A few weeks into my pandemic inspired confinement, I decided to spend my time like many of my friends who wrote about how productive they became. They were organizing clothes closets and Tupperware collections, moving furniture to increase the feng shui of their bedrooms, creating gourmet meals from canned beans and frozen chopped spinach.
Inspired, I decided to rebuild my family tree and nail down actual dates—birth, death, marriage, etc. I expected this to be a boring, very detail driven exercise, but that seemed to be the way to pass the hours and avoid the mind-numbing alternative of binge watching every episode of Law & Order.
I began with my generation which went very fast. I have three sisters and a brother and their birth certificates on record just proved the birth dates I already knew. One generation done, I moved on to my mom and dad’s generation. Here, I decided to expand to include my aunts and uncles…and the fun began. You have no idea how interesting official records are until you start doing genealogical research!
I found a birth certificate for a male child named Stanley L. with my grandmother and grandfather listed as parents. I had never heard of an Uncle Stanley. I thought perhaps this was a child who had been stillborn or died in infancy and never mentioned, but the official record stated this was a live birth and the birth weight would indicate an extremely healthy baby. The best clue on the certificate was the birthdate which was the same day as the family-recognized birthdate of my Uncle Jock.
Jock, of course, was a nickname, but I knew his given name to be Howard, very surely not Stanley. Howard was on my uncle’s death certificate; Howard was on his tombstone. Neither of my uncles, nor my dad had a middle name, so a baby named Stanley L. was a huge mystery.
I contacted a cousin who has been at this genealogical game longer than I, and asked about Stanley L. He told me he had discovered this a few years ago when his mom was still alive and asked her about it. Her simple explanation…an error on the birth certificate.
I can’t stop thinking about what my uncle, who all his life went by Howard or Jock, would have to go through today to try to get that ID level driver’s license we are all eventually going to carry. Try to explain to a clerk in the BMV that your birth certificate is just wrong…I can only imagine how that would go.
Just like that, I found that official records could be as much fun and as entertaining as the history I had been chasing earlier.
I went on to find several more interesting facts:
- my Uncle Bud, whose given name was Harold, was shown on his birth certificate as Herald;
- my great grandfather had been married twice and had a son with his first wife. The boy was about 3 when the first wife died, around 5 when my great grandfather married my great grandmother and went on to have 9 more children. I vaguely remember an Uncle John, but never knew he was a half sibling;
- my great uncle, Uncle Pete was not named Pete or Peter, he was named Charles Walter;
- my grandmother had two siblings who died in childhood in July 1916;
- my mother’s sister who died from diphtheria in 1932, was seen by a doctor for about a week prior to her passing;
- my great great grandfather died in 1934…or maybe he died in 1891, I have more research to do on that one.
Interestingly, death certificates list cause of death, other known illnesses, occupations, marital status, and parents, including a mother’s maiden name when known. Death certificates are vitally important to researchers, but not easily found for deaths prior to 1920 or so
I’ve only found official records back about four generations and I realize they will become very difficult to find as I reach back further and further, but this has been an entertaining way to spend time over the last few months.
Oh, and one more thing I learned…Ancestry.com owns almost all the online historical information you will ever go looking for…. I don’t have to drive town to town, county to county, state to state to find these records, but I do have to pay a fee to a for-profit company. Very convenient, yet somehow disturbing and very modern.
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