Sometimes even the best hunters do not always find what they are seeking. Tracking your forebearers may require the use of substitute records. Often, an alternative objective may be acceptable.
For example, the ultimate goal is to find an ancestor's birthplace in a foreign country. Someone tells you that a birth record would give the birth place. Obviously, you would go hunting for a birth record. Then you discover that you need the birth place to find the birth record. This seems like a vicious circle.
But then you learn that a marriage record might give the place of birth. In this instance, a marriage record is a substitute record for the birth. But you don't know where the couple was married, or even how long they were married.
Then you learn that a 1900 census provides the number of years a couple was married. Your ancestor was an adult in that time period and might be listed. You find that this record not only provides the year of marriage but the country of birth. Part of your goal to find the birth place is accomplished.
Then you learn that a foreign newspaper obituary has a greater likelihood of providing a place of birth in the old country than an American newspaper, so you go hunting for foreign newspapers in the language and within the geographical location of your ancestor in America.
Therefore, the hunt continues from one record to another as you pick up pieces of the information to solve your genealogy research problem. There are other substitutes of which you should also be made aware.
What are Possible Substitutes for Missing Vital Records?
Vital record substitutes are records which can be used when a birth, marriage, death, or divorce record cannot be found. Examples include:
- Federal or state census records
- Newspaper announcements
- Biographical indexes and databases
- Military service records and pension applications
- Alumni and school records
- Employment records
These records may provide just the date and place you are seeking. In this lesson, we'll look at each of these substitutes and discuss how they can help you.
How Can Federal Census Records Help Supply Missing Vital Information?
Federal census records contain various bits of vital information depending on the questions the census takers asked in a particular year. For example, the 1900 census not only tells how many years a couple was married, but also if this was the first or second marriage for the couple. It also gives the month and year of birth of everyone in the census, the state or country where each was born, and the state or country where their parents were born.
As you can see, a census record can be quite helpful and can point to a marriage year and locality for those missing vital records. A subsequent lesson in this series will cover more fully federal census records and their use.
State Census Records Can Fill in the Gaps.
If your ancestor moved between federal censuses or just could not be located in a federal census, try a state census. Many states took their census enumerations in the years between federal census enumerations.
In some instances, these state records give the actual town or county within the state where an individual was born. For example, the 1855 state census in New York provides the county of birth if the individual was born in the state of New York. State census records may be obtained on loan through a local Family History Center or through the state libraries where the census was taken.
Marriage Record Substitutes
Marriages might be recorded in land or property records. Perhaps just the name of the spouse is given in a will or estate papers, but sometimes land is given by the bride's father to his daughter as "dower property" around the time of a marriage. Homestead and other land applications often include reference to a marriage if the wife had to prove ownership after the death of her spouse.
Military pension papers also list a spouse and may include a copy of the marriage license to prove a right to bounty land or a monetary benefit. Sometimes, a marriage is recorded on an emigration or naturalization record, or on citizenship and passport records.
Newspaper Records Can Act As A Substitute.
Newspaper announcements giving an anniversary such as a 25th or a 50th wedding anniversary will give you excellent clues as to the marriage date and place. Sometimes, the actual date itself will be provided. Newspaper obituaries or articles may provide a date and cause of death, as well as the whereabouts of other relatives.
There are several state-wide or regional indexes to obituary notices. Examples include:
- Obituary Index at the New Orleans Public Library. This index covers the years between 1804 and 1972.
- Death Notices from Louisiana Newspapers, 1811-1919, by Brenda L. Mayers and Gloria L. Kerns.
- Personal Name Index to the New York Times Index 1851-1974 with its five year supplements compiled by Byron and Valerie Falk.
- Fatalities in West Virginia Coal Mines 1883-1925, by Helen S. Stinson. This rather unique title covers reports of mine inspectors.
Birth announcements for an individual may have been recorded, especially in the early 20th century. Earlier announcements give the birth date but often state, "A child was born to John Bishop of Woods Crossing this morning." Finding a name which corresponds to the date from a census in a twenty-year period after the birth could be just the evidence needed to link the two records together.
Biographical Indexes and Databases Can Be Substitutes.
Biographical articles can provide you with the vital information on people living in the 20th century. These include the well-known Who's Who in America or Who's Who in Science.
There are excellent large databases of information on biographical histories available in major university libraries, the Family History Library, and the Allen County (Indiana) Public Library. One example available in these libraries is the Biography and Genealogy Master Index CD-ROM. It covers more than three million people in 2,000 volumes of 675 current and older biographical dictionaries and articles. Each citation in the database provides the name, birth and death years (if applicable), and all the source information needed to obtain a copy of the citation.
Several state-wide biographical finding aids are available. Some examples are:
- Biography Index to the Wisconsin Blue Books 1870-1973, compiled by Darlene E. Waterstreet. It indexes over 10,000 biographical entries for over 5000 elected individuals in Wisconsin.
- Indiana Biographical Index, by Jimmy B. Parker and Lyman Platt. It is an index to 250,000 names in biographical sketches located in Indiana county and local histories.
- The Kansas Biographical Index: State Wide and Regional Histories, by Patricia Douglas Smith. This index cites over 35,500 biographies in 68 volumes of that state's biographical sources.
Did Your Ancestor Go to War?
Two major groups comprise military records: service records and pension applications.
Service records are available on microfilm at the National Archives and its field branches, libraries, and genealogical record repositories for participants in all colonial and U.S. wars up through the Spanish American War.
World War I and II, Korean, and Vietnam War service records are available through the National Personnel Records Center, 9700 Page Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63132-5100. However, these records are governed by privacy laws.
Most service records are indexed. For instance, Civil War service records for Union troops are indexed by state, while there is a Consolidated Index of Confederate Veterans for Southern participants.
Service records vary in content, but most give an age at the time of enlistment, so a birth year can be calculated. Some service records give parent and spouse information, as well.
A Pension Application is Another Substitute.
Pension applications have been issued for soldiers and sailors involved in all major U.S. wars (including Confederate Civil War participants).
The participant had to apply for the pension, and to a certain degree, prove that he was a veteran of the conflict.
These applications, whether approved or disapproved by the government, have been microfilmed and are available for inspection at the National Archives and its field branches, as well as public libraries and genealogical record repositories. For example, applications are available on microfilm for veterans of the Revolutionary War, up through the last application filed in 1878 by the last surviving widow.
As with service records, pension applications vary greatly in content and length. But there is usually enough information in the file to at least calculate a birth date.
If the spouse of the veteran applied for a pension, she had to prove she was married to the veteran by producing a copy of her marriage certificate or witnesses to her marriage (or that they lived together as a married couple).
Along with being a substitute for vital records, military pension applications provide a valuable source of historical information on the lives of our ancestors. Plus, these military records can link your family to pivotal events in our nation's history.
Did Your Ancestor Go to School?
Another excellent source for birth and marriage records are alumni and school records. Many schools and universities have kept excellent records on their students and faculty. Some of these have been microfilmed in the Family History Library, but the vast majority reside in the towns and counties in which these schools existed. Your local library has finding aids for addresses of colleges and universities. You can also use online telephone directories to locate the names of schools in a particular locality. Then contact the schools individually to learn where their records might be housed today.
Employment Records May Give You Exactly What You Need.
In some cases, employment records can provide you with birth, marriage and death information. For example, Railroad Retirement records include the insurance policies, marriage records and death notices, as well as some birth information for employees. These are available from the Railroad Retirement Board, 844 Rush Street, Chicago, IL 60611.
This is also true of Federal employees whose records may be housed in federal archives. Other employment records may be inventoried in the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, which is available at major university libraries, the Family History Library, Sutro Library in San Francisco, and other large state and public libraries. This resource gives the name of the repository housing the employment records, the size of the collection of original records, and how to contact that archive or repository.
Many other records can be substitutes for lost death records. A death date and place may be found in:
- Probate records
- Obituary records
- Coroner's records
- Funeral home records
- Social Security Death Index
- Cemetery records
- Federal census mortality records
In fact, a death record substitute is any record that would give the approximate date of death or exact date of death for an individual. Probate records are those used most often when a death record does not exist. Many states have state-wide probate indexes if you do not know an exact county of death. Some examples include:
- Index to Wills and Administrations of Arkansas from the Earliest to 1900, by Mrs. J. H. Stevenson and Mrs. E. L. Westbrooke
- Colonial Delaware Wills and Estates to 1880: An Index, by Donald Virdin.
- Index to Georgia Wills, by Jeanette McCall.
- North Carolina Wills: A Testator Index, 1665-1900, by Thornton W. Mitchell.
Coroner and Funeral Records
Coroner's records might indicate the cause of death for a person and may have newspaper accounts, as well. Obituaries might be kept in the newspaper morgue (the newspaper company's archives) or may have been indexed by a local society. Hundreds of these published obituaries are available in the Family History Library as mentioned previously, but the majority of original newspapers are found in state libraries.
Funeral home records are usually retained in the county in which the individual funeral home resided. Sometimes they might be sent to a state manuscript repository, but usually they will be found at the funeral home even if someone bought the funeral home business later.
Social Security Death Index
The Social Security Death Index is an excellent tool for individuals who died after the 1960s (records before this date are sporadic). If the individual is found on this index (which is available online ), a copy of the original application for a Social Security number can be ordered by using form SS5 available from the Social Security Administration. From that application you can receive the individual's original request for a Social Security number, which includes the name of the father, mother, and date and place of birth of the applicant. This can lead to new clues for finding an actual birth certificate or be used as a substitute record. Also, by ordering the death certificate that is given on the Social Security record, you may find much more information or more clues, at least.
Tombstone inscriptions and cemetery sexton records could serve as a substitute for a death record. Thousands of references to these records are available in the Family History Library, in genealogical societies, and in patriotic lineage societies. For example, thousands of cemetery and tombstone records have been transcribed by the Daughters of the American Revolution. These may be located by using the Family History Library Catalog locality search under the word "cemetery" in the county or town in which the individual lived.
Have you "trapped" any of your ancestors? If you haven't yet, you will. Hunting requires skill. Hunting ancestors requires the same dedication, skill, and knowledge of any successful hunter. These traits naturally develop as your passion for the hunt increases. And don't be discouraged if your research goal seems insurmountable. A few years ago we thought we would never be able to research our Russian ancestors, but now we do.
Just grab that tiger by the tail and you won't WANT to let go!
Working through the "puzzles" of your family's past can be just as fun as working through a crossword puzzle.
So, there you have it. A substitute record may be necessary when the original record is unavailable. Just because one record is lost, it doesn't mean there are not other ways to solve the problem.
By placing one part of the answer with another part, the puzzle will begin to materialize. Just like our beginning example on finding a foreign place of birth, you may find the month and year of birth from a 1900 census or a tombstone, the country from the census, a more exact area of a country from the 1920 census, a town name from an obituary, a religious affiliation from church attendance, and finally be lead to the foreign parish of birth that when searched will verify all the other clues.
Beginning ancestral hunters often need to solve many problems. They may need help learning to use equipment, or finding the best "hunting grounds." They also want to share their successes with others.
In the next lesson, you will learn about some organizations and places which can help to motivate, provide support, guide you to sources, and generally help you to do genealogy more effectively.
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