By Judy Kellar Fox, CG®

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, (, 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, ( 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 ( (FamilySearch_Historical_Records)) : accessed 17 November 2015), “Record Description.”

[3] “Genealogy Records & Resources,” New York State, Department of Health ( : 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.; to Judy Kellar Fox, email, 20 November 2015, “RE: unidentified account book index.”

[8] “State Registry History,” Vermont, Secretary of State ( : accessed 1 December 2015).

[9] “Cathedral Church of St. Paul (Burlington, Vermont),” Wikipedia (,_Vermont)) : accessed 1 December 2015).

[10] Catherine Desmarais (Essex Jct., Vt.; 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.