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Overheard in GenForum: Snyder Death Record
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

June 21, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Looking for a death record of William Snyder. According to the South Bend Weekly, he died in January of 1904. He lived in Lakeville, Indiana, which is St. Joseph County. They have no death certificate at the local level. Where else would one look? -- Dee

A: Vital records and newspapers are two of the most valuable resources that we, as genealogists, can use in the tracing of our ancestors. Unfortunately vital records may not exist for the time in question and newspapers may lead us astray with the information reported.

Like all aspects of our research, it is important to learn the limitations in availability of vital records. With newspapers we sometimes need to read between the lines. What wasn't mentioned in the article or obituary?

Exhaust all possibilities in looking for records.

Indiana Vital Records

Like many of the United States, Indiana has recorded vital records on the county level. Of course record availability does differ from county to county and some vital records were kept sooner than others. For instance, marriage records were kept early. The first law that applied to the recording of marriages was established in 1788. Marriage licenses were then required in 1800.

It is not surprising that marriage records date back further than other vital records. The marriage record was a necessary document when proving estate entitlement as the widow. It would be almost another century though before birth and death records were kept. Indiana counties did not require these records until 1882.

If a county was in existence at this time, as St. Joseph was, then it began to keep both birth and death registrations. However, since you mention having contacted the county and not finding the death record, there is still another option available to you.

The state of Indiana, like most other states, felt that it needed to know the information the individual counties knew in regard to births, marriages, and deaths. Like most states though, this need to know did not come about until the twentieth century. In Indiana, the state required the recording of births at the state board of health in October, 1907. Deaths, however, have been recorded at the state level since January, 1900. Marriages were the last of the vital records to reach the state level, being recorded in 1958.

You can contact the state vital records department at:

State Board of Health
Division of Vital Records
1330 West Michigan Street
Indianapolis, IN 46207

Understanding Newspapers

The information you currently have on your ancestor has come from a newspaper. There are different ways in which your ancestor's write-up could have been included. Depending on the type of article, there may be other alternatives to the death record itself, assuming that the state cannot supply it to you either.

First it is important to read the article carefully. If it is an obituary, be careful to read for errors in the article. Sometimes obituaries are written by the funeral home based on family information. This may result in erroneous information in the obituary.

Also look to see the wording of the death notice. Does it come out and say that the individual died in Lakeville, or are you assuming this is where he died because you know he was living there? While that is certainly our first stop, it may not be the correct assumption. For instance, my grandfather's legal residence at the time of his death was Manchester, New Hampshire. However, he died in Florida while on vacation.

If the write-up in question was something other than an obituary, was it due to some accident or foul play? If so, there may be court or coroner's records that may offer you a tangible proof of your ancestor's death.

In Conclusion

Understanding when, where and sometimes why a record type was created can go a long way in successful research with that record. Taking an analytical approach to the records to identify the true facts stated may help us in solving a research problem.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

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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