For anyone with New York state ancestors, the 2017 release of the New York State Death Indexes on Internet Archive were an absolute gift from the genealogy gods. Before Reclaim the Records won their FOIA request for the state-wide index dating from 1880-1956, researchers would visit one of three locations in New York, show a photo ID, and search the soundexed microfiche index on a non-digital microfilm reader. No matter how badly the fiche was printed, under no circumstances were you allowed to use a digital microfilm reader to help adjust the focus, clarity, or zoom in on an image.
During one of my visits, it was explained to me by a library staff member how the limitations on using microfiche on digital readers was not the fault of the locations which provided the films, it was part of the state guidelines on how patrons were allowed to access the index. Searching through each year was a long, frustrating, and tedious mission.
After Reclaim the Records won their FOIA request, Ancestry was given preference by the New York State Vital Records office and was granted first access to the microfiche collection. Ancestry has since provided a searchable index of the New York State indexes on their site.
With the option to do a quick search online, why haven’t you found death details on your ancestors? One of the biggest reasons why you’re not finding them revolves around the state of the films themselves, as some of the fiche are absolutely illegible, digitized backward, or completely missing.
If you’re searching on Ancestry, you’re more than likely to stick to the search mechanism in the center of the screen than to use the browsing feature to the right of the search box. Before you try this strategy again, step back for a moment. By narrowing down a death year for your ancestor, you would be better off browsing by year than using the search features of the site.
Let’s take a case study of my third great aunt Emma Dietrich Wayland who died in 1943. I narrowed down her death to this year using city directories, which accounts for her address in Buffalo, NY in the years proceeding her death (1940-1943) and with no listing of her afterward (1944-onward). Is it possible she moved? Yes, it’s possible. But at the age of 79, she would have more than likely stayed in close proximity to her family.
With her death taking place during a time of mandatory vital records death registration, her name should have been included in the index. So what happened? While some would point to a circumstance such as remarriage, relocating, or using a different name, let’s look at the digital version of the microfiche for 1943.
Yep. The film is almost completely unreadable, which means there’s very little data to transcribe for Ancestry or any other company or group to index.
Let’s take a look at the same page available for free from Internet Archive.
Again, the film is almost completely unreadable, which means there’s very little data to be gleaned from these images. And 1943 is hardly the stand alone film in this collection. Looking at a page from the 1940 index, the type is barely visible on the page. It’s not impossible to make out the names, but it does make indexing and browsing for an ancestor difficult. Many of the certificate numbers are only seen in number fragments.
Meanwhile, the indexes for 1942 are slightly better, but not by much. If you are fortunate to have an ancestor whose entry was later inked in on the film in a legible fashion, you will have almost all the information you need from the index document. You can see several names, such as Francois Ave of Mt. Pleasant and Russell J. Abbey of Dansville with complete information popping from the page while everyone else documented are in various states of legibility.
In addition to illegible copies of index pages, there are still some index years which were missing when most of these images were made available online. Most notably, the city of Albany, New York did not have their records included in the statewide New York death index until about 1914-1915. These records, along with the city indexes for Buffalo have since been made available.
But the absolute craziest thing I’ve seen in these records, are the backwards fiche in these collections, which unless you’re looking at the image with some kind of photo editing software, makes transposed images nearly impossible.
So, if you are not finding an ancestor in the New York state death indexes, be persistent. Browse the collections, use software to correct the orientation of transposed pages, and and look for other resources. I eventually found the burial location for Aunt Emma on FindAGrave, and the cemetery office e-mailed information regarding her date of death and burial, as well a nice photo of the headstone. My research was correct, she passed in 1943. Now I have a date – March 14, 1943. Even with this date of death, I have sent away for her death certificate three separate times – once from the city of Buffalo, once for Erie County, and once from the New York State Vital Records Office. In all three instances, they kept my money and sent a letter back stating they had no record of her death on file.
Only problem with this argument – I found her name in the index for 1943, with her first and last name legible, as well as a fragment of the location name of where the death occurred. However, the death date and certificate number from the 1943 index is so poor, it is not readable by any of the staff at each of the three depositories. Each of my $24 requests were taken, compared to shoddy copies of microfiche, and not refunded. That’s a fat $72 burned in offering to the genealogy gods all because New York is well, New York. The state has proved to be unwilling to update their system for ordering or re-indexing their records, even if there’s big money to be made in the aftermath of those improvements.
Not that I’m bitter or anything.
So while I may never actually hold the death certificate of Aunt Emma in my hands in the foreseeable future, I will continue to search for the death certificates of her sister Julia Heinz in New Jersey (another long story). It is my hope one or both of these records will provide additional details of the a maiden name of their mother, Catherine Dorthea Leet/Letiz, as I’m still looking for confirmation of spelling.
In closing, always browse the collection years closest to your ancestor’s death. Use a cross reference of city directories, FindaGrave/BillionGraves listings, newspaper obituary research, and other details to help you determine a search strategy. Remember, you have free access to these indexes on Internet Archive complements of Reclaiming the Records. Drop them a line and thank them for their hard work.
I’m also wondering if the pre-1916 death registrations were optional, as I know I have two additional Deitrich family deaths ranging from 1880-1915 but can not find any record of them in the indexes. If you can confirm this, gentle reader, please leave a comment.
Wishing You Good Luck!
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