Using New Resources Effectively

by Carolyn L. Barkley

I work in the booth at two national genealogical conferences (NGS and FGS) each year. As I assist customers for several days at a time, I have a first row seat that allows me to observe how many people approach a new resource. The most common method is to pick up the book, look at the spine and/or cover title, check the index for a specific item, and then check for the price. I’d like to share a strategy to approach a new title that will enable you to use it more effectively.

 One of the first things to do is to look for information beyond the cover and spine title. An author may have chosen a title that does not immediately reveal the contents of the book. How many of us would know on first looking at the title that George Elmore Reaman’s Trail of the Black Walnut is about Pennsylvania-German contributions to the founding of Upper Canada? Sometimes the spine or cover title have been abbreviated, omitting clarifying information. Consider Charles Edward Banks’ Planters of the Commonwealth, as the title is shown on the cover and spine. When I first saw this book on a shelf, given that I have lived and researched in Virginia for many years, I assumed that the title dealt with planters in Virginia. In looking further, however, the title page provides the following clarification: “A Study of the Emigrants and Emigration in Colonial Times: to which are added Lists of Passengers to Boston and to the Bay Colony; the Ships which brought them; their English Homes, and the Places of their Settlement in Massachusetts 1620-1640.� What a difference in understanding of what this title was about! An additional example can be found in J. Houston Harrison’s Settlers by the Long Grey Trail, where the title page explains that this book details pioneers in Old Augusta County, Virginia and their descendants, particularly the Harrison family.


Next, review the table of contents to gain a clear understanding of the book’s organization and format. Note the chapter headings. Is the book divided chronologically, geographically, by family, by subject? Are there maps and other illustrations? Are there appendices? By understanding the scope and organization you will be better able to judge the book’s applicability to your research and the ease with which you may be able to use it.


Approximately 25% of those looking at books at the conference booth will ask for assistance when they can’t find what they are looking for in the index, or if they don’t understand how to locate the indexed reference. I usually respond by saying, “Let’s look at the introduction (or preface) to see what it might tell us that will help locate the information.â€? This strategy is one of the most important you can follow when looking at a new resource. The introduction is where the author describes his (or her) intent in writing the book and shares specifics about the book’s format and tips for using it, including any abbreviations used. The introduction may be short but still provide a wealth of information. The Library of Virginia’s new publication, Guide to the Personal Papers Collections at the Library of Virginia, lists what types of materials may be included within the term “personal papers,â€? describes the extent of the collection, mentions prominent people whose papers are included, emphasizes the importance of the papers as replacements for burned records, and finishes by explaining the arrangement of the entries. George F. Jones’ German-American Names is a dictionary containing the spellings, meanings, and variants of about 18,000 names. However, its introduction is lengthy, almost a book in itself, and its three parts discuss the origin and significance of given names, the need and origin of surnames, and Christian names. The ability to understand the dictionary contents would be significantly diminished without reading the introduction. Finally, I am currently indexing a church history. The church history committee that developed the content and format of the book made a decision not to use individual footnotes or endnotes, but rather to combine the reference notes into one list, thus consolidating references to the same source. They suggest in their preface that anyone wishing to know a specific reference for a quotation or fact should contact the history committee – perhaps not the most researcher or reader-friendly decision, but nevertheless an important one to know prior to using the source.


Finally, it is important to understand the index, or indices provided at the end of the book. As a librarian, I believe that an index is simply a finding-aid to information included within the book. It can take many forms: every-name, place-names, subjects, or any combination of those. Some authors, however, offer additional information such as generation numbers, birth and death dates, marriage indices, and more. In considering any index, first understand what is being indexed. I mentioned the German-American Names book earlier. As a dictionary, it might be logical to assume that there would be no index. One is included, however, but the index citations are to specific paragraphs in the introduction, not to page numbers. Often abstracts of deeds or other records will provide index citation to the entry numbers in the list of abstracts, rather than to a page number in the book itself. In a previous article, I mentioned James Savage’s Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England.  Originally published in the 1860s, its index, created by O. P. Dexter twenty years later, is not the easiest to use. Men can be found by checking the various pages indicated for their surname. Women can only be found if their father’s or husband’s surnames are known. Only with this year’s publication of Patty Barthell Myers’ Female Index to Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England can women be easily located throughout the original four volumes.


A thorough examination of a new resource is essential to its effective and efficient use. Consult the title page; don’t rely solely on the information on the spine or cover. Look at the table of contents to understand the organization of the content. Thoroughly read the introduction and/or preface to gain an understanding of the scope of the book as well as find the tips the author may provide about how to best use the resource. Consider the index carefully to understand what is being indexed and how the index entries relate to the text. I guarantee you’ll be able to put the information in the source to much better use.



Surname Research

By Carolyn L. Barkley

Over 20 years ago, I agreed to be the Clan Barclay International’s genealogist. I was suddenly plunged into the world of surname research and one-name studies. In those days, one-name studies were a time-consuming process of extracting “all� entries of a particular surname and its variant spellings from such things as census enumerations, telephone books, indices of all kinds – literally any listing that could be found. Needless to say, this work created lots of piles of extracted information.

The universe of surname research has changed greatly in the intervening years as technology has either made the job much easier or eliminated the need for it altogether. I thought I would share some background information about surnames as well as point out some helpful sites. Why should we be interested? Simply put, because by researching a large number of individuals with the same surname, particularly in key geographical areas, we may eventually be able to tear down whatever brick wall we might be facing in our research.

When the world seemed a much smaller place in which most people didn’t venture over the next ridge line, surnames were superfluous. It was enough to add a label or modifier to someone’s given name to differentiate him from the next person with the same given name: Piper John or Tailor John, or Eric the Red, or Richard the Bald. These attributions were not passed down from father to son. As time passed, these names began to look more like the surnames of today, although they still were not necessarily used by succeeding generations. In Europe they tended to fall into one of four categories: place names (Richard Whiteacre or Joseph Bridges), patronymics (Llewellyn ap Llewellyn, John McIver, or Paul Sorenson), occupations (John Saddler or Albert Fletcher), or descriptions (James Little or David Lawless). To oversimplify, as time passed these names became identified with a specific family, rather than a specific individual, and were passed down the generations as the surnames that we know today.

Genealogical research offers us many opportunities to become “stuck,� unable to document earlier generations of a family or identify matrilineal lines. In-depth research of a particular surname may help resolve the problem. I recommend learning first about surnames in general and then about the surnames in your specific geographical interest in particular. Print titles offering such information include George Redmond’s Surnames and Genealogy: A New Approach (New England Historic Genealogical Society), Elsdon Smith’s American Surnames, George F. Black’s The Surnames of Scotland (New York Public Library), Charles Wareing Bardsley’s A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames, Edward MacLysaght’s The Surnames of Scotland (Irish Academic Press), Lyman D. Platt’s Hispanic Surnames and Family History, George F. Jones’s German-American Names, and Sheau-yueh J. Chao’s In Search of Your Asian Roots: Genealogical Resources on Chinese Surnames.

It is also important to know the geographic distribution of a particular surname. If you’ve located your ancestor but don’t know where to look for his origins, targeting areas that are most likely to have families with the given surname will focus your research. I recommend several websites to assist you in learning about surname distribution.

Hamrick’s U.S. Surname Distribution Maps provide four snapshots of surname distribution in the United States, based on data from the 1850, 1880, and 1920 censuses and from 1990 telephone books. The site not only provides a color-coded map indicating density of the surname across the country but also allows you to see changes over time due to population growth and migration. One caveat is that you need to be able to recognize a state by its shape as there are no mouseovers. I always have a problem remembering which midwestern state is which, and I imagine that researchers in different parts of the country have corresponding knowledge gaps. The maps can be captured and entered into newsletters or other printed documentation.

In Great Britain, the National Trust sponsors a project, “National Trust Names,� based at University College, London. The site provides maps of distribution of surnames in Great Britain, both current (1998 from a variety of sources) and historic (1881 census). Mouseovers are available to help identify the various districts. The site indicates that it will soon have a world surname profiler available, although it currently provides some distribution data (not map) for surnames in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. For example, a search for the surname “Duncan� indicated that Aberdeen, Scotland, had the highest concentration in the U.K., with Keith as the top postal code; in Australia, the Northern Territory was the top state; in New Zealand, Nelson was the top province; and in the United States, Arkansas was the top state. It was the 169th most common name in the U.K. in 1881, but only 205th in 1998. If I had a Duncan brick wall in Scotland – which I do and have had for years – it would appear that Aberdeenshire would be the best place for me to concentrate my research.

Other countries, such as Italy, have similar sites. The Italian site provides a less artistic map than do the previously mentioned sites, but some time spent on the site will yield at least two varieties of maps illustrating surname (cognomen) concentrations.

Finally, the U.S. Census Bureau provides statistical information based on the 1990 census. By using this site, I learned that the surname “Barkley� ranks 2,584th in frequency among surnames in the U.S., possessed by .005% of the population, while “Moore� ranks 9th, possessed by .312%.

The Internet is rife with sites for specific surnames. In a previous blog, we discussed DNA surname research projects, and I recommend searching to see if one exists for your surname. They contain a wealth of information and possibilities for connections to relatives. In addition, sites such as cyndislist and GenealogyForum provide surname centers with links to information about surnames, GEDCOMs from researchers in your surname, message board links, and much more.

Be very careful in choosing the surname site. I found some that spelled “genealogy� wrong and even included the word (shudder) “sirname,� or offered bogus family coats of arms. Choose a site with active and current links, accurate grammar and spelling, and a reputable sponsor or author. One example of such a site is England’s Guild of One-Name Studies. You can search their site to see if anyone has registered a study concerning your surname of interest, or join and register your own study.

You will always find sites that surprise you. As I’m the Clan Barclay genealogist and maintain the Clan Barclay Genealogical Database, I was surprised to discover that the Surname Genealogy Website (online since 1996) included a Barclay Surname Resource Center which was, I felt, remarkably incomplete as it didn’t include any reference to my database. Clearly I have my work cut out for me – but at least it’s better than copying entries out of phonebooks!

Observing Memorial Day – Veteran’s Cemetery Resources

By Carolyn L. Barkley

Call me a traditionalist, but for me Memorial Day is May 30th, not the last Monday in May (the dates will not coincide until 2011). While long weekends are certainly nice respites from the stress of the workplace, I think the purpose of Memorial Day has gotten lost in the calendar shuffle. To mark the traditional date, I thought I’d share some background about the holiday and describe selected online resources with which to research veterans’ cemetery records.

The legal basis for the creation of national cemeteries was established by an Act of Congress dated July 17, 1862. It authorized President Abraham Lincoln to “purchase cemetery grounds to be used as a national cemetery for soldiers who shall have died in the service of their country.” These cemeteries were usually located at a point of troop actions where general hospitals were located, or were established as memorials to those who gave their lives in battle, often at such locations as soldiers’ homes. By the end of 1864, twenty-seven burial sites were designated as national cemeteries, and by 1870 the number had risen to seventy-three as efforts were made to locate battlefield burials of Union soldiers and reinter them in more sacred ground.

The first Memorial Day (initially known as Decoration Day) followed the Congressional action establishing national cemeteries by six years. In May 1868 General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued his General Order No. 11, establishing May 30th as a day for “the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” The first observance was held at Arlington National Cemetery. While the holiday grew out of Union sentiment, women in the former Confederate states may, in fact, have been decorating soldiers’ graves as early as 1866. (Confederate Memorial Day is still observed in southern states, although the actual date of observance differs from state to state.) Memorial Day continued to be a commemoration of soldiers of the Civil War until World War I, when Moina Michael, inspired by In Flanders Field, began the practice of wearing red poppies on Memorial Day to honor those who had died serving their nation regardless of the war during which they had died. In 1922 the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) became the first veterans’ organization to sell poppies nationwide. The National Holiday Act of 1971, in ensuring three-day weekends for federal holidays, established the official observance of Memorial Day as the last Monday in May. In 1999 Senator Inouye introduced a bill (S189) to restore Memorial Day to its original date (companion bill H.R. 1474), but after referral to committee, no action has been taken. A petition in support of these bills can be found at In December 2000 the National Moment of Remembrance resolution was passed asking that all Americans pause at 3:00 p.m. local time to “observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect.”

Many of us have parents, grandparents, or other ancestors who died while in service or, as veterans, were eligible for burial in national cemeteries. I was reminded of this recently while working with a friend who knew her father had died in Africa during World War II, but who knew little else about his military service. We were able to locate his gravesite by visiting the website of the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). This Commission was established by Congress in 1923 “to commemorate the service, achievements, and sacrifice of U.S. armed forces where they have served overseas since 1917.” Their work is reflected in twenty-four overseas cemeteries with almost 125,000 American war dead, on tablets of the missing memorializing more than 94,000 U.S. servicemen and women, and through twenty-five memorials, monuments, and markers. The ABMC site includes listings of soldiers who died during the Mexican, Civil, and Spanish-American Wars and were buried in Mexico or in the Corozal American Cemetery in Panama; those who died in World Wars I and II and the Korean War; and those missing in the Vietnam War. A search for my friend’s father, Harry B. Stokes, revealed that he was a Major in the Medical Department, had entered the service from Nebraska, had died 2 January 1943, and was buried in the North Africa American Cemetery in Carthage, Tunisia. His service number, as well as the specific plot, row, and grave number, were included. The information provided will allow my friend to FOIA a copy of his death burial file from the U.S. Army Total Personnel Command in Alexandria, Virginia. Finally, if an ancestor’s cemetery is identified during a ABMC search, check the cemetery section of the site to find a description of the site with illustrations, information about hours and services, directions to get there, and the link to download booklets (with or without pictures) about the cemetery.

Another useful site is provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Under the category of Burial and Memorial Benefits, a Nationwide Gravesite Locator provides a search engine for burial locations of “œveterans and their family members in VA National Cemeteries, state veterans cemeteries, various other military and Department of Interior cemeteries, and for veterans buried in private cemeteries when the grave is marked with a government grave marker.” A caveat is that there is no information available for burials in private cemeteries prior to 1997. I searched for my father who died in 2006 and was buried in the state veterans’ cemetery in Agawam, Massachusetts. Because I was unsure of the full name of the cemetery, I tried searching “all” cemeteries. The first few searches yielded no matches even though I provided the full name and dates of birth and death. After some additional searches to determine the real name of the cemetery, I was successful in locating his record. If your first search does not work, keep trying! This site also lists all national cemeteries with the location (city/town and state), the year established, and the date of the first burial. In addition, several PDF articles about national cemeteries are provided, as is a 30-minute video entitled Landscapes of Honor & Sacrifice: The History of the National Cemeteries, 2003.

Also rich in research opportunities is cemetery records online, “a free online library of burial records from thousands of cemeteries across the world, for historical and genealogy research.” The site’s full coverage includes the United States, Canada, England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and more. For the purpose of this article, I targeted American national cemeteries. A list of cemeteries by state is provided with links to each cemetery’s website. Out of curiosity, I looked at the Custer National Cemetery on the Crow Indian Reservation inside the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The page(s) included an article about the cemetery and a transcribed list of the 4,571 individuals buried there. Always searching for Barclay/Barkleys, I found two: James G. Barkley, a 1st Lt. in the Army during WWII who was buried there in 1967, and a William Barkley, a Private in the 52nd Ohio B Infantry, who was buried there in 1914. It is, however, not necessary to know the cemetery name to use this site as surname searches can be entered. A search for “Barkley” yielded 143 hits. It appeared, however, that the number indicated was the number of times “Barkley” appeared, not 143 individual cemetery entries. There were actually only ten documents, some with multiple Barkley names in them, some referring to geographical entries such as “Barkley Road.”

Other sites that may assist in your veteran’s cemetery research include Access Genealogy’s national cemetery search (although I encountered more than a few broken links), and’s military records collection (fee based). Remember to include a Google search for the cemetery name to gain background information for your research. As a case study, I chose an entry located during my Barclay surname search on the ABMC site: George W. Barclay, a Corporal from Georgia, who died February 21, 1919, and was buried in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in France. I searched for him on and found his WWI draft registration card, identifying him as black, born in Virginia on 22 November 1889, and at the time of registration, a hotel waiter in Savannah, Georgia. As the site had suggested searching’s World War I Burial Case Files, I searched for that collection. While I could not find that particular title, with some degree of serendipity I selected American Soldiers of World War I. This choice linked me to page 212 of Soldiers of the Great War, where a list of Georgia soldiers who died of disease included Cpl. George W. Barclay of Savannah. A search of the 1910 census was inconclusive, yielding only a George D. Barclay, aged 19, born in Virginia, and a hotel waiter in Jersey City, New Jersey. A search in the 1900 census did not immediately provide a match. Further time and research will be necessary.

I hope you will check out these sites. They provide a wealth of information about individual soldiers and cemeteries, and illustrate the magnitude of sacrifice made for our country by many men and women. In addition you may want to check for the following titles:

Roll of Honor. Names of Soldiers Who Died in Defense of the American Union, Interred in the National Cemeteries. The U.S. Quartermaster’s Department published 27 volumes in this series between 1865 and 1871, listing over 200,000 Union soldiers buried in national cemeteries, garrison cemeteries, soldiers’ lots, and private graveyards. The original volumes have been reprinted in 10 volumes.

Index to the Roll of Honor by Martha and William Reamy. This volume lists the names, in alphabetical order, of the 228,639 Union soldiers included in the 27-volume Roll of Honor and includes a comprehensive index to burial sites.

The Unpublished Roll of Honor by Mark Hughes. This title includes records of national cemeteries omitted from the original series, records of headstone requests, and records of post cemeteries also omitted from the original series. Approximately 8,500 additional individuals are included.

NGS Conference in the States – Highlights

By Carolyn L Barkley

Over 1600 people – conference attendees, speakers and exhibitors – met in Kansas City last week for the National Genealogical Society’s Conference in the States. In addition to attending lectures on skill building and methodology, Midwest resources, migration, ethnic resources, land records, and a variety of workshops, those attending had opportunities to attend a reception at the National World War I Museum, take a tour of the Truman Presidential Museum and Library in nearby Independence, Missouri, or research at the Mid-Continent Public Library.

Now that I’ve returned home and sifted through all the things I managed to squeeze into my one suitcase, I thought I’d share eight of the more interesting things (in no particular order) that caught my attention.

  1. Mid-Continent Public Library is slated to open its new Midwest Genealogy Center on June 2nd. In order to make the move, the current genealogy department will be closed from May 27th to June 1st. The new center, billed as the “Nation’s Largest Stand-Alone Public Genealogy Library,” will be located on eight acres of land at the intersection of Lee’s Summit and Kiger Roads in Independence, Missouri. Costing over $8 million to construct, the center will have over 50,000 square feet of space on two levels. Amenities will include lockers, a break area, and limited food service for researchers, as well as several oversize parking spaces for researchers with RVs. Check out the video presentation and site plans at
  2. New title from Genealogical Publishing Company. The Female Index to ‘Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England’? is a new publication that proved very popular with shoppers at the GPC booth in the exhibit hall. James Savage’s four-volume Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England is one of the gems of published works on New England genealogy. Published in the 1860s, however, it paid short shrift to indexing females. While males can be found by checking the surname arrangement, women are spread throughout the volumes listed under their husband’s or father’s names. Finding a woman whose maiden surname is unknown, or who married several times has been tedious at best, or impossible at the worst. A surname cross-index created by O. P. Dexter in 1884 did not improve the ability to find women. Patty Barthell Myers’ compilation of a female index, however, resolves the problem and is a significant addition to any library, personal or institutional. Myers has indexed all females alphabetically by maiden and married surnames, with entries totaling over 50,000 names.
  3. Ancestry 25th Birthday Celebration. Ancestry celebrated its 25th anniversary in the genealogical business with a wonderful reception featuring a video retrospective of the company’s accomplishments over those years. Each attendee received a copy of the May/June issue of Ancestry magazine, of particular interest due to the center-fold map showing the migratory trends of our ancestors from Virginia to Ohio, Missouri, Kentucky, Illinois, and beyond. This map is one that you will want to keep in your files as a visual resource for your research. I’m going to put mine right inside the cover to Thorndale and Dollarhide’s Map Guide to the U. S. Federal Census, 1790-1920 (Genealogical Publishing Co.).
  4. For those of you researching in New York, the New England Historic Genealogical Society announced a new site highlighting their collection of New York resources: This online resource includes several databases including probate records, marriage and death records, settlers of Beekman Patent, newspapers and periodicals, published genealogies and biographies, court records, census tax, and voter lists, and cemetery and church records.
  5. Improved Catalog for the Family History Library in Salt Lake. FamilySearch and FamilyLink announced a new partnership to improve the catalog for the Family History Library  accessible at the Library, at Family History Centers, and at home by researchers. New entries will point to digital sources with online images of the original records. These images may be stored in a variety of locations including,, or, local genealogical libraries and societies, or your personal webpage. Some images will be free-of-charge, others will require payment, but the pointer to them will be available to all. One of the best features will be the inclusion of source citations and the ability to add a comment if you feel that the information is incorrect. Better still, anyone can add new data to the catalog. If your genealogical society posts images on its site – or if you add scanned images to your personal site – you will be able to notify the catalog site and have your images reviewed for accuracy by professional librarians prior to adding to the catalog. Check out additional ongoing FamilySearch projects at comment on them on the FamilySearch Labs blog. Projects under development include Record Search, Family Tree, Standard Finder, a Research Wiki, and more.
  6. Cherokee Family Research Center. This brochure caught my attention on the “freebies” table. The center, located in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, is operated by the Cherokee National Historical Society, Inc., [CNHS] a non-profit organization established in 1963 to “preserve and promote Cherokee history and culture and to educate the public about that history and culture.” The center specializes in helping individuals research their Cherokee ancestors and provides a collection specific to the period from the Trail of Tears (1838-1839) to the time of Dawes enrollment (1900-1906). The center is open for individual on-site research with paid museum admission, or provides staff who will do your research for you for a fee. In addition, CNHS offers a life membership to the First Families of the Cherokee Nation to those who can document that their ancestor was a “œlawful resident of the Cherokee Nation, east or west, prior to the ratification of the Cherokee Nation Constitution on September 6, 1839.” For more information, go to or email: [NOTE: Clearfield and Genealogical Publishing Company have published several titles on Cherokee research. Go to and enter a keyword search for “Cherokee”? to see the list of available titles.]
  7. Family Atlas. RootsMagic, Inc. has introduced a new software produce that can add visual detail to your research database. This software allows you to import your family data from RootsMagic or other genealogy software (the brochure says RootsMagic, PAF, Family Tree Maker, Legacy, or GEDCOM, so TMG users will want to check first). Family Atlas matches your places against its list of 3.5 million place names and locates them on the map. You can add markers (relationships, names, event types, etc.) and configure them with individual colors and shapes. You can also add, text, pointers, titles, and legends, and add lines between markers to illustrate migration. When completed, you can print, save to PDF or other graphic formats. You can download a free trial at
  8. Family Quilt. If you like to take a break from your research now and again, but still want to stay connected with your genealogy, consider making a family tree quilt. Our Family Tree Quilt Kits are available from J.J.Appleseed, LLC in Eugene, Oregon. A basic family tree fabric panel allows the beginning quilter to make a small-sized (24 x 24) hanging, personalized with family names. More experienced quilters may want to consider a 29 x 29, or a 40 x 40, wall quilt top kit. For the very ambitious, these quilts would make wonderful Christmas gifts for family members – or perhaps a great raffle prize at a reunion. Check them out at

Genealogical conference exhibits are always full of interesting products, books, and services. Make sure you plan to spend lots of time seeing all the possibilities at next year’s NGS Conference in the States in Raleigh, North Carolina, May 13-16, 2009.

Death Records: A Checklist of Ten Documents Every Genealogist Should Own

Note: As I am at the NGS Conference in the States in Kansas City, this week’s blog is an adaptation of an article by William Dollarhide that appeared in “Genealogical Pointers� in December 2006. Be sure to check out next week’s blog for news from the conference. Carolyn

William Dollarhide

1. DEATH CERTIFICATES. Always start with a death certificate as the names, dates, and places it contains will lead you to even further records. (Please remember that the certificate in itself is the beginning, not the end, of your search and that the information included may be incorrect.) A good rule is to treat the brothers and sisters of your ancestor as equals. Obtain a death certificate for each deceased ancestor on your pedigree chart, and for every deceased brother or sister of that ancestor. For example, if there were six siblings in the family, a death certificate for each sibling will give six different sources about the same parents, places where the family lived, names of spouses, names of cemeteries, names of funeral directors, and other facts about a family. If a death certificate for your ancestor fails to provide the name of the deceased’s mother, a sibling’s death certificate might give the full maiden name. How do you get a death certificate? Go to the where detailed information about accessing death records can be found. It is a free-access website and all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and all U.S. territories or possessions are represented.

2. FUNERAL RECORDS. A death certificate may mention the name and location of a funeral director. A funeral record may include names of survivors, names of the persons responsible for the funeral expenses, and, often, obscure biographical information about the deceased not available anywhere else. Modern funeral records are full of genealogical information about the deceased and may include copies of newspaper obituaries, death certificates, printed eulogies, funeral programs, and other details about the person. A reference to a burial permit, cremation, or cemetery may be included as well. Find a current funeral home in North America at This site provides the listings from “The Yellow Book,” a directory of funeral homes. If the funeral home listed on the death certificate is no longer listed in the current directory, it should be possible to locate the current funeral home holding the records of an earlier one. Funeral directors are also experts on the location of cemeteries in their area.

3. CEMETERY RECORDS. If the name of a cemetery is mentioned on the death certificate or funeral record, there may be a record in the sexton’s office of the cemetery or off-site at a caretaker’s home; the gravestone inscription may be revealing as well. When you contact a funeral home, ask about the cemetery where the person was buried and whether the funeral home has an address or phone number for the cemetery office, or if it can give you the name of the keeper of the cemetery’s records. Ask the funeral director for the names of monument sellers who cater to cemeteries in the area. A local stone mason may have a record of a monument inscription for the deceased’s gravestone. To locate a cemetery anywhere in the U.S., a special list can be obtained from the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) Geographic Names Information System (GNIS). The GNIS contains the names of over two million place names (map features) in America, of which about 107,000 are cemeteries. The GNIS website is located at Click on “Domestic Names” to search for any named cemetery.

4. OBITUARIES. A newspaper obituary, or at least a death notice, was probably published soon after the person’s death. Old newspapers from the town where the person died are usually available in the local public library, often on microfilm. If you know the name of the local newspaper or the name of the local library, try a Google search to obtain more information. You can locate many libraries at or you can ask your local librarian to assist you in determining the name of the local newspaper local the libraries, or perhaps online resources, that may have the issue of interest to you. If a library does not provide obituary searches, contact the local genealogical society to obtain contact information for local researchers who can obtain the obituary for you. A good list of American genealogical societies is in THE GENEALOGIST’S ADDRESS BOOK, (available on CD from You might also find a researcher via the Internet. Do a place search for people involved in genealogy in a locale near where you need help, send them an e-mail message, and promise to do something for them in exchange. Finally, check under the category “obituaries” for direct links to sites that make obituary transcripts available online.

5. SOCIAL SECURITY RECORDS. If a person died within the last 35 years or so, the death certificate probably includes the deceased’s Social Security number. With or without a person’s Social Security number, you can write for a copy of any deceased person’s original application for a Social Security card, called a form SS-5. Since 1935, virtually every working person in America has applied for a Social Security account. You will need to consult the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) to see if the person is listed. Most people who died after 1962 will be listed there. One of the easiest of these look-up services is found at, where you can search in the SSDI by the surname, or optional first name, or the place in the U.S. where a person died. With the name and Social Security number, you can obtain a copy of the deceased’s application for a Social Security account. This document was completed by the person and gives his/her full name, date and place of birth, place of residence, names of parents, occupations, and names of employers. For deaths before 1962, the RootsWeb SSDI site is still a good place to start; click on any person to get the form letter asking for a form SS-5, modify it to fit the person you want, and add more details.

6. PROBATE RECORDS. Details pertaining to a deceased person’s estate may be located in a county courthouse. These records may provide important information about the heirs of the deceased. Probate records may include dockets (court calendars), recorded wills, administrator’s records, inventories of estates, sheriff’s sales, and judgments. Microfilmed probate records for nearly every county in the U.S. are located at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. To find them, go to . Do a “place” search for a state, then click on “Review Related Places” to see a list of the counties for that state. The topics listed include probate records, so a review of what records have been filmed can be located quickly.

7. PRIVATE DEATH RECORDS (Insurance Papers, Medical Records, Doctor’s Office Records). If the deceased had insurance, there will be a record of the death within the insurance company’s files, perhaps with information concerning the deceased’s survivors and the disposition of an estate. Hospital records are almost always closed, but a close family member might be able to obtain information. Records at a doctor’s office are usually closed also, but, again, close family members might be given access.

8. CORONER AND MEDICAL EXAMINER RECORDS exist for any person who died under suspicious conditions, any person for whom an autopsy was performed, or, in most cases, for people who died outside of a hospital. Coroner records are public records kept at the county level in virtually all states. In addition to the circumstances of the death, there may be vital details about the deceased. Locating a coroner or medical examiner for a county is not difficult as many have their own websites or are part of a county government website.

9. MEDICAL RECORDS for deceased veterans are public records. The National Archives and Records Administration, National Personnel Records Center (Military Records Facility) is located at 9700 Page Ave., St. Louis, MO 63132-5100. Write for a form SF-80 to request copies from any soldier’s or sailor’s military file. Their online website is Next-of-kin to a deceased veteran may access data online. Others must use form SF-80 to obtain information about the deceased veteran.

10. CHURCH RECORDS. A death record might be recorded as part of a church’s records in addition to information about a burial. Check under the category “Religion and Church” to survey what is available online.