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Rhonda's Tips: Genealogy Questions Answered
by Rhonda R. McClure

October 10, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Birth Record Alternatives

Q: How do you find an ancestor who has no birth certificate? I'm told that she never had one and has no social security card either. She was born 5/19/1890 in Spearsferry,Virginia. The family bible which kept all records was destroyed in a flood in 1977. My grandmother said her mother never worked outside the home. I do have her death certificate but it doesn't really help much. I know her parents names, they were Henry Horton and Nancy Peters. Any advice would greatly be appreciated. -- Maryjane

A: This is actually not an unusual situation. We are so used to reporting births and getting social security numbers these days that our children practically have their social security numbers before they are born. However, both of these records are contemporary records. While some counties recorded birth and death records from the late 1800s, many of us find we have gaps because these records weren't kept

You mentioned that the death certificate didn't really help that much but I assume that you may have learned her parents' names from this record. So, in that way, the death certificate was a help. Of course, you may have gotten that information another way, but regardless you do know their names. There are actually three records that you have not mentioned that I think you should investigate.

The first is the 1900 census. Because you know the names of her parents, it should be easy enough to locate the family. If you have a subscription to the U.S. Census here at, you can run a search on Henry Horton and see how many show up for 1900. You could narrow it down to the state of Virginia if you wanted, but I would suggest that your first try the country as a whole, unless you know for certain that she remained in the area or the state all her life. The 1900 census will supply the month and year of birth for each person enumerated. So, not only will you get the information on your grandmother but also on your great-grandparents as well.

The other resource that may supply you with the information you are seeking is her marriage record. The license itself may not give you the information, but usually by the early 1900s the licenses also have the application. These records may be microfilmed and available through your local Family History Center, depending on where she was married.

You may also want to investigate her tombstone. It is possible that this will also supply you with her full birth or perhaps the cemetery's records may have her full date at death, which would allow you to calculate her birth date based on date of death and full age. (By full age I mean her age listed in years, months and days.) Most genealogy software programs offer a calculator in which you put the date of death and the age and it calculates the date of birth.

It is possible that you may never find her exact birth date. However, as you can see here there are many records that will give you a partial, complete, or calculated birth date.

Need a Pedigree Chart on Genealogy Companies

Q: I am confused by the number of companies offering genealogy and family history services. Why do they all seem to send ads that read alike, sell product that seems alike? The companies offer U.S. census and immigration CDs and I wonder if they are selling the same information. What is going on? -- Jackie

A: I think it is because a lot of companies' names end in ".com" that confuses so many of us these days. Sometimes, you'll find that the companies have similar records. This is largely due to the fact that some of the records that have been digitized can be digitized by any company because they are government records and, therefore, not covered by the copyright law. Each company varies in the manner in which they offer the information and in the methods used in computerizing or digitizing the records., for one, offers a variety of databases. Some of them are available on both CD-ROM and through online subscriptions. The important thing to do is to read through all the information supplied about a CD-ROM before buying, especially if you are subscribed to one of the online subscriptions. Many of's subscriptions, for example the International and Passenger Records subscription, will include information also available on CD-ROM. If you are subscribed to the online database, then you would simply be duplicating if you were to purchase the Canadian Index 1600s-1900s on CD-ROM since it is already in your subscription.

While the information is often the same, the manner in which the different companies display that information may be the reason for your success or failure in a search. There are different methods of digitizing the census pages. Each method offers both pros and cons. To be an informed consumer, it is important to be an informed genealogist. You should understand the types of records that are being discussed and have a working knowledge of what each record offers in the way of information. For instance, a digitized census image offers you more than the census index, but you usually need the census index to find your ancestor more easily. Of course, you would also need to understand that most of the census indexes available today, whether online, in book, or on CD-ROM, are going to index the name of the head of the household rather than every individual living in the household. Therefore if you only know the child's name, you will want to go through everyone in the census with the surname of the child in the hopes of finding the correct family.

The Internet has enticed many individuals into this fascinating hobby and for the most part that is a good thing. When more people research, more people share information and more research will be accomplished. If you have only been introduced to genealogy through online research, it might be a good idea to go back learn about different record types and their assets and liabilities.

While I cannot speak for the other companies, I can say that if you ever order a CD-ROM from and discover that the information either is not useful to you or you already have that information available to you, you can take advantage of a 30-day money back guarantee on that product.

Looking for George Wallace

Q: I've been looking for my great-great-grandfather George Wallace who was born in 1862 in Glasgow, Scotland. According to my great-grandfather's birth certificate, George Wallace lived in LaSalle, Illinois. He was a coal miner around 1883 when my great-grandfather was born. I have my great-great-grandmother's funeral certificate. She died June 4, 1900 in New York City. I've looked online, in the Social Security Death Index, in census records, and in Scotland birth and parishes but am not able to find my great-great-grandfather George Wallace. I hope you can help me where to look for him. -- Anita

A: OK - first why you didn't find him on the Social Security Death Index. If he was having children in 1883, then he did not live to see the year 1962. The Social Security Death Index is the computerized Death Master File maintained by the Social Security Administration and it was not computerized until 1961. For this reason, it is almost impossible to find an entry for any deaths before this time. The SSDI is also not a master index to all deaths taking place in the United States, even after 1961. There are a number of different reasons why a person may not be listed in the SSDI, usually because of a unique pension pay out, such as is found with the railroad workers.

It is unclear if you looked for Scotland's old parochial registers online or if you have used the resources through your local Family History Center. The Scottish OPRs have been put on CD-ROM through the Family History Library and can be found at all Family History Centers. These lead you back to the microfilmed parish registers. However, there are also reasons why you may not find your ancestor listed here as well. The Scottish OPRs have listings from Scotland's recognized church at the time, which is most commonly known as the Church of Scotland. If your ancestor was a non-conformist of any kind it is unlikely that he will be listed in this database. I have also found in using the CD-ROM that some individuals were missed. The Scottish civil registration (that is, the listing of births, marriages, and deaths) is also available on microfilm. If you have not found a listing online you will want to turn your attention to the microfilmed indexes. Keep in mind that as records are published electronically, errors can creep in. Also, a computer is quite literal. If George's given name or surname are slightly different from the spelling you put in, it is entirely possible that you will be unable to find him online.

You should be able to find your great-great-grandmother in the 1900 census. If you haven't searched for her yet in this record, I would suggest that this be the first thing that you do. From her census entry, see if you can determine when she arrived in the United States. This will give you some idea as to whether or not George and your great-great-grandmother were still living in Scotland or if they were already in the United States in 1880. Also, you will want to get a copy of her death certificate. These are available on microfilm for the period in question through your local Family History Center.

You may need to branch out into other records to get an idea of when George Wallace arrived in LaSalle and when he left. One of the best resources for this is land records. This will give you an idea of whether or not he was in this area for a long time. You might also want to try city directories, if they exist. While directories are not available for all cities, you may find some for the years in question and you could also use these to pick up the trail of when he arrived. This is an alternative when the individual didn't own land.

You mentioned having your great-grandfather's birth certificate. If you haven't done so, you will want to see if he had any siblings. You may need to research some of them to pick up additional clues about George. Often, we need to apply this "cluster" approach. A sibling might reveal information you haven't been able to find. That information may appear in their marriage record or death record or even their obituary.

Unfortunately your great-grandfather was born in 1883 and you have your great-great-grandmother dying in 1900. Your research efforts may be hampered by the destruction of most of the 1890 census by fire. While there are some efforts to compile a useful census substitute, in most cases we simply cannot rely on census for events that took place during this time. However, you can determine if George died before his wife by getting her death certificate. That should indicate if she was a widow or not. If she was a widow, then you know he died sometime between 1883 and 1900.

You will also want to look at city directories for New York City. If George's wife died there, you may find that they had moved there at some point after the birth of your great-grandfather. You have two known places in which you need to exhaust all record types, both online and off. You need to look into land records in LaSalle. If you can get them, you should also look into court records, probate records, and newspapers. For New York, you need to look into the city directories and death indexes. The New York City death index is arranged alphabetically by year beginning in the 1890s. In it, you'll find the deceased's name, his or her age, and the certificate number. The boroughs are broken up so you have to search each borough index for each year. But knowing when George was born you have a benchmark upon which to measure all George Wallace entries in the index.

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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