Indiana genealogists recently got a big boost in their research. Ancestry added 17 million Indiana vital records. These digitized birth, marriage, and death records have never been online before. However, using these records is not without some serious challenges.
The New Indiana Vital Records on Ancestry
The three new collections are:
- Indiana, Birth Certificates, 1907-1940
- Indiana, Marriage Certificates, 1958-2005
- Indiana, Death Certificates, 1899-2011
All of these are digitized images taken from microfilm held at the Indiana State Archives. This means that the images we see are only going to be as good as the microfilm was.
The marriage records and death records collections also contain digital images of the printed index. This is a huge benefit, as it gives us another way to find records that aren’t coming up in the search.
All of this is good news! The birth and death certificates list the person’s parents, as well as other biographical information. The marriage records often don’t list the parents, but does give things like occupation, residence, and the name of the person who officiated the wedding.
Now comes the bad news.
The Challenges of Using the Indiana Vital Records
There are a couple of challenges using these new Indiana birth, marriage, and death records. The first is that Ancestry did not index the mother’s maiden name. Further, she is listed in the database with the surname of the father.
Omitting the mother’s maiden name in a set of records that include it is a huge challenge to researchers, especially when this information has been indexed in similar collections, such as the Pennsylvania Death Certificates.
One of the ways to find previously unknown children or married daughters is to do a search with the parents’ names. For example, in a death record collection, you would leave the deceased’s name blank, and fill in the only the names of the parents — including the mother’s maiden name to help narrow down the results.
That won’t work with these collections.
Further, if you do a search in these and you include the mother’s maiden name and mark it “Exact,” you will exclude records that you’re looking for. That’s exactly what happened with me when I was trying to locate children of William and Matilda (Debolt) Skinner in the Indiana Death Certificates. I left the person’s name blank and searched for a father with the last name of Skinner (marked “Exact”) and mother’s last name of Debolt (marked “Exact”). Here’s what I got:
I know some of my Skinner relatives died in Indiana in this time period, so why didn’t I find them? It was because I marked the mother’s name Debolt as exact. Since the Indiana Death Certificates collection didn’t index the mother’s maiden name — even though they are clearly shown on the records — it excluded records that I was looking for.
Suggestion 1: Don’t include the mother’s maiden name at all. If you need to narrow down your results, use the mother’s first name.
Not only does the omission of the mother’s maiden name in the index create challenges for us, but it also materially changes the meaning of some records.
Here is a birth certificate I found. (I have changed the last names involved, as the person might still be alive and might not want it broadcast that her birth certificate implies unmarried parents.) The birth certificate itself shows:
Child’s name: Mary SMITH
Father’s Name: Thomas MILLER
Mother’s Name: Ann SMITH
The child was given the surname of the mother, yet according to Ancestry’s indexing, the mother’s name was Ann MILLER.
It is a shame that Ancestry “filled in the blanks” (that weren’t blanks to begin with), especially when it changes the meaning of the record and makes records more difficult to find.
Note: You can use the edit feature when you’re viewing the image on Ancestry and add the mother’s last name as it’s shown on the record. This will help future researchers find the record more easily.
The other challenge with these three new collections is the quality of the indexing. I’m not talking about butchering the spelling of a hard-to-read name. (I’ve researched enough Germans in Indiana to know they can be a challenge!) I mean there are errors that you have to wonder how they got through, like this one:
The record clearly shows a marriage date of October 10, 1998. Yet the record was indexed as having a marriage date of October 10, 1947. Huh?
A friend of mine pointed out this indexing curiosity:
How do you get a first name of “Geuly B.” out of that?
Suggestion 2: When you’re not finding the records that you think you should, start being creative with your searches. Use wildcards, leave out the surname, leave out the first name. (For goodness sake, leave out the mother’s maiden name!)
Also, use the digital images of the printed index for the death and marriage records. (Look in the right-hand column where it says “Browse this collection.”) Select “index” and the year, then scroll through to find the entry you’re looking for. Take note of the certificate number. Then go back and browse by certificate, looking for the set that will have that certificate number.
It is great having these Indiana vital records available to us. So many people have already started breaking down brick walls with them. However, many of our normal search strategies won’t work and the indexing poses some challenges. The keys to success with these records are to be flexible and creative with your searches.
I was looking for some of my Webbs in the death records but the index didn’t pick them up. Luckily I had their date of death from a previous index, so I was able to use this collections index images to find what roll the county I needed was on! A little bit of a circle to get the records, but they were there for me, so it’s a win in my mind.
I think those images of the printed index are going to be quite valuable to many of us using the collections!
This makes me wonder what Ancestry’s definition of a “professional” indexer is, since they claim that is what they use. Thank you for the tips to working around this problem. They have helped me in other collections as well!
I couldn’t find what I was looking for either, so just typed in last names only, and was surprised at how much I found. I even found my own marriage record! That was awesome! Seems like the least specific you can be on these records, the better. I could not find my mother’s birth certificate, but got a leaf hint from Ancestry and found it with the wrong spelling. Kirkpatrick was spelled Kirkpatrich, but after looking at the document, I could understand why. It looks like an h. Just takes patience as usual:)
My example of poor indexing is both of the parents of the deceased are indexed with the deceased’s married surname. The parents correct surnames are clearly typed on the death certificate.
Do we know for certain that Ancestry was the index author, or did their contract for the rights to publish the images include an existing index?
The only index to these records, to my knowledge, was the printed index which only has the person’s name, date, county, and the certificate number.
Thank you so much for sharing this information because I had no idea. I haven’t had much luck with this database and yet some of my folks really should be there. I need to revisit it with a new set of eyes.
I think you get Geuly for Joseph with bad hand placement on the keys and sloppy typing while transcribing.
Thank you for this helpful post!
[Geuly] could have been “misread” for [Joseph] by one of those auto-scanners that interprets the text. If a human does not catch the error by comparing the name from the original record, this is what happens.
I was so excited . Found loads . I went into ancestry and left the names out but added there birth and death info , and surprise there they where . Spelling of a few surnames where way off , and some used middle names , once I figured it out was on a roll . Hope they go further back on marriages , missing a few .
Earlier ones are available for free on FamilySearch! Indiana Marriages, 1811-2007 – not all years for all counties are included yet. If you don’t find what you’re looking for when you search, go into the Browse and see what’s covered for the county you’re interested in. Good luck!
Bad transcription has to be my biggest complaint with Ancestry. Last night I was working in the 1840 Census for Winston County, Mississippi. On one page alone, I made corrections to 13 lines out of 30. I’m not a professional genealogist and have no training in paleography but it has become the norm to spend half my research time correcting Ancestry’s census indices. Maybe I should ask for a job!
I went thru and downloaded 24 death certificates so all the next three generations after me are all complete! That is huge for me! I’m the genealogist for the Society of Indiana Pioneers so this is a big deal for everyone that has been trying to get death certificates all lined up. I didn’t realize that the death certificates were held at the State Archives? I never realized that so we have always had to go to County and/or State Health Departments to request those documents and they can range from $10.00 and up for each one.
I must say that it was a bit weird feeling to be able to bring up my own marriage record from 1984 and my parents’ birth certicates from 1927 and 1930 as well as their death certificates from 2000 and 2010! With so much privacy issues that we are constantly dealing with, it didn’t feel quite right. My understanding is that any ancestor that has been dead 70 years or more can be accessed by anyone, but if the ancestor has been deceased less than that, you would need to show an I.D. at least. Anyway, I have gone ahead and downloaded all that I can.
Also, the Indiana Probate and Wills has been a fantastic tool for me as a genealogist for the Pioneers. I find that early Indiana wills will be located in the Probate Orders if not found in the Wills volumes. The Orders do not seem to be indexed but having access at home is quite a luxury that I will happily take advantage of in my work!
Great article Amy Johnson Crow! Please let me know if you should ever need any copies from documents located at the Indiana State Library. Our office is located within the Genealogy section and I am down there weekly!!! 🙂
Thank you for the information. Please also watch out for incorrect months in the birth date and death date fields on the indexed information for the death certificates. Even though the months are usually indicated as numbers on the death certificates, I found many incorrect months on the indexed information, such as Jan instead of Jun or Mar instead of May.
I found the certificate # for a death.. but, do not know how to search for that? Any thoughts?
The certificate number wasn’t indexed in the Ancestry database. However, you can use the browse feature to find it. Go to the Death Records collection; on the right hand side of the page, you’ll see “Browse this collection.” Choose “Certificate” as the type and then choose the year of death. You might need to do some guesswork on which roll to choose. (I’d try to match it up by year; if the person died in June, I’d start with a roll that’s about halfway down the list.) When you get into the images, then look at the top of the image for the certificate number. Browse as necessary. Good luck!
I just read this blog post a couple of days ago, but hope you see this comment anyway. The good: I immediately found a birth record that I have been searching for for years. The bad: My father’s death certificate is listed under my mother’s name with him as spouse. She is still living.
As an sometimes arbitrator for familysearch, I especially related to your “Joseph B” example. Some of the records I recently arbitrated were exactly that kind of error. I began to believe that someone was going out of their way to make things up. I couldn’t figure out how they came up with some of the spellings on easy to read records. A friend suggested that possibly the indexers were not native English speakers. Is Ancestry outsourcing to foreign workers?
Ancestry does do some offshore indexing.