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

May 02, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Question on Data CDs

Q: I tried to look up record of my grandfather's death on the Social Security Death Index CD-ROM that came with my Family Tree Maker program. I'm sure that my grandfather, Milton Roberts, died in 1957 in Roseville, California but the CD does not contain this information. Could you please tell me why this information is not recorded on the CD? -- Bob

A: The omission of your grandfather from the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) is most likely not a mistake on the part of the makers of the Family Tree Maker software. The data found in the SSDI comes from the Social Security Administration's Master Death File. Since this master file wasn't computerized until 1962, there are few entries for deaths before that year.

Your question brings up an important point about how we deal with the many genealogical databases and resources available on CD and online. To make the most of any resource, it is important to know all there is to know about it. For example, some researchers may be surprised to learn that many digitized resources were originally published as books. Understanding the errors and omissions in those original books helps us to understand how accurate a digitized version will be. After all, digitization makes data more easily available but it does nothing to correct or enhance the original resource.

It is always a good idea to ask about resources, especially when you can't find someone you think should be in the source. This is the only way we learn as we advance in our genealogical research.

You were not the first to question an omission in the SSDI, and you won't be the last. We are so familiar with social security that we forget how truly new it is. It began in the 1930s and the Master Death File database we use now was not begun until almost 30 years later.

While digitization can occassionally cause additional errors, generally errors that appear in online databases were there before the source was digitized. Errors may be the result of the researcher, since many of the databases are submissions from fellow researchers. They may be the result of misinterpretation of the original research, as in the case of a published family history. Once in awhile they are the result of a digitization error -- for example, letters or words can be misread by the computer when it converts the scanned text to searchable, digitized text. In the end, unless the digitized document in question is of the original record (like with scanned images of census records), anything found on CD-ROMs and in online databases should be verified in other records. This is just good genealogical methodology.

Cousinship Terms

Q: I would like to know the meaning of "once removed" or "twice removed" when referring to relatives. I'm curious if "twice removed" means the same thing as "second cousin?" -- KayDee2521

A: Actually twice removed and second cousin are two different terms, each referring to a different type of relationship.

Second cousin is a term that means that two individuals each trace back three generations before the find a common ancestor. In other words, each cousin must trace back to a great-grandparent in common to be considered second cousins.

Twice removed refers to the number of generations that are different between two descendants. You trace the line from the common ancestor down to yourself. Then you do the same for the potential cousin. You use the term "removed" when one line of descent is longer than the other. Let's say, for example, that the common ancestor is your third great-grandfather. Your cousin traces back to the same individual, but in her case, the individual is her fifth great-grandfather. There are two generations more on her side. Therefore, you would be fourth cousins twice removed.

As long as each line of descent adds another generation, then you count cousins. For instance if both second cousins have children, these offspring are third cousins. The next generation would be fourth cousins. When you reach the end of one line of descent, the next child in the first line of descent is counted as a "removed." And you add one "removed" for each additional generation needed to get to the end of the other line of descent. To learn more about this topic, check out the article called "What is a First Cousin, Twice Removed?".

Before Ellis Island

Q: As I'm sure you always hear, I just started researching my family. I learned from a book that one branch of my family emigrated from Germany in 1843. Is there any way to get records earlier than Ellis Island seems to have? -- Carol

A: Although Ellis Island opened in 1892, the port of New York City was receiving immigrants long before that. In 1843, your ancestors could have come through New York City (among other ports). The good news is that for 1843, there is an index for the port of New York.

The Index to Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, NY, 1820-1846 is found on National Archives microfilm publication M261. This set of 103 rolls of microfilm is also available through the Family History Library, though with their own microfilm numbers.

Once you have located your ancestors in the index, you can then turn to the actual passenger lists, found in Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, NY, 1820--1897, found on National Archives microfilm publication M237. The 675 rolls of microfilm are available through the Family History Library (a partial set of these microfilms are available on CD-ROM and online). These are found under the city of New York in the Family History Library Catalog.

If you are hoping that the passenger lists will tell you where in Germany the family was born, you will be disappointed. This question was not asked until the early 1900s. At the time your ancestors came over, 1843, the passenger lists asked just five questions: name, age, gender, occupation, and country of origin. During this time period, the questions about immigrants were vague, even when it came to the naturalization records. Even though, you should investigate naturalization records in the county where the family was living.

Looking for a Death Certificate

Q: My father's great grandfather died 6/12/1929 in Detroit, Michigan. I'm trying to find a copy of his death certificate in order to find out his first name and, hopefully, his parents' names. His headstone in Calloway County, Kentucky just shows A.F. Clark and the reference to his death in the Paducah Sun newspaper only uses his initials as well. I've been to the web site for Wayne County (the county for Detroit) and it states that I need specific information to request a copy of his death certificate (for example, first, middle, and last name). How can I obtain any information on him when I don't know what his full name is? In addition, all I know about his wife is that her name was Julia Clark and she died in 1909. I believe she may have died when they were in Kentucky but there are no records for 1909 available to search. Since Kentucky's records start in 1911, I've not been able to find out what her maiden name was or any information on that part of the family. There is no one to ask information of because they have all passed away. I've searched through boxes of pictures and papers and don't have a lot to go on. Any guidance would be appreciated. -- Cheryl

A: You will still want to contact the county where he died. Detroit, as you pointed out, is in Wayne county. Wayne County has been keeping birth and death records since 1867 and marriage records since 1818. Often a county courthouse will allow you to supply less information and still get the record in question. While county courthouses would love for us to supply them with the full name, I believe that what you have (the initials and the date and place of the death) is enough to identify him and you should be able to get the certificate from them.

In the case of Detroit, you may find that his death record was filed in the city of Detroit. You can go online to the City of Detroit Vital Records site to order the death certificate from the city of Detroit. You will find the postal address as well as online and fax options for ordering the certificate.

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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