Death doesn’t bargain.
~August Strindberg, The Dance of Death~
For nearly ten months now I have been deeply immersed in discovering the intricate, and often captivating, lives and times of my ancestors. Every infinitesimal find, every human newly-connected to my tree fills me with an inexplicable sense of thrill and wonder. Each document scoured, pondered, and precisely catalogued provides me with tangible evidence of their lives and how, through their existence, there came to be ‘me’.
You might call it an obsession. I prefer to call it a passion.
IT JUST SOUNDS LESS CRAZY.
Sometimes, however, after long hours of searching, I turn off my computer with a permeating sense of sorrow, a certain numbness that keeps me lying awake at night feeling a mysterious empathy for family never known and long gone.
I experience this melancholy most often after reviewing death records, understandable given the weighty nature of these documents. However, death records very often reveal missing pieces to the puzzle found nowhere else, and they have proven to be invaluable in my searches.
Through death records I’ve discovered the identities of ancestors’ parents and their birthplace, previously unknown maiden names of the women folk, and in one instance, the fact that my ancestor had a different biological set of parents than the ones detailed on every other document I’d archived about her.
BIG SCOOP INDEED.
In the large scope of genealogy, I have found that even more relevant than the hard facts they provide, death records give us an intimate glimpse into the everyday lives of people, recording events that must have shaped them in intensely profound ways.
Sometimes death records reveal babies and young children who arrived and departed within the 10-year gap of the U.S. censuses, humans forgotten to documented time other than the scars carved into the hearts of their mothers. Sometimes the documents remember stillborn babies, nameless and graveless. And sometimes they record unspeakable tragic life events.
While searching for information on a particularly interesting branch of my tree, the Jordan’s of Lenawee County, Michigan I entered the variant spelling of ‘Jordon’. From that search, I discovered an unrelated family of Jordons who, over the course of two weeks in December 1880, lost four children between the ages of 2 and 14, from a cholera epidemic. The last child died on December 25th. Christmas Day. As a mother, I cannot even begin to fathom such a loss.
These events are also sobering in the fact that in 2011, we are immune, both physically and statistically, to them. These diseases are just not something that would cross our minds to fear today.
In my own family tracings, I’ve learned of a stillborn baby unknown and un-mentioned in any of our history, a toddler who died of a ‘brain infection’, and parents who lost two children under the age of four from scarlet fever, ten years apart.
As death records show, the 1800’s were perilous times. Not only did children and babies die at an alarming rate, adults were also prone to sometimes unusual fates.
I have stumbled upon records wherein …
… 60-year farmer was ‘crushed to death when run over by his team of horses’
… 3-year old twins ate poison weeds
… 5-year old girl overdosed on laudanum from the family medicine case
… 45-year old man ‘shot by his own gun’
… 38-year old woman ‘kicked in the head by a cow’
And the death diagnosis of ‘dropsy’ was notated on a full quarter of all the records I reviewed.
NO, I DID NOT KNOW WHAT IT MEANT. YES, I LOOKED IT UP.
So. The obvious depressing nature of death aside, I applaud the State of Michigan for it’s incredibly valuable (free) databases of death records. For an amateur genealogist like myself, they provide hours of in-depth investigation that often reaps bountiful rewards.
A wealth of information, including (but not limited too) actual scans of death record documents 1897 – 1920 and historical photos, including Civil War soliders from the State of Michigan.
Michigan Department of Community Health
Easy-to-use database of Michigan death records from 1867 – 1897.
Lenawee County Researchers
Direct links to familysearch.org databases for Michigan. If you’re looking for ancestors specifically in Michigan, these direct links narrow down the number of records on familysearch.org as a whole that you need to review.
Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library
Information for the State of Ohio, I cannot say enough good things about this organization. I’ve ordered historical documents online, as well as interacted with library staff. To say they are efficient and professional is an understatement.
I want to give a special shout out to Nan Card of the Rutherford B. Hayes Library for her speedy assistance and attention to detail.
AND NOW, A WORD OF CAUTION.
In my quest for unearthing the past, I use a variety of resources and online databases. I have also contacted cemetery sextons direct who have been vastly helpful in my endeavors and I have visited the graves of my ancestors who are relatively local to my area.
OKAY. MUST PAUSE A MOMENT.
Can I give one more shout out to Dan Righter of Brookside Cemetery in Tecumseh, Michigan who has shown the utmost professionalism and responded to my gabillion email requests with not only accurate, vaulable information, but the patience of a saint.
You’ll hear more about Dan Righter in another blog soon to come. Dan is my hero.
ANYHOO. BACK TO MY WORD OF CAUTION.
Doing online searches I have found an inordinate amount of research sites linking back to Archives.com. I won’t even link them here because I found the site to be eons less than useful. I signed up for this pay-for-searching database on a trial basis. I couldn’t even find documents I’d already located on the free databases and cancelled within 30 minutes of searching.
Now if I could only get them to stop sending me teaser emails about the documents I’m missing, my life would be complete.