Monday, September 30

State Vital Record Lookups

A few states have taken their vital records online.  These are mostly births and deaths, but sometimes marriages and divorces as well.  Diligent state bureaucrats or dedicated volunteers from historical societies and the like have entered millions of records into online databases or better yet, scanned actual images of birth or death certificates, and all the wonderful information they contain.

And they've done all this for your benefit, just so you can look up vital records online, and fill in more of your family history.

The best of what the states have to offer are listed here, in reverse alphabetical order (because why should WV always be last?):

West Virginia Death Index 1917-1958.  Coverage here varies by county; also includes some birth and marriage indexes.  Actual images of certificates available.

Washington State Digital Archives.  There are birth, death and marriage records here, along with census information, military records, and a host of other information.  Coverage is very variable.

Utah Death Index, 1905-1956.  Database includes digitized images of the death certificates.  Also check out the Utah Burials Search.

Oregon Death Index, 1903-1930.  Basic information here:  Name, date of death, county, and certificate number.

Ohio Death Index, 1913-1944.  Just the basics here.  Lookup is free, the certificate will cost you.

North Dakota Department of Health's Death Index from 1881-one year before present.  You must specify date of death within a ten year period in order to get search results (why oh why did you do that, NDDOH?).

And big enough that I'm counting it as a state, even though it's only a city, here is the New York City Death Index for 1891-1948

Missouri Death Certificates, 1910-1958 (with images).  Also check out pre-1910 birth (including stillbirths) and death records.

Minnesota Death Certificates, 1904-2001, from the Minnesota Historical Society.  Search and results are free, but there is a charge for an actual copy of the death certificate.  You can also search the Minnesota state census for 1849-1905.

The Maryland State Archives Death Index (1898-1951) offers county by county lookups of death records.  There are also separate databases for Baltimore covering death records from 1875-1972.  The set-up here is cumbersome, but worth playing around with if you have family history in Md.

Kentucky's online vital records include a death index (1911-1992) and a marriage and divorce index for 1973-1993.  Information is largely limited to name, place and date, with pointers to the original off-line files.

Illinois State Archives has a pretty incredible collection of not only birth and death records, by poorhouse records, court case, probates, and much more.   Their Global Search allows name-searching of all databases at once.

Idaho's digital archives include death records, though these appear to be excerpts from the freely available SSDI database.

Delaware's online Probate Records Database offers up a hodge-podge of personal history usually having to do with a person's death, and the disposition of their estate.  Click on Preface for an explanation of the database

The Arizona Genealogy Birth and Death Certificates site is very nice, very fast, and includes actual images of birth and death certificates for births that occurred at least 75 years ago, and deaths that occurred at least 50 years ago.  In addition to including individual names, the database lookup includes parents' names as well.

Most online vital record lookups are organized at city or county, rather than state level.  Here's a good list of local death records online.

Visit the main page of Free Genealogy Tools for more, umm, free genealogical tools.

And don't forget to also check for your family history at and These are subscription databases, but they are among the most powerful research tools available for looking into family roots.

Tuesday, September 10

African-American Family History: Slaves and Slavery

For reasons disturbingly easy to understand, African-American family history research can be extremely difficult, especially as one ventures back more than just a few generations.   Researching slave history is a special challenge.  But there are a few online resources available that allow one to at least begin the quest.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database includes more than 67,000 Africans brought (or should I say bought!) to America aboard slave ships.  There are various searches possible here, focusing on individuals, identified by name, gender, place of origin, and so on, as well as on particular voyages or slaving expeditions.

The online database, Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy: 1719-1820, is a remarkable piece of work, essentially put together by a single researcher, Dr. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a professor of history at Rutgers University.  There are records here of about 100,000 slaves brought to (or through) Louisiana in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  The French and Spanish slave traders and owners apparently kept far more meticulous records than did their counterparts in the East, leaving a wealth of information for historians.

The entire dataset can be searched online, but if you're handy with databases, SQL, SPSS, and things of that sort, you can download two large files to work with on your own:  a Slaves Database, and a Free (ex-slaves) Database.

The Illinois Servitude and Emancipation Records Database, 1722–1863 is a small but significant collection dating back to colonial Illinois.  About 3,400 slaves and slave holders are listed here, and the state will provide copies of original records, if requested.

Indiana's Digital Archives include countywide Negro and Mulatto Registers from 1853, and the Clark County Slave Register of 1805.   At the site, click on Misc Historical Records for more details about these collections.

Maryland's Online Archives include several slavery-related lookups, including general and slave censuses, records of runaways, slave jail records, and pardons issued.   

I also want to mention the very worthwhile, but very frustrating African-American collections at the Archival Research Catalog (ARC), a division of the National Archives.  There is a lot of material here.  But, it is a difficult site to search and make sense of results, and more often than not, you will be pointed to off-line sources of information, rather than being able to access materials online.  Still, it is a rich resource, and worth the effort.  Make sure to do a general search of ARC in addition to browsing the African American collection.  Try a search on slaves, and another on slavery, to see what turns up.

You can find free online newspaper archives at the Special Collections page of FreeNewspaperArchives, related to slavery, the Civil War, and abolition.

Lastly, I recommend this excellent article on Why Retracing Our African Roots is So Difficult.

Visit the main page of Free Genealogy Tools for more, umm, free genealogical tools.

And don't forget to also check for your family history at and These are subscription databases, but they are among the most powerful research tools available for looking into family roots.

Monday, September 9

Connecting to Ancestors at GenCircles

There are a number of very large genealogical datasets on the internet, FamilySearch and being the two largest and well known.

GenCircles, though less well-known, is another biggie. I'm not sure just how big, but by my calculations, there are more than 12 million individuals listed just under the letter "A".  It's pretty big.

A visit to the homepage has the usual, familiar-looking search boxes:  enter a first name, last name, year of birth or death, and so on.  Why bother?,  you ask.  What makes GenCircles different?

Infuriatingly, the site doesn't tell you!  Nowhere is there any description of what GenCircles is, what makes it stand out from other data sources, and why you might want to spend any time there.  Their "About GenCircles" page is singularly uninformative.  I can't believe that people still design websites this way.  Why, oh why, oh why?

He might be in your Gen Circle, perhaps.

Still, I've come across records on GenCircles that haven't shown up in other databases, so it seems worth a search right there.  Any source that can connect genealogists with new leads on family history is one to explore, especially when it's easy and quick to use.

If you work with GEDCOM files (standardized genealogical files), you can upload them to GenCircles and their special SmartMatching software will look through millions of files to try and match your closest ancestors.    (However, see the insightful comment on some drawbacks of GenCircles added by reader, Dee D'Errico....Thanks, Dee. ) 

As with other datasets, GenCircles makes it possible for those with an interest in the same family history to contact one another, and share additional information.

These types of one-on-one communications can sometimes reveal more than a host of data sources ever will.

Visit the main page of Free Genealogy Tools for more, umm, free genealogical tools. 

And don't forget to also check for your family history at and These are subscription databases, but they are among the most powerful research tools available for looking into family roots.