29 May 2014

Finding the original or official vital records in Massachusetts

courtesy of National Archives
Vital records are often considered original sources for the events they represent, but that doesn’t mean the records themselves are truly the original.

Before Massachusetts changed over to preprinted, individual forms for each person, town clerks used large, bound ledger books for vital records. In addition to the event date, there’s another column specifically for the date of record or when the entry was submitted by the informant (clergy, medical doctor, justice of the peace, family member, etc.). You may find the event dates are mixed up, with March following June, to account for the different sources.

The town clerk is not the witness to an event, just the recorder. It’s the doctor or clergy who made weekly, monthly, or annual visits to the town clerk, providing information on who was born, married, or died. It could be data from scraps of paper in an itinerant preacher’s pockets or mildew-stained ledger books that had been used for decades, possibly gnawed on by a church mouse. Words can smudge, rips and tears happen. Let’s also not forget that events sometimes were written hours or days afterwards, when one’s memory may be slightly askew, especially if the informant didn’t know the family well. For instance, the groom’s name could be mistaken for his father’s or the birth date may mistakenly fall on one side of midnight, instead of the other.

You may be able to track down those original records from doctors and clergy, so make sure you take note of the informant’s name and address. But remember, not everyone had record-keeping skills like midwife Martha Ballard (1735-1812) of Massachusetts and Maine, who recorded 816 deliveries in 27 years in her diary.

Town and State Records

Before digital access, the Vital Records to 1850 series, by the New England Historic Genealogical Society and others, was one of the most widely used sources in Massachusetts. You’ll find the series referenced in many genealogy books and journals as well as DAR applications. These are transcriptions of town records—including church, cemetery, and family records such as Bibles—usually listed alphabetically by surname (or, in some cases, by multiple spellings of the same/similar name), not date. John Slaughter’s web site includes records from these so-called “tan books.” Not all towns and cities in Massachusetts were covered. If you had relatives from the Berkshires, luckily Blanche C. Stockwell transcribed records from several towns and deposited her manuscripts at the Berkshire Athenaeum. Her transcriptions for Sheffield and a few other towns are available online.

Jay and Delene Holbrook filmed records from 315 towns and cities in Massachusetts, now available on subscription site Ancestry.com as “Massachusetts, Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988.” FamilySearch.org has images of “Massachusetts, Town Clerk, Vital and Towns Records, 1579-2001,” with some indexes already available.

Starting in 1841, Massachusetts required town clerks to copy their birth, marriage, and records and send them to the state. The town clerk’s copy is considered the original, and it sometimes has more details than the state version, but the most widely available records tend to be the state’s version (except as noted above in Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org collections). It’s often difficult to tell the two versions apart. No doubt the state requirement was much easier after the invention of the mimeograph, carbon paper, photocopiers, and scanners.

When looking at records online, pay attention to the source, whether it’s from the town/city or state. If you can’t read a record or if you want to verify its accuracy, contact the town clerk.

Records of Today

If you’ve been to a town clerk for a Massachusetts marriage license, you already know the prospective bride and groom must show up at the town hall together, with their birth certificates, and each fills out separate paperwork. The couple then brings the clerk-issued license to wed to the clergy or justice of the peace, which the officiator signs and returns to the town clerk after the ceremony. (The bride and groom also may sign the church ledger and receive a wedding certificate from clergy. Another resource to check!) Afterwards, the couple orders a copy of their official marriage certificate.

For births, the mother or the parents fill out a form, then the hospital inputs the data using Electronic Birth Certificate software. For deaths, the informant fills out the form, which is entered onto the official form, before being signed by the doctor. 

Birth, marriage, and death records today are submitted to the town or city in which the event occurred, and sometimes to the place where a person lives/lived, as well as to the state. Since the records are done electronically, there’s no variation among the town and state versions. The bonus, of course, is that the documents are perfectly legible.

21 May 2014

Collateral genealogy: A case study

Tucked away in an 1867 Blackfriars edition of Shakespeare’s complete works, I discovered an old photograph of a man holding a young child. The book’s provenance, the photo’s time period, and the man’s cheekbones suggest that he could be grand-uncle John. Since John died in 1941, my aunt didn’t remember anything about him except that he drowned. Her cousin Florence’s neatly drawn family chart, however, indicated that John had married Mae and had a son William who died as an infant.

Over the years I have pieced together some of John’s life, except his marriage. Mae was only a name, no details, not even dates. I decided to spend a few hours online, using Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org, to see how much I could learn about grand-uncle John’s mysterious wife and marriage.

The first step was to find a marriage certificate at FamilySearch.org. In 1912, a few days shy of his 24th birthday, John married 17-year-old “Mary” in a Catholic church in his hometown. With her parents’ full names and her approximate birth year, I tried to find Mary’s birth certificate, but had no luck. The details were not specific enough, since I didn’t know where she was born. But I did find her parents’ marriage record in Boston, showing John S. was from western Massachusetts while Bridget was an immigrant from Ireland. Could it be the same family?

Then I found an Ancestry.com Member Tree with a “Mary Agnes” born in 1895 to a John and Bridget. Mary Agnes and her siblings have no data beyond the 1900 and 1910 census—except for the youngest sister who marries into the main branch of the poster’s family tree. The mother, Bridget, didn’t have a maiden name in the tree, but the attached 1910 census, two years before John and Mae marry, is in the correct town. I think I have a match.

With the first flush of success, I excitedly send an email to the tree poster, asking if she has more details on Mary Agnes. I mention that I think she married my grand-uncle. But the poster only says, “No, sorry I don’t. Good luck.”

Making Sense of the Census

I follow my hunch that Mae and Mary Agnes are one and the same, figuring I would track down the clues from Mary Agnes’ family in the censuses until either the data proved or disproved that she married my John. 

The 1900 census shows Mary Agnes’ father John was born in Massachusetts, her mother Bridget in Ireland, agreeing with the Boston marriage certificate. Her three older brothers were born in Rhode Island, while Mary Agnes and her younger sister were born in Connecticut. Since the 1900 census asked for month and year of birth, I know Mary Agnes was born in December of 1895. Although the earliest vital records for Connecticut start in the 1630s, statewide registration started in 1897 (two years after Mary Agnes’ birth) and was not fully implemented until 1915. It’s possible that Mary Agnes and her younger sister were born in the same Connecticut town where they are listed in the 1900 census.

By 1910, Mary Agnes is 15 and living in the same New Jersey neighborhood where she’ll marry her future husband two years later. By 1920, I don’t find John and Mae in the census. (My family, I already know, evaded the census taker that year. I have searched page by page and tried all sorts of name configurations—but only John’s married sister shows up.) In the 1930 census, John is living with his parents, married but with no wife listed in the household. At this point, I’m suspecting cousin Florence’s inkling of a divorce in the family may be correct.

Tracking the Collateral Lines

Since I couldn’t find Mary Agnes in the 1920 and 1930 censuses, I started to track down her siblings, one by one. From the 1900 census, I knew the three older brothers’ birth months and years, and all three were born in Rhode Island. It wasn’t difficult finding their draft registration cards—all were born in Pawtucket, but now I had street addresses and occupations.

At Ancestry.com, I do a general search on oldest brother John, and find a Michigan death and burial index that not only matches his birth date but agrees with the parents’ names on Mary’s 1912 marriage certificate. I trace him through the censuses, unsuccessfully search for a marriage or obituary, and find no sign of a sister Mary.

So I continue with the next brother. I find Thomas and his wife, in Pennsylvania, living with his widowed mother Bridget and sister “May,” age 24, single (and using maiden name) in the 1920 census. By 1930, Bridget is living with her third son Thomas in the same town where John and Mae married, but Mae is missing.

Widening the Search

Using her birth year, birth place, and parents’ names in the Ancestry.com search engine, I come across a Mary Agnes who died in 1982 in California. Could it be my John’s wife remarried? I couldn’t find an obituary and I only had the city and a new last name as found on the California Death Indexes and Social Security Death Indexes. But it was worth investigating.

On the 1940 California census, I found a Mary Agnes with her husband Frank, two sons, and Irish-born mother Bridget—all the details fit, including her 1895 birth in Connecticut. But here was the clincher: Mary and her family lived in Long Beach in 1935, but her mother Bridget lived in New Jersey in 1935, in the same town where daughter Mae married my John 23 years before.

Narrowing a Time Frame

Not surprisingly, I didn’t find a divorce record for John and Mae online. Nor did I find a marriage record for Mae and her second husband Frank. Checking the city directories, published every two years, I followed both John and Mae’s families from 1911 to 1931. In 1917, “Mrs. John” is listed separately from John, who lived a few blocks away. In the 1919 directory, his mother-in-law “Bridget, wid[ow of] John” removed to another city 80 miles away, probably taking Mae with her. Based on the 1940 census, Frank and Mary Agnes’ son was born in 1932 in the same state where Mae lived with her brother in 1920. So she probably didn’t return to the old neighborhood. Mae packed up her bags and headed west.

And as for baby William in cousin Florence’s family tree? Well, there’s only so much research you can do online before needing to visit record repositories and relatives.

For privacy reasons, no surnames were used in this case study. All of the data mentioned has been cited in my database. Ancestry.com is a subscription-based web site while FamilySearch.org offers free access to genealogy records.