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  • Family Health and Genealogy: Methods and Sources For Genealogists Compiling Family Health Histories - Part 1

    Norma Storrs Keating

    Published Date : February 14, 2003

    The first two columns of this series discussed why it is important for you to create your family health history and how to compile it. We will now move on to discover where to obtain the health information.  You should not be put off by the notion that you don’t know how or where to find the needed data. In the course of your family genealogical research you probably have already gathered much of the information required. All you need is some personal knowledge about yourself and your relatives, along with verifying documents that are likely hidden in your files. For the more recent and current generations it will be fairly easy to obtain such information. You will probably have to dig deeper for more removed ancestors.

    The techniques and resources used daily by genealogists are the same as those used in researching and compiling a family health history. The difference is the emphasis placed on the documents and other family memorabilia you are gathering. For example, the genealogist is more interested in a death certificate because it contains the date and place of death, date and place of burial, and other family information that can give clues for further research. However, in addition to these elements, the family health historian will be very interested in the primary, secondary, and even tertiary causes of death, how long the person was ill, if death occurred in a hospital setting, the name of the doctor, etc.

    As with any project, you start with yourself. Record your own information from memory and personal records. Ask your doctor for a copy of your own medical records to help ensure accuracy. If possible, ask your parents or another older relative about your health as a child, since this will be difficult for you to remember.

    Every health history should begin with the youngest person in the family, so the next step will be to gather information about living relatives. First, write down what you know about each individual from your own memory, photographs, family papers, and genealogical records you have gathered.  If you are unable to interview your relatives, then ask them to fill out a health and personal information questionnaire to aid you in collecting the data. Be sure to explain what you are doing and why it is important to you so they will be more inclined to cooperate. 

    Some of the family sources you may consult during this data gathering include:

    1. Personal Records: family bibles, newspaper clippings (social announcements, news, obituary items, etc.), funeral cards, scrapbooks, portraits, photographic records (photos, slides, video, film, etc.), diary or journal, correspondence, citizenship papers, passports/visas, social security papers, employment records, medical records, wills/probate records, mortgage/land/ tax records, bank records, heirlooms, account books (business, farm, etc.), family traditions and stories, labels on old trunks or luggage, resumes, announcements or invitations, baby books, and others. 

    2. Union Records: membership card, pension records, work records, and others.

    3. Military Records: medals, enlistment or discharge papers, and others.

    4. Licenses: business, driving, professional, and others.

    5. Certificates: birth, marriage, death, baptism or christening, confirmation, adoption, graduation, achievements, citizenship, membership, vaccination, stocks & bonds, and others.

    6. Insurance Records: life, health, fire, earthquake, auto, accident, and others.

    7. Deeds: land, property, cemetery plot, and others.

    8. School Records: elementary, secondary, college/university, graduate, seminars, vocational or trade, private, arts, ladies finishing, yearbooks, and others.

    Once you have completed these two phases of information gathering, you may have enough information to create a family health history for the youngest person in your family. Remember, only three to four generations are included, so a health history for a four-year-old child will include the child, his parents, and his grandparents, who are likely to be living. The great grandparents may require some extra record gathering, but their living children, if any, can fill in many gaps for you.

    To build a complete health picture for a more removed ancestor you may need to use several sources of information beginning with the end of the person’s life and moving backward in time.  With each ancestral generation, more compiled resources, private and public, will need to be consulted. Some of the sources you may utilize during this phase of data gathering include:

    1. Compiled Sources: histories (family, county, local etc.), biographies, Who’s Who books, pedigrees, genealogies, directories (city, phone, etc.), indexes (military, census, etc.), queries, source extracts, historical items, private collections, surname files, family associations, computer databases (IGI, PAF, AF, PRF, SSDI, etc), CD-ROMs, and others.

    2. Private Sources

    a.  Church records: birth, christening, baptism, confirmation, circumcision, ordination, minister’s records, minutes, banns, marriage, divorce, annulment, death, burial, admissions, membership lists, removals, transfers, disciplinary actions, subscription lists, etc.

    b. Newspapers: indexes, birth/marriage/death notices, obituary/burial notice, social news, gossip column, anniversaries, local news stories, unclaimed mail, want ads, advertisements, legal notices, etc.

    c. Legal notices: probate, auctions, forced sales, divorces, elopement, bankruptcies, court claims, convictions, fictitious business name, lost and found, etc.

    d. Institutions: libraries, university/college, orphan agencies, mission societies, hospitals, nursing homes, charities, registries, unions, fraternal groups, historical/ genealogical societies, seminaries/convents, ethnic societies, etc.

    e. Mortuaries/funeral homes: burial registers, funeral books, obituaries, funeral cards, card indexes, personal information, eulogies, etc.

    f.  Employment: pensions, account books, service awards, licenses, indentures, personnel files with resume and application, apprenticeships, etc.

    g. Historical collections: WPA Projects, correspondence, inscriptions, hereditary societies, personal papers, oral histories, surname files, indexes, lineage data, etc.

    h. Physician’s records: birth, patient, etc.

    3. Public Sources

    a. Census records: state/territory/city, federal, Soundex/index, mortuary schedules, Union Army Veterans, agriculture, Revolutionary War, etc.

    b. Court records: indexes, minutes, judgements, orders/decrees, dockets/journals, jury records, case files, jail records, lawyer’s briefs, Justice of the Peace, sheriff/police, change of name, manumissions, divorce proceedings, etc.

    c. Probate records: indexes, wills, inventories, administrations, bonds, estate records, settlements, packets, guardianship, etc.

    d. Land records: grantor/grantee indexes, deeds, mortgages, grants, patents, surveys, plats, homestead, etc.

    e. Tax records: real estate, school, poll, personal property, poor, tax exemptions, inheritance, utility, services, etc.

    f. Military records: service files, index, bounty land awards, discharges, military burial, pension files, muster rolls, draft registration cards, desertion records, medical records, hospital records, etc.

    g. Cemetery records: tombstones/monuments/mausoleum, stonemason, deed, bill of sale, correspondence, caretaker/sexton records, gifts, memorials, plats, cremation, personal papers, perpetual care, burial permits, etc.

    h. Immigration records: passenger lists, passports, oaths of allegiance, alien registration, immigrant aid society, change of name, declaration of intent, petition for citizenship, final citizenship, registrar of voters, customs records, vaccination certificate, ethnic societies, etc.

    i. Social security index and original applications

    j. Governmental: voter registration, coroner’s records, medical examiner, burial permits, building permits, permit to transport deceased to another state, licenses (including driving, business, marriage, professional), vital records (including indexes, divorce papers, birth, marriage, and death), etc.

    k. Computer and Internet resources including databases, websites, search engines, e-mail, news groups, etc.

    Some of the sources listed will not contain the actual health information, but they have been included because they will lead you to documents and sources that do have lifestyle, occupational, health and medical data. Always keep an open mind when searching records for your ancestors’ information.  It may appear in unlikely places and be accessible for a much earlier timeframe than many people would think. For example, burial permits for the city of Davenport, Iowa, in the 1880s include the date, place, and cause of death. Poor House records for Ontario County, New York, in the 1880s contain the person’s age, date, cause of death, and notes regarding their health. In one instance a person was noted as being a dwarf! Probate records can contain the date and place of death, as well as health and burial information.

    In the next column of this series we will learn more about the wealth of data that can be found in some of the specific sources already mentioned, as well as how to glean the most health information from each record. Using this insight, you will be able to easily compile your family’s health history.

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