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This article originally appeared in "Business, Institution, and Organization Records" by Kay Haviland Freilich, CG, CGL, and Ann Carter Fleming, CG, CGL in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy
A variety of insurance records is available for research and will provide valuable personal information. At the same time, genealogists should be aware that privacy concerns might mean some of the more recent records are closed to research.
Prior to 1843, a few attempts were made to develop life insurance programs (only one, the Presbyterian Ministers Fund, established in 1758, continues to function). However, as more Americans left the relative security of the farm, the demand for life insurance, along with other kinds of insurance, notably fire and marine insurance, increased.
The growth of cities led directly to the establishment of life insurance companies.31 Sixteen major life insurance companies formed between 1843 and 1852 survived until at least 1942. By 1875 an additional nineteen companies were founded.
The nature of life insurance makes such records very interesting for a genealogist. Early insurance contracts were brief and loosely worded, but they did contain some data about their clients. Even then, policyholders had to provide information about their lifestyle, health, age, residence, and beneficiaries, who were usually relatives. By 1865, medical information on diseases or health conditions was included, and in 1889, Mutual Life began attaching a medical examination to the policy.32
Due to the nature of life insurance, records are maintained for at least the life of the insured. About 1925, life insurance companies developed a formal file retention policy, with each company setting its own guidelines. Some general provisions follow:
- Applications, which were the basis for the insurance contract, are kept while the policy is in force. Applications not approved are destroyed after ten years, and the application of a deceased policyholder is destroyed after twenty years.
- The abstract, or history, cards are retained permanently. These cards contain a summary history of each account. Other records kept permanently include account or renewal cards (records of premium payments), accumulated dividend cards, canceled checks and bank statements, cash books, directors’ minutes and committee records, ledgers, payrolls, and real estate records. Because older records are the most likely to be discarded, it is wise to search relevant records as soon as possible.
The application is most useful for genealogical purposes because it contains the most personal information. Some companies keep original applications permanently or microfilm them. Even if the application is discarded, other records may be helpful in providing relevant information about residence, health, age, and so forth.
- In 1910, one company realized it had lost contact with a considerable number of policyholders or their beneficiaries to whom large sums of money were due. It undertook systematic, often lengthy, searches to find those heirs. Their files are consequently very valuable to the family historian who finds an ancestor or relative in them.33 Several examples of how to use life insurance records to help reconstruct families can be found in Duane Galles’s “Using Life Insurance Policies in Genealogical Research.”34
The most common way of learning which company insured your ancestor is to contact living family members. Old insurance certificates or personal account books among family papers may also provide this information. Even a cancelled check or a checkbook register may lead to the name of an insurance company. Although these may be among the most difficult records to pursue, they are also among the most helpful.
An example of records that continue to be accessible to researchers are the Denver War Risk Insurance Applicants, 1916–1919. Active duty servicemen entering World War I were entitled to war insurance that provided them with compensation for disabilities or death. Beneficiaries named included wives, mother, or “wife and child.” Premiums were deducted from pay during the active period of the war. After the war, serviceman could convert the policies to permanent life insurance policies. An index to Colorado records appears at http://www.colorado.gov/dpa/doit/archives/military/war_risk_insurance.
In 1887, a mutual benefit society in Detroit sold life insurance to Polish Roman Catholic immigrants. Early claims were entered in ledger books and provide limited genealogical information. The records from 1912 to 1938 (later records are not available) are more helpful, and usually include a death certificate and a membership application. Researchers may find the place of birth in Poland and information on other family members. An online index of the insured is available <www.pgsa.org/directory.htm>. Scanned images of the original records may be ordered from the Polish Genealogical Society of America at PGSA – PRCUA, 984 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, IL 60622-4101.
Abstracts of Union Pacific Railroad life insurance records are available at the Family History Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, and have been microfilmed for access through the Family History Library. Information may include Social Security number, sex, race, occupation, birth date, birthplace, addresses, names of parents, marriage date, death date, cause of death, place of burial, and spouse’s name.
In order to calculate the risk of the loss of a building, insurance companies prepared maps of the neighborhood. These maps include detailed information about construction materials, number of floors, types of businesses in the area, and size of buildings. They provide an inventory of every home in urban areas of America. The largest creator of fire insurance maps was the Sanborn Company.
The Sanborn Company prepared maps for 12,000 cities from 1867 to the 1950s, providing details on each neighborhood. The Library of Congress houses over 700,000 sheets. Local libraries and societies have collections of the maps for their area. The maps are also available online at public and university libraries that subscribe to this resource. Sanborn is now owned by Environmental Data Resources, Inc., and digital images can be accessed on a subscription basis.
With these maps, genealogists can create a more detailed picture of their ancestor’s home and neighborhood.
For more than two centuries, individuals have insured their buildings—whether business or residential. Just as today, the policy holder’s objective was to protect himself against financial loss in case a building was destroyed and the insurance company wanted to know the extent of its risk. Rates were determined by building materials, use, and contents. Buildings constructed of wood had higher risk levels than those of brick. Some companies would insure a factory or a livery stable only by special contract. Surveys of a property made before a policy was issued will probably provide the most detailed description available of a business or home. The policy application and history place an ancestor in a specific place at a specific time.
The Library of Virginia holds more than two hundred volumes of individual applications to the Mutual Assurance Society that date from 1796 to 1966; details of the materials and some images are available at the library’s website <www.lva.lib.va.us>. Applications give details about the owner and business, and include a sketch of the building, whether it was a plantation home or a modest cottage. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania holds four sets of insurance surveys in its collection. The 1812 survey of Rachel Myers’ two-story brick home at 32 Christian Street in Philadelphia describes cornices, closets, mantles, and pediments of the main home and a back building that housed the kitchen “as customary.” A final note dated 28 September 1911 notes “this building remains as per survey.”35
Freedmen Bank Records
Among the most useful sources for tracing African Americans for the period immediately after the Civil War are the records from the various branches of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company. Chartered by Congress in 1865 to benefit former slaves, branches of this bank were established throughout the South and in some northern states. The branches kept registers of depositors with some personal and family information. While the information varied from branch to branch, it often included name, age, birthplace, residence, and names of former masters and of parents, spouse, children, and siblings. These registers through 1874 have been microfilmed by the National Archives on twenty-seven rolls of microfilm (series M816). A forty-two-volume index is available on five rolls of microfilm (series M817) or on CD-ROM. (See chapter 14, “African American Research.”)
Funeral Home Records
The final business record for many ancestors was recorded by the local mortician or funeral director. The information in these records often goes beyond date and place of burial, providing details not found elsewhere. In the case of an Irish mining family in upstate New York, the mortuary records of two sons’ burials in 1939 and 1942 provided the most important clues to their origins.
The death certificate, the sexton’s burial record, or the obituary, if not all three, identifies the mortician or funeral home. To locate a particular mortuary or any mortuary in a particular town, consult The Yellow Book of Funeral Directors or the National Directory of Morticians. Either of these directories should be available from a local funeral director or library. This information is also available online at http://www.funeral-dir.com/default.htm. If you are searching for a funeral home by city or county, use a variety of spellings. If the city is St. Louis, look under “St. Louis,” “St Louis,” or “Saint Louis.” Canadian funeral homes are available at http://www.generations.on.ca/funeral.htm. Locations such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and St. Louis need to be checked as both county and city names in catalog entries.
If the mortuary has closed, research may reveal the current owner of the records. Often a larger firm buys out a small business and transfers the records to the new owner. Unless someone inquires, those records may just sit in storage unopened. If the new owner does not want the old records, a family member may place them in storage, donate the records to a historical society, or discard the records.
Records of mortuaries and funeral homes that are no longer in operation or that have changed proprietorship can often be found in the custody of the town or county clerk, the local public library or historical society, or even university collections with a local focus. Check the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (see chapter 3, “General References and Guides,” for morticians’ records deposited locally). Likewise, older records for operating funeral homes may be found at the same places. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has records for the Oliver Bair Funeral Home from 1891. Those through 1920 have been microfilmed; the later ones are the original files. The same society also has records from other establishments, which can be identified by searching the online catalog. Typical of the information is the following, which is available for Karl R. Peters:
- Residence: 421 Woodbine Avenue, Narberth, Pennsylvania
- Date of death: 1 August 1924
- Birthdate and place, age: 9 April 1880, Germany, 44
- Occupation: Mech. Eng.
- Father, mother: [blank, except to note mother was from Germany]
- Place of Burial: Hazardville, Connecticut36
The example in the attached image provides a glimpse into the life of Henry Baumeister. It states his birth date, death date, and the city in Illinois for both events. Family and friends information includes the name of his parents and where they were born, and living siblings, nieces and nephews, plus the name of the pallbearers. This record provides the cause of death, plus underlying conditions and employment history. The name of the cemetery and a plot diagram is included. Armed with this much information, a genealogist should find it easy to uncover other data on Mr. Baumeister.
A copy of the obituary is included in some funeral home records. If the obituary is not included, there is probably a reference to the name of the newspaper(s) contacted. You expect the name of the local paper(s); however, be sure to notice if it lists an out-of-town newspaper and determine why. Most likely, a close relative lived in that town or the deceased had previously lived at that location. Be sure to follow up on this type of information.
When you contact a funeral home, state your relationship to the deceased. The business may be less likely to release the records of a next-door neighbor than those of a parent or grandparent. The best time to obtain copies of these records is if you happen to be a current customer. If possible, try to remember to ask for copies of the records of previous family members when paying the bill for a current funeral. This is generally easier to remember to do if the deceased is a cousin, aunt, or uncle rather than your spouse, child, or parent.
The amount of genealogical information recorded in the early years of record keeping may be limited compared to the amount of information compiled later; however, the early records tend to list the name of the deceased, death date, place of death, cause of death, and name of the informant. Occasionally, the age, residence, occupation, birthplace, and next of kin of the deceased are included.
Modern morticians’ records are more complete. The mortician gathers information needed to compile both the death certificate and obituary notice. These records are generally not available to the public, although they are available to the next of kin of the deceased.
The mortician’s record should be analyzed carefully for both the information it contains and the research it suggests, such as the following:
- Occupation. If the occupation of the deceased was unusual or governed by a labor union, investigate employment or union records, respectively.
- Service in the armed forces. Request military service records if the ancestor was a veteran. If the mortician applied for veteran’s burial benefits on behalf of the family, the branch of service will be in the record. Department of Defense Form 214, “Record of Discharge,” must accompany the application for burial benefits, and a photocopy may be in the mortician’s files. The branch of service may also be identified in the obituary notice.
- Name and address of the informant. You may be able to contact the informant, or if he or she is deceased, an heir of either the informant or the deceased may own or reside in the residence listed.
- Hospital, nursing home, or institution where the death occurred. These establishments maintain excellent records. Each institution differs on how long they will retain these records.
- Cemetery or crematory. If the deceased was buried in a family cemetery plot, cemetery records and tombstone inscriptions will provide information about other family members buried in that plot. Figure 4-10 is a form from the cemetery file, obtained after reviewing the obituary of George F. Myers.
- Marriage. Follow up on the marriage record to obtain details about the spouse of the deceased.
- Religious affiliation. The name and location of the church attended by the deceased may be recorded. Church records may offer extensive information about the parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, and children of the deceased.
- Fraternal organizations. If the deceased was a member of the Masons, Order of the Elks, Knights of Columbus, or a similar organization, any of these records may provide biographical information.
- Survivors. The list of survivors usually includes city of residence for family members as well as the names of married daughters, which provide excellent clues to other avenues of research in previously unknown locations.
- Names of pallbearers. Most likely those serving in this position had some connection to the deceased.
- Names of parents. These names can then be used to identify siblings of the deceased.
Monument companies keep very good records, often in the form of a card file for each tombstone etched. The name of the purchaser, the deceased, and perhaps an obituary are among their records. Some companies maintain an obituary file as a tool for future sales. They may maintain a file of all obituaries from their local newspapers or only those for burials in their area.