Urban Research Using Vital Records

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Urban Research

This article is part of a series.
Overview of Urban Research
Urban Research Using Census Records
Urban Research Using Vital Records
Urban Research Using Newspapers
Urban Research Using Religious Sources
Urban Research Using Land Records
Urban Research Using Maps
Urban Research Using Naturalization Records
Urban Research Using Court Records
Urban Research Using Business Records
Sources for Urban Research
List of Useful Urban Research Referencs

This article originally appeared in "Urban Research" by Loretto Dennis Szucs, FUGA, and John M. Scroggins, MA in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy


The information contained in vital records (births, marriages, and deaths) varies by the locality and the year. Many cities began collecting vital records information before the states did. Their interest was partly a response to the overcrowding and greater health problems in cities, and some states with large urban populations were the first to require registration for precisely the same reasons, particularly when the so-called Progressive Movement was strong. Neither Illinois nor New York had statewide registration.

Since the last edition of this book, many indexes to vital records have become available online, as have electronic abstracts of vital record data now being created and maintained in electronic form (in paperless or reduced-paper environments). In general, the amount of online vital records data is increasing, but there is a counter-trend to stop posting some data and even withdraw materials already online, as has happened with some vital records for California and Texas.

The largest collections of online vital records data are on either sites sponsored by various levels of government (generally free access) or on major commercial sites, such as Ancestry.com and VitalSearch. Smaller online collections can often be found through a Google or similar search. Two online sources for information about where to find vital records are “Vital Records Information” and “Where to Write for Vital Records,” a service of the National Center for Health Statistics.

Birth Records

Birth certificates usually indicate the date, time, and place of birth; sex of the baby; the names of the infant and parents; and the attending midwife or physician. The return of birth for Charles Hunze, 6 February 1881, while not specifying the parents’ exact birthplaces, does provide a region (Prussia and Hesson), the family address, the maiden name of the mother, and the father’s occupation. One collection (more than one hundred thousand entries) of midwives’ records for Chicago is at Northwestern Memorial Hospital Archives. It was recently made accessible by a microfilming project of the Genealogical Society of Utah and is available from the LDS Family History Library and its Family History Centers. Similar manuscripts exist for other places, although you must search to locate them. Delayed birth records can be as useful as a record filed at the time of birth, but they are usually filed separately and are often overlooked.

Marriage Records

Marriage certificates often list the man’s name and age, the woman’s maiden name and age, and the name of the presiding minister or official. If necessary, you can connect the minister to the religious institution through contemporary city directories. The marriage license application is more desirable because it usually has more information, but in some places the application is either no longer extant or not publicly available. Marriage indexes, often compiled from newspapers, are also very useful for pinpointing dates.

In Cincinnati, the marriage records were destroyed when the Hamilton County courthouse burned—not once but three different times (1814, 1849, and 1884). The WPA reconstructed the marriages from surviving pages and compiled a new set of indexes. The Daughters of the American Revolution also reconstructed the marriage records using ministers’ records, diaries, church registers, justice dockets, original certificates, and newspapers. The combination of both sets is more complete for some surnames than the records were before the fires.

Death Records

A death certificate usually contains at least the name and age of the decedent; the date, place, and cause of death; the name of the attending physician; and the place of burial. Later records contain more information. In metropolitan areas, you will need at least an approximate death date to request a death records search. With the Social Security number, recorded on the death certificate since 1937, you can often access other sources. Sometimes records are requested on the assumption that a death, birth, or marriage took place within a city’s borders when, in fact, the event took place in an adjacent community.

The Genealogical Society of Utah has microfilmed vital records for many municipalities, and Family History Centers may provide the only opportunity to do a competent search. The sheer volume of documents in the care of the metropolitan agency makes the search difficult; vital statistics agencies are usually overworked, understaffed, and ill-prepared to do lengthy or thorough searches. When the exact date of an event is unknown, the name common or misspelled, or the handwriting questionable or illegible, the complications can become insurmountable. Additionally, vital records’ accessibility is subject to change with little or no notice. State legislation has opened, restricted, and sometimes completely eliminated genealogists’ access to the records. If you are making a special trip to a vital records office, you might spare yourself a good deal of frustration by calling ahead to verify access policies and fees. Death indexes for certain time periods are available online for some states, so it might be most advantageous to do a preliminary investigation on one or more of the search engines available on the Internet.

The Social Security Death Index (SSDI), available online or on CD-ROM from a number of sources, can help you determine where a person lived. Most common versions, derived from the U.S. Social Security Administration’s electronic Death Master File, include the person’s name, Social Security number, name of the state where the Social Security number was issued, date of birth, date of death (often only the month and year for deaths before 1988), last residence location (in most cases), and last benefit location (in some cases). Note that the last two items are based on ZIP codes in the Death Master File. City, county, and state information is derived from the ZIP code and may be incorrect if the area covered by the ZIP code has changed since the time of death. Most of the online versions are updated frequently, many may be searched for free, and some offer links that generate letters to the Social Security Administration to request copies of applications for Social Security numbers. Using maps to locate where a person was enumerated in the 1900–30 censuses and comparing that with the area covered by the ZIP code of the last residence shown in the SSDI may help determine whether a person has moved around or remained in one place. The Ancestry.com version contains an additional field that can help track changes in location—the year in which the Social Security number was issued if after 1951.

A few American cities have bound volumes of records. New York City printed vital records by order of the borough governments. Each annual volume was individually indexed. Today these sources are available on microfilm only at the Municipal Archives, Department of Records and Information Services <home.nyc.gov/html/records/home.html> and the Family History Library and its Family History Centers. The department maintains an online borough-by-borough list of “New York City Vital Records at the Municipal Archives."

Special indexes can be of great assistance where they exist. For example, the WPA compiled an index to Chicago deaths, 1871 to 1933, in 1933. Inaccessible except to agency officials until recently, it is now available on microfilm through the Family History Library and its Family History Centers.

Finding Death Dates

Obituaries provide valuable biographical data and, for many people, are the only printed sources with such information.

More recent obituaries, especially for deaths since about 1999 but sometimes earlier, can often be found online. Most large urban newspapers include staff-written obituaries and paid death and funeral notices in their online editions but only for a limited time. Typically these notices are available for free for seven to fourteen days after publication. Most are then available on obituary-oriented commercial websites.

Legacy.com provides obituary hosting services for many newspapers. Depending on the newspaper, notices are generally kept online for thirty days or one year. Searches by newspaper or surname of the decedent are free, but more advanced searches require a paid subscription.

“America’s Obituaries and Death Notices,” a service of NewsBank.com, allows searching for any name, other text, or date. Searches can be limited by state or newspaper. The service is available through many public library websites, either from computers in the library or from home with a participating library card number or other password.

ObituaryRegistry.com is a subscription-based service that claims to have about 25 percent of U.S. death notices and obituaries published since March 2000 and a much higher percentage of current notices. The basic service marketed to genealogists allows searching by place of death and by surname. Subscriptions allowing advanced searches, such as for names of surviving family members, are much more expensive.

Betty M. Jarboe’s Obituaries: A Guide to Sources is an invaluable finding aid for obituaries in newspapers and periodicals, particularly when the population of a city makes searching for a death date unusually difficult.[1] A typical citation from this source shows that the Colorado Historical Society Library has files of newspaper birth, marriage, and death notices from the 1860s to the 1940s. Another entry indicates that the New Orleans Public Library has a card file of approximately 523,000 obituary cards, which it is expanding by 25,000 new cards per year. Monroe County, N.Y. Cemetery Record Index is another of many entries for metropolitan areas in Jarboe’s work.[2]

The obituary collection at Ancestry.com contains obituaries from hundreds of newspapers. Ancestry.com searches the Internet daily to find new obituaries, extracts the facts into the site’s obituary database, and provides source information and links to the full obituary text. This feature is most useful for locating recent death information.

An unusual example of combining records to find a death date is the case of Solomon Schwartz. His descendants moved away from Chicago, and his death date and burial place were no longer known, although the descendants remembered that he had been buried in a Jewish cemetery. His great-grandchildren could not find his name in the city death index, and they could not use cemetery records because they are arranged chronologically and by lot numbers. However, in the county recorder’s records, a deed book marked “Cemeteries” contained original title records arranged by cemetery. Solomon Schwartz’s record was in the second Jewish cemetery consulted. Only the number of the conveyance, the date, names of the grantor (cemetery) and the grantee (Solomon), and the legal description of the cemetery lot were given; but further investigation in the cemetery’s records proved that it was the correct man.

Coroners’ Inquests

Coroners’ inquests are infrequently used records. If there is reason to believe that an ancestor died from any violent, unnatural, or unknown cause, the resulting inquest may contain a wealth of information rarely found in other sources. Maryland and Virginia have inquests dating back to the mid-seventeenth century. Many of the deaths reported annually in a city end up in the coroner’s files, which are now commonly under the jurisdiction of the city or county medical examiner. Earlier records may contain more details than later files do. Coroners’ files may also provide personal histories of the victim through exact birthplaces, dates, names of parents and other relatives, educational and occupational background, military service, Social Security number, and much more. A doctor’s statement may incorporate a medical history and physical traits. Eyewitness accounts often contain insights into the character of a victim and record the drama of the death itself. A coroner’s verdict concluded early case histories, but more recent reports do not determine guilt. They also provide leads to subsequent court cases. Usually an exact death date is needed, because this record type is usually arranged chronologically, and most are not indexed. Inquests stemming from catastrophes are sometimes grouped under the name of the disaster, such as the Iroquois Theatre Fire. Coroners’ inquests combine effectively with news accounts of disasters, which provide casualty lists and background details on each event. For more information and illustrations of sample reports, see Laura Szucs Pfeiffer’s Hidden Sources: Family History in Unlikely Places.[3] Online finding aids to coroners’ inquests can be elusive. Sometimes they can be found among county or city records inventories listed on the state archives website. A good starting point for locating potential collections is to type “Coroners’ Records” in a search engine.

Undertakers’ Records

Undertakers’ records often include more detailed information about a decedent than does the official county death certificate. However, mortuaries may be difficult to locate in the city because of shifting neighborhoods. A search of Google for “funeral homes” returns a list of both directory sites and individual firms. For older information, use city directories to trace a family-owned establishment to a new location in the city (see the section on morticians in chapter 4, “Business, Institution, and Organization Records”). A successor might know the whereabouts of records from defunct establishments, and cemeteries that have been in existence for some time are often able to locate files of defunct undertaking establishments. Some genealogical societies have traced the histories of funeral homes in the areas they serve. Records from 398 funeral homes in the Chicago area have been surveyed by Kirk Vandenburg for the South Suburban Genealogical and Historical Society, P.O. Box 96, South Holland, IL 60473. During the process of the survey, every attempt was made to locate records of funeral homes that had changed names or gone out of business. Similar projects have been undertaken by other genealogical societies across the United States.

Cemetery Records

There is no direct route to cemetery records in metropolitan areas. Nonsectarian cemeteries generally maintain their own files. Policies vary somewhat, but many cemetery officials will give minimal information over the telephone: names of individuals interred in a single plot, exact grave locations, and current owners of the plot. Additional information usually requires a fee. Since records are, in most instances, cross-indexed by location and chronology, seldom does a comprehensive index exist. The key to cemetery record use is an exact death date for at least one of the individuals buried in a given plot. This, in turn, can lead to names of others in the same place. Many a city has removed the deceased and paved over an old cemetery that was in the way of urban progress. Records for these cemeteries can be especially challenging to track down. Consulting old histories, historical societies, and, of course, genealogical societies in the area of interest is the recommended approach. Carolee Inskeep’s The Graveyard Shift: A Family Historian’s Guide to New York City Cemeteries provides contact information and brief histories for cemeteries throughout the city.[4]

Genealogical societies and DAR chapters have been engaged in transcribing and publishing cemetery records for years. Many of the publications are described on local genealogical society websites. Many transcriptions, generally for rural areas, have been posted online by local societies or as part of the USGenWeb Project. Even if these organizations have not been involved in the cemetery work directly, they are usually the first to know about and to advertise such projects in their publications. For example, The Generator, the newsletter of the St. Mary’s County Genealogical Society (Maryland), announced the publication of Records of St. Paul’s Cemetery 1855–1946 (Elaine O. Zimmerman and Kenneth E. Zimmerman, P.O. Box 276, Woodstock, MD 21163) soon after it was completed. The two thousand names of German immigrants who were listed in the Baltimore city cemetery include transfers from the old cemetery owned by the German Evangelical Lutheran Church. As the newsletter suggests, cemetery publications take on additional value because the stones in many have weathered or been vandalized to the extent that they are no longer readable. Interment.net claims to have over 3.5 million cemetery records from over 7,400 cemeteries around the world. Although the site has relatively few transcriptions from urban cemeteries, it does include complete listings for many national and other veteran cemeteries.

Many cemeteries and cemetery records can now be located through Internet sites. While most sites provide only addresses and contact information online, some, such as The Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, include an every-name index to interments there. Also worth remembering is the fact that thousands of cemetery records have been microfilmed and may be found by locality at FamilySearch.org.


  1. Betty M. Jarboe, Obituaries: A Guide to Sources, 2nd ed. (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1989).
  2. Monroe County, N.Y. Cemetery Record Index (Rochester, N.Y.: Rochester Genealogical Society, 1984).
  3. Laura Szucs Pfeiffer, Hidden Sources: Family History in Unlikely Places (Orem, Utah: Ancestry, 2000), 54-56.
  4. Carolee Inskeep, The Graveyard Shift: A Family Historian's Guide to New York City Cemeteries (Orem, Utah: Ancestry, 2000).

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