About two years ago I was conducting research in Erie County, New York. It was a genealogical pilgrimage to uncover some new information about my German ancestors in Buffalo, Erie County, New York.
Death indexes for the state are available for free, but there were several barriers to access:
- The indexes I found in the 1930s and 1940s are soundexed, which can be extremely frustrating to use if you’re not accustomed to navigating these types of indexes
- Indexes are by year, so even if you have a soundex number you’ll need to search for a death each year individually.
- All the records were saved on microfiche in various states of illegible print
- Researchers had to view the fiche in person at a library or archive, hand over a photo ID, and view the indexes on a microfilm reader. Not a digital microfilm reader, mind you. No digital images were allowed at the time. Just a microfilm reader. My microfilm reader wasn’t much of a help.
The fiche I needed from 1943 was so dark and illegible, I was unable to make out more than the name of the ancestor, and absolutely no clues as to the certificate number, or the date of death. Because I was forbidden from taking a photo with my cell phone, I was left to unpuzzle what I could from the record on a rickety microfilm reader.
The only thing I walked away with that day was confirmation that my ancestor died in Erie County, New York in the year 1943.
Sounds like enough to request a death certificate, right?
Nope. An unseemly amount of money later, New York State kicked back my query stating they could not fulfill my request. There wasn’t enough information, even with a broad year of 1943, and because I paid for a search they cashed the check I sent with the request. Not allowing a bump in the road disrupt my research, I went to the city of Buffalo and requested the certificate from them. Again, no record was found. What was the problem?
I spoke with a fellow researcher in New York State, and she said both offices were probably using the same badly developed or illegible fiche which was available to researchers. Unless you have a solid death date or certificate number, you’re completely out of luck.
Interestingly enough, when I picked up my research earlier this week, I found a nearly complete set of New York State Death Indexes online for free through Internet Archive. This collection has been made possible by Reclaim the Records, which has uploaded each individual year of state death indexes from 1880-1943 for free.
Here’s what you need to know about these records:
- Not all of them seem to be the searchable, browsable, pleasing interface files we all have come to know and love on Internet Archive. If any of the listings you want to view contain an Internet Archive graphic in place of a soundex listing or index page, you will have to download the entire file to browse and go through it.
- None of the items I tried could bring back a searchable result. Given the condition of some of these records, be ready to browse using a last name or soundex code for each individual year.
- When I say the condition of these items need some help, I’m not exaggerating. Here’s an example of a 1943 index page.
- I found some stretches of the 1943 index files copied backward. Yep, you’ll need to save the image, invert it, and hope there’s some text there for you to read it.
Overall, should all the files become available and the searchability of each year become possible, this will be a much needed tool for New York state research. Reclaim the Records has done a great job making other New York and New Jersey records available as well, and they deserve a much needed round of applause for helping to make this area of research more accessible to genealogists!
It is important to note that New York state does not honor non-immediate family records requests through the online vendor Vital Check. You may need to send your genealogy requests to the New York State Vital Records Office. The wait time listed on their site is 8 months for a request to be processed.
As for my research, the church cemetery office returned my request for a death and burial date for my ancestor within 24 hours, so now I have a solid date to request another death certificate from the local registrar of Buffalo. I hope they have something for me!
See You At the Library!