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Death Records for Genealogy Research – What you might not be looking at! (Part 1)

Over the course of 2016 I’ve gained a lot of distant family members to my family tree. Some I have been blessed to have reached out to me via various social media sites, others have sent me emails and I’ve even called some distant relatives who I never knew I had until really expanding my family tree.

Many of these individuals and various unnamed connections were made via the use of death records which can include death registers, death certificates (there is a difference!), obituaries, and funeral home records.

A very important tip in regards to perusing death records, especially registers and death certificates is to always look at the original document. We are very fortunate to be genealogical researchers in the digital age whereas we can type in a query into a search engine and our ancestors information pops up, but only looking at the transcribed information shown to you at Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org or any other genealogical website you may use, means you are overlooking important clues that can add additional value and branches to your family tree.

Death registers – basically a list of everyone who died, their age, cause of death and sometimes their address and where they were buried, were kept by the City of Toledo and Lucas County starting in the 1840s. There are few records between 1840 and 1860 but from the 1860s forward there are quite a lot of entries. I am currently working on transcribing the death records of all black/colored individuals who died in the City of Toledo from 1860 through 1880 and I may go a bit further if time warrants. Below is a sample of one of my ancestors whose information I discovered via the Death Register of the City of Toledo. It is the death record of Elias Whitfield, one of my first documented early Toledo ancestors. Elias died in 1897 at the age of 35 and was the husband of Martha/Mattie JONES and the father of Harold Elias WHITFIELD. If I had only looked at the transcribed version of the death register record, only the following information shows up:

Name                                           Elias Whitford
Event Type                                Death
Event Date                                 25 Nov 1897
Event Place                               Toledo, Lucas, Ohio, United States
Gender                                         Male
Age                                                 35
Marital Status                           Married
Race                                             C
Race (Original)                         C
Occupation                               Drayman
Birth Year (Estimated)          1862
Birthplace                                  U.S.
Cemetery                                   Forest
Father’s Birthplace                 US
Mother’s Birthplace               US

Please the first line of the attached picture below and note that WHITFORD is a variant spelling of WHITFIELD. Many times surnames and even given names were mis-spelled or incorrectly written by record keepers. Everything else I knew about Elias WHITFIELD matches with this death certificate since I had other sources about his life. He was born approximately 1862-1863. He was black/”colored” as mentioned in the record. He was married and he died in Toledo in the 1890s. This transcription provides a lot of information that is useful for a family tree.
Here is the original version of the death record:

As you can see, the original version gives a bit more information. It also states that he was 35 when he died. It shows the address where he died, which was 1611 Canton Avenue in Toledo. I could assume this was his home address. The Canton Avenue district in Toledo near Cherry Street and Bancroft was the location of the largest percentage of the black population in the city at the time. Elias’ cause of death was Phthisis Pulmonalis Congestion of the Lungs, basically Tuberculosis, something that was a huge public heath epidemic from the late 1800s through the 1950s with the invention of antibiotics to combat this illness. He had been sick for 18 months before his death. He had lived in the city for 20 years, so had moved to Toledo in the 1870s. The physician who attended him was named J.A. Wright .

Starting in the 1900s the federal government required all states to issue Certificates of Death for everyone who died in the country. Many states didn’t begin to implement this directive until they were required to do so around 1915. This is the case especially for many southern states who unfortunately didn’t routinely record the deaths of black people. Their lack of doing so can be a road block in black genealogy. In Ohio and Toledo specifically, we are lucky that Toledo kept death records on all citizens who gave a record of death. My earliest ancestor who had an official Death Certificate was Amy BLICK/BLECK JONES the mother-in-law of Elias WHITFIELD. Amy BLICK/BLECK JONES died in 1903. Below is the transcription of her Death Certificate:

Amy Jones
Ohio, County Death Records
Name                                        Amy Jones
Event Type                             Death
Event Date                             01 Sep 1903
Event Place                           Toledo, Lucas, Ohio, United States
Residence Place                 Toledo, Lucas, Ohio
Gender                                   Female
Age                                          abt 60y
Marital Status                    Married
Race                                      black
Race (Original)                 black
Occupation                       house work
Birth Date                                1843
Birthplace                                U. S.
Burial Place                           Toledo, Lucas, Ohio
Cemetery                               Forest
Father’s Birthplace           U.S.
Mother’s Birthplace          U.S.

On the original document below Amy’s cause of death was listed as “endocartitis” and “rheumatism.” It shows her approximate year of birth. Since I am fairly confident that Amy BLICK/BLECK JONES was a slave, it can be assumed that her exact birthdate was unknown, which is why “about 1843” was written on the certificate for her birthday and “about 60” was written as her age. It lists the funeral home that took care of her burial “Wilson and Feese.” The certificate also shows her address of 218 Avondale Avenue, which corresponds to the accumulation of the black population, starting in the late 1800s to about 1930 being centered in what is known as the “Port Lawrence” district of the city near St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and where the current Port Lawrence housing community is situated. Amy also was stated to have lived in the city “about 20 years.” A perusal of City Directories shows her husband and herself as residents of Toledo in in the 1880s.
This early death certificate differs in look from the ones used starting in the 1910s. They are pretty similar from all across the country in regards to the ones I have reviewed from 1915 forward. Below is the Death Certificate of Edna ROBINSON PARROTT. She was a 4th great aunt of mine. Information found within this Death Certificate pointed me toward the genealogy of her mother Nancy JONES. As stated earlier in the JONES/ROBINSON post, I was unaware of Nancy’s maiden name for a number of years due to believing it was BAKER. Details in the original image of the death record allowed me to put some pieces of the JONES/ROBINSON puzzle together.

Name                                             Edna Parrott
Event Type                                  Death
Event Date                                  19 May 1929
Event Place                                Toledo, Lucas, Ohio, United States
Address                                        138 Hamilton St.
Residence Place                      Toledo, Lucas, Ohio
Gender                                         Female
Age                                                48y 6m 14d
Marital Status                          Married
Race                                             Colored
Race (Original)                         Colored
Occupation                               housewife
Birth Date                                  05 Nov 1880
Birthplace                                Toledo, Ohio
Burial Date                              22 May 1929
Cemetery                                Forest
Father’s Name                      Ed. Robinson

Father’s Birthplace             Harrisburg, Pa.
Mother’s Name                    Nancie Jones

Mother’s Birthplace           Greenfield, Ohio
Spouse’s Name                    Bert Parrott

As shown above, this death record provides some great information in the transcribed form. It does show birth her parents, even her mother’s maiden name and the places of birth for both. However a review of the original certificate showed that the “Informant” for the Death Certificate was “Nancy BAKER” meaning Edna’s own mother provided the information so it can be seen as much more factual than other certificates, like Amy BLICK/BLECK JONES’ above, which have a physician or hospital worker as the informant for the data within the document. The document also says that Edna was buried by the WANZO Funeral Home, a black owned funeral home that was later sold and is still in existence today as the Dale-Riggs Funeral Home on Nebraska Ave.

Earlier this year I read a 2011 thesis paper/book written by a PhD student from Bowling Green State University. The research paper was titled “Revelations fron the Dead: Using Funeral Home Records to Help Reconstruct the History of Black Toledo” by Camillia Z. Rodgers. Prior to reading this thesis, I had never considered using funeral home records before for genealogical research and especially never knew that I would be able to get access to long ago funeral home records. In the paper, Dr. Rodgers wrote about the Wanzo Funeral Home. Elvin B. WANZO was a prominent black citizen in Toledo and moved to the area in the early 1900s. A review of my relatives’ death certificates from the early 1900s when Wanzo opened his funeral home through the 1950s when he sold the business showed that Mr. Wanzo buried 3-4 generations of my direct ancestors and distant family members during the time his business was in operation, including Edna ROBINSON PARROTT above.

The records and registers that Mr. Wanzo kept regarding his services, primarily for the African American community in Toledo are currently housed in at BGSU’s library in its special collections department. I have yet to make a visit to BG to view the records but wanted to let readers know that these records may provide additional information on your ancestors and it may be worth a drive to BG if you are in the Toledo area.

The next post on this subject will be about Obituaries, which I feel warrant a separate entry.


Ohio County Death Records 1840-2001 via familysearch.org

Ohio Deaths 1908-1953 via familysearch.org

OhioLINK ETD (see link above for thesis)


Maternal Genealogy – JONES/ROBINSON Families

Some of my earliest ancestors to move to Toledo arrived in Northwest Ohio between 1860 and 1870.

Nancy JONES was born in 1859 in Bainbridge, Ross County, Ohio. She was enumerated with her family on the 1860 United States Census when she was 8 months old.

Her parents were Mary JONES and John Wesley JONES who was listed as an “ME Minister” on the Census record. I believe that “ME” stood for “Methodist Episcopal. My maternal line have been members of Warren AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church for many generations.

Nancy was the youngest child listed for Mary and John JONES on the 1860 Census. She had two older siblings listed as well. Her older sister’s name was Martha JONES and her older brother’s name was John JONES Jr.

John W. JONES Jr. was the oldest child. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1852. Martha JONES was also born in Pennsylvania but in 1854. Nancy JONES was the first of the JONES children born in Ohio.

John W. JONES Sr. stated on the 1860 Census that he was born in Maryland. He was born in approximately 1805. Mary JONES stated that she was born in Pennsylvania in approximately 1823.

I found Mary JONES and her three children on the 1870 Census living in Washington Township, Lucas County Ohio.  Washington Township is now a part of the City of Toledo.   On the 1870 Census there was another JONES child listed who was a younger sister to Nancy JONES. The youngest JONES child was named Francis JONES and she was born in 1860. I believe that they moved to Northwest Ohio around 1866. The Toledo Lucas County Public Library has a death record for a John JONES in 1867 but I am not certain that this is “my” John JONES due to the common name. However, he is the only John JONES listed in the death records between 1860 and 1870 and I am 80% certain that this is “my” John JONES.

During my genealogical compilation for this family, I was faced with many odd, in my opinion, difficulties. When you start out doing genealogy, one should start from the most current generation and work their way back. Luckily, Nancy JONES did not die until 1950 so my grandmother and her sister (my great aunt, who is still alive) knew Nancy JONES and they were able to provide me with a decent genealogical link to her that was easily verified via the census record information contained within familysearch.org.

My grandmother remembered Nancy as Nancy BAKER. She stated that Nancy, her grandmother, had lived with them for a time when she was a child. So going by that information, I looked up Nancy BAKER and basically hit a wall on this family that lasted for about 10 years.

In 2010 the 1940 census was released. I was not actively researching during that time due to regular life’s busy-ness so it wasn’t until around 2012 that I searched again for genealogical information. I looked up my grandmother on the 1940 Census since she was born in 1936. I thought it would be cool to have such a close link to historical information. My grandmother died in 2004 and I still miss her dearly and I was thinking of her at the time when I looked her up in 2012.

That query did pull up my grandmother, her siblings, including my great aunt who is still alive and their parents. It also showed that a Nancy BACKER lived next door to them which finally gave me a true connection to Nancy BAKER.

Many times on Census records surnames and given names are horrendously mispelled. Finding a Nancy, who was listed as approximately 80 years old in 1940 was extremely exciting for me!

From there, I found that Nancy had been living with a man named Stephen BAKER on the 1930 Census. At that time she also lived near my great grandmother. A big tip for people using Census records for genealogy is to peruse the entire handwritten page for neighbor’s names. Many times, people lived near their relatives or with their relatives and with today’s technology, if you search for a specific name, it will only provide you a printed, transcribed version of exactly what you were looking for so it is up to you to do additional digging.

After much research, I found out that Nancy was not originally married to Stephen BAKER. I had been looking for my 2nd great grandmother under the last name of BAKER due to thinking that BAKER may have been her maiden name. Instead I found out that Nancy was originally married to a man named James Edward ROBINSON.  Stephen BAKER was her second husband.

I found the death certificate of my 2nd great grandmother on familysearch’s database for Ohio Deaths. She died in 1941 from kidney disease. On her death certificate her mother was listed as Nancy JONES and her father was listed as James ROBSON. As with BACKER on the Census, ROBSON was written incorrectly. She was actually a ROBINSON.

This discovery allowed me to pull up all of the information regarding James Edward ROBINSON and Nancy JONES ROBINSON on Census records all the way back to 1900.

Unfortunately, I have yet to find a solid marriage certificate for them. Due to Nancy being in Lucas County, Ohio on the 1870 Census, I know that she lived in this area. Lucas County kept pretty good records for deaths, marriages, and births long before most states started to do this consistently. I did find a marriage record for a James E. ROBERTSON and Amanda JONES for November 11, 1874. I am somewhat sure that this is James and Nancy ROBINSON. Throughout the years ROBINSON has been spelled in many variations including the following: ROBINSON-ROBSON-ROBESON-ROBISON-ROBERTSON and another crazy variation that I will speak of below, which caused another brick wall for me that lasted until this year (2015).

James Edward ROBINSON showed up in the city directory for the City of Toledo in 1876.

He death certificate states that he was born in Harrisburgh, Pennsylvania.  His father’s name was listed as Frank ROBISON and his mother as “Becky” only.

Upon further review of ROBINSON’S in Pennsylvania on the 1860 and 1850 census records, I found a James E ROBINSON on the 1850 census listed with his father Franklin ROBINSON and mother Ellen ROBINSON.  Even though Ellen differed from what was listed on James’ death certificate as his mother (Becky), I am 100% sure that Ellen was James E ROBINSON’s mother.  Many times the informant who fills out a death certificate did not know the name of the person who passed away.  Information I have found lead me to believe that Ellen ROBINSON may have died or separated from her husband Franklin by the early 1860s.  On the 1860 census, Franklin ROBINSON is listed with his son but this time the name was listed a Edward James ROBINSON.  On various census records throughout the years, James Edward was listed as Edward James.  I am certain that he was the same person due to always being listed with his wife Nancy and their children as either James E, James Edward, Edward, or Ed.  The switching of the first and middle name is actually what made me know 100% that this family was the ROBINSON family I was looking for.

I have yet to find any death records for Franklin ROBINSON or Ellen ROBINSON.  I did find an exciting tidbit regarding Ellen in an online scholarly article about the effect of the Fugitive Slave Act on blacks in Harrisburgh, PA, but I will save that for another entry.

Due to census records not providing much detailed information prior to the 1850 census, I am temporarily at another road block for this family.  An interesting tidbit I am currently looking into is the fact that Franklin, Ellen, and James E ROBINSON lived with Thomas and Dinah WATKINS on the 1850 census.  I am going to attempt to connect the WATKINS families with the ROBINSON family and I am hoping that they are relatives of Ellen and/or Franklin.

After moving to Toledo, James Edward ROBINSON married Nancy JONES.  They eventually had seven children – Francis (1876-1932), Edna (1880-1929), Edward (1884-1951), Florence (1892-1941), Fred (1894-?), Naomi (1894-?), and William Alton (1898-1917).

Florence ROBINSON was my second great grandmother.

James Edward ROBINSON died in 1910.

As stated above, Nancy JONES ROBINSON BAKER did not die until 1950.  She was 90 years old when she passed away.

One of the best finds I discovered just this year was finally locating James Edward and Nancy ROBINSON on the 1880 Census.  After searching through both electronic records at the library via micro film, on family search and ancestry.com via census records and via hardcopy 1880 census indexes at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library, I was unsuccessful in locating this couple in Toledo or in PA or anywhere really.

I had decided this past summer to make a visit to the Newberry Library in Chicago since we make frequent visits there to see family.  I was initially only looking up a specific family that also was an early settler in NW Ohio – the WHITFIELDS.  I will write another post about that research later.  After finding the information I was looking for on the WHITFIELDs, I decided to look up other holdings of the library and they had a book which was loosely titled (going off my memory here, will edit later with the correct title) Blacks in Ohio in 1880.  It basically was a book that contained a list of all the black or mullatto or other “colored” residents in the state of Ohio on the 1880 census.

Within that book, I found all of my Ohio lines and due to there not being many black people in Toledo itself in 1880, I also saw a entry which listed a Nancy and Ed “BOBISON” who had older children who matched the names of the older ROBINSON children mentioned above.

I wanted to scream at the library!!  It was soooo exciting for me to see them in this book!  I had almost given up on this line and just chalked it up to not having any other way to research them.

Upon reviewing the 1880 “BOBISON” family it showed that they lived in a house with a Mary JONES and her children, John and Francis JONES.  This was how I found an entire new generation of the JONES family detailed above.

I am currently trying to connect the ROBINSON and JONES families to see if they both lived in the Harrisburgh, PA area.  Hopefully it won’t take another 10 years to find a connection.