Generally speaking, in the United States, the requirement to record vital records (I’m primarily referring to birth and death certificates here, marriages are a bit different and we will discuss them in a later post) did not begin until the early part of the 1900s. This requirement was done on a state-by-state basis, so each state’s law started at a different time. Each state will have different privacy protections in place based on the state law at the time. This means some states are very difficult to get a vital record from and others are easier. For example, a birth certificate may not be available to the public for 100 years, but a close family member (you will most likely have to prove your relationship) may be able to get a copy of the record. These requirements differ from state-to-state, and the laws change over time. So, it is best to examine the state’s vital records office for the most recent information.
When I am looking for vital records, I usually have a few things I do to locate them. The order in which I do these may depend on how old the birth or death certificate is. If it is more recent, I might start at the state vital records office. If it is an older record, I might start at the FamilySearch catalog. My steps:
Read up at the state vital records office website.
Look at some of the larger genealogy websites for vital records databases, such as Ancestry.
Examine the state-level archives, historical society, genealogical society, or whatever repository the state sends its historical materials to (if they do).
Examine the state and county of interest at the FamilySearch catalog to see if they’ve been microfilmed. Some counties may have done a local registration for births and deaths years before the state requirement was in place. This is true for Wood County, Ohio and Audrain County, Missouri, two locations I have successfully found county level vital records.
Look at online, user-contributed sources such as Find a Grave or public online trees in case anyone has posted a birth or death certificate for the person in question. (This can be surprisingly successful.)
The most important thing when trying to get a vital record is understanding when each state began requiring them. And understanding that it took a while for the counties to comply with new state laws. If a death certificate was required in 1909 and you cannot find a death certificate for 1909 or even for several years after, realize that things did not happen instantly in the early 1900s. I have looked for vital records in some states and sometimes cannot find them for 10 or more years after registration was required. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t recorded at the county level (though it may). More likely, the systems weren’t in place yet to comply with the laws.
Next time, we will look at some vital records substitutes and places to look for alternatives to the traditional birth or death certificate.
The Periodical Source Index (PERSI) began as a print publication in 1986 by the staff at Allen County Public Library (ACPL). ACPL’s collection holds over 8,000 titles of genealogical society journals. PERSI was first published as a 16-volume set covering the years 1847-1985, and then annually. It was also available on microfiche at FHL and CD-ROM through Ancestry.
In 1997, Ancestry made PERSI available as a free online database. This was also the last year it was available in print. PERSI has been available for free through HeritageQuest and most recently through Findmypast (FMP). However, the contract with FMP is ending and for reasons not disclosed, ACPL is going to host the index on their own site: https://www.genealogycenter.info/persi/
What kind of index is it? Let me sum up the biggest misunderstanding in one sentence:
PERSI IS NOT AN EVERY NAME INDEX!
The biggest misunderstanding and misuse of PERSI is that users expect to be able to put in their person’s name or even a surname, and find information about that person. That is not how PERSI was indexed. PERSI is a keyword and subject index. The indexers did not index every name in a cemetery transcription published in a local society quarterly. They did not index every name in a transcribed local tax list. They did not index every name published in a military draft list for a county.
To best use PERSI, you need to think in terms of subjects and keywords. If someone is the subject of an article, you will find their name in the index. But if they were among those listed as petition signers, for example, you will not find them.
Over the next several posts, I will share some of my best tips, case studies, examples, and how to obtain copies of the articles, so that you can get the most out of PERSI.
While I am not opposed to paying for a service that gets me the records I need, I am also all for saving some bucks when I can. And the good news is, there are a whole host of free newspaper sites available for genealogists. Most of the free sites tend to be state-based newspaper projects hosted by a state archive, library, historical society, university, or some other interested state entity. There is also the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America which holds digitized newspapers and a directory of newspapers from all over the United States. So here is a list of some of my favorite, free, sites for finding or accessing newspapers online.
And I recently had the chance to do some research in New Zealand (online of course) and found this fantastic digitized newspaper site, Papers Past, that helped me find many answers and clues for the project I was working on.
Like I said, this is not an exhaustive list. When I find myself in a new area, I usually head over to one or more of the list sites mentioned first to find out what is available for that place in what time frames. There are so many small projects out there, small public libraries, universities small and large, museums, genealogical and historical societies, and so on that are digitizing their own collections as well. Be sure to do some looking around. You will be surprised by what you find!
This week, I’m going to share with you some of my favorite newspaper resources and websites. There are free and commercial sites. I’m not going to say I prefer one commercial site over another, because the truth is, the one YOU should subscribe to is the one that has newspapers that cover areas you are researching. If you do a lot of research, you might need more than one subscription. Check with your local public library to see if you can access any newspaper sites using your library card.
Newspapers.com, with Publishers Extra. I see a lot of people complain about getting a hint from Ancestry that there is an obituary but when they click on it, “they” just want you to buy another subscription. Well, yes, Ancestry and Newspapers.com are businesses, so of course they are marketing and trying to find ways to get more subscriptions. That’s the nature of business. BUT, the Publishers Extra subscription is full of newspapers that are still under copyright, so they have had to pay for extra licensing to be able to put those digitized newspapers online. So, yes, there is more cost involved. Let me tell you, I use it ALL THE TIME. If you don’t use it because you are not researching in more modern newspapers, then you don’t need to subscribe, but I love it.
GenealogyBank. There is not a lot of overlap between GenealogyBank and Newspapers.com. Often if I can’t find it on one site, I can find it on the other.
NewspaperArchive. Same as above. I don’t find a lot of overlap between the sites.
Each of the “big three” commercial sites for newspapers have their pros and cons. I find some of their filters, search functions, and image viewers to be better than others. But for the value of being able to view so many newspapers from the comfort of my own home, I am more than willing to put up with a little bit of frustration. Each of these sites allow you to view their titles and year ranges before you subscribe, so be sure to do that. Do not subscribe and then complain that they don’t have what you need. Be sure to check first.
Next week I will share my favorite non-commercial FREE websites for finding newspapers. There are some great resources out there!
We moved to Texas about three and a half years ago now…my how time flies! Through learning the library systems in the state, which are very different to how they worked in Colorado, I discovered that as a Texas state resident, I am allowed a FREE library card to the Texas State Library, and in particular to their online digital collections! This means that I can access HeinOnline and other useful databases for FREE!
HeinOnline is quite expensive but so useful when doing any law research as it relates to your ancestors, which you should be doing! I also discovered on the Texas State Law Library website that all of the historical Texas statutes are nicely listed and available to anyone (library card or not).
If you live in Texas and would like to get your library card, it can be done online. Click here for instructions. If you live outside of Texas, ask your local librarian or do some online searching to see what offerings are available in your state. There are valuable resources available. Be sure not to miss them!