Ten-Minute Methodology: Beyond the Index—or Not

Our goal, supported by genealogy standards, is to use whenever possible original records and primary information.[1] That’s the gold standard. When we find an index or other derivative source, we set about finding the original from which it was created. That was the gist of our last post on indexes.

When we know what we want, and we can’t get at it because of access restrictions or record loss or destruction, we are challenged to use our creativity and knowledge of sources to provide substitutes. When no substitutes surface after reasonably exhaustive research, we use the index as our best source. This is, however, a last resort.

Access limitations

The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) is the go-to resource for U.S. deaths after 1936.[2] However, it does not point us to original death records. We have to find these ourselves. Sometimes original death records are protected by access restrictions, and we have to seek other sources that provide the same or nearly the same type of information.

For example, New York state death certificates are closed for at least fifty years after the death.[3] A recent article by BCG associate Laura DeGrazia demonstrates use of alternate sources for an inaccessible death certificate for Theresa (Sabbatino) Rebaschio, who died 9 November 2009. Laura substituted correlated information from three sources, an obituary, a gravestone, and interviews with Theresa’s daughter. She also checked two other sources without success. Laura’s source citation details them all.[4]

152 Theresa C. Rebaschio obituary, Tributes.com (www.tributes.com/show/Theresa-C.-Rebaschio-877155151), which includes her dates of birth and death as well as a condolence message that mentions her late husband, Joe. Theresa C. Rebaschio marker, Block 5, Section 50, Range 32, Plot M, Grave 194, Pinelawn Memorial Park (Farmingdale, N.Y.), read by the author 20 Oct. 2013, which indicates her birth and death dates. Telephone interviews with Theresa’s daughter (name withheld for privacy) by the author, 2011–2013. Neither Theresa’s birth nor death record is in the public domain. No death notice or obituary was found in Newsday (Melville, N.Y.). No record of her estate was found in Nassau Co.

Pursuing leads in five sources was certainly time consuming. It gave Laura the confidence in this identity and date and place of death to publish her findings without the death certificate.

Sometimes it’s OK to cite the SSDI or another index. Sometimes it’s about all we have after reasonably exhaustive research. In research for the same article, Laura used information from the SSDI as a starting point to corroborate or disprove a date and place of death. She came up with an obituary that confirmed both but was unsuccessful in locating an estate record in two target counties. Her source citation includes the obituary, the SSDI, and her negative searches.[5] It’s important to stress that using the SSDI was a starting point, not the end of the research.

101 Anthony De Grazia obituary, Poughkeepsie Journal (Poughkeepsie, N.Y.), 24 Apr. 1985, p. 14, cols. 1–2. Anthony De Grazia entry, Social Security Administration, “Social Security Death Index,” database, Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com). No estate record was found in Dutchess or Orange County.

Lost or destroyed originals 

Index to an unidentified account book, first page.

Sometimes indexes and extracts are all that remain after original sources have been lost or destroyed. Then we’re happy to have them at all! In these cases we must use them, cite record loss or destruction, and explain that what we used is as close as it is possible to get to originals.

For example, the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) has several original indexes to account books, but not the account books themselves, and the names of the merchants are unknown. Still, much valuable family information can be gleaned from just the indexes. This image of an account book index page shows in just one section of A’s many Attwoods distinguished by first name, “Senr” and “Junr,” and “Capt.” Other people are designated by residence (“of plimton”), race (“Indian”), or occupation (“Sailor”). Index entries identify customers from towns in a cluster south of Boston (Kingston, Plymouth, Plympton, Middleborough) and a time period around 1758–1764.[6]

When this and other similar indexes are catalogued and digitized (hopefully early 2016), they will provide researchers with invaluable original source material.[7] Even though they are “only” indexes, they offer primary information (the merchant’s identification of his clients) that may be otherwise unavailable and that might solve someone’s genealogical mystery. They will figure legitimately in genealogical source citations.

As another example, the Vermont Vital Records Index resulted from a Vermont law that “required all town clerks to transcribe, in full, records of births, marriages, and deaths in the possession of the town and churches.”[8] The transcriptions were made on index cards now available online at FamilySearch and Ancestry. Researcher Catherine Desmarais, CG, found an index entry for a birth recorded at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Burlington, Vermont. Pursuing the original source, she found that a 1971 fire had destroyed St. Paul’s and 140 years of its records.[9] A copy of the church records had been made for the diocese, but it does not include the event in question. In this case, Catherine used the index entry, but she did not stop there. She corroborated the index information with census and death records, citing all three sources in her work product.[10]

Indexes sometimes point us to missing or unavailable records, challenging us to pursue reasonably exhaustive research in our quest for original records and primary information. Going beyond the index strengthens the foundation supporting our genealogical conclusions. It demonstrates our commitment to working to genealogy standards by providing evidence from the best sources we can possibly find. 

Quiz (optional): Do you know of an index that survives after originals have been lost or destroyed? What is its source citation?

Extra credit (also optional): What other source(s) could substitute for the missing records?

Photo courtesy of NEHGS, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections. The author gratefully acknowledges input from Timothy Salls and the following BCG associates: Jeanne L. Bloom, Ruy Cardoso, Laura Murphy DeGrazia, Catherine Desmarais, Joan Hunter, and Michael Leclerc.


[1] Genealogy Standards (Nashville, Tenn.: Turner Publishing, 2014), Standard 13, Source-Based Content, 12–13; and Standard 38, Source Preference, 23.

[2] “United States Social Security Death Index (FamilySearch Historical Records),” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/United_States_Social_Security_Death_Index_ (FamilySearch_Historical_Records)) : accessed 17 November 2015), “Record Description.”

[3] “Genealogy Records & Resources,” New York State, Department of Health (http://www.health.ny.gov/vital_records/genealogy.htm : accessed 16 November 2015).

[4] Laura Murphy DeGrazia, CG, FGBS, “Con Spirito: Violinist Giuseppe De Grazia, 1855–1937, of Marsicovetere, Italy, and New York City,” The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record 146 (January 2015): 68. This is a good example of a proof in a footnote.

[5] Laura Murphy DeGrazia, CG, FGBS, “Con Spirito: Violinist Giuseppe De Grazia, 1855–1937, of Marsicovetere, Italy, and New York City,” The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record 146 (January 2015): 64.

[6] Index to an unidentified account book, New England Historic Genealogical Society, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, Mss A A33, uncatalogued, first page; digital image courtesy of Timothy Salls, Manager of Manuscript Collections, NEHGS. The index survives, but the remainder of the book does not.

[7] Timothy Salls (Boston, Mass.; tsalls@nehgs.org) to Judy Kellar Fox, email, 20 November 2015, “RE: unidentified account book index.”

[8] “State Registry History,” Vermont, Secretary of State (https://www.sec.state.vt.us/archives-records/vital-records/state-registry-history.aspx : accessed 1 December 2015).

[9] “Cathedral Church of St. Paul (Burlington, Vermont),” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathedral_Church_of_St._Paul_(Burlington,_Vermont)) : accessed 1 December 2015).

[10] Catherine Desmarais (Essex Jct., Vt.; stonehouseresearch@gmail.com) to Judy Kellar Fox, emails, 27 November and 2 December 2015, “Re: St. Paul’s question.”

CG, Certified Genealogist, CGL, and Certified Genealogical Lecturer, are service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, used under license by Board-certified genealogists after periodic competency evaluation, and the board name is registered in the US Patent & Trademark Office.

14 thoughts on “Ten-Minute Methodology: Beyond the Index—or Not

  1. At the beginning of the 20th century, Dutch genealogist De Hullu researched many Huguenot families in the province of Zeeland, the Netherlands. He consulted a range of sources that he indexed, extracted or abstracted. During World War II, many of these sources were destroyed during the bombing of Middelburg. For several of these records, the derivative works created by De Hullu are the only surviving representation of that information.

    • Oh, I forgot the extra credit: most of the records that were destroyed were church records of baptisms, marriages and deaths. Other records that can and should be used to establish parent-child relationships and verify the birth, marriage and death dates are court records (deeds), notarial records (prenuptial agreements, wills) and orphan chamber records (administration of estates).

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  3. An index, handwritten, for marriages in the protestant diocese of Killala and Achonry in Ireland (portions of counties Mayo and Sligo), lists only the names of the bride and groom and the year of their marriage, not the specific date of marriage. The original bonds would have contained much more information but were destroyed in the Dublin fire in 1922. The index does not give us parents’ names, the specific date of marriage, or even the specific parish of the couple, but it _does_ attach the couple to a diocese– an invaluable step in the right direction of the parish. The index covers a span of years, so it also lists other couples of the same surname who were married in the same diocese. In my specific instance, we knew from Canadian records that Thomas Gilmore and Mary Reid were both from County Sligo; that they had married prior to their immigration from Ireland to Canada; and that the marriage was likely to be just a few years prior to the birth of their eldest known son in 1829. The index for the diocese of Killala and Achonry reflected the marriage bond of Thomas “Gilmor” and Mary “Read” in 1828–the right area at the right time. Several other Gilmore (and variants) marriages were listed. Of greatest interest is the marriage of a Thomas “Gillmor” to Mary Grier in 1800–three years prior to the birth of the subject Thomas Gilmore. This couple is a good candidate for the parents of the subject Thomas Gilmore. The transcription of the index to these marriages was located online, but I was able to obtain copy of the original index page. [Public Records Office of Ireland, Marriage License Bonds, Diocese of Killala and Achonry, 52, for Thomas Gilmor-Mary Read; Marriage Bonds Film 100868, National Archives, Dublin. The original marriage bonds, which would have contained more detail, burned in the 1922 Dublin fire. The index offers only the names and the years of bonds.]

    • Janie, the RAOGK list is helpful, but it’s often very incomplete. Some courthouse fires aren’t listed, and some that are listed didn’t result in the loss of all records. Moreover, many records, particularly land records, were re-recorded after a fire. So it’s important never to assume that there was complete records loss in a fire, and to go on and proceed to do the reasonably exhaustive research that’s always part of genealogy’s best practices.

  4. I have located marriage records for immediate neighbors (FAN) of one subject I am researching. I used the ScotlandPeople databases. This person is not the primary focus of my case study, but a person whom I must argue is not a parent of my main subject. The marriages provide information as to whether neighbors were related to this subject or had the same surname as the main subject of my case study. Is the database for the marriage records of the neighbors adequate? Must I purchase ALL original digital images of these marriage records? There are about three dozen.

    • My original response to Teresa’s original post was this: “How much do you want to know? How far are you willing to take your search? Only you will know (and probably after the fact) if taking the extra step will give you the results you need. It is often in accessing original sources, even for folks who are not our primary focus, that we find the little nuggets needed to solve our problems. If you stop your search at the index level, you will never know what you could have found. As a general guide, follow the standards, in particular 17, 38, and 41, which address our FAN club and tell us to use original sources, not just in some cases.”

      Teresa’s further explanation gives an excellent example of the balancing act between reasonably exhaustive research and disposable income. We know what the standards suggest. We also know our bank balance. The decision is a personal one, to my way of thinking.

    • Whether a theory may be considered proven doesn’t depend on our budget but on the strength of the evidence and our analysis. So if you haven’t proven the answer to your research question, you have two options:
      * Order more records, in the hope of finding enough evidence to support a conclusion
      * Leave it open, because you can’t afford to order more records.

      Either option is fine, but the first one is the only way that has a chance to answer your research question.

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  6. Searched for years for the death date and burial site of my husband’s 4th great grandfather, Wilson Williams. Knew where spouse Margaret and son John Hicks William were buried but the cemeteries insisted they had no record for Wilson. Posted requests on Billion Graves and Find-a-Grave. After no response for a year, took a trip from Florida to Long Island and Troy, New York to verify that the cemeteries were correct. No marker was found. Rechecked with the church and cemetery in person – nothing. Visited the local historical museums and libraries – still nothing. While visiting the Family History Library in Salt Lake last March decided to see if I could find something but wasn’t counting on it. Sure enough, found: Frost, Josephine C. “Cemetery inscriptions from Episcopal and Dutch Reformed Cemetery at Manhasset” Typescript 1912 from lost manuscript by Henry Onderdonk, Jr. (circa 1860) FHL microfilm 17748, item 1. Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.
    This note at the beginning of the microfilm explains why I couldn’t find the burial site “Compiled from the originals, no longer in existence by Henry Onderdonk/ (sic) Jr. in the early sixties. His manuscript falling to pieces is owned by the Long Island Eistorical (sic) Society of Brooklyn, N.Y. Copied from the above manuscript by Josephine C. Frost (Mrs. Samuel Knapp Frost) Brooklyn, N.Y.” In 2011, neither Frost’s nor Onderdonk’s manuscript was available at the Long Island Historical Society, now called the Brooklyn Historical Society.
    After wife Margaret’s tombstone inscription (which I have seen and photographed) was this entry from the microfilm: “W.W. A common field stone marked ‘W.W.'” So Wilson followed the Dutch tradition of a common field stone marker which has disappeared after his burial in 1831. The church is now called Christ Church and is Episcopalian so they were correct that they have no records from when the church was Dutch Reformed as explained by Onderdonk, Henry and DeHart, William Henry. History of the First Reformed Dutch Church of Jamaica, L.I. Queens, New York: The Consistory, 1884. Digital images. Google Books. https://books.google.com/books?id=OrbVAAAAMAAJ&dq=history+%22reformed+dutch+church%22+success&source=gbs_navlinks_s: 2015.
    There was a conflict between ministers and one pastor took the existing records with him when he founded a new church. Additional difficulties in locating the records were family movement and location names and boundary changes – Jamaica, Success, Manhasset, Oyster Bay and North Hempstead, over time.
    Extra Credit: Copies of Frost’s books are available at the Indiana State Library, Pennsylvania Office of Commonwealth Libraries, Genealogical and Local History Library in Ann Arbor, Newberry & University of Chicago Libraries, and the Connecticut State Library. A visit to any of these sites could verify the microfilm at the FHL. Of course, there is no logic as to look in those locations since the man never lived outside of Long Island, New York! Or, one can wait for the record to be placed online. A few month ago I found on Ancestry.com the collection “U.S., Dutch Reformed Church Records from Selected States, 1660-1926” and sure enough, there’s the missing church record page! (http://interactive.ancestry.com/6961/42037_2421401696_0493-00115?pid=33707&backurl=http://person.ancestry.com/tree/5514240/person/-1443421830/gallery&usePUB=true&_phsrc=Bfu979&usePUBJs=true)
    Moral of the Story – Wait long enough and the record will show up where you least expect it.