© 2020 by Roots & Wings Research, LLC

  • Kristin Wenger

Tuesday Tip: Vital Records are Vital!

In previous weeks, I highlighted the first three steps for learning more about your family history:


1. Use sources from home, including photographs.

2. Interview living relatives, particularly the oldest or most informed.

3. Find details in census records.


Today, we’re moving on to the next step, VITAL RECORDS. This source group includes records for births, marriages, and deaths.


To illustrate how valuable these records can be, let’s take a look at Pennsylvania death certificates. The state began keeping death records in 1906. A death certificate becomes public record 50 years after the individual's death. Currently, the certificates through 1966 have been digitized and are available online.


BONUS: if you are a Pennsylvania resident, you can access death certificates 1906-1966 (and many other PA records) for FREE through this partnership with the Pennsylvania State Archives.


The items of information you can learn from PA death certificates include:

· Birthdate

· Birthplace

· Marital status

· Spouse’s name (may give maiden name of wife)

· Residence (sometimes an exact address)

· Occupation

· Father’s name

· Father’ birthplace

· Mother’s maiden name

· Mother’s birthplace

· Date and time of death

· Cause of death (primary and contributing)

· Undertaker (may lead to funeral home records)

· Burial place and date (may lead to church or cemetery records)

· The informant (the person who provided the personal information; often a spouse, adult child, or other close relative). One word of warning: as with any record, there can be mistakes. Think about the relationship of the informant to the deceased person. Always consider if the informant was an eyewitness to a fact or was just repeating what he or she had been told.


Case Study:

Let’s take one of my 3x great-grandfathers as an example. You may remember his son, Harry Kramer, from this story. I had discovered that Harry’s father was named Jacob Kramer, but at that point in my research, that’s all I knew. Then I found Jacob’s death certificate.[1]

I learned Jacob was a wheelwright. I never knew that before!

However, the main item I was hoping to find was names for his parents. I was disappointed to see that his wife, Emma, had not provided their full names, only Mr. Kramer and Miss Schwenk. However, his mother’s maiden name was enough of a clue to move me along in my research.


One of my favorite ways to reconstruct families is by searching death certificates ONLY using the parents’ names as search terms.

In this case, when I searched on a father with the surname “Kramer” and a mother with the surname “Schwenk,” I got a few results for a Thomas Kramer and Esther Schwenk. There were no other Kramer/Schwenk couples. This meant that any children of Thomas Kramer and Esther Schwenk would have been Jacob’s siblings. When I adjusted the spelling for variants of Kramer (Kremer, Kreamer, Cramer, etc.), I hit the jackpot. I found a large group of siblings including sisters who lived the majority of their lives with the surnames of their husbands.


Here is the death certificate for one of Jacob’s older brothers, Francis Kramer.[2] Notice it includes a full name for his father and even a middle initial for his mother.

Using Pennsylvania death certificates, I found not only Jacob’s parents, but I reconstructed the entire family of siblings. In my book, that’s why vital records are vital sources for your research!


P.S.

Causes of death can also uncover lots of interesting surprises. I have found stillbirths and young children who were never recorded in any other source. I have discovered suicides, murders, and accidents of all kinds. Staying with the Kramer family, take a look at the death certificate for one of Jacob’s sons. Phares was a single man who lived with my great-great grandparents, Harry (his brother) and Cora Kramer. (Note Cora's signature as the informant.)

Phares Kramer drowned on the 4th of July, 1943.[3] When I first read this certificate, I pictured Phares swimming at a family picnic on the holiday and accidentally drowning. However, I've learned to always check local newspapers shortly after the date of death. The story was not at all what I'd imagined. Vital records are excellent sources of information, but they can also serve as stepping stones to other records with even more details.

"Millway Man Found Drowned," The Lititz Record Express (Lititz, Pennsylvania), 8 July 1943, p. 2, col. 2; ; digital image, Power Library: Pennsylvania’s Electronic Library (http://digitalcollections.powerlibrary.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/slchs-lnp1/id/23963/rec/1 : accessed 22 March 2018).

[1] Pennsylvania Department of Health, Certificate of Death no. 69732, Jacob H. Kramer, 8 July 1927, Lancaster County; viewed at "Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1966," digital image, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 22 March 2018); citing Series 11.90: Death Certificates 1906 -1966, Record Group 11: Pennsylvania Department of Health, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg.


[2] Pennsylvania Department of Health, Certificate of Death no. 68370, Francis S. Kramer, 18 July 1932, Lancaster County; viewed at "Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1966," digital image, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 22 March 2018); citing Series 11.90: Death Certificates 1906 -1966, Record Group 11: Pennsylvania Department of Health, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg


[3] Pennsylvania Department of Health, Certificate of Death no. 64292, Phares Eitnier Kramer, 4 July 1943, Lancaster County; viewed at "Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1966," digital image, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 22 March 2018); citing Series 11.90: Death Certificates 1906 -1966, Record Group 11: Pennsylvania Department of Health, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg