Searching In The Vital Records Maze
by Vicki Ruthe Hahn
I took the opportunity to go to the Rock County WI Courthouse in Janesville with friend, Debra Ramsey. Debra has done a lot of research in different vital records offices in several counties/states. I have not done much other than on-line. Time to get with it! Only 20 % of the genealogical information that we want is on-line. 80% is in courthouses, churches, libraries, funeral-homes/cemeteries, and people’s homes.
Searching physically on-site takes a whole different approach. I appreciate learning from Debra’s in-sight and experience. I arrived first so that I could get an understanding of the facility expectations and assistance. Each facility has their own rules.
I had to show my ID and fill out a form of personal identity information that is required each yearly visit. Then I filled out a day visit form including the date and time, and the surname(s) and year (approximate) that I would be searching that day, . They issued me a locker and key for my purse and cellphone. I had to turn off my cellphone first as the ring is amplified in the locker.
I had to look on my cellphone first for the search information that I would need. It was hard to be not be able to have the search information with me from my Ancestry.com Family Tree App, FamilySearch.org, the email client requested names/dates, Google.com, and my Legacy Family Tree TelGen Families app, etc.
Pens, cellphones, scanners, cameras, and photocopying are not allowed. They do supply sharp pencils with no erasers, and (full-size) scrap paper! I was able to take my notebook in with me. It was hard to get used to bringing in only printed out family name/date information. I quickly realized that pre-printed blank forms for birth/marriage/death would have been easier to fill in rather than transcribing every word from the vital record to my notepaper. I will be more prepared next time.
There are large index books for birth, marriage, and death records, and grouped by type and by year ranges. The staff member helpfully guided me on how to use their records organization. Debra showed me more details, and how to use the Excel spreadsheet indexes on the computer (which she noticed are sometimes incorrectly transcribed from the hand-written book indexes.) Key word searches are not easy on the spreadsheet, and the format is clunky to use. Most of the hand-written book indexes are clearly written and readable except for some letter flourishes.
Marriage records, within a book index, are listed in parallel columns by surnames for several pages of each first letter. All of the “C” s for example are listed roughly by year and not exact alphabetical, but as they entered the names. It is necessary to skim through all of the names. The same page has a column on the left for Groom’s names – last, first, middle; and on the right for bride’s names – maiden, first, middle. The names do not necessarily line up with each other as couples. One has to look at the columns to the right of each name for the month/day/year of the marriage, and then to the next column for the vital record number.
We found one case where the groom’s name was listed three times in a row, within a 3-year span, next to three bride’s names. Two of the names were apparently the same bride with a different (married) surname. She must have married the first man again after having been married to a second man. The usual index arrangement is to have the bride’s name within a list (on a different section) alphabetically by her surname(s). We may have seen this example in the computer Excel spreadsheet index.
The record number refers to the actual vital records kept in books on space-saving (slightly claustrophobic) bookcases that may need rolled apart. The order of the books is by type – birth, marriage, death; record # range; and year range. The actual order was mixed up and didn’t make total sense to this librarian. Yet we found what we were looking for. Later amended or years-after-the-fact vital records may be kept in more current books. (I.E. – people without a birth certificate who wanted later to file for social security.)
We noticed that older records forms have more information required on them than the newer ones. Older marriage records have date and address of marriage; ages and full names of bride and groom (including birth family maiden name of the bride); township/city where they each live; when the license was issued by which county agency; names of two witnesses that were present at the marriage; marital status, number of marriages, relationship, occupation, nationality, and race of groom and bride; and birthplace and (maiden) name of mother and father for bride and for groom. More recent records do not have all that, but what a gold mine to have even most of that information!
One has to rely on a staff member to access Winnebago County vital records in Rockford, Illinois. (Though I think that they told me by phone that it is possible to search yourself?) It takes a long time for the person to scan and print out portions of microfiche for a record. They may not have indexes, and may not realize the importance of source information to be attached to that printout.
Well worth the trip to anyplace for vital records, if not available on-line. Some government entities do have vital records that you can look at on-line. It will cost you to get an official print copy – $20 in Rock County.
Some facilities require you to make an appointment first. Most have specific hours or days open, some restrict when genealogists can do research. Each state may have several different facility locations for where they keep vital records, dependent on how old they are. When records were legally required, and then actually kept, varies. Some states may duplicate or rely on County level records. The on-line databases are digitizing more vital records, but it seems disjointed, hit or miss. ( Refer to the chart linked below.)
Local, county, state, federal government offices/agencies can be closed at irregular times with planned furlough days to balance budgets, or in-service days for staff training. The holidays closures are not uniform across agencies, even within a county. There may be partial or whole closure days adjoining a regular holiday closure. The hours open may change with what day of the week it is, or closures for staff lunch break, etc. There may be seasonal variations.
Also keep up with possible un-planned closures due to frozen budget/government shut-downs. There will be vacations and medical leave absences if you need a particular staff person or specialized service. You may need to look on-line at the agency homepage, or phone/email ahead.
Rock County Courthouse, 608-757-5650, 51 South Main Street Janesville, WI 53545
8 – 5 weekdays. Staff assistance is available from 8:00 am – 12:00 pm and from 2:00 pm – 4:30 pm.
Genealogists are often the lowest in order for the busy staff to help. The day that I was there, the courthouse was very busy with requests from the public for getting current vital records registered, and active current needs. One request was for a vital record that a sister wanted of a brother – even though she had a different last name, she was able to get the record with proof of her relationship. (More information on state’s rules is on the chart linked below.)
Too bad most of my family’s records will not be in close-by facilities. We can appreciate what genealogists only had before computers and Internet – traveling to the agencies/ facilities, and requests for information by mail with payment by check. I have been actively doing genealogy research for 7 years, and have been able to get by on online computer only so far. Now I will be more prepared for on-site research.
(Vicki’s note – click on the title for a link to the full related article from www.familytreemagazine.com ):
Ready to see what your state offers?
Also see the handout that I got at the Courthouse on the
Wisconsin law for searching death records: