Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 10/22/2003

Why Bother?

When Juliana Smith asked me for a title for my series of Ancestry Daily News columns, I chose "Beyond the Index." This week, we take that title literally.

A reference in an online index or printed finding aid should always be viewed as a starting point, even if the index or finding aid appears to be a relatively complete transcription of the document. Transcriptions are typically created to give users greater access to records or make the records easier to use. Indexes are created to help users find the actual record. In either case, it is advised that users obtain the original records whenever possible.

Today we will look at several examples where either an online or a print index led to an even greater discovery when the actual record from which the index was created was located.

The Social Security Death Index
A person's entry in the Social Security Death Index may lead to a number of records. It is important to note that not every dead person with a social security number is in the death index, and that the index has limitations. One of the records that the Social Security Death Index can lead to is the SS-5 form.

The SS-5 form is the "Application for a Social Security Number," completed when the person applied for their number. The Social Security Administration maintains copies of these forms. For deceased individuals, these forms are available at a charge from the Social Security Administration by anyone making a request. For many family historians, an entry in the Social Security Death Index is the easiest way to show the person is deceased and to obtain their Social Security Number. The person must be dead before a copy of the SS-5 form can be obtained. This form contains the person's date and place of birth and names of their parents. While there are easily forms that contain incorrect information, they can be a good clue in many cases. If the person is not in the Social Security Death Index, another place to locate the Social Security number is their death certificate.

Even if I have the person's death certificate, the form may still be helpful. Why? Because SS-5 forms were typically filled out by the person requesting the number. Most people do not fill out their own death certificates. In some cases, this difference is significant. In most situations, the SS-5 form probably is not necessary, but there are times where it can be extremely helpful to see this form. I don't always obtain copies of SS-5 forms, but I do when there is confusion about a parentage or when the death certificate is vague. In my case, the SS-5 form was helpful because it listed a different set of parents than were listed on the individual's death certificate.

Some SS-5 links:

A sample SS-5

The Social Security Death Index

The Social Security Administration's Freedom of Information Act Page

RootsWeb's Guide to the SSDI

Marriage Indexes
A marriage index, whether created by the actual courthouse records staff or private individuals, is still a tool by which the actual records should be accessed. Even if a records facility has a marriage register and marriage licenses, all records should be viewed, if possible. The marriage index should lead one to the marriage record, which contains a listing of marriages within a certain geographic area. In some jurisdictions, there may also be marriage applications in addition to the marriage record. These should be viewed if possible.

There may be notations on the application or license that are not indicated in the index or the record. Is the bride listed as a "Mrs.?" If so, there's a previous marriage to locate. Is the groom's surname written on the document in several places, spelled in different ways? Did the couple sign the license application and write their names in the original Polish? Is there a letter of consent from the bride's parents? One never knows until the actual record is viewed. Some records are helpful and some are not.

My wife's great-grandparents married in Chicago in the early 1900s. The bride was under age. The marriage license indicates "father's consent" and provides no further information on the father—not even his name. While this is frustrating for the modern researcher, it is important to remember the situation when the record was created. The clerk was concerned with noting that the father gave consent, not with leaving a record of the name for someone one hundred years later.

But then there are those other times when the actual record is forthcoming. I've got an 1868 marriage record that includes the actual letter of consent signed by both parents. I've got an 1859 marriage record that contains an attached slip of paper signed by the groom indicating his age, the bride's age, and the fact that the bride had "no lawful husband living." Most records will not be this detailed, but it can happen. And it is these unexpected cases that can make all the other uninformative situations worthwhile.

Death Indexes
Death indexes are another great finding aid, both in offline and online form. Again, these finding aids are intended to lead the researcher to the actual record. has a number of state and localized death indexes on its site for subscribers, including the New York City Death Index from 1892 to 1902.

I was most fortunate to find a reference to a potential relative in this index: Emma Cawitzel, who died 6 January 1893 in New York City. This index, like most, does not contain the complete record and just from the index I could not be certain that I had the correct person. The actual certificate contained Emma's state of birth and the name of her father. I then knew I had the correct person. The complete record now will allow me to focus on additional records that might be located for this person. These death records are fairly detailed and those who wish can view Emma's death certificate here.

There are a variety of other online indexes to death records, including indexes that are available at no charge, such as:

Illinois 1916-1950

Kentucky 1911-2000

California 1940-1997

Maine 1960-1997

Texas 1964-1998

Researchers attempting to determine if there are similar finding aids for other states or areas should visit the appropriate county and state pages via the USGenWeb project or search for death indexes at Google. Joe Beine has a wonderful list of state and local indexes on his website.

But again, remember to follow up the location of someone in a marriage index with an attempt to find the actual record. And of course, counties also usually have manually created indexes to records within their jurisdiction. These indexes may have to be accessed at the actual record location.

Next week, we'll look at some additional indexes and transcriptions and see how they lead to more unexpected finds. Do you have any index references in your files for which you have not located the actual record? It may be worth your time and may help you break down that brick wall looming in the distance.

Copyright 2003, Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at: or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Used by the author on his website with permission.

Michael's online genealogy articles