 50 years ago.
The Local Death Record
You’re not necessarily out of luck if your ancestor died before statewide death records.
Many cities and towns issued their own death certificates, which varied in format.
They may be available microfilmed or digitized via a local library or archive, the
state archive, or online at a genealogy website such as FamilySearch or Ancestry.com.
The Death Register
Local jurisdictions may have recorded deaths in a table form, such as this register
with the death date, cause and place, along with the deceased’s name, age, birthplace,
parents’ names and address (all if known). The columns span two pages. Look for death
registers in the same places as local death records.
Substitute Death Records
Before statewide vital records begin, death recording can be hit or miss. Luckily,
many types of records can substitute for death records, providing similar information.
That includes the cemetery record:
the census mortality schedule:
the church death record:
and the probate file and the obituary and the burial permit and
more. I haven’t even touched on indexes to all these records.
Learn all about the different types of death records, where to find them and how to
analyze them for clues—and false leads!—in Family Tree University’s three-day crash
and Treats in Death Records.
This crash course runs Oct. 31-Nov. 2, and includes video classes and a conference
message board for getting help from your instructor and fellow students. See
the Tricks and Treats in Death Records crash course program at FamilyTreeUniversity.com.
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Changing scenery and pleasant temperatures make Fall an especially
good time to visit cemeteries (alongside a genealogy buddy for fun
and safety). Seeing the gravestone and viewing records in the
cemetery office may yield ancestry information you won’t find in an
online database of burials—although online databases are very
issue of Family Tree Magazine, October/November 2016, has our Genealogy
Workbook on cemetery research. You’ll also find essential guidance in Family Tree
University’s two-week course on Doing
Cemetery Research (your access to course materials starts as soon as you register).
Here are nine things you can learn about ancestors from the cemetery:
name and birth and death dates. Most tombstones have the deceased’s name (although
sometimes you get the dreaded “his wife”) and at least a year of birth and death.
But you also might learn parents’ names. One of my family cemeteries has a searchable
database that includes parents’ names, if known. It’s the only place I’ve found parents’
names for my third-great-grandmother Elizabeth Butler Norris. (A visit to this cemetery
is in order to view records—they may contain information beyond what’s in the database.)
relationships, either named on the stone or deduced from nearby stones and
further research. I found two “mystery men” buried in my family plot, and subsequent
research led me to my third-great-grandmother’s first marriage. Here’s
my post about that.
babies you didn’t know to look for, because they were born and died between
censuses and/or before official birth records. Some of my family cemeteries have separate
“infant” sections, and tiny stones are easily overgrown, so you might find clues by
searching in a database or through records in the cemetery office, even if there’s
no telltale marker in a family plot.
military service, if there’s a government marker or a plaque. My grandpa’s
headstone gives his rank and branch. Here,
I’ve listed some free databases where you can look for veterans’ burial sites.
maiden names. They may be on a woman’s grave marker or on a burial record,
if it names parents or if her father or another relative owned the plot. Or you may
discover the maiden name by researching those buried near her. It’s a bit hard to
see in this photo, but my great-great-grandmother’s stone has her maiden name, Ladenkoetter:
membership in fraternal societies, religious organizations or unions, revealed
by symbols on the gravestone. Here’s
a nice collection of photos of gravestone symbols and their interpretations.
These can lead you to records of the fraternal society.
immigrant place of origin. This is one I haven’t encountered in my own research,
but genealogy experts recommend checking burial records and gravestones for immigrant
birth places. I
found a photo on the Everyone Has a Story blog of an Irish immigrant’s tombstone with
his county and parish of birth.
religion, especially if the person is buried in a cemetery affiliated with
a church. If not, a burial record might include a religion or the name of a church
where services were held.
cause of death. Rarely, it might be engraved on a headstone, like
the examples on this Rootsweb page. They include “was killed by a fall from a
building” and “while … viewing a span of horses he was suddenly kicked by one of
them in the lower part of his bowels.”
More likely, though, you’ll get clues to point your research in a direction. The same
death date on a woman’s gravestone and a nearby child’s could indicate a mother died
in childbirth. Several deaths around the same time might indicate an epidemic. A young
man’s death during wartime could mean he died in service.
an outline for Family Tree University’s two-week Doing Cemetery Research course by
clicking here, and check out the October/November Family Tree Magazine in
ShopFamilyTree.com (it’s available in
print or as
a digital download).
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A cousin I met online (one who attended my grandparents’ wedding as a child!) asked
me to look at a research problem on a line we don’t share.
Her great-aunt Elizabeth Schalk was born April 4, 1893, married Wesley Thomas in 1910,
and became a widow two years later. Then she disappeared.
Was Elizabeth “lost” under a second husband’s surname? That’s not an uncommon situation
with female relatives. In a similar scenario, you might know an ancestor by a spouse’s
name, and have trouble discovering her maiden name so you can find her parents.
Bootcamp for Genealogists, happening online Oct. 3-9, will help you formulate
strategies to research this and other genealogy problems: unknown immigration, mysterious
places of origin, missing from the census, your usual appeared-from-nowhere or dropped-off-the-face-of-the-Earth
The workshop will show you how to use some of the same principles that led us to Elizabeth:
1. Develop a theory that could explain what happened: Elizabeth remarried,
began using her new husband’s name, and possibly moved away. This might involve doing
research into what was going on in the particular time and place.
2. Determine what type of record would provide information about your theory.
Local research guides can help here. In this case, a marriage record such as a certificate,
license, bann or newspaper announcement showing an Elizabeth Thomas getting married
3. Look for the records. Major genealogy database sites like Ancestry.com, FamilySearch, Findmypast and MyHeritage are
good places to start. But don’t overlook lesser-known sites, such as the local historical
or genealogical society website, or resources you can find through the USGenWeb county
I came up empty on big genealogy sites, but the Hamilton
County (Ohio) Genealogical Society website had an indexed 1915 marriage bann for
an Elizabeth Thomas marrying Herman J. Bley.
You might need to look offline for published indexes, or if you have a narrow enough
time frame, browse original records at a repository or on microfilm.
4. Find additional evidence. Elizabeth Bley’s census listings and Social Security
Death Index record were consistent with what we knew about Elizabeth Thomas. My cousin
ordered Elizabeth Bley’s 1981 death certificate, which put the nail in the coffin
of this brick wall, so to speak, with the right maiden name and parents’ names.
Bootcamp for Genealogists starts Monday, Oct. 3, and includes seven video sessions
(which you can download for viewing whenever you want), written material, exercises
to apply to your own research, and an exclusive workshop message board to exchange
questions and ideas with other attendees.
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September 26Quick Tip: Sifting Through DNA Matches
you’ve taken an autosomal DNA test at 23andMe, AncestryDNA,
or Family Tree DNA, you’ve likely received
a long list of genetic cousins. After sequencing portions of your DNA, the testing
company compares your results to the results of every other test-taker in its database.
If you share a certain amount of DNA with another test-taker in the database, you’ll
see that person in your list of genetic matches. The company evaluates how close you
might be to another test-taker based on the amount of DNA you share; see the image
for a sample list of AncestryDNA matches (with usernames blurred for privacy). In
this guest post, author and DNA expert Blaine Bettinger shares a quick tip for identifying
the DNA matches that have the best chance of aiding your research.
For test-takers with ancestry in well-represented areas (such as Europe), the list
of genetic matches will often be thousands of people long. A few of those matches
might be close, but the majority will be distant matches that share just one small
segment of DNA. How should you process all those matches? Which ones should you focus
on to attempt to find your common ancestry?
Focus on your closest matches first to increase your chances of finding family
members and learning more about your family tree. If you’re lucky enough to have a
predicted second cousin or closer, review that match’s family tree (if the match has
provided one) and see if you recognize any names or places there from your own family
tree. Since the relationship is so close, you may only need to build his or her tree
out for a couple of generations. (If the match doesn’t have a family tree, you might
be able to build one for them or contact the match and ask for one.)
And what do I mean by your “closest” matches? Simple: The ones with whom you have
an estimated relationship of fourth cousins or closer. You have a pretty good chance
of finding common ancestry (such as a great-grandparent) with second cousins or closer,
and a decent chance of doing the same (i.e., finding a shared second or third great-grandparent)
with predicted third and fourth cousins. Beyond predicted fourth cousins, however,
you’ll have difficulty finding a common ancestor. In most cases, you’ll only want
to pursue these more distant matches if you have additional concrete evidence that
you share ancestors.
Learn more about analyzing DNA matches and using test results in your research in The
Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy, available in both print and e-book versions
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September 19How to Handle Surprises in Your DNA
testing is a powerful new tool for genealogists. And just like any other genealogical
record, DNA is capable of revealing secrets. For example, the results of a DNA test
can reveal relationships that were either long-forgotten, or were long-held family
secrets. Knowing this, what should you do when you discover a secret in your family?
Genetic genealogy expert and author of the new book The Family Tree Guide to DNA
Testing and Genetic Genealogy Blaine Bettinger shares some tips for handling surprises
in your DNA findings:
You can follow a few important steps before testing that will help prepare
you and the test-taker for potential surprises. Explain to prospective test-takers
that you may discover family secrets and unknown relationships through a DNA test.
The test-taker can then make an informed decision about whether or not to test, and
will be better prepared for possible outcomes. You can also ask the test-taker—again,
before testing—whether he or she would even like to know any surprises or unexpected
findings that are uncovered. Some family members may decide that they would rather
not know, and that decision will guide how you respond to any discovery you make.
And what should you do if you find something unexpected in your research? If you uncover
an unknown relationship or family secret, break the discovery to the affected relatives
slowly and carefully. Are you absolutely certain about your conclusion, or is there
room for other interpretations? What can you do to confirm the result before sharing
information that might not be correct?
Once you’re sure that you’ve discovered an unknown relationship or family secret,
you must then decide what to do with that information. Even if the relationship you’ve
found is hundreds of years old, it will likely have an impact on living individuals
and thus must be considered carefully. If the family member involved has indicated
that they want to know about any uncovered surprises, you can thoughtfully and gently
share the new information with them, keeping the emotional impact of the discovery
in mind. If the family member has indicated that they would rather not know, then
you have a responsibility not to share that information with them. For thousands of
people, the discovery of family secrets is an inevitable part of genetic genealogy—but
that doesn’t mean those secrets should always be divulged.
Learn more about the ethics of DNA testing—as well as the Genetic Genealogy Standards
that guide ethical DNA testing and research—in The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing
and Genetic Genealogy, available in both print and e-book versions
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September 133 Tips for Choosing a DNA Relative to Test
Average Amount of Autosomal DNA Shared With Relatives
Genetic genealogy, using DNA to study ethnicity and identify genetic cousins, is becoming
an essential part of doing genealogy. If you’ve tested yourself and want to explore
DNA tests for family, which relative should you ask to take a DNA test? Are some cousins
or relatives better to test?
Here are some tips from guest blogger and DNA expert Blaine T. Bettinger, author of
the new book The
Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy, for finding the right
relative to help you break through that brick wall with DNA:
Test the oldest generation first. Testing the oldest generation available is
often the best course of action. The members of this generation might not be available
to test in the future, so it’s important to get a DNA sample with an older relative’s
permission as soon as possible.
Additionally, this generation is often genetically closer to your research questions,
meaning older ancestors may have more autosomal DNA (atDNA) from the ancestor of interest.
Test relatives likely to share DNA with you. As you can see in the image above
(red boxes indicate what percentage of atDNA you share, on average, with each relative),
second cousins and closer always share at least some DNA, but many third cousins do
not. If possible, test relatives who are most likely to share DNA with you. But if
your genealogical question relates to an ancestor further back in time, you might
have to test distant cousins to get the evidence you need.
Test relatives who can provide the proper type of DNA. Genetic genealogy has
no exact rules, but you’ll want to remember some key principles as you identify people
to test: While atDNA (the kind of DNA most tests examine) is usually inherited from
each parent equally, other types of DNA follow different inheritance patterns.
For example, children receive their mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from their mothers,
and males inherit their Y-chromosomal DNA (Y-DNA) from their fathers. If you’re researching
an ancestor in your Y-DNA line, you’ll likely want to obtain DNA from a male relative
in that same Y-DNA line (e.g., your brother, your father, your father’s brothers,
your paternal grandfather).
Similarly, if you’re researching an ancestor in your mtDNA line, you’ll probably start
with DNA from a relative in that same mtDNA line (e.g., your siblings, your mother
or her siblings, your maternal grandmother). Testing multiple types of DNA may provide
you with even more information to help you attack your question!
Blaine provides more tips and hints for identifying the best person to test in his
new book, The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy. You can
find both print and e-book versions
of the book online at ShopFamilyTree.com.
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2016 Virtual Conference is coming right up Sept. 16-18, with online genealogy
learning opportunities in video classes on genetic genealogy and DNA, using Ancestry.com,
identifying old mystery photos and more; plus live chats; our exclusive conference
message boards and more.
Now, you can save $25 on Virtual Conference registration when you enter coupon
code FTMSEPT25 at checkout. Register
Watch this quick video tour for an idea how the conference works, and take in these
tips for making the most of this genealogy event.
1. Once you complete your registration, you’ll receive an email with instructions
on logging in to participate. Read through the email (if you have any questions, feel
free to email Family Tree University), and be sure to save it. You’ll also get reminders
as the conference gets closer.
2. The welcome page has helpful hints about getting around the conference,
viewing classes and using the message boards, so check it out.
3. The video classes are recorded, so you can watch them whenever you want
during the conference, and download them to your computer to watch later. It’s helpful
to watch any you’re especially interested in early in the conference so you have plenty
of time to ask questions on the mesage boards.
4. Live chats are scheduled. Be sure to account for time zones when you’re
planning your weekend. We post transcripts on the message boards for anyone who missed
them (and so chat participants don’t have to frantically take notes).
5. If any live chat topics have inspired related questions, you can get them
ready in a Word document before the chat so you can just copy and paste into the chat
6. If you have kids, have some independent activities to keep them occupied
and snacks ready to grab.
7. Have your favorite genealogy snacks and drinks ready, too. It’ll be pretzel
crisps and coffee for me.
8. Three topic threads to look for in the message boards:
The introduction board: Tell us who you are, where you’re from, what you hope
to get out of the conference and anything else you want to share.
The surname board: Post the surnames you’re researching and the place those
The tech questions board: We’ll be checking this one throughout the conference
for any tech issues that come up.
Of course, there’ll also be other threads relating to the video classes, research
brick walls, old family recipes and lots more.
9. When responding to someone’s comment in a busy live chat, it helps to start
with their name: “Diane, I hear passport records are…” Other comments will appear
between the original comment and your response, so this helps connect the two.
Save this article onto Pinterest for later:
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For folks who are newer or less-frequent users on Ancestry.com,
we’re sharing some genealogy DOs and a DON’T for searching for ancestors on the site.
They come from Family
Tree University’s Master Ancestry.com Workshop next week, Aug. 15-18.
Ancestry.com is a genealogy staple, but because it’s so large and contains so much
information, it’s not always easy to find what you’re looking for. As the site evolves,
certain views and features change, too, which can add to your confusion. If you want
to take advantage of the full complement of Ancestry.com’s databases (which number
more than 30,000 and range in size from 2 million-plus names all the way down to one
name), there are some essential steps you should add to your to-do list:
Do search specific collections. It’s easy to head straight for the global search
on the home page, but the other, smaller collections listed in the Card
Catalog may turn up hidden gems.
Do create a game plan for your search. It’s tempting—and it can be useful—to
just type in a name and hit Search, but you end up with a lot of results to wade through.
Once you get past the relevant results on the first couple of pages, try a different
approach: Set a specific goal for the type of information you want to find and the
kind of record that would contain this information. Adjusting your search terms accordingly
(and using filters when you view your matches) will bring more-accurate results.
Do familiarize yourself with everything Ancestry.com has to offer—from trees
and shaky leaf hints (yes, these can be very helpful when used with care)—to historical
records, message boards (which are free
for anyone to use), and AncestryDNA.
Do try Ancestry.com for free during a free-access weekend (usually around holidays
such as the Fourth of July or Veterans Day), at a FamilySearch
Center, or at a library that offers Ancestry Library Edition. This way, you can
get comfortable with the site before you subscribe (or decide not to).
Do revisit your searches every so often, as databases are frequently added
and updated. New results may show up.
And we’ll add one don’t:
Don’t get frustrated. Or at least, don’t let frustration turn you off genealogy.
The more you experiment with the site, the more genealogy results you’ll discover.
Ask genealogists you know for help, look for guides such as our Unofficial
Guide to Ancestry.com, and check out the Master
Ancestry.com three-day workshop, starting Aug. 15 at FamilyTreeUniversity.com.
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family history begins with your own memories—and what you remember can serve as a
useful springboard for learning more about your whole family’s history, connecting
you emotionally to past generations.
Your memories also can provide critical research clues for genealogy research. When’s
the last time you mined your own memories for details you can use to research your
family tree? Story
of My Life author Sunny Morton is here with a guest post on three focuses
for your dive into your memories:
People. Who do you recall—even vaguely—in connection with your family?
The neighbors across the street from your grandparents? Your mother’s sorority sister?
Dad’s business partner? Memories of people can lead to more memories, and even to
Mention your grandparents’ neighbors—the ones who always came to play cards—to your
cousins or an aunt and see what stories come to light. Does anyone know how they came
to be good friends? How did your grandparents act around their friends? What else
do relatives recall about the neighborhood? Did anyone stay in contact with that neighbor’s
If Mom’s sorority sister is still alive, her memories or memorabilia may give you
fresh perspective on your mother’s younger years. Recalling the name of the sorority
can lead to its records, photo collections and more insight into your mother’s time
at college. A similar line of thinking about a father’s business partner may lead
you to that family’s recollections, business records, ads or listings in city directories,
or news articles about your father or his business partner.
Places. What places were part of your childhood, or your parents’ lives?
Think about where you (or they) went for family gatherings, and about family cemeteries,
churches, funeral homes, schools, places of business, vacation destinations and other
locations that figure in family memories. Consider your old neighborhood, your grandparents’
ranch or farm, or your mother’s description of her childhood home.
What can these memories tell you about your family history? Mention them to relatives
and see what recollections they prompt. Look for Sanborn or other maps of old neighborhoods.
See if you can find old images of the cottages at Lake Erie. And definitely look for
records connected with these places, such as membership records for Grandma’s Methodist
church or burial information from a cemetery or funeral home.
Use the same line of thinking to explore the “researchability” of other memories:
a sporting event you attended with your dad (find news coverage to flesh out the memory),
or an annual trip to the state fair to see Grandpa’s prize-winning livestock (look
for state fair award lists and photos).
Objects. The “stuff” you associate with your family, such as an automobile
or household appliance, provides another piece of the family puzzle that can jog memories.
Did your mother use only one brand of detergent? Was your brother obsessed
with Superman comics? These details provide insight into daily lives, personalities
and values. Memorabilia such as photos and heirlooms can further inspire your memory
of people and places. What pictures or descriptions can you find, and what meaning
did they have? Share these and other treasured family artifacts with relatives—you
never know what they might remember.
My new book Story
of My Life can help you remember and document memories of the people, places,
events and objects associated with your family history. The book provides a place
for you to organize your thoughts and tie them to a certain time, place or person.
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When you start writing your life’s stories, you may wonder what to put in and what
to leave out. Should you mention that time you got arrested, or when your best friend
betrayed you? What about your difficult relationship with your dad? What if telling
your stories will reveal someone else’s secrets?
Writing your life story can raise questions about how to be fair and honest, and what
stories of your life should keep private. Story
of My Life workbook author
and guest blogger Sunny Morton has three quick things to consider when you start writing
your family history:
Everyone has a right to privacy. Writing about your life doesn’t obligate you
to share all your stories. Chances are there are some events, relationships,
failures or disappointments in your past you’d rather not write about.
While you should consider acknowledging all life-changing events (even if you choose
not to dwell on details), you don’t have to write about everything. For painful events
that prompted major changes in your relationships, career, living circumstances or
way of life, a passing mention—along with the results—may be sufficient: “After my
divorce, I moved to Seattle, where my sister lived. I wanted to leave painful memories
Honesty is key. You don’t need to tell everything—but everything you tell should
be true. Of course, you won’t intend to write falsehoods, but it can be tempting
to downplay your role in a big family argument or skip over the nice things your “worthless”
baby brother actually has done for you. Nobody is all good or all bad, including yourself.
Try to write about everyone fairly. In doing so, you may discover some new truths
in the process of writing: how you felt about someone, what you learned from a situation,
how you feel now.
Consider including at least some of these insights in your life-story writings. You
may think it’s obvious what the past taught you or how you might feel, but that may
not be the case. And your insights or life lessons may turn out to be the most valuable
part of sharing your memories (for you and others).
Think twice before revealing someone else’s secrets. Many who write their life
stories have to decide whether to divulge confidential or sensitive information about
someone else. Should you write about a relative’s addiction, debts, temper or marital
problems? Consider the answers to three questions:
First, is this your story to tell? If it didn’t significantly affect your life, it
doesn’t really belong in your life story.
Second, what are your motives? Revenge, or an unfortunate but real need to set the
Finally, who may be hurt by your revelation? Even if the person with the secret is
dead, that person may have living loved ones who may suffer.
After considering these questions, you may still see the need to reveal
confidences, but you may approach it more sensitively.
My new book Story of My Life guides you through the process of deciding what
stories to tell, telling them (including lessons learned) honestly, and focusing on
what’s most important. You’ll find hundreds of memory prompts and reflection questions
about the people and events of your past.
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