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FAMILY TIES: Tracing your ancestry
by Dan Burrows

After visiting genealogical and historical libraries.
     Last article we discussed researching in libraries and other repositories of genealogical information.  Another good source for family information could be the local Town, Village or County Historian where your ancestors lived.  A word of caution -- most historians do not have access to genealogical records since their job (usually volunteer or token salaried) is to collect, preserve and make available items of a historical nature.  Even though it is hard to draw the line between regular history and family history, there is a clear cut difference.

     The usual and ideal type of letter to send to a historian would be historical or geographical in nature.  If you feel it might be worthwhile to send a letter requesting genealogical information,  make it a brief, one paragraph outline of the problem you are trying to solve.  Follow this by an even shorter paragraph asking if they have access to records that might help solve your problem, or if not, would they direct you (or forward your letter) to someone who can.  Always include an SASE, and for even better results, make a place on your letter for their response.  I usually type the word "response" followed by 5 or 6 double spaced blank lines.  Since we are writing a very short letter, it can all be done on one page.

Typical information you could request from historians might include:

The names, addresses, and phone numbers of churches where your ancestors might have attended.

The names, addresses and phone numbers of local libraries, genealogical societies, and other genealogical repositories and what types of collections they have.

The names, addresses, and phone numbers of paid genealogists in the area.

The names, addresses, and phone numbers of Town and Village Clerks and ask how receptive they usually are to genealogical requests. 

The names, addresses, and phone numbers of any families of the same surname you are researching in their Town or Village, since many families remain for many generations in the same locality.

     Never send a long and boring letter which they might have to read three or four times before they can figure out exactly what question you are asking.  Be specific and to the point.  It is appropriate to send a single pedigree chart of the family you are researching as a guide to show the historian what you know and do not know, but again -- do not burden them with twenty pages of charts.

     Another great and usually reliable source for genealogical information is official vital records.  These are the official records kept by local, county, or state governments for births, marriages, and deaths.  As a general rule, duplicates of all Town Vitals are kept at the State level, but in some cases (especially the earlier years) one should never rule out double checking their accuracy with the local clerk.

     Official Vital Records are maintained by government agencies to acquire statistics or to verify eligibility (or ineligibility) for its programs or services.  Family genealogists use these official vital records to verify actual dates or locations of births, deaths, and marriages.  These records often include or can lead us to more information about the individual, the individual's parents, or even the individual's children or other relatives.

     A typical and ideal birth record gives the full name of child, the sex,  the names of the parents (including the maiden name of the mother), the place of birth and the place of registration, the date of birth, the date filed, and the registration number. 

     A typical and ideal death record gives the actual name of deceased at time of death, the place of death and place of filing, the names of parents (usually with maiden name of mother), the birth place of deceased and of both parents, the cause of death, occupation, marital status, the place of burial and the name of undertaker, the name of attending physician at time of death, the name of person giving personal information (most important when trying to ascertain how accurate the information might be), the date of birth or the age at death, the Social Security number and whether or not a veteran on more recent records, and how long at last residence.

     A typical and ideal marriage record gives the names of both parties,  the places of birth of both parties, the names of parents (including maiden names of both parents), the places of birth of all parents, the number of marriages for both parties, the occupations of both parties, the name of person officiating the marriage, the date and place of marriage, the names of witnesses(often relatives), the ages of both parties, and the places of residence of both parties.  Marriage records vary in form but can contain up to 3 documents:  [1] Affidavit for license to marry; [2] Marriage license; [3] Marriage certificate. Older town records in New England also list "intentions of marriage" which may contain additional information.

     The examples of information you might obtain from official vital records as listed above are the "ideal situations".  In all actuality, much of the information may not have been known or may not have been required during the earlier years.

     Official vital records are sometimes infested with errors and omissions because of unavailability of information, delay in reporting, guesswork by family members, laziness of clerks, and deliberate lies and exaggerations -- especially in marriage records.  As stated above, it often pays to check both the records of the state and local registrar, especially the earlier records where and exact copy was not forwarded to the state, and it is always better to examine an original record rather than a transcript. 

     Information on the addresses, application forms, and required fees for obtain vital records from the various states may be found in Kemp's Vital Records Handbook available at most genealogical libraries.  Seeking the information from local clerks can sometimes be difficult.  Many clerks do not wish to be bothered or do not follow the guidelines of the State Health Department or State Vital Records departments for availability of records. Most clerks, however are very helpful and will make the information available to you. 

     In New York State, birth records are closed for 75 years, marriage and death records are closed for 50 years.  This usually does not apply if you are a direct descendant of the person to whom the record refers (child, grandchild, great-grandchild, etc).  Official vital records in New York State commenced in 1881, though some do exist for the three year period from 1847 through 1849.  (For other states, see Kemp's book mentioned above for available years)  Indexes to these records are available at the State Archives in Albany for viewing in person or by mail for a fee.  The records themselves are kept at the State Department of Health and for some unknown reason, there is a long wait to obtain copies, even though they are charging and making money from this service.

     When Official Vital Records are not available, Church Records, Obituaries (Or Death Notices), Cemetery Records, Undertaker's Records, Diaries, Scrapbooks, and with any luck a Family Bible should be referred to.  These are considered "substitute vital records" and this will be a future topic.


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