Wednesday, May 29, 2013

New WMU Archives To Open In October

Here's a photo taken nearly two weeks ago to show you the progress of Western Michigan University's new Zhang Legacy Collections Center (ZLCC), the future home of the WMU Archives and Regional History Collections.

At this point they are expecting to open the ZLCC in mid-October. [1]  Until then you should be aware of some changes in their hours.  Through July 31st, they will be open Tues-Fri 9-4 and Mondays by appointment only. [1]  Beginning August 1st, no walk-in research will be possible until the new building opens, but you can still access some materials by appointment (call (269) 387-8490). [1]  As you might anticipate, some collections will probably be unavailable during the move so try to get your research trip in before the end of July. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

KVGS Writing Contest

I only saw it last week, but the Kalamazoo Valley Genealogical Society is holding a writing contest that is open until June 30th. I know there's not much time left, but if you are interested you can still submit a one-four page, unpublished family story. While there is no entry fee you must be a KVGS member to participate. You can find all of the details here

Friday, May 17, 2013

Van Buren District Library

If you believe the Van Buren District Library (VBDL) only has records relating to Van Buren county, Michigan then you are in for a treat. If you have ancestors who lived in southwest Michigan then the VBDL may have something of interest to you.

I have been meaning to mention the Van Buren District Library for quite some time. As someone who no longer lives in the area I am very pleased with the amount of information they have made available through their website.

Webster Memorial Library in Decatur is where the local history collection (LHC) of the VBDL is housed. The LHC is not available to researchers during all of the library's hours so you should check with the library before visiting to confirm hours of access. It is also good to know that the collections of the Van Buren Regional Genealogical Society for Southwest Michigan are also located here (their holdings deserve another post). Be aware that some items are located in storage so this is yet another reason to call in advance of your visit if there is a particular item you know you wish to examine.

The VBDL collection contains many types of records including area newspapers (most of them from Van Buren county, but not exclusively), government records for Van Buren and adjacent counties, plat books, various military resources, city directories, photographs, the Southwest Michigan obituary index (located in the VBDL, but maintained by the Van Buren Regional Genealogical Society) and much more. The VBDL website will get you well on your way in preparing for a visit. The site also lists their extensive collection of CDs with everything from local records to immigration records.

Probably the place to begin once you arrive at the library is with the Local History Master Index (unfortunately, only available at the library). Many smaller indexes have been included therein. You can search by name or subject. When the results come up they include the call number and page number of the item so it can then be readily located.

One of their 3 microfilm readers is a digital scanner allowing you to save copies to your flashdrive.

I highly recommend checking their website to familiarize yourself with their collection. Even if you are unable to visit in person you can still receive some information via snail mail. For example, copies of items in the Southwest Michigan obituary index can be requested from the Van Buren Regional Genealogical Society.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Rare Vintage Beach Photos has posted a large collection of beach photos mostly from the early 1900s.  It's fun to see how swimsuits have changed.  Have fun looking!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Happy Mother's Day

Here's a photo to celebrate the mothers in my family tree.

This is a photo of Lulu (Flynn) Elson in June 1914 after the birth of her first child, daughter Vinnie. Though Lulu was a mother at least four times, she left no descendents. Her two daughters never married. She had an infant die a day after birth.  Her son, Harris, died during WWII, and she never found out how, much to her sorrow.  I discovered her son's fate in an airplane crash in Myanmar (Burma) in Lost Boys of WWII.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Stories I Need To Write

About six years ago I wrote basic family histories for my main ancestral lines to share with my family. A couple of years ago I wrote the stories of several individuals from my tree who I found interesting. Now, the stories I need to write are about my grandmothers. I've been thinking about this for a while and it is starting to nag at me more and more.

When I wrote about people in my tree before, they were largely people for whom living memory is almost if not completely extinguished. The reason I need to write about my grandmothers (and yes, I should write about my grandfathers too) soon is because there are numerous people who know more about them than I and can proof my drafts. 

My maternal grandmother

Initially, I didn't feel compelled to write about my grandparents because I knew them. There isn't the element of mystery there is with long dead relatives. However, if I get these stories written soon I can draw on numerous living resources to add details. Considering how much I learned about my long dead kin I can only imagine how much more complete a picture I will be able to paint of my grandparents. 

My paternal grandmother

While writing I will naturally think of questions to pose to living relatives. The answers will certainly enhance my stories, but anyone who has conducted a family history interview knows that it is sometimes difficult to extract memories even from willing volunteers. Sometimes you don't know what question to ask to draw out the mini stories in their lives. The thing I'm most looking forward to is providing my stories to my family and asking for comments. With an outline of my grandparents' lives in front of them, I'm sure memories will be sparked. I can insert specific questions in the draft and because they are in context, there is a greater chance I'll get some helpful responses.

If my goal is to better understand my ancestors, what better way than to write their stories while there are still people who can flesh them out? And then after I finish those stories I need to start on my great-grandparents. While it's true that my living resources for those stories are fewer, I can probably still glean a few details I couldn't get from any other source.

I think I'll go get started right now.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Is That Really The Cause Of Death?

When you read a cause of death on an early death record (in Michigan, any time prior to August 29, 1897) you might want to take it with a grain of salt. [1] Like early birth records (Why Early MI Birth Records are Unreliable) early Michigan death records aren't necessarily trustworthy because the source of the information is. . . well, unknown. Local supervisors/assessors were supposed to collect the information once per year. For this reason alone it is wise to be skeptical of the information. Here are some more:
  1. With the passage of time, memories fade so information provided up to a year after the event could be wrong.
  2. The source of the assessor's information is unknown. It could have come from a family member, a neighbor or even the assessor's own recollection. [2]
  3. The assessor's information could have sustained an error when the county clerk transcribed it for the state returns.
In addition to these concerns, we may not want to completely trust the listed cause of death on death returns and even early death certificates because:
  1. Medical terminology, being generally unfamiliar to the layman, could be misunderstood by the family and an incorrect cause of death passed along to the assessor. “Such, for example, as 'fits,' 'chronic,' 'rash,' 'sore inside,' 'yaller ganders' (by which is meant jaundice!), etc., etc., are very common.” [3]
  2. Even if the information provided to the assessor was accurately conveyed, there was no guarantee that the person who originally “determined” the cause of death had any knowledge of medicine or physiology.
After the introduction of the death certificate system, not only should all deaths in Michigan have been recorded, but we should also know who provided the cause of death. According to state regulations “The physician who attended the deceased person during his last illness shall fill out the medical certificate of cause of death. . . In case of death without the attendance of a physician, or if it shall appear probable that the deceased person came to his death by unlawful or suspicious means, the registrar shall refer the certificate to the health officer or coroner for immediate investigation . . . Provided, That when the health officer is not a physician, and only in such case, the registrar is authorized to insert the facts relating to the cause of death from statements of relatives or other competent testimony.” [4]

The new system also, for the most part, eliminated the county-level transcription process because the original physicians' certificates of death were supposed to be sent to the state. [5] However, some cities including Detroit and Grand Rapids did not wish to comply and thus provided “exact transcripts.” [5] “The undesirability of transcripts of any kind, however, is shown by the fact that the returns from these cities, the largest in the State and which should be the most satisfactory, are not so in point of fact. Errors of copying are made and not noted by a careful comparison; essential items of the statement of cause of death are omitted when the copyist cannot make out the physician's statement; and as a whole no certified statement, however neatly executed, is as valuable as the original would have been.” [5] I'm not sure how long it took for all localities in Michigan to provide the original death certificates to the state.

So, the good news is that once death certificates were required we have an idea of where the information on cause of death originated because now we have a name. We can only hope that whoever provided the information actually received adequate medical training. However, prior to August 1897 in Michigan and in other localities where we have no idea where cause of death information came from, we can make no assumptions about the source.

A few years ago I read “The Poisoner's Handbook” by Deborah Blum. She described the situation in New York City when there was no requirement that the coroner be a physician or have any medical training whatsoever. As a result, between 1898 and 1915, this elected position was filled by individuals whose occupations included saloonkeeper, milkman, plumber and carpenter, among others. [6] If an auctioneer, for example, has the final say on a cause of death, how can we place any confidence in that assessment? I don't know how prevalent this situation was throughout the country or if it was largely confined to big cities. Either way, it may be best to consider the information on cause of death with some skepticism unless you know who provided it. One more thing to consider is that even if the cause of death was determined by someone with medical training we don't know the quality of that training. If physicians in the 1800s believed that teething caused diarrhea, convulsions and even death (Rethinking Teething Deaths) how much can one trust the accuracy of that cause of death.

  1. Secretary of State of Michigan. Thirty-Second Annual Report of the Secretary of State on the Registration of Births And Deaths Marriages And Divorces in Michigan For The Year 1898. (Lansing, Michigan: Robert Smith Printing Co, 1900), v.
  2. Secretary of State of Michigan. Thirty-Second Annual Report . . . 1898., clix.
  3. Secretary of State of Michigan. Twenty-Eighth Annual Report Relating To The Registry And Return Of Births, Marriages And Deaths in Michigan For The Year 1894. (Lansing, Michigan: Robert Smith Printing Co, 1897), xi.
  4. Secretary of State of Michigan. Twenty-Ninth Annual Report Relating To The Registry And Return Of Births, Marriages And Deaths in Michigan For The Year 1895. (Lansing, Michigan: Robert Smith Printing Co, 1897), xviii.
  5. Secretary of State of Michigan. Thirty-Second Annual Report . . . 1898., lxxii.
  6. Deborah Blum, The Poisoner's Handbook. Murder And The Birth Of Forensic Medicine In Jazz Age New York, (New York, The Penguin Press, 2010), 20.