Thursday, June 18, 2015

How to Do a Pull-out-all-the-stops Pre-1916 Death Record Search in Chicago

This evening, chicago-lookups, a go-to person for early Chicago vital records now that I'm a sun-warmed, ocean-cooled Californian, wrote to ask me what to do in a case where there are no apparent matches in any of the available indexes for the name and the death date that her client provided. As my reply to her grew longer and longer, I realized that my answer might be useful to a wider audience. Blog post time!

Here is what I would do to search for a pre-1916 Chicago death certificate if I wanted to exhaust every possibility that I could think of before reporting back to a client:

  • Search the given name and surname, as provided.
  • Search the given name and surname, leaving off letters. For example, use Mar... if the name is Mary, Maria, Marianna, Marianne, Martha, Marta. Use Ab... Abraham just in case the name is in the index as Abe. You get the idea. Also try just the first letter of the given name.
  • Search the surname with the death year.
  • Search the given name with a year, if unique. Add a few letters of the surname, if it isn't.
  • Check alternate years--a "3" could be misread as an "8" for example.
2) Check the Illinois, Cook County Deaths, 1878-1939, 1955-1994 index at FamilySearch. Remember, though, that the names of parents or spouse won't be useful in searching for records before c. 1908. The early forms didn't ask for that information.

3) Check the Indexes to deaths in the city of Chicago during the years 1871-1933: showing name, address and date of death (also called the "burial permit index"). It's on Family History Library microfilm. It includes out-of-town deaths and sometimes names don't appear in the indexes mentioned above because a Chicago resident died outside the area.

No luck?

Look for a way to confirm the death date and place.

4) Check for an obituary in the Chicago Tribune online. Some libraries offer access or you can get to it through Fold3.

5) Check for an obituary in other Chicago newspapers. If you don't have access, Genlighten's mollykennedy is a pro at finding Illinois obituaries using the resources that are available in Springfield.

6) If you have an idea where the person was buried, contact the cemetery to see if you can find a burial date. Ask if they have information similar to what might be on the death record.

7) Check the Cook County Coroner's Inquest Index, 1872-1911. Remember, this is a pull-out-all-the-stops search. It's worth a try.

Still no luck?

8) Scroll through the Family History Library film where the record you're looking for should be.

Use the One Step index linked above to search for a person with the same first letter of surname who died the same month and year as the person you're looking for. Use that certificate number to choose the Family History Library film that would have that record. 

Early death records are arranged in a logical way. All of the "K" deaths for January 1894 will be grouped together, for example. Starting from the record you identified using the index search, scroll back to find where the "K" records for January start. Look through one at a time until you come to "K" records for February.

9) Repeat the process described in #8 using a film from the Cook County (not city) series.

Still no luck?

10) Mail in a search request to the Cook County Clerk's Office to see what they can find.

and/or

11) Look for the death in other places. For example, an elderly parent might have gone to stay with an out-of-state child during a last illness.

and/or

12) See if there's a church burial record, especially relevant for Catholic deaths as many of those records are on Family History Library film.

If none of those approaches work, you might be out of luck, but I never say never. You might stumble on the record you're looking for in an unexpected place--a pension file, for example? Or? What other ideas come to mind?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Clerk's Hesitancy Might Mean No Record to be Found

When I was actively pursuing Chicago research, I sometimes searched the ProQuest version of the Chicago Tribune when I wanted contemporary insights into the workings of, say, the vital records office. 

Organizing files earlier today, I came across a copy of an 1878 article titled "The County Building" which included a paragraph suggesting that the County Clerk was a bit timid about taking action to force ministers and physicians to report births, marriages, and deaths. 


THE COUNTY BUILDING. Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1963); Mar 8, 1878;
ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 - 1986) pg. 8 

If you've been looking for a record that doesn't seem to exist, this might be why. My feeling, though, based on thousands of searches, is that most marriages and deaths were probably recorded (although sometimes marriage licenses were obtained but never returned) but that births were often overlooked.


Monday, June 08, 2015

My Experience Obtaining a Cook Vital Record In Person

I wrote this blog post in 2014, but never shared it. Looking back, I'm thinking the information might be useful and so I'm going to make some minor edits and click the "Publish" button. ~ Cyndy



Almost a year ago I received an email from someone asking for my help to obtain a certified copy of a Chicago death certificate from 1910.

When someone needs a record that can only be obtained from the Cook County Clerk's Office, I usually suggest contacting the office directly but in this case the circumstances were such that I thought it would be best for someone to obtain the record in person. I offered to make the trip as part of my continuing education because I'd never been to a satellite office before.

Here's my experience in a nutshell:

I visited the Skokie office on September 11. The clerk tried very hard to find a digital copy of the record in her computer system for me, but had no luck. I left a by-mail request. After a few weeks of waiting, I called. The request was still in the system but the clerk couldn't tell me when it might be processed. As the six-week mark approached, I emailed to check on the request. I got an immediate response and the record arrived three days later.

And here are the details:

On September 11, I took an uncertified copy of the death certificate that I needed to obtain and visited the Skokie office.

The first challenge was finding the right building. I'm usually a bus rider and so I pulled in the lot where the bus stops are. Nope. The parking garage is east of that. It took me a while, but I found it.

I knew that there would be strict rules about what could be taken into the building--no cell phones, for example--and so I carried just a few things--my ID a few papers, money, and my keys--in a clear plastic case. I make it through security in a breeze. In fact, they didn't even send my case through the scanner.

Once I was through security, I walked down the hallway to the right and found the Vital Records room on the left. There were only a couple of people ahead of me. I wasn't quite sure where to wait--stand in line or take a seat?--but it wasn't too long before a clerk called me over.

She took my request and did a thorough search of her online database trying to find a match for the record so that she could provide a certified copy immediately. She used wild cards and even looked at births just in case the record had been entered wrong. Unfortunately, she just couldn't find a digitized copy of the record and so I had to leave a by-mail request.

She created the request form on her computer and printed it out for me to sign. I said, repeatedly, that it needed to be a certified copy. She didn't put that in the note but she assured me that saying it was "needed for dual citizenship" would tell whoever prepared it for mailing that it should be certified.

The bottom of the form asked for my relationship to the deceased and I put "none." She said that wouldn't work. She gave me a new form and I wrote something like, "Agent for grandson of the deceased."

And then I went home and waited, watching my mailbox every day. After a few weeks, I called the Skokie office. I was able to confirm that the request was still in the system (I provided the surname and the clerk pulled it up and mentioned the given name so I know it was there) but the person I spoke to had no estimate of when I could expect the record. Her comment was just that the record was old. On the surface, that seemed to be an odd way to answer my question, but it's possible that it is more difficult for them to pull early records and it's possible that it takes a while for them to find the time to do it.

On the eve of the six-week mark, I located an email address for the Vital Records office and sent a polite note, briefly explaining the situation, attaching a copy of the request form and the uncertified document, and asking these questions:
  • Can you give me an idea of how long it will be before our request will be processed? 
  • Or, if the record has been mailed, can you tell me when it was sent?
  • If it hasn't been mailed, do you need anything else from my clients in order to process the request?
I was worried that the relationship information might be holding things up and I didn't want to have to start the process again.

I had a very pleasant response within hours. If I would reply with my address, the person would get a copy out in the mail to me. (They had my address on the request form, but I was happy to do what I could to make it easy for them.)

Three days later, I had the record and dropped it in the mail to my client the next day.

I don't have a lot of experience working with the Cook County Clerk's Office and so I don't know if this turnaround time is typical or not. The few times I've requested marriage licenses, it seems like they've come quicker.

But, anyway, here's what I learned from this experience:
  • Satellite offices can provide vital records to in-person visitors immediately if the records are in the computer system. Good to know!
  • The clerks will try hard to find what you need. (This has been my experience downtown, too.)
  • If a record isn't in the system, you'll have to leave a by-mail request. There's no way to know ahead of time but I'm guessing old record means not much chance and on-cookcountygenealogy.com means pretty certain.
  • The request form asks for relationship to the deceased. If you need a recent certificate and you're not someone who can legally obtain the record, I believe (based on a previous successful experience) you'll need a notarized document authorizing you to act as an agent for the person, copies of documents proving that person's right to the record, and personal identification. Call ahead for more information, if you find yourself in that situation.
  • Requests made in person go into the system immediately so they can be tracked. I liked that. It  probably happens with mail-order requests, too, but I'm not sure.
  • It might take a bit of patience to get a record.
  • It's worth following up if a record doesn't arrive in a timely way.
  • A polite inquiry by email will likely get a pretty quick response.
Overall, except that it seemed to take much longer than expected to get the record, I'd say the experience was a very positive one.




Sunday, March 29, 2015

I'm a Californian Now!


Last week I closed the door to our Wilmette home one last time,  climbed aboard the Southwest Chief out of Chicago's Union Station, and forty-three-or-so hours later I arrived in Los Angeles ready to experience life as a Californian! My husband's work has brought us to west coast and we have officially moved.

So, what does that mean for ChicagoGenealogy?

First, that it's time to pass along the document retrieval work that I've been doing for nearly twelve years to others. I've arranged for Khania, a new researcher who has easy access to the Wilmette Family History Center, to take over birth, marriage, and death record lookups. I've shared with her much of what I know about Chicago research and she's a quick learner! That part of my work is in good hands. You can find her as "chicago-lookups" on our Genlighten site.

There are many others who are skilled at the divorce, probate, and naturalization searches that I did at the Cook County Circuit Court Archives and a number of those researchers can be found on Genlighten. Kim Stankiewicz's services most closely mirror my own--I've enjoyed the times we've found ourselves at the Daley Center at the same time, putting our matching scanners through their paces side by side--and so I will be referring my previous clients to her.

At the moment, my plan is to continue to maintain the ChicagoGenealogy website and I'm hoping to find time in the near future to make some much-needed updates. Chicago research strategy changes with additions and subtractions to websites like FamilySearch and Ancestry and I want to make sure the information presented is current.

I will also be removing the first person voice from the site, remaking it into a cooperative rather than an individual endeavor, and that brings me to the blog. I will continue to add to it, but I would like to invite other local researchers to use it as a forum for sharing their own insights into Chicago and Cook County research. If you would be interested in guest posting, please let me know.

I've enjoyed the time I've spent as ChicagoGenealogy. I printed and scanned thousands of records and, sure, after a while some of it became routine, but being able to come up with a hard-to-find record was always satisfying and having a request come in while I was at the Family History Center so I could turn it around in jaw-droppingly short order was always fun.

So, what does the future hold for me--besides unpacking lots and lots of boxes? Well, we've got a new version of Genlighten that will launch later this year--simpler and more visually appealing with a few more powerful features--so some of my time will be taken up with that. And then, I'm not sure. I might decide to learn all that I can about genealogy research in Southern California or I might decide to learn to code in Ruby on Rails--something I've always wanted to do. Or I might just slather myself with sunscreen, by myself a porch swing, and work on clawhammer banjo for the rest of my life. We'll see!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Exploring Chicago City Directories on Ancestry.com

Fold3 has been my go-to place for Chicago city directories (free access at the local Family History Center) but many of them are available on Ancestry.com, too--good news for those of us with a subscription. In this blog post I'll tell you how to find the directories on Ancestry, share what I've learned about browsing and searching them, and compare availability between the two websites.

How to find the Chicago directories on Ancestry

The Chicago directories are part of an extensive collection of  U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989.  If you click Ancestry's "Search" tab, you can find a collection link on the right under Schools, Directories and Church Histories. Add the directories to your Quick Links using this URL: http://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=2469

Browsing the Chicago directories

To help me explore the directories, I offered a search to the first person to post a request on the Chicago Genealogy Facebook page and so my task was this: to look for Vaclav "James" Havel, a bricklayer or stone mason, who was in Chicago from 1881 until his death in 1918. He lived on South Ashland and South Ridgeway in 1900 and 1910 respectively and my goal was to find him in pre-1900 directories.

On Fold3 my strategy has always been to browse the directory pages so the first thing I did on Ancestry was use the "Browse this collection" option on the right of the search page to drill down to the year I wanted to view.



Clicking the title link opened the volume in an easy-to-use viewer. I played the high/low number game in the small gray navigation bar at the bottom to get close to the page I wanted and then used the arrows to move to the exact page. I had some page-load issues and was directed to the basic viewer a number of times, but I think that was because my wireless connection was slow. When I connected to the Internet with a cable, I had no problems.


Once I located the correct page, I had three options for saving it--attach it to a person on my Ancestry tree, download it to my computer, or add it to my Ancestry shoebox. In this case, I took a screen shot because I wanted the researcher who asked me for help to be able to see the directory year with the directory information. If I had just saved the image and renamed it with the year there would have been a chance of a hard-to-detect information-altering typo.

Rolling my mouse over "Tools" (top right) allowed me to select "View Source" which showed me the source information and let me easily copy and paste it into my research notes. Just typing "S" did the same.

Searching the Directories

After browsing for a directory year, I tried the search option. I typed in "james havel" with "chicago" which brought up a number of relevant matches. When I rolled over "View Record" I was able to see address and occupation for each individual on the list, but choosing the correct James from the index wasn't important. Any of the links would have taken me to the Havel entries I wanted to view.

I found the search feature useful and in the future I think I would try it first, browsing only if no matches came up.


What fields can be used in a search?

The search form has many fields and I explored each of them.

First and Middle Name(s) and Last Name -- These fields work in the obvious way, but remember two things: 1) you don't have to use them and 2) they can be searched with wildcards. Organization entries may have text in the First and Middle Name(s) field. For example, typing words like "orphanage" or "evangelical" or "cemetery" will bring up matches.

Lived In (Location) -- Type "chicago" and select "Chicago, Cook, Illinois, USA" from the drop-down. If you just type "chicago" your search results will not be filtered and will include places like Omaha, Nebraska.

Any Event (Year and Location) -- Type a directory year. Select a +/- date range, choose "Exact," or leave it as is. No need to enter a location if you did it in the "Lived In" field mentioned above. 

Family Member -- Chicago directories (with the exception of the 1928 reverse directory) don't list spouses and so this field is irrelevant to most Chicago searches. It is relevant to the directories that included that information. The 1923 Cicero directory, for example, has entries that include spouse names in parentheses, e.g., Havel Joseph (Varella), and both names are in the database.

Keyword -- This field is the reason to search directories online instead of on microfilm or in paper form. Use the keyword field to add an occupation or street name to a name search. I was successful in adding "brick" to the search for James. Be careful, though. Many occupations in the early directories were abbreviated. Adding "brklayr" also brought up matches. 

A list of abbreviations can usually be found just before the name entries. Below is a example list from  the 1896 directory. 


You can also use the keyword field by itself to search for addresses (see below) or to quickly drill down to an organization page. Searching "lutheran" is an easy way to get to the page that lists Lutheran churches. Typing "violin" let me pull up a list of violin makers and teachers for a specific year. The possibilities are endless.

Publication Title -- I tried searching "lakeside" with 1899 and it did bring up some for Chicago and other cities, but in most cases, I don't think this field would be useful.

Gender -- I didn't try this, but I don't think it would be useful for Chicago searches. The directories didn't indicate gender.

Residence Year -- If you've added a year in the Event category, you won't need to use this field.

Can directories be searched by address?

A big question is whether or not it's possible to search the directories by address to find out who was living there in a particular year. To test that possibility, I located an entry for a James Hovel who lived at 640 Throop in 1897. Then I tried to find the same entry using that address. I searched with "Chicago, Cook, Illinois, USA" as a location with 1897 (exact) and "640 throop" in the Keyword field. James was at the top of the results list. It also showed a Daniel A. Allen as a match, but he seems to have worked at 106 Wabash and lived at 305 Ashland. 

I opened the page index (button at the bottom left of the screen) to quickly skim the addresses for the page to see if Throop was there. I didn't take the time to look at all the entries but I did notice something important. It looks like the index was created through optical character recognition and--very understandably--the software wasn't able to read all of the street names accurately. For example, I'm sure "XVashington Boul" was really "Washington Blvd." You can search for an address using the Keyword field but the search is only as good as the index. 

Are Ancestry and Fold3 directory offerings the same? 

In short, no. Although both sites offer many of the same volumes, they each have unique offerings as well. The run at Fold3 seems more complete but Ancestry has directories for later years that aren't on Fold3 and, as far as I know, aren't available on Family History Library microfilm. Ancestry also has Illinois directories for places outside of Chicago.

I created a quick comparison chart which can be viewed here: Chicago Directories on Fold3/Ancestry

I was particularly interested in the three later directories available at Ancestry so I took a closer look at those.

1930: There are two links. One leads to the Chicago Central Business and Office Building Directory, 1930 and the other leads to the 1930 Chicago Summer Telephone Directory. The business directory includes the names of both individuals and companies and the telephone book is just as you'd expect. 

1945: The link reads "Chicago Address List." This appears to be a hand-typed reverse directory showing street address and residents. At quick glance, it appears to include adults heads of household, including spouses. No occupations or employers are mentioned.

1947: The link reads "Chicago South-West Street Guide" and the volume includes "All Streets South of Madison Street and West of State Street Listed in Alphabetical Order; All House Numbers in Numerical Order Showing All Occupants of Each House."

Some additional comments on Chicago directories

Lastly, just a few observations from my experience using the Chicago city directories for whatever they're worth.
  • Newspaper research leads me to believe that at least some of the directories were canvassed in the spring and printed in the summer. Knowing that is sometimes helpful.
  • Late entries are often included in the front.
  • Lists of organizations including churches, cemeteries, schools, and orphanages, are usually in the front.
  • Businesses are usually listed in the back but they're included in the main part of the directory, too.
  • An index to advertisers may be available.
Writing this blog post has taught me one thing -- there's a lot to know about searching city directories. If you notice something I've missed or something I don't have quite right, please leave a comment and share.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Chicago Fire: The Smith Family's Experience

902 Prairie Ave with Cupola that Offered View of the Fire
Earlier today, a member of the Chicago Genealogy Facebook group asked if anyone had ancestors who were in Chicago at the time of the Great Fire. I immediately raised my hand. "I do! I do!"

Well, actually, I don't. But my husband does and so it feels like I do. His great-great grandfather, James Ayer Smith, a manufacturing hatter and furrier, was in the city from 1835 until his death in 1875. In 1871, he was living at 902 Prairie Avenue.

We have a copy of a short unpublished family history (three typed legal-size pages) "The James A. Smith Family in Chicago," obtained from the Chicago History Museum some years ago that mentions the Fire in a couple of places and I promised the Facebook group that I would share. A blog post seems like a good way to do that.

There's no author listed but a note says that it was "Compiled from memoranda of [large blank space]  Smith and W. W. Smith" and I suspect it was James' granddaughter, Edna Valentine Smith, daughter of William Wirt Smith, who wrote it. She had a deep interest in Chicago's history and cherished her  family's ties to it.

Here's one paragraph from the history that talks about the family's loss from the fire.

The Great Fire of Oct., 1871, wrought complete destruction to their full fall
stock of the choicest and richest furs, together with a warehouse full. The total
fire losses to the Smith family aggregated several hundred thousand dollars and a
notable fact in connection with that is, that J. A. Smith & Sons were one of the very
few firms who paid dollar for dollar of their debts.

And here are three paragraphs that talk about what the family did while the fire was raging.

It was while residing in this house that the Great Fire of '71 wrought its de-
struction, which ended at 12th St., and consequently the home was spared by a wide
margin. On that night of terror, Mr. Smith's coachman called his attention to the
glow of what seemed a big fire down town. The household went up into the cupola from
which an extensive view was attainable and saw that quite a fire was raging.

Mr. Smith being apprehensive, ordered the light wagon made ready and he and the
coachman drove down town and they bagan [sic] at once moving valuables and furs. They work-
ed all night making three moves and lastly took their stock from the lake front, where
they were left temporarily, to the family residence where $40,000.00 worth were saved.

The firm, after the fire, opened a store at 513-515 Wabash Ave. and later at 161 State St.

If you have family stories about The Great Chicago Fire, I'd love to hear them!



Monday, September 08, 2014

RunKeeper to the Rescue: How I Found Mr. Janes' Grave

I spent the weekend playing old-time music with friends who gathered in Iroquois County, Illinois and Sunday morning, on the way home, I stopped at the Onarga Township Cemetery to visit the grave of fiddler William Alonzo Janes. The long story of my connection to him is one for another post, but it's dear and finding his resting place was very important to me.

Onarga is a small town, population 1350 in 2009, and so my plan, small-town upstate New Yorker that I am, was to just wander the cemetery looking for Mr. Janes. One look told me that wasn't going to work.



I pulled out my iPhone, found my reading glasses, and looked at the Find A Grave entry to see if there was a cemetery section listed. No luck, but there was a clue. I noticed a thin line of gravel at the top of the image. The stone had to be on the edge of one of the roads through the cemetery. I drove around carefully, getting out to check a few likely markers, but I found no match. 


What to do? I noticed someone outside across the street from the cemetery so I asked if he knew where burial records might be kept. He was willing to show me where the sexton lived--I love small towns--but I didn't want to go knocking on a stranger's door after I'd been camping for three days without the benefit of a shower to wash my hair.

I made a quick trip into town to see if the library was open. It wasn't, so it was back to the cemetery for a second try. As I sat in the car, deciding how to cover the ground systematically so that I didn't miss anything, it came to me--RunKeeper, the app that I have on the third screen over on my phone for when I decide that I've had enough of the being lazy thing. I'd seen a Facebook post a while back about someone who uses the mapping feature to draw pictures and I realized that I could use it to record my path through the cemetery.

I drove the roads carefully with RunKeeper monitoring my every move. And at the end of 24 minutes, 8 seconds, I'd driven a mile, burned 137 theoretical calories, and still hadn't found the stone.


I saved the "walk" so that I could view the resulting map and it was then that I noticed that the large new section in the back seemed to be connected by a single road. It wasn't the way that I remembered it and I wondered if I'd missed a few of the sections around the perimeter of the nine-square box. I drove down the far left road and as I came up on the corner, my eye easily rested on the right stone. In that moment, I remember saying to myself with a quiet sense of reverent respect: "Mr. Janes."

This cemetery trip was a pilgrimage of sorts. Mr. Janes passed along a fiddle tune to Illinois fiddler Mel Durham who passed it on to California fiddler David Bragger, my teacher, who passed it on to me. I was there to bring Mr. Janes' tune back to him--to close the circle--and I did just that. It was an experience to treasure made possible by--of all things--the RunKeeper app.