by Lisa Louise Cooke
Welcome to this step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.
Episode 4: Attending Genealogy Conferences and Vital Records Requests
In our first segment, our guest is the longtime online news anchorman of genealogy, Dick Eastman, the author of Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter. He talks about the changing industry and the benefits of attending genealogy conferences.
Next, you’ll learn the ins and outs of using some “vital” sources for U.S. birth and death information: delayed birth records, Social Security applications (SS-5s) and death certificates.
Genealogy Conferences Conversation: A Few Updates
- Dick and I talk about Footnote.com as a relatively small site. Has that ever changed! Footnote.com is now Fold3.com and it’s a go-to site for millions of online American military records.
- Family History Expos still offers an exciting conference, especially for first-timers. But there are others as well: In the United States, there’s RootsTech, the National Genealogical Society and many state and regional conferences (like one near my home, the Southern California Genealogical Society’s annual Jamboree). Find a nice directory at Cyndi’s List. Many conferences are starting to offer live streaming sessions for people who can’t attend: check websites for details. In addition, Family Tree University offers regular virtual conferences—where sessions and chat are all online! If you live outside the U.S., look for conferences through your own national or regional genealogical societies. If you can get to London, don’t miss Who Do You Think You Are Live.
- Dick now writes all of his Plus content himself. If you haven’t already checked out Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter, you should! Both his free and Plus newsletters are great insider sources on what’s new and great (or not-so-great) in the family history world.
You can order a copy of the application that your ancestor filled out when they applied for a Social Security Number: the SS-5. I have done this, and they really are neat, but they aren’t cheap. So let’s talk about the facts you’re going to find on them so you can determine if it is worth the expense.
The SS-5 has changed slightly over time, but may include the applicant’s name, full address, birth date and place and BOTH parents’ names (the mother’s maiden name is requested). If your ancestor applied prior to 1947 then you will also very likely find the name and address of the company they worked for listed, and possibly even their position title.
Here’s an example of a Social Security application form:
In the 1970s, the Social Security Administration microfilmed all SS-5 application forms, created a computer database of selected information from the forms, and destroyed the originals. So it’s important to order a copy of the microfilmed original, rather than a printout or abstract from the Administration’s database. And luckily now you can request a Social Security Application SS5 Form online under the Freedom of Information Act.
It will help to have your relative’s Social Security Number (SSN) when you apply for a copy of their SS-5. First, it gives you greater confidence that their SS-5 exists. Second, it’s cheaper to order the SS-5 when you have their SSN. Third, the Social Security Death Index, in which you’ll find their SSN, usually has death data that makes your application for their SS-5 stronger. Privacy concerns have caused some genealogy websites to pull the SSDI, but you can still search it (in many instances for free) at the links provided in Episode 3.
Finally, here’s a little background on the Social Security Number itself. The nine-digit SSN is made up of three parts:
The first set of three digits is called the Area Number. This number was assigned geographically. Generally, numbers were assigned beginning in the Northeast and moving westward. So people whose cards were issued in the East Coast states have the lowest numbers and those on the West Coast have the highest numbers.
Prior to 1972, cards were issued in local Social Security offices around the country and the Area Number represented the state in which the card was issued. This wasn’t necessarily the state where the applicant lived, since you could apply for a card at any Social Security office.
Since 1972, when the SSA began assigning social security numbers and issuing cards centrally from Baltimore, Maryland, the area number assigned has been based on the ZIP code of the mailing address provided on the application for the card. And of course, the applicant’s mailing address doesn’t have to be the same as their place of residence. But in general the area number does give you a good lead as where to look for an ancestor.
The next two digits in the number are called the Group Number, and were used to track fraudulent numbers.
The last set of four digits is the Serial Number, and these were randomly assigned.
UPDATE: The website for ordering Social Security applications (SS-5s) has changed since the podcast first aired. For current ordering instructions, including online ordering, click here. The cost is still $27 to order a deceased relative’s SS-5 if you know the Social Security number and $29 if you don’t know it.
Delayed Birth Certificates
After 1937 folks who qualified to apply for social security had to have proof of their age. If they were born prior to official birth certificates being kept in their state, they applied for a delayed birth certificate.
Anytime someone needs a birth certificate for any reason, they have to contact the state—and often the county—in which the birth occurred. If a birth certificate exists, they can simply purchase a certified copy. But if there were no birth certificates issued at the time of the person’s birth, they could have a “delayed birth certificate” issued by that state or county.
In order to obtain a delayed certificate, they had to provide several pieces of evidence of their age. If these are considered satisfactory, the government would issue the certificate and it would be accepted as legal proof of birth by all U.S. government agencies.
Originally people turned to the census for proof of age. But eventually the Social Security Administration began to ask for birth certificates. For folks like my great grandmother who was born at a time and place where birth certificates were not issued, that meant they had to locate documents that could prove their age and allow them to obtain a delayed birth certificate. Delayed just meaning it was issued after the time of the birth.
Delayed birth certificates are not primary sources. (Remember we talked about Primary Sources in Episode 2. Since the delayed certificate was based on other documents, and not issued at the time of the event by an authority, such as the attending physician, then it is not a primary source. This means that while it’s great background information, it is more prone to error. In order to do the most accurate genealogical research you would want to try to find a primary source if possible. Chances are your ancestor used another primary source, such as an entry in the family bible, to obtain the delayed birth certificate.
The process for ordering a delayed birth certificate is likely going to be the same as ordering a regular birth certificate. You would start with the checking with the county courthouse, and then the Department of health for the state you’re looking in. Let them know that the birth record is a delayed birth certificate. Also the Family History Library card catalogue would be a place to look as many were microfilmed. Go to www.familysearch.org and search for delayed birth records by clicking on Search from the home page. Then click Catalog and do the keyword search just as the episode instructs, using “delayed birth” as your keyword. (Within that search, you can also add parameters for the place name.)
So the lesson here is that even though your ancestor may have been born at a time or in a location where births were not officially recorded by the state, they may very well have a delayed birth certificate on file.
Ordering Death Certificates
The Social Security Death Index is just one resource for getting death information. But in the end you’re going to want the primary source for your ancestor’s death, and that’s the death certificate. While many of your ancestor’s born in the 1800s may not have a birth certificate, there is a much better chance that they have a death certificate since they may have died in the 20th century. Each state in the U.S. began mandating death certificates at a different time, so you have to find out the laws in the state, and probably the county, since death certificates were filed at the county level.
As I said before, the death certificate is going to be able to provide you with a wealth of information. Of course you’ll find the name, date of death and place of death, and possibly their age at death and the cause and exact time of death, place of burial, funeral home, name of physician or medical examiner and any witnesses who were present. The certificate is a primary source for this information.
You may also find information such as their date and place of birth, current residence, occupation, parent’s names and birthplaces, spouse’s name, and marriage status. But because this information is provided by someone other than the ancestor themselves it is really hearsay, and the certificate is considered a secondary source for that information.
And lastly you may find a name in the box that says Informant. This is the person who reported the death to officials. Informants are often spouses, children, and sometimes, depending on the person’s circumstances, just a friend or neighbor. But the informant is almost always someone that you want to investigate further because they obviously were close to your ancestor.
Once you think you know the location where your ancestor died, and the approximate if not exact death date, you’re ready to order a certificate. If the person died in the last 50 years you’ll probably have really good luck at the county courthouse Department of Vital Records. The older the record, the more likely it may have been shipped off by the county records department to the state Department of Health. Look for helpful links to death records at Cyndi’s List Death Records.
Here are some tips that will ensure that you don’t get bogged down in bureaucratic red tape:
- Get the appropriate request form – this is usually available online.
- Print neatly and clearly – if they can’t read it, they will send it back to be redone.
- Provide as much information as you have.
- Provide a self addressed stamped envelope.
- Make one request per envelope.
- Include a photocopy of your driver’s license to prove your identity.
- Be sure to include your check for the exact amount required.
- Make a copy of the request form for your records and follow up.
- Lastly, keep in mind that county offices have limited personnel and are often swamped with paper work. So my best advice is that the more courteous and thorough you are the more success you’ll have.
Online Death Indexes
In the case of very old death certificates, as well as birth certificates, some state agencies have opted to hand them over to state Archives and Historical Societies, or at least make them available for digitizing.
And there you have it, lots of different avenues for tracking down your ancestor’s death records providing you with key information for climbing your family tree.
Have you ever wondered how the Internet works? I mean, how data from your computer actually makes to another computer somewhere else around the world? I found a very cool video that really manages to explain a very complex process that happens in a matter of seconds in a way that actually makes a lot of sense. And yet while it made sense, after I watched it it was almost harder to believe that it really works at all because it’s so amazing. Even if you are typically a person who doesn’t bother to click on videos, you have got to check out How Does the Internet Work in the newest of edition of the free Genealogy Gems Podcast email newsletter. Go to www.genealogygems.com and enter your email to sign up.
Read Lisa’s blog post: Money Growing on Trees: Ancestry Buying and Selling
While the world’s largest online family history resource, Ancestry.com, awaits a possible buyout, they are keeping busy buying other companies. Reuters reported that Permira Advisers LLP has emerged as the front-runner to take Ancestry private in a deal that could exceed $1.5 billion. (Read more about the possible acquisition at PEHUB)
Ancestry also released the following press release about the company’s latest acquisition, San Francisco based 1000Memories. You can learn more about 1000 Memories by listening to my interview with Michael Katchen, Director of Business Development at 1000Memories in Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 119.
SAR Operation Ancestor
Learn more about using Google Books for genealogy in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.
New Premium Episode 92
Old maps can tell us a lot more than just where our ancestors lived: They put events into geographic context, reveal surprising genealogical clues, and can be incorporated into Google Earth for analysis and storytelling.
In the newest episode (#92) of the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast I’ll tell you about a terrific example of a website that has set the goal of have every image they possess (allowable by copyright) digitized and on their website by early 2013
I’m also going to tell you about something pretty shocking that happened to me recently while speaking at an international genealogy conference. I was really taken by surprise, and received some unexpected questions. I will share those with you as well as some solid answers.
It’s another packed episode. If you are a member sign in now to start listening. Become a Member today.
Stephanie also wrote in with an opinion about Ancestry Trees
“So here are my “2 bits”. I am new to all this and honestly never considered my public tree as published. I have used the Ancestry tree as a if were my workbook, just as if it were a software package like Roots Magic. Because I consider it a workbook I add names as I find them and work the family as a group to document the information AFTER I add them. It simply never occurred to me that others would see this as complete, documented information. I have kept my tree open since I want to be open to contacts. When I see hints from other trees I simply avoid the un-sourced ones. The Ancestry hints have moved me along much faster than I ever could have before. I truly hope others who get angry could see my point of view. Thank you so much for teaching us, you have made this journey so much more enjoyable and effective!!!”
From Loretta: Ancestry Trees
“I’ve had a little different reaction towards the “polluted” online trees… sarcasm. At the beginning of the year I started a blog, Barking Up The Wrong Tree. I post on Tuesdays and Fridays. Both days could be considered tips for beginners but Tuesdays are examples of what NOT to do. All the examples are actual online trees and because of the propensity of newbies to mindlessly copy other trees most examples are not just on ONE tree. It makes for a lot of head meets desk moments but I’m enjoying it. Hope you and some of your listeners will too.”
Ricky in Birmingham, Alabama asks about citing sources and paper and file organization
GEM: New Family History Bloggers
Family History blogging is hotter than ever and the ideal way to get your research out on the web where others working on the same family lines can find you through Google searches! Many of you have been taking advantage of free blogging services like Blogger at Mom Cooke’s nagging here on the podcast, and reaping some rewards. So let me highlight a few listeners who have turned in their “Round To It” for a “Gitter Done!”
First up is David Lynch who started a blog on his St. Croix research
“I recently started in my genealogy and find your show both entertaining and helpful. My 200 Years in Paradise
The reason I’m writing is that sometimes we forget that the world wasn’t homogeneous throughout the 1800s. Right now, I’m writing a series on illegitimate births on the island of St. Croix from 1841-1934. From my research, it seems that over 77% of the children born were to unmarried households. Typically they formed stable family units, but just didn’t marry. In fact, in my personal family history, I have a set of ancestors who had 16 children and got married after their 12th child was born. In the US at the same time, only about 4% of the children were illegitimate.”
Jennifer shares her blog
“Just wanted you to know that I’ve started my own blog, based largely on the encouragement in your podcasts. What appealed to me was that it’s a medium where I can share information, but not in a way that’s an online family tree. This will prevent readers from copying and pasting family tree branches, without slowing down to learn some context. It also allows me a forum to correct some gigantic errors floating around out there about my ancestors. I finally woke up to the fact that I’ve moved to the head of the line in the experience department. I’ve placed a lot of tags on the entries, so the information is easily located in Google.” http://jenongen.blogspot.com/
Sonja Hunter wrote in to share her blogging success
First, I would like to thank you for putting together your podcasts!…I only became a listener about a year ago, but have been working my way through old Genealogy Gems podcasts as well as the Genealogy Made Easy podcasts, mostly while gardening.
I also wanted to let you know you inspired me to start blogging. I rang in the New Year by starting a blog about doing genealogy in my hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan. One primary goal is to highlight helpful area resources. I imagine this will be most helpful to those new to conducting family history research in the area.
In addition, I am trying to include Kalamazoo area or Michigan history items that I think are interesting. One example is an article I found in the local paper describing what Kalamazooans from 1884 imagined life would be like in 1984. I’ve also written about poisonous cheese in the 1880s, diphtheria and the case of my gg-grandfather’s brother-in-law who may or may not have committed suicide by slitting his throat. I consulted Paula Sassi for that case and plan to blog about her handwriting analysis in the future.
Thank you for inspiring me to embark on this project! I’m learning a lot. And keep up the good and valuable work you do on your podcasts!
From John in Maryland:
“I want to thank you again for everything you do to inspire people to be enthusiastic about their family history. I learn so many “Gems” within all of your resources and put many of them to practice. You are the family history “Go-To” person in my book. I recently started a blog for the primary reason of documenting my findings so that I wouldn’t forget what I’ve been discovering. The blog also appears to be a good way to share my success stories with others that may be interested. I credit you for introducing the idea of using a blog in Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast. When I first listened to the podcasts about blogs, I didn’t think it was something that was applicable to me, as I felt I had no new information to share with others since many experts like yourself already handle this. However, I’m giving it a try and enjoy it so far. I really like how I’m able to place images within the text to help convey my information.”
And finally Shannon Bennett has really made a blogging splash. She writes:
“I have been hemming and hawing on writing to you and finally took the plunge to do it. Last spring a friend of mine told me about your podcasts (yes all of them) since I had just started into family research. She thought I would like it, and boy was she right! I have taken you on my iPod to drop my kids off to school and pick them up again, cleaned house, grocery shopping as well as everywhere in between. The wealth of information I have gathered from your podcasts have been very helpful, and I have loved all the interviews and tid-bits that have come along the way as well. There is no way that I could just pick one out of so many to be my all-time favorite. Maybe a top 10 list would cover it.
However, I do have to blame you for the latest adventure in my life, which is why I am writing. Listening to you tell us, in almost every episode, about the importance of having a family blog finally sank in. The first couple of times I heard you say it I thought to myself “there’s no way I would/could ever do such a thing, I barely have time to keep up with my Live Journal account.” A few weeks went by and the thoughts began to change to “hmmm…maybe I could do this.” Then after 4 months of thinking about it I started to do some research into how to run a successful blog.”
Shannon took the plunge and applied to Family Tree University to write for their Family Firsts Blog. “I come to find out that they are looking for their second blogger. I sat…I thought…I clicked the application button. Yes, on a whim I entered because I thought I had nothing to lose. You see I never win these types of things.
A month goes by, and I have given into the feeling that well it was a good try but of course I didn’t get it.…then later on that week I find out I won it!
So thank you, I never would have entered let alone thought about creating my own blog less than a year into my family research, without you and your wonderful podcasts.”