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.