SSDI Search – How to Find Hard to Find Ancestors

Social Security Death Index (SSDI) search is not necessarily as straight forward as you might think. We’re going to explore what SSDI records are, their range of availability, and how they compare across the Genealogy Giants records websites. 

SSDI Search

If you’ve been dabbling in genealogy research for a while, then you are very likely familiar with the Social Security Death Index, more commonly referred to as the SSDI. But even experienced researchers have questions, like the one that Marti sent me recently:

From Marti in Texas:

Hi Lisa!!

Thank you so much for all your helpful resources on your website!! I just listened to the SSDI Working Backwards podcast episode (Family History: Genealogy Made Easy episode 3) and my grandparents passed away in 2012 and 2014. Do you know when the last time the index has been updated, I cannot locate them.

Thank you so much!!

This two-fold question is a good one. While many genealogical record sets have privacy laws that dramatically restrict more recent records from being available, the SSDI is not one of them. But even if the records are available, there may still be times when we have trouble locating our relatives.

Whenever you run into a road block finding ancestors in a record collection, do what good detectives do, and go back to the beginning. In this case, let’s learn more about the collection itself.

Social Security Death Index Background

The Social Security Act was signed into law in 1935 by President Franklin Roosevelt. By 1937, more than 30 million Americans had registered. Today, the Death Master File from the Social Security Administration contains around 90 million records of deaths and they are publicly available online.

Some data goes as far back as 1937, but most of the information included in the SSDI dates from 1962. This is because the Social Security Administration began to use a computer database for processing requests for benefits in 1962. Some of the earlier records back to 1937 have not been added.

It’s important to know that the SSDI does not have a death record for everyone. It’s also very possible that you may occasionally find an error here and there if something was reported incorrectly. But don’t let that stop you from tapping into this major resource! It’s a wonderful alternative source for finding people who were counted in the 1890 census (which was unfortunately mostly destroyed) because they may still appear in the SSDI. Also, those who were born before vital records registration in their home state began, may also show up. Remember, working folks just had to live past 1937 to have been possibly included. That means some people could have been born sometime in the late 1800s.

Now that we have a handle on the history of the SSDI, let’s look at who has it and how recent their records are.

Where to Find the SSDI

The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) is available on all of the ‘big 4’ genealogy records websites, which we here at Genealogy Gems refer to as the Genealogy Giants.” The links below will take you directly to the SSDI search page for each.

  • FamilySearch
    (Current as of February 28, 2014)
  • Ancestry
    (1935-2014)
  • MyHeritage
    (It is not stated how current the database is, but a search for 2014 did retrieve results)
  • Findmypast
    (No dates or citation provided, but a search for people who died in 2014 did retrieve results)

In Marti’s case, she will want to search every single one of these websites for her ancestors. The good news is that they all appear to be up-to-date, but that doesn’t mean they are all exactly the same. The same collection of genealogy records can appear differently from site to site for a number of reasons such as accidental omissions, variations in the power of their search engine, differences between indexers and scanners, and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) inaccuracies. These may or may not affect the SSDI, but the point is that you can’t go wrong searching each one of the Genealogy Giants just in case. And since SSDI search can be conducted for free at all of the Genealogy Giants, it doesn’t cost you anything to do so.

A quick way to find all of the websites that include the SSDI is to Google SSDI genealogy. Here’s a link to the results.

SSDI Search Head-to-Head Comparison

Genealogy Giants quick reference guide cheat sheet Big 4Another excellent reason to search the SSDI on multiple websites is that each website displays the information a little differently. And as you can see from the chart below, when it comes to the Genealogy Giants, there are definitely differences.

SSDI Search Comparison
It’s interesting to note that Ancestry is the only website that provides information about the year that the Social Security number was issued. It isn’t exact, but it’s more than the others offered in my search for Alfred H. Sporan.
 SSDI search results
genealogy giants quick reference guide cheat sheet

The differences between the 4 major websites can be sometimes subtle or quite dramatic. Understanding their strengths and weaknesses, as well as free versus subscription offerings, is key to successful research that is both efficient and cost-effective.

The quick reference guide Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites is a must-have for anyone serious about getting the most out of free and paid subscriptions.

The author of this 4-page full-color cheat sheet, Sunny Morton, is Contributing Editor here at Genealogy Gems, and she’s packed this guide with everything you would ever want to know, and many things you probably didn’t know that you needed to know. You can pick up your copy here in our store.

SSDI Search and Beyond

There is another database at Ancestry that is worth keeping your eye on. It’s called the U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index and it shouldn’t be missed! Currently, this covers 1936-2007, but who knows, they may update it in the future. It includes even more information. It was first released in 2015. Read more about it here at Genealogy Gems.

Gems: Share Your SSDI Search Experience!

I invite you to take a moment to share your SSDI search experience in the comments below. Have you had any surprises? Did you find a difference between the records found at different websites? We want to hear your story because we all benefit from each other’s experiences.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

Episode 72 – Fabulous Photo Collection: Frith at Findmypast

In Elevenses with Lisa episode 72 Alex Cox of Findmypast joins Lisa Louise Cooke to discuss the exciting new Francis Firth Photographic Collection.

Francis Frith Photos

Watch episode 72

Discover the scope of the collection and the best strategies for finding photos that will enrich your family history. 

 Watch Live: Thursday, September 23, 2021 at 11:00 am CT 
(calculate your time zone

Three ways to watch:
1. Video Player (Live) – Watch live at the appointed time in the video player above.
2. On YouTube (Live) – Click the Watch on YouTube button to watch live at the appointed time at the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel. Log into YouTube with your free Google account to participate in the live chat. 
3. Video Player above (Replay) – Available immediately after the live premiere and chat. 

Episode 71 Show Notes 

Family History really comes alive when you can see actual faces and places, and that’s why the new photographic collection at Findmypast is so exciting. They’ve just added over 300,000 historical photographs chronicling more than a century of British life to their website. And these photos don’t just cover the UK – you can find images from other locations around the world as well.

Findmypast published these photos in partnership with Francis Frith, the UK’s leading publisher of local photographs since 1860, and they’re available to search online at Findmypast for the first time.

I’ve invited Alex Cox from Findmypast to join us today to tell us about the collection, the history, the scope and most importantly the best strategies for finding just the image you’re looking for.

About Francis Frith

From the folks at Findmypast: “Born into a Quaker family in 1822 in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, Francis Frith was a complex and multi-talented man who had a formidable instinct for business. After becoming a founding member of the Liverpool Photographic Society in 1853 – only 14 years after the invention of photography – he founded his own photographic publishing company in 1860 with the aim of creating accurate and truthful depictions of as many cities, towns and villages as possible.

Francis Frith portrait

Francis Frith, 1854 (public domain)

Copies of Frith’s photographs proved immensely popular with the general public. Thanks to the rapid expansion of the Victorian railway system, Britons were now travelling in greater numbers than ever before, fueling a huge demand for photographic souvenirs.

To help meet this demand, Frith employed a team of company photographers who were trained to capture images of the highest quality according to his strict specifications.

Manchester Saint Anns Square,1876 

By the 1870s, the market for Frith & Co’s products was huge, especially after Bank Holidays and half-day Saturdays were made obligatory by Act of Parliament in 1871. By 1890 Frith had succeeded in creating the first and greatest specialist photographic publishing company in the world, with over 2,000 retail stockists.”

The Scope of The Francis Frith Collection

Quantity:

  • 300,000 historical photographs

Coverage:

  • UK, Ireland and beyond
  • covering more than 9,000 cities, towns and villages across the UK and Ireland
  • wide variety of images captured overseas. Egypt, Canada, France, Germany Gibraltar, Hawaii, Holland, Italy, Switzerland, and the United States.

Timeframe:

  • 1860 to 1970

Depictions:

  • scenes of daily life – people, places, occupations, things
  • Victorian, Edwardian and 20thcentury Britain.
Francis Frith collection at Findmypast

Lowestoft Punch and Judy Childrens Corner, 1952 

Using the Photograph Transcriptions

Each photo comes with a transcription that is worth a look. You’ll find the transcription icon (it looks like a page) next to the image icon. The transcription provides information about the photo such as:

  • Year
  • Country and place
  • Latitude and longitude
  • Description
  • Link to the original photo on the source website (Francis Frith)

The Francis Frith photos are a great way to see how an area has changed over time. Copy latitude and longitude numbers found on the transcription page and then paste them into Google Earth to see the approximate location where the image was taken. Next, use Google Earth’s Street View to see the location up close today. You can save a high-resolution image of the location to your computer for comparison with the photo by clicking the Save Image button in Google Earth’s toolbar at the top of the screen. I love using Snagit to clip and annotate the image more precisely. (Learn more about it by watching episode 61. There you’ll also find out link and current discount code for Snagit.)

Learn more about using Google Earth for genealogy by watching my free class.

How to Browse the Photographs

Sometimes you just want to leisurely browse the photos for a given area. Here’s how to brows the Francis Frith Photo Collection at Findmypast:

  1. Start by searching on the general location.
  2. Click any image.
  3. Thumbnail images will appear at the bottom, all from the same series of photos.
  4. An “eye” icon will appear on the thumbnail of the image currently being viewed.
  5. Click the images on either side to scroll through and browse the series.
how to browse at findmypast

How to browse the Francis Frith photo collection at Findmypast

Frith Photos Search Strategies

Lisa’s Tip: If your ancestors sailed from a British port, search the collection to see what it looked like at that time.

“Be clever with your keywords.” Alex Cox, Findmypast

Alex recommends that before you start to search, look up the locations of your ancestors on a map. Have a look at the area. Doing so may provide additional ideas for your searches.

In addition to searching for locations, use the keyword search field to search for words describing elements of your ancestors’ lives. Try words like:

  • Store
  • Shop
  • Business
  • Docks
  • Factories
  • Mills
  • People
  • Pedestrians
  • Horse

Use the distance slider to expand and narrow your search geographically. Keep in mind that 10 miles on either side of your ancestors’ town really isn’t that far. By expanding your search with the distance slider, you might be able to find helpful representative images, even if they don’t include your ancestors’ exact village or business.

Usage of the Frith Photographs

We’re all mindful about copyright, so Alex and Lisa discussed the rules around the usage of these images in our family history work. Alex says you are welcome to use the Francis Frith images (which include small watermarks and a copyright statement) in a variety of ways for your family history.

Here are just a few ideas on how to use the photos:

  • Add them to your family tree
  • If you find a location in another genealogical record, look up the location in the Frith Collection
  • Download the image (with watermark)
how to download photo at findmypast

How to download a Frith photo at Findmypast

  • Print the image (with watermark)
  • Add images to Google Earth as image overlays (see Lisa’s book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.)
  • Share them on social media
  • Use them in your family history storytelling (videos, books, presentations, etc.)

How to purchase a high-resolution watermark-free version

In each image transcript you’ll find a link to the original source image on the Francis Frith Collection website. Click it, and it will take you to the Frith website. There you can purchase a clean (without watermarks), high-quality version suitable for printing.

Resources

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