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Rhonda's Tips: Genealogy Questions Answered
by Rhonda R. McClure

September 26, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Missing from the Social Security Death Index

Q: My grandfather died in 1958 and he isn't in the Social Security Death Index although he had a social security number. I have his social security card which was issued in 1936 and he was also awarded a monthly pension in the 1950's (per a copy of a letter I have). Why isn't he in the online index? -- Carol

A: There are many misunderstandings about the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). While we would like it to be, the SSDI is not an index to everyone who has ever died in the United States. In fact, it isn't even an index to all people who have died in the United States during the 20th century.

I have received questions from individuals wondering why their ancestor, who died in the 1700s, is not listed in the Social Security Death Index. When considering why you can't find your ancestor in the Index, it is important to understand the history of the Social Security program. Begun in the 1930s, and the reason that the 1880 census was Soundexed the way it was, social security cards and the SS-5 form are a contemporary resource, more contemporary than even state level vital records.

Although Social Security began in the 1930s, entries in the Social Security Death Index do not begin until 1962, when the Social Security Administration computerized their Master Death File. This does not mean, though, that if a relative died after 1961 that he or she is automatically included in the SSDI. There are a number of different individuals, including railroad workers, teachers, and doctors, who were either never included or are still not included based on their own pension system. The fact that your grandfather died in 1958 is probably the biggest reason why he is not listed in the SSDI.

This does not prevent you from getting a copy of his SS-5 form. Given the current price tag of more than $25, though, you may not be interested in getting his SS-5 unless there is information you have not been able to find in other resources. I mention it, though, because there may come a time when you do need to get a copy of the form and you aren't able to find that person in the SSDI. If you can show the Social Security Administration that the person is deceased, then you can still write for the SS-5 form. To show the Social Security Administration that the person is deceased, I reference the death index (such as the California, Texas or Kentucky death index) in which I found him or her or I include a copy of the death certificate. Not all of the available online indexes offer you the social security number. If you don't have the number, you can still request a copy of the SS-5 form.

Send any inquiries to the address below. I usually send each request separately with a separate check.

Social Security Administration
Office of Central Records Operations
Attention: FOIA Workgroup
PO Box 17772
300 N. Greene Street
Baltimore, Maryland 21290

It takes anywhere from two to eight weeks to get the copy back usually, though not knowing the social security number may cause a delay.

Where Was He Really Born?

Q: I am researching my great-great-grandfather, Samuel L. Reed (1873-1927). On his daughter Mary Mercides Reed's birth certificate (1914-1987), his place of birth is listed as New Hampshire. In the 1920 Census for Louisiana, however, his place of birth is listed as Pennsylvania and his mother is listed as being born in Florida. Yet a third source, the 1880 Census for Georgia, lists him as born in Pennsylvania but lists his mother as being born in Pennsylvania as well. He was a ship captain that's why he is listed in so many different places in the census. Do you have any idea how I prove which is his real birthplace without needlessly paying fees to search for records which might or might not exist? I've been to the Archives for New Hampshire, can't find him, but I don't have any plans to visit Pennsylvania or Florida soon, so I'm at a loss. -- Amy

A: First let me welcome you to the fold. So many of us have similar stories to share. The problem is that the information found in the records mentioned could have been supplied by any number of people, especially the census.

The census enumerator was not required to talk to someone in the household. Sometimes, the enumerator spoke with someone who didn't necessarily know everything about the family. For instance, in those households with maids or other servants, it is possible that the enumerator asked his questions of that servant. Given the distinctions between the servant class and the wealthy, I suspect that the servants often did not know everything about the family.

In situations where no one was at home when the enumerator came by, he was allowed to ask the questions of a neighbor. In fact, this is still a current practice. During the 1990 census enumeration, I was visited by the enumerator. At first I thought our form had been lost in the mail or something, but instead the enumerator wanted to ask me questions about a next door neighbor whom she had been unable to make contact with. I knew nothing about the neighbor. But if I had known something or thought I knew, the information could have been erroneous, but recorded for posterity.

You also need to look at the records you are using and how close they are to his date of birth. The 1880 census in your case is the closest. You didn't mention, but if his mother is alive in the 1880 census, then it is possible that this will turn out to be the most accurate of the records.

Unlike today where we must show proof of birth and identity at every turn, back in the 1800s this was not the case. People didn't remember exact birth dates as we do today. They may have known they were born near Christmas or some other holiday or eventful day rather than knowing the exact date of birth. The same is true of the place. We can only go by what is on our birth certificate today and they could only go by what they were told.

If he was born in Pennsylvania, you may find it hard to find proof of that. Samuel's birth is a little early for their records. However, you won't know until you try. First check the Family History Library catalog. Often you can save money ordering the microfilms rather than order vital records from the state or county.

If you haven't done so already, you will also want to look for your great-great-grandfather's death certificate. While there is the potential for yet additional conflicting information, you should check his death certificate and his marriage record to see if they support other documents you already have. Given what you have so far, it is likely that he was born in Pennsylvania rather than New Hampshire.

Wanted: Naturalization Records Online

Q: I posses the Certificate of Citizenship that was given to persons that were naturalized in the United States. Is there a source online to view the Declaration of Intention and other documents that were completed by the naturalized citizen? -- James

A: The Internet feeds the need for speed and easy access to information for genealogists. Because it has fed part of our need with certain types of records online, we have become quite the greedy little genealogists and we now want everything to be made available online.

Right now we have digitized images of the census and a few other incomplete record types available online. There are also a few digitized images of photographs and some interesting documents available through the Archival Research Catalog available through NARA. Beyond this any digitized images or transcribed records are making it online primarily through volunteer efforts. For immigration, the Ellis Island Records Web site is one of the better databases, but this of course is just the passenger manifests, not anything having to do with naturalization.

In your quest for the naturalization records, you will have to turn your attention to more traditional records and methods. Microfilm and writing to the Immigration and Naturalization Service are going to be your two major options. The defining characteristic as to which one you start with first is the date of the naturalization.

If the naturalization took place after 1906, it is likely that you will need to contact the INS directly. You will want to visit their Web site as there is a lot of good information to be found there as well as how best to contact them for ordering naturalization records.

If the naturalization took place before 1906, it is likely that the records you will need will be found at the county level. These records may be available on microfilm through the Family History Library, so a search of the Family History Library Catalog would be in order. You may find that the records have not been microfilmed and that you will have to contact the county or regional repository directly.

Going Offline for Research

Q: I have been looking for my great-grandfather forever. I know his name and his wife's name. They are both said to be born in Mishawka, Indiana but there doesn't seem to be a record of either of them. I have been to the Family History Center and have gone through the 1880 census without any luck. I am fairly new at this and do not know where to go from here. Can you help me find inexpensive sources or places to go? -- Darlene

A: The Internet has afforded many of us the opportunity to accomplish a great deal of our research from the comfort of our own home. While we must pay for our Internet connection, it is generally an inexpensive way to accomplish a lot of the initial research that we do. It is certainly a good way to make contact with fellow researchers through mailing lists and finding compiled, published family history Web pages.

While they are many avenues available on the Internet, it is not the only place where we need to research. Even the electronic databases available through your local Family History Center are not the end of the search. The Family History Center is actually so much more. It is your connection to the massive holdings available at the Family History Library. Most of the microform, that is microfilm and microfiche, records can be borrowed to your local Family History Center for a minimal cost that covers the postage and handling to deliver the microfilm to your local Family History Center.

A search of the Family History Library Catalog, as well as the US Geological Survey database did not reveal a Mishawka, Indiana. What I was able to find was Mishawaka, Indiana in St. Joseph County. The Family History Library has some items on microfilm. I think you will find that if they were supposed to show up in the 1880 census, that you will not find birth records, as the births for St. Joseph County look like they begin in 1882. However, you might have good luck with marriage records if they were married there.

You mentioned looking in the 1880 census and not finding them. This could be the result of the information you supplied in the search window. It could be that the dates of birth you have for them are slightly off. When searching in the 1880 census, be sure to leave the number of years at 5 so that you get the broadest search based on the year of birth you suspect. Remember to search for your great-grandmother with her maiden name unless you know they were married by 1880.

If you still have problems finding information, you may need to look back at the information you have amassed on your grandfather or grandmother, the child of this couple, to see if you have evaluated something incorrectly or the records who a possible alternative place of birth for them.


Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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