Genealogy Tips & Quips
Ten Ways to Determine
an Ancestor's Death Date
1. Death Certificates: This is the most obvious one, yet one of the most difficult documents to obtain. Locating US death records prior to 1900 can be hit or miss and varies widely depending on the state. Wisconsin law required counties to register birth, marriage, and death events with state officials starting in 1852, but the law was not strictly enforced until roughly 1880. Yet I’ve had a difficult time locating certificates prior to 1900. And the amount of information provided varies drastically. Sometimes more information is included on certificates from rural Wisconsin than Chicago. Too busy recording deaths in the city to document details?
2. Obituaries: This might sound crazy because if you don’t have the death date, wouldn’t you spend days searching years of newspapers to locate an obituary? However, local libraries and genealogical or historical societies often have an online index of their obituary collection. I was recently in need of a death date and went online to see if the library in that area might have an obituary available—usually for a nominal fee—and the database included the person's death date. An obituary is also a great way to find a spouse’s death date. For example, it’ll often note that the person had been preceded in death ten years prior by the spouse, providing an estimated date on where to begin searching for a spouse’s obituary.
3. Gravestones: Find a Grave, www.findagrave.com, or BillionGraves, www.billiongraves.com, are great resources. However, volunteers contribute the information so not all cemeteries and not all graves within a cemetery are included. If the site has your ancestor’s grave, not only will you find the death date but possibly family members linked to the page. I have also found obituaries and family bios on a person’s memorial page. If a link to surrounding graves is provided, you can check out the neighbors and see if any names look familiar. If the site doesn’t include your needed grave, contact a local genealogical society. If they don’t have cemetery transcriptions, a volunteer might be able to assist. You can also find a volunteer at RAOGK—Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness, www.raogk.org.
4. Social Security Index: The US Social Security Death Index, 1935–2014, is a great way to verify if someone has died. The record will include the person’s death date, location, birth date, and other personal information. If you have no idea where or when a person died, you can search for death records by birth date.
5. Land Tax Records: These records might be housed at regional or state archives or county courthouses. Even if annual taxes were collected, that doesn’t mean all the records have survived. An 1872 tax roll listed the number of acres my Patrick Coffey owned as well as the location and valuation. In 1880, Mrs. Coffey was listed rather than Patrick, so he’d died sometime between 1872 and 1880. At least that narrowed it down.
6. Plat Maps: A plat map shows ownership boundaries delineated by tax parcel property lines. The owner’s name is written on the land parcel. Patrick Coffey was noted on an 1860 map, but by the next available map in 1890, the land was in his wife Margaret’s name.
7. Gossip Columns: The gossip column is a goldmine of information, not merely a bunch of fluff contributed by the local busybodies. It often notes who was in town visiting for a funeral. It might take a while to locate a death this way, but you will have fun catching up on the area’s gossip.
8. Wills: Wills and probate records almost always include a death date. You may also learn what other family members were dead or alive at that time.
9. Voter Registration: This is a great resource if your ancestor lived in a city. Many rural locations didn’t have registration until recent years. Determining when a person stopped voting can help pinpoint his death date. This record also documented a person’s birth location, term of residence in that county and state, and whether or not he was a naturalized citizen. If naturalized, it noted when and where the process took place, including if it was at a state, county, or city courthouse. Knowing the precise location can be helpful when searching for naturalization papers.
10. City Directories: Same as voter registration records, when a person no longer appears in a city directory, they’d likely died or moved. A widow often listed her name after her husband’s death until she remarried, such as: Mary (widow of John), address. She may have listed prior to his death if she operated a business out of the home, such as milliner or piano teacher. Maybe a woman also used this as a sort of dating directory, wanting men to know that she was now available.
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