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

March 09, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Missing Records

Q: I have been trying to research my father's family. I have a death certificate and his social security number. Each time I try to search through files, his files are not recorded. His death was in 1962, and according to the social security's death records, this year 1962 is not included in their files. When I search through the military records, that year and his social security number is not recorded. Is there any other site that may contain this missing information? -- Alesia

A: Whenever you are dealing with any kind of a search that involves a computer, you need to remember to think like the computer. Computers are completely literal. If you say you are looking for John Smith, died in the year 1962, then it will only show you the results of someone who fits all your search criteria. Even if it finds a John Smith born in 1961, it will not show you that individual.

This is one of the most common problems when dealing with the Social Security Death Index. Because the researcher has so much information, they fill out the search form completely. Usually this means that they omit the very person they were looking for. They forget that just because they know all that information does not guarantee that the Social Security Administration also knew all of the information, or that it was entered into the database.

When working in databases such as the Social Security Death Index, it is a good idea to start out with as little information as possible. Sometimes this could be just the surname (if it is an uncommon one). Next you can add the first name, or if the search engine allows, the first initial followed by a wild card (usually a *) to catch any variant spellings. If supplying the given name still results in too many entries, then go for the year of birth.

Systematically begin to narrow the focus of the search, only until there is a manageable number of entries to look through. And keep in mind that not everyone is in the Social Security Death Index or any other computerized database. You may want to see what help files are associated with the database to see who is most likely to be listed. The computerization of the Social Security Death Index was begun in 1962, so there are entries for that year in the database. There could be another reason why your father doesn't show up.

Military record databases may have similar issues, so proceed using the same tactics.

Died in 1961

Q: If my father died in 1961 and I have his social security number, shouldn't I be able to find information on him on the Internet? It is as if his info has dropped off the face of the earth. -- Trish

A: As far as the Social Security Death Index is concerned, your father is in that gray area. He died the year that the Social Security Administration was beginning to computerize the death index. So it possible that he would not appear in the computerized Social Security Death Index that you find is available online.

However, since you already have your father's death date (and probably his death record) along with his Social Security Number, you can write to the Social Security Administration and request a copy of his SS-5 form. This was the form that was filled out to get the Social Security number.

You can write to them at:

Social Security Administration
Office of Earnings Operations
FOIA Workgroup
300 N. Greene Street
PO Box 33022
Baltimore, MD 21290

You will want to modify your letter to include a copy of the death certificate, since you did not find your father in the SSDI. When you write to the Freedom of Information Officer, you will want to be sure to mention the following information:

  • Full name of your father
  • Social security number
  • Date of birth
  • Date of death

You will also need to include a check for $7.00 (it is $16.00 when you don't know the Social Security number).

Ship Records

Q: I'm having a hard time finding passenger lists for a ship I know my ancestors came to America on. I need to find it online as I have three young children and there is no way I'm getting to the library for any quiet research with the children. I know it was the ship Nancy from Rotterdam to Philadelphia 14 September 1754. I would like to see the passenger list to find out who might have traveled with him. His name was Henrich EISENHUTH and I'm assuming he came with a wife, whose name is unknown. His son, Bernard, was born in Lebanon Co., Pennsylvania in 1755. I have not been able to locate any birth or death information on Henrich. -- Deborah

A: Prior to 1820, there was not an organized effort to record those individuals who were immigrating to the American colonies, and then the infant United States. At the time your Henrich EISENHUTH migrated, Pennsylvania was still a British colony.

One of the best resources for locating possible records for those early immigrants is Passenger and Immigration Lists Index: 1999 Edition, 1538-1940.

This index was compiled by P. William Filby and was originally published by Gale Research. Filby has scoured many a published resource looking for passenger lists, lists of individuals who took oaths of allegiance, and other records that allude to the immigration of individuals.

Another volume that anyone researching early German immigrant ancestors should turn to is Strassburger and Hinke's Pennsylvania German Pioneers. Reprinted by Genealogical Publishing Company, it is now available on Family Tree Maker's CD 501 Immigration Records: Immigrants to Pennsylvania, 1600s-1800s.

Looking for My Family Coat of Arms

Q: I am new at researching my family. I want to know where to start to find a picture of my family coat of arms. Any information you can give me would be appreciated. -- Jessica

A: Heraldry and Coats of Arms are often a misunderstood subject. With few exceptions, the countries that have coats of arms do not give them to a family, but instead to an individual. There are rules by which the arms can be passed down through the generations. The most important of them is that the arms, as it is first given, can only be bequeathed to the oldest son of the oldest son and so forth. The other children can modify the arms, but they cannot rightfully claim the one given to the original recipient.

There are a number of online sites that will supply you with details about heraldry and its history. Many of these are included in a column I did last year: Overheard in GenForum: Looking for Coats of Arms.

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

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