Monday, May 30, 2011

New Research Hours in Local History Department

The Van Buren District Library in Decatur has announced new research hours for it's Local History department, beginning June 1, 2011:
  • Monday              9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Tuesday              9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Wednesday         9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
  • Thursday             9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Friday                 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Saturday             9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The new hours reflect a decrease in weekday evening hours, Wednesday becoming the only open evening.

Usage of Southwest Michigan's largest genealogical & local history collection continues to increase and with it the demand for on-sight reference assistance and access to manuscripts & rare items.   The library provides one full-time local history librarian supplemented by in-house volunteers.  The Local History department had been open anytime during the library's regular business hours - 58 hours per week - making it difficult to staff the collection full-time.

The elimination of some low-traffic evening hours will provide increased staff & volunteer support during research hours and provide additional security for the collection.

When planning a research visit to any facility, it's always a good idea to call or e-mail in advance to verify access hours, and collection policies.  Certainly start by visiting the appropriate website, but remember that sometimes there are unexpected closures or perhaps the website has not been kept up to date.

For more information about the Local History Collection researcher hours, contact the library via e-mail or call (269)423-4771.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Research Tip : My Great-Grandfather Had Three Death Certificates! (Part 2)

Continuing from Part 1 of My Great-Grandfather Had Three Death Certificates! posted on May 19, we will discuss where to search for those state level death records. 

Michigan's original vital records are housed at the Michigan Vital Records Office in Lansing.  If you wish to have a certified copy of a death certificate you may retrieve it in person, by mail, or per online order.   For those of us who are just extracting information from death certificates, I wouldn't recommend making the visit to the Vital Records Office unless there is no other way.

The Library of Michigan, Lansing, has microfilm of the state's death records, 1867-1920, including indexes.  These films may be accessed anytime during the Library's regular business hours, which have changed lately so check your times before you make the trip.

For online users, Michigan's death records, 1867-1897, may be located at the Family Search Labs of the Family History Center.  Many of the Labs databases are images only without indexes, but Michigan's deaths have been fully indexed, transcribed and include attached images of the original record.    A little tip - if you do a search for a person whose name may be fairly common and you get a large hit list, you can filter down your search to include only the Michigan deaths rather than a global search of all of the databases.  This can be done by entering "Michigan" into the "Location" field, or after the search by selecting the "Collection" tab at the top of the search results and checking the box for "Michigan Deaths, 1867-1897."

Michigan Deaths, 1897-1920, may be searched and viewed at Seeking Michigan, co-sponsored by the Library of Michigan and the State Archives of Michigan.  To search the death records, select the "Search Advanced" link at the bottom of the orange "Seek" box.  This will take you to a page that will allow you to search for a death by any of the following criteria:  first name, last name, city/town, year of death, county of death, birth year, father's last name, father's given name, age of decedent.   

When I first discovered this site, I looked for my ancestor, Joshua Drake, who I know from the county record died in 1906, but couldn't locate him on Seeking Michigan.  Later I was told that not all of the records had been added yet, so today I tried the search again and did find him.  It looks as though all of the records for the 1897-1920 time period have now been loaded.

One thing that annoys me about the search interface on the Seeking Michigan death records is that there is no way to revise a search.  In other words, every time a search is made you have to start over with a new search, and with so many blanks to fill in that can get tedious.  It is nice, however, to have so many options for searching.  I have found more than one elusive female by searching by her first name and her father's last name, or other combinations of search criteria.

The pre-runner to the Seeking Michigan death records was the GENDIS project (Genealogical Death Indexing System), a project sponsored by the Michigan Genealogical Council (MGC) in cooperation with the Michigan Department of Community Health.  There aren't as many search possibilities with GENDIS, but you might have different search results using it.  Also, some libraries around the state, including our Local History Collection, have a print version of the GENDIS project because the MGC made the volumes available for free to their member genealogical societies.  These indexes were done in multiple volumes and include:  last name, first name, middle name/initial, death date, and codes for the county and original ledger page.  For researchers that like the "browse factor" these indexes are great. 

Not to be left out is who has a database, Michigan Deaths, 1971-1996.  This is a database only, no images of records, but includes:  name, death date & place, birth date, gender & residence. 

The obvious omission in the Michigan deaths records, is the periods 1920-1970 & 1997 to present.  I've been told that the Seeking Michigan project may later include post 1920 records, so we can look forward to that, but in the meantime a search for state level records for these periods may have to be done at the Michigan Vital Records Office.  I invite my readers to contact me with information about alternative access options for Michigan's state level death records.

Next time we'll move on to county & local level death records...

Monday, May 23, 2011

New on the Shelf : The Rare and the Wonderful!

I couldn't resist a flashy title for this blog post, just to be sure to get your attention.  One of the most gratifying things about my job in the Local History department is when we acquire the rare or one-of-a-kind items that are truly historical.

Recently added to the shelf was Van Buren County Farm Map Book and Business Directory, 1928.  I've written about plat books & atlases in a previous post, stressing their historical significance and how they enable us to "visualize" our ancestor's lives.  This particular plat is so rare that I have yet to locate the existence of it in any other library collection in the United States.  I also didn't encounter it when I did the research for my book, Toni's List : a bibliography of Southwest Michigan local/family history resources and their repositories, which was an inventory of 52 library collections.  Before this, there had been no known Van Buren County plat book between 1912 & 1933.

The book includes a plat for each township, although there is none for Geneva Township.  Shown are the names of landowners, roads, lakes, and villages.  This one also has the added bonus of 19 pages of advertisements from area businesses including The Wolf Auto Company of Decatur, one that I had never heard of.  

We will be working at indexing this "new" plat book for the Local History Master Index (LHMI).  If you are interested in assisting with this or other indexing projects, contact us.

The other unique addition to the collection is Dr. Albert D. Hurlbut Record Book of Mother's Care & Births, Grand Junction, Michigan, 1883-1914.  A photocopy of this book was donated by Dorothy Armintrout of Allegan, indexed by volunteer Judy Grime of Williamsburg, and includes reference to 472 births. 

In my May 19 post, I discussed the importance of vital records alternatives.  Births are particularly difficult in most states because of privacy laws, so if you can't access a birth certificate [remember to check all three levels of government] seek out other alternatives like this book.  It is in the doctor's own handwriting, which is unfortunately typically poor, but includes dates and names of the mothers.  The index has been added to the LHMI.

Both books are available to view in the Local History Collection anytime during it's research hours.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Research Tip : My Great-Grandfather Had Three Death Certificates! (Part 1)

Many times we genealogists have trouble scrounging up one death record for our ancestors.  Imagine if they had as many as two or three different official records of death.  Depending upon the time period and geographic area, it is likely that more than one version of the record exists, and that they are not identical.

In Michigan, death records were kept beginning in early 1867, by state law.  There were three jurisdictions at play from that point on...state records, county records, & local records.  When I began my family research in 1982, I worked almost exclusively with county records, becoming a temporary fixture at the county courthouse.  By the hour, I would sit and go through the large 11 x 17 ledgers and hand-transcribe information from the records.  Photocopies weren't an option then, only certified copies and that was financially prohibitive.

I was very thorough and thought that I had harvested all of the death information available for family members.  It wasn't until years later while working in the Local History department that I made an exciting discovery.  We received a donation of a copy of a state version of a death certificate for a Van Buren County death.  When I compared that to the county record, I found some astonishing information.  Although I had always known that records were kept at the state, county & local levels, I had never bothered to compare the content & availability of each record.

CASE IN POINT - Loron Robbins, died April 29, 1919, in Antwerp Township, Van Buren County, Michigan.  This is recorded in Liber D Page 213 of the county ledgers (there were no certificates at that time at the county level).  Information included:  name, date & place of death, gender, race, marital status, age, cause of death, birthplace, occupation, parents names & birthplaces, and date of recording.  Pretty complete, right?

In addition to county records of death, the Local History Collection also has registers of local vital records from some communities, entitled Transcript of Certificate of Death - Local Register.  Among those is a register for Antwerp Township including a death certificate (yes, certificate) for Loron Robbins.  The local record has all of the above categories of information and with these additional items: 

  • Length of residence in city or town where death occurred
  • How long in the U.S. if of foreign birth
  • If married, widowed, or divorced, name of husband/wife
  • Date of birth
  • Informant's name & address
  • Date of filing & name of registrar
  • Dates attended by physician & name of physician
  • Contributory causes of death
  • Where was disease contracted if not at place of death
  • Did an operation precede death - date of operation
  • Was there an autopsy
  • Place & date of burial
  • Name & address of undertaker
Whew!  That means for all of my relatives for whom I had only viewed the county death record, I was missing a possible 13 more pieces of information.

The state version of the record for Loron Robbins is very similar with a few minor differences:

  • The local version was all hand-written and the state is mostly typewritten
  • Loron's middle initial is "P" on the state version, and "F" on the local & county
  • The informant's name is "Ette" on the state record and "Etta" on the county
  • The state version gives 5 years under Contributory Cause duration and the local version is blank
Granted in this case, these are not large differences, but differences non-the-less.  Who knows what the differences may be on your ancestor's records?

Next time, we'll talk about how to find & access the three versions of these records, both online & off... 

Monday, May 16, 2011

New on the Shelf : Michigan Veterans Obituaries, 1899-1938

If your relative was a veteran, and you are unable to locate a death certificate in his home county, consider that he may have died in a veteran's facility or Soldier's Home.  Same story for an obituary...something may have been published in an unexpected venue because of the veteran's residence at the time of his death.  In Michigan, the "Old Soldiers' Home" was and is located in Grand Rapids. 

A recent addition to the Van Buren District Library (VBDL) Local History Collection is a series of just such obituaries.  Soldiers Obituaries, 1899-1938, compiled by Francis Hall, a three-volume typed set, it gives transcriptions of obituaries for soldiers from around the state.  Some notices are somewhat brief, but others more extensive giving family survivors' names, birth & parent information, and specifics about military service.  Most at least include a date & place of death, prior residence or home town, and burial information.  The original manuscript includes a notation that the exact source of the compilation is not known, but is surmised to be from the Soldiers Home or an American Legion post.  Many of those listed died in the Soldiers Home or had been recent inmates there.

Soldiers in the set are represented from communities around the state.  The following obituary appeared for Allegan resident, Judge Hannabal Hart, dated March 19, 1900:

The funeral of Judge Hannabal Hart who was stricken with apoplexy last Sunday night and died at four o'clock yesterday will be held at two o'clock Wednesday.  Judge Hart was born in Canada sixty years ago and came to Allegan with his parents in 1850.  He enlisted in Company D, Fifth Michigan Cavalry and was wounded in the right arm at Gettysburg.  In politics he was a Democrat and was Circuit Judge of Allegan County in 1893-4.  After the war, he studied law and graduated from Ann Arbor, entering the last office of Judge W. B. Williams and later formed a partnership with Hoarce D. Pope which lasted twenty years.  He was a Mason and a member of the Episcopal Church and was beloved by all.  During the service in the war, he was a Sergeant.  Interment in Oakwood Cemetery.

An every-name index to the collection has been created by VBDL Local History volunteer, Jerry Anderson of Kalamazoo.  The index will be placed on the VBRGS website in the near future, and also added to the library's Local History Master Index (LHMI).  

In the near future, the library hopes to add to its indefinite loan Microfilm Collection the Historical Register of Inhabitants, 1885-1927, from the Old Soldiers home in Grand Rapids.  For information about you may contribute to the Local History Collection "Adopt a Microfilm" program, contact us.


Monday, May 9, 2011

Upcoming Event : Witcher on Researching Civil War Ancestors

Curt Witcher, noted genealogical speaker and manager of the Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library (ACPL), Fort Wayne, Indiana, will present Researching Your Civil War Ancestors, Monday, May, 16, 2011, 7 p.m., at the Portage District Library, Portage, Michigan.

Curt's resume is quite long, having worked at the ACPL in excess of 30 years.  He is also past president of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS), the National Genealogical Society (NGS), and served as the Indiana Historical Society's first president.

2011 being the sesquicentennial of the beginning of the Civil War, this lecture is timely and will be useful to anyone researching civil war era families.  Curt will discuss resources, both online and off, provide bibliographic handouts, and time permitting will include a question & answer period.  Having seen several of Curt's lectures, I know him to be a very knowledgeable, enthusiastic speaker, one you won't want to miss.

The event is sponsored by the Kalamazoo Valley Genealogical Society (KVGS), and is open to the public.  For more information contact KVGS.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Research Tip : Add Maps to Your Family History

Some years ago, after a couple of decades of collecting documents, photographs and facts for my genealogy, I came to the realization that among other things, I wanted to be able to present these items in a way that would interest other members of my immediate family.   Up to that point, those with whom I talked about family history looked at me with blank if tolerant eyes.

This is when I started putting together what I call Heirloom Scrapbooks.  They are large, 12 by 15 inches, room enough to display a "visual" history of our family.  Among the many things that I use as illustrations are colorful historical maps.  No, not the huge fold-out maps that may be as large as 40 inches.  I get them from a variety of places such as National Geographic magazines and old atlases.  One of my favorite sources are discarded children's books.  Children's books are very colorful and have wonderful illustrations.  For example, about every 10 years our library purchases an updated set of books about the 50 states and many foreign countries, after which the older sets get discarded.  Sometimes I'm able to purchase these from the book sale and harvest some nice artwork for my scrapbooks.

Another good source are discarded encyclopedias.  These have nice maps in them, especially the older Britannicas.   There are some great historical maps in area histories, usually black & white or hand-drawn.  These photocopy or scan very well and help illustrate what life was like for our ancestors during their time.

Not long ago, I had a patron ask if there was a good place online for high-resolution maps.  Up to this point I hadn't had a lot of luck or experience finding detailed maps online that were clear enough to print out.  But, there are some out there.  Some tips in locating some of these maps online:
  •  Go to the genealogy yellow pages at Cyndi's List and look through the listings under the heading of Maps, Gazetteers & Geographical Information.
  • Enter search terms such as (without quotes) "Historical Maps High Resolution" into your favorite search engine.  I've had success using Google.
  • Use Google Images to search for a map for a specific location.  For example:  (without quotes) "Historical Map Scotland".  To retrieve the higher-resolution maps, under Advanced Search, select the option for Larger size.  In this case, this references the size of the file, not the map's physical size.  Usually, the larger the file size, the clearer it will be.
Since I started putting together Heirloom Scrapbooks, I've had good luck getting people more interested in the family history.  Sometimes I put them out on the coffee table during holiday gatherings, and watch with satisfaction as others, even the children, flip through the pages.  And, I feel comfortable that like the family photograph albums, my Heirloom Scrapbooks are more likely to be treasured & preserved for generations.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Upcoming Event : Ancestry Day, July 23

Get the best in online and offline family history research opportunities by attending "Ancestry Day", Saturday, July 23, 2011, at the Grand Wayne Conference Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

The Allen County Public Library (ACPL) in Fort Wayne is sponsoring this single-day event which includes five classes and the opportunity to "Ask the Experts".  Registration for the day is $20.  Lunch is not included, but there are many dining options in the immediate area.

Classes slated for the day include:
  • Insider Search Tips for
  • How to Find Civil War Roots at
  • Hidden Treasures of the Genealogy Center in Fort Wayne
  • A Dozen Ways to Jumpstart Your Family History Project
  • As the Experts, a panel discussion

The obvious added bonus is that the ACPL, the largest public genealogical library in the country, is only a couple of blocks away from the Convention Center.   Plan to arrive a day or two in advance, or stay a couple of days after and spent some time using the genealogical collection.  There are several motels in the area including the Fort Wayne Hilton.

Having attended several events such as this, I can tell you that there's nothing quite like the thrill of being surrounded by genealogical experts and by your genealogical piers.  Add to that the opportunity to view and buy the latest products, and it will make a day to remember.  

There are several places online to register, one of them being