Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Researching Death Information

Image of a Frank Walter Phillips Death Notice,
Arkansas State Archives Photo 4990.82.
The most frequently asked question researchers ask Arkansas State Archives is: “Do you have death certificates?”

Death certificates help genealogists locate vital information on when someone died, but those certificates are kept by the Arkansas Department of Health Vital Records, not the Arkansas State Archives. Plus, vital and medical records are not open to the public under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. That means researchers must use alternative methods. Luckily, the Arkansas State Archives houses other records that can substitute for finding individual, historical death certificates.

Below are some research tips:

·         The state of Arkansas did not start maintaining death records until 1914. If you can’t find the information through Vital Records, the Arkansas State Archives has four published indexes put together by the Arkansas Genealogical Society that cover 1914 to 1948. We also have indexes for 1949 to 1950 and 1967 to 1971.  Researchers may also search death records from 1931 to 1961 at the Arkansas Department of Health’s website. Anything before 1914, will take more research.

·         Look for published cemetery indexes available online or in books at the Arkansas State Archives. Researchers can also look for a published or microfilmed index from probate court records. You can find these by checking records like wills or guardianship records. These documents will give you the date of death or an approximate time frame for when the death took place.   

·         If you still have a hard time locating a death date, there are a few other sources to check.  The U.S. Census did a mortality schedule from 1850 to 1880. The documents record deaths in Arkansas counties during a 12-month period preceding the Census.  Also, a few cities, including Fort Smith, Little Rock and Hot Springs, kept their own death records. These documents contain reported deaths within the city limits.  Little Rock has the earliest records, which begin in 1871. The records contain the date of death, cause of death and duration of any illness.

·               Other great sources for information include fraternal organizations or church records. Organizations often publish annual proceeding that list members who died that year. Other organizations that could have information about your ancestor includes funeral homes, furniture stores and blacksmiths. These records can be sparse before the 20th century, but it’s worth looking to see if they exist. Funeral home records are self-explanatory, but many people ask why furniture stores records or blacksmith records might contain death information. Before funeral homes were common, families prepared their deceased loved ones for burial at home. Caskets were bought from blacksmith or furniture stores, so if you have access to business ledgers, you can see if an entry exists for the specific item. 

·         Once you have found a date or range for an individual’s death, you can look through our extensive collection of newspapers for an obituary. They begin in 1819 and continue to more recent editions.

There are various other sources available at the archives for finding an ancestor’s death dates and other genealogical information. In future newsletter articles, we will explore these and others records, so you can make the most of your research.

The Death Certificate for John Oliver Miller, of Little Rock,
circa 1911, from SMC.22.04 at the Arkansas State Archives.
Some cities, like Little Rock, started issuing death certificates
before the state required them in 1914.

Symposium Spotlights Territorial Arkansas’s History

About 40 people gathered on a recent Saturday at the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History in Little Rock to hear what life was like in Territorial Arkansas.

“Our annual symposium focused on the history of Territorial Arkansas because we are celebrating the 200th anniversary of the territory this year,” said Julienne Crawford, interim Arkansas State Archives director. “Arkansas possess a rich trove of history, stories and characters who lived in or passed through what was the Territory of Arkansas. This early history of our state laid the foundation for the collective identity and heritage that makes us Arkansans.”

During the symposium, “1819-1836: The History of Territorial Arkansas,” attendees heard from Theo Witsell, chief of research and inventory of the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, who discussed Thomas Nuttall’s exploration of Arkansas in 1818-1819; Dr. Charles Bolton, history professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, who presented “Federal Aid and the Infrastructure of Arkansas Territory;” Callie Williams, education outreach coordinator with the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, who talked about Territorial-era buildings; and Gary Pinkerton, an author and historian from Houston, Texas, who spoke about Trammel’s Trace. Attendees also got a glimpse of the ASA’s new traveling exhibit, “Territorial Arkansas: The Wild Western Frontier.”

“The information about the limited transportation available makes you stop and think about how much of the ancestors’ time had to be spent just moving things out of the way – like huge tree stumps in rivers or forests,” said Jeanne Rollberg, an associate journalism professor, genealogy specialist and a member of the Friends of the Arkansas State Archives. “It was also impressive to learn about the funding issues from federal and local levels to try to help the state progress so it could attract more residents.” 

Territorial Arkansas was created in 1819, but it was difficult to get to the area or to transport goods. The territory relied on rivers and struggled to build roads before becoming the state of Arkansas in 1836. Roads remained troublesome even as railroads took over, but at least one footpath eventually became a major throughway for people moving to Texas.

The symposium was among several events the Arkansas State Archives held as part of Arkansas Archives Month in October. National Archives Month is meant to raise awareness of the work archives and archivists do.

Crawford said the symposium helped spotlight an important part of Arkansas history and showcased the Arkansas State Archives’ mission to preserve and make available historical artifacts and records.
Rollberg agreed. “Seminars like this one get people very interested in Arkansas history so that they will come to the Arkansas State Archives and enjoy all the wonderful collections the state has built there through the years,” she said.

Ghost Lights Still Haunt Gurdon

Mansfield, Arkansas, circa 1903, courtesy of
the Arkansas State Archives

The lights that mysteriously appear near the Gurdon railroad in Clark County are legendary and are now a Halloween attraction.

On some nights the glow appears along the path of the old railroad track about four miles north of Gurdon and about two miles away from Interstate 30. The light sways back and forth, from 1 to 3 feet above the ground, down the old train track, witnesses say. Sometimes the light appears to be a yellow-white, orange-red or blue-white.

Residents first reported seeing the “Gurdon Light” in the 1930s, after the murder of Will McClain, a railroad section foreman who was beaten to death possibly over a labor dispute. A Dec. 10, 1931 article in the Southern Standard reported McClain was killed by Louis McBride, 38, who was working under McClain. No one witnessed the murder, but McBride acted “so suspiciously that he was arrested” and eventually confessed, according to the article. McBride told investigators where the body and a spike maul, the murder weapon, were located.

Investigators found a grisly scene, according to the newspaper. “There was a trail of blood nearly a quarter mile long, indicating that the section foreman was near the railroad when attacked and had run from his assailant. Near the point where McClain is believed to have died were other signs of a struggle. It was also indicated that after he was left for dead, he rallied and tried to leave the woods. The back of his head had been struck four severe blows.”

Throughout the struggle, McClain never let the lantern slip from his grasp.  Legend has it the “Gurdon Light” is the lantern swinging from the hand of McClain’s ghost as he walks through the area. The story drew national attention in 1994, when NBC aired a segment about the light on “Unsolved Mysteries.”

However, another popular story has it that a railroad worker fell into the path of a train and was decapitated. His head was never found. Some locals say the ghostly light is from the lantern of the restless railroad worker who continues to look for his head.

No one has fully explained the “Gurdon Light.” Many people have researched the phenomenon without coming to any conclusions. The light could be from automobile headlights on Interstate 30, but the lights were reported before the Interstate was built. Swamp gas is another possibility, but the light appears in all kinds of weather and retains its shape. So, even now, the mystery remains unsolved.

Ghostly Tales Linger at Historical Museum

Photo of  "Tower Building," circa 1915, G1754, courtesy of the
Arkansas State Archives

When the weather gets cooler and the days get shorter, many people like to gather around a campfire and tell stories about ghosts and things that go bump in the night.

Often these stories have no connection to actual events, but sometimes, just sometimes, the most unsettling stories come from actual, historical places and events. One Arkansas building, perfect for a ghost story, is the Tower Building in Little Rock, which currently houses the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History.

The historical structure was built among worries of violence and war. On November 6, 1837, Gov. James Sevier Conway addressed the Arkansas legislature about what he perceived as dangers to the newly admitted state of Arkansas. He argued the geographic location of Arkansas put the state in peril because the newly established Republic of Texas, located in the southwest, was at war with Mexico. Even though the United States was at peace with both nations, Conway worried violence would spill into Arkansas.

Of even greater threat, Conway believed, were the Native Americans who were passing through Arkansas on the Trail of Tears on their way to what is now Oklahoma. Conway said, “We are weak in the number of our soldiery and almost destitute of munitions of war.” Because of these worries, Conway asked the federal government to establish a military arsenal in Arkansas. The U.S. Congress then appropriated $30,000 for the building.

The arsenal was constructed on a former racetrack, just outside of Little Rock’s city limits. The first building completed was the “Tower Building,” which was erected in 1840. The rest of the complex was built later. For the next several decades, the arsenal served as a defense installation.

Then, the Civil War broke out. The arsenal fell under both Union and Confederate control at different times. In 1861, the arsenal’s commander, Capt. James Totten, surrendered the facility to the state of Arkansas, and the Confederate government retained control of the arsenal until 1863, when the Union regained control.

In 1890, the arsenal was decommissioned as a military facility. The City of Little Rock took over the arsenal and surrounding grounds in 1893 and named it “City Park.” For the next few decades, the former arsenal served as the home of several organizations, including the Little Rock Aesthetic Club and the Museum of Natural History and Antiquities.

Then, in 1942, the museum and the park around it were renamed to honor Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a World War II hero who was born in the Tower Building in 1880. The building became the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History in 2001.

Several people say the Tower Building, which is the only remaining building from the arsenal complex, is haunted. For years, visitors and staff have reported strange goings on – cold spots, strange shadows seen out of the corner of the eye and whispering voices. Some people say the ghost of seventeen-year-old David O. Dodd, who was hanged on the arsenal grounds for espionage in 1864, haunts the building.

Other strange occurrences have been reported. Helena Schulze, who worked as an office manager, reported seeing a ghost at the top of the main staircase. Cindy Barger, who worked as a staff member at the Arkansas Museum of Science and History in 1989, said she heard the sound of people walking on the top floor, even when no one else was in the building.

Once, when Barger went to investigate, she saw a “shadowy figure” in the theater room. She ran downstairs and told a coworker, and the two of them went back to investigate. As they climbed the stairs, the coworker saw the same figure, but now, it was lying on the ground.

Scared, Barger and her coworker fled back down the stairs. They went back to investigate a third time and attempted to touch the figure, but their hands went straight through as if it were a shadow. After that night, neither saw the figure again.

Barger and other employees have said they have heard and seen doors open seemingly on their own. By the early 2000s, the building had developed a reputation for the strange and unexplained.
That reputation led to ghost hunters deciding to investigate in 2006. The group reported orbs of light and recorded Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) – including one unsettling voice that demanded the team “Get out!” One investigator claimed he heard piano music where there was no piano. He smelled roses where no flowers were present. Another investigator said he made contact with a spirit named “Katherine,” then later made contact with a male spirit who was curious “to see what we were up to.”  At the end of their investigation, the team concluded the “MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History is haunted.” 

Shane Lind, museum program coordinator for the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History, summed up the experience several people have had in the building by saying: “The Arsenal building is 179 years old, and throughout its incredible history, many people have worked in, lived in or visited it. There is a special energy that remains from those who have been here before, and from those spirits who never left.” 

Whether you believe in such ghostly findings, it is indisputable the building has a long and fascinating history that is ripe for a ghostly tale. For more information on Arkansas history, visit the Arkansas State Archives at 1 Capitol Mall in Little Rock or visit

DAR Volunteer Day at NEARA

Volunteers with the Strawberry River chapter of the Daughters of the American
Revolution volunteered recently at the Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives.

Five members of the Strawberry River chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution volunteered Thursday, Oct. 17, to help preserve archival records at the Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives.

“We are grateful to our volunteers, all of whom are instrumental in helping NEARA staff preserve Arkansas’s history and heritage and in making records more easily accessible to the public,” said Fatme Myuhtar-May, archival manager.

The Strawberry River chapter chose NEARA as part of DAR’s “Day of Service” event. Volunteers Jan Lusk, of Ash Flat; Cynthia Clow-Elliott and Robert Elliott, both of Salem; Shirley Blankenship, of Horseshoe Bend; and Clara L. Ballard, of Evening Shade, donated six hours of volunteer time. The group unfolded 7 cubic feet of materials from the Walnut Ridge Court records collection. Volunteers removed rusted staples and paper clips, then placed the records into acid-free archival containers to prepare them for indexing.

Without the volunteers, staff would have spent days, if not weeks, unfolding the same amount of records that DAR volunteers did in a single day, Myuhtar-May said. NEARA staff can now index records at a faster rate, thanks to the work of volunteers. Once indexed, the records will be searchable, which will help patrons with their research.

The Walnut Ridge Court records collection is one of the largest and most important collections at NEARA. The records are used heavily by genealogists and academic researchers. Processing the Walnut Ridge Court records collection is nearing completion, thanks in large part to the volunteers.

“We are very happy to be here helping with archival records,” said Lusk, who is a regent of the Strawberry River chapter. “This kind of work falls in line with one of our organization’s national goals: historic preservation.”

DAR volunteers also participated in NEARA’s annual Volunteer Day event this past June.
“We just want to thank our many volunteers. Without you, it would not be possible to process archival records at the fast speed that we currently maintain,” Myuhtar-May said.

New Accessions in October

Wallace F. Waits collection, courtesy of
The Arkansas State Archives

Our new accessions for October include Aesthetic Club of Little Rock records, telephone directories, records published by the Madison County Genealogical and Historical Society, plus three copies of a book of artwork by Japanese Americans who were forced into internment camps during World War II.

Archival Collections
·         Lakeview Heritage Space Curtis H. Sykes Memorial Grant – final report and photographs, 2019.
·         Wallace F. Waits collection – The collection includes telephone directories: Magnolia, 1995-1996; Magnolia, June 1978; Magnolia-Columbia County, 1984; Madison County, December 1984; street map of Fayetteville, 1975; and “Aurora Area Cemeteries and Obituaries,” Madison County, Arkansas, published by the Madison County Genealogical and Historical Society, November 2006.
·         Aesthetic Club of Little Rock records [accretion] -  The Aesthetic Club of Little Rock donated an addition to their collection that included papers (2017-2019), organizational minutes (2018-2019) and four other miscellaneous papers.

Published Materials
·         “Songs from the Roaring Storm” by Rebecca Anne Cathey, 2019.
·         “The Art of Living: Japanese American Incarceration Artwork in the Collection of the CALS Butler Center for Arkansas Studies,” edited by Kimberly McDaniel Sanders, distributed for the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, 2019, three copies. The books were donated to the ASA by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.

A Conversation with Emily Teis

Emily Teis, archival assistant
Emily Teis, who is coming up on her first year anniversary at the Arkansas State Archives, enjoys working with a team and helping people. She earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology with a minor in political science from Lyon College in 2014. She then graduated with a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Arkansas in 2016, where she also was a teaching assistant. Teis interned at museums, including the Clinton House Museum and the Old Independence County Regional Museum. As an archival assistant, Teis is dedicated to helping patrons with their genealogy research and preserving the collective identity of Arkansas.

Q: What’s your job title, and how long have you worked at the Arkansas State Archives?
A: I was hired as an archival assistant in January 2019.

Q: What do you do on a typical day at Archives?
A: My workday includes answering research requests, indexing historical court records from Hempstead County, helping in the research room and making information available for patrons.

Q: How did you become interested in Arkansas history or working at the Arkansas State Archives?
A: I have a master’s in anthropology and wanted to use my education to help preserve our state’s cultural memory. Our cultural memories, or collective historical experiences, help define who we are, our identity as Arkansans and our heritage. These memories are important because they imbue us with our resilient and adventurous spirit. The Arkansas State Archives is the place where those memories are written down and preserved for all of us.

Q: What’s the most important or interesting thing you’ve discovered while working at Archives? Why?
A: The most important thing I’ve discovered is the different steps needed to help patrons with questions on genealogy research. Many people come to us with questions about where or how to start their research. Sometimes researchers get stuck, too, so it’s important to know how to look for alternative records. My goal is that I want to be able to help people to the best of my ability.

Q: Why do you think the Arkansas State Archives is important for Arkansans?
A: The Arkansas State Archives houses the most historical records related to Arkansas history of any place in the world. We are the go-to place to find information about family, state history and historical artifacts. We help preserve the history and cultural memory of Arkansas. We are a place people can come to learn about their own family histories, and we are an important part of maintaining Arkansas’s heritage. We keep history alive.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
A: The most rewarding part of my job is helping patrons find that missing piece in their research and seeing them get excited to be able to move forward.

Q: How do you see archiving evolving in the future?
A: The future is digital. Like other archival entities across the U.S., the Arkansas State Archives is embracing new and evolving technology and is moving forward in making more records available online.

Q: What do you wish people knew about Archives?
A: I wish people knew we are here to help them and answer questions. People are not alone in their research. We are here to help.