Understanding Records, Part 1: How Comprehensive is the Record?

Genealogists live and die by records and their contents. That’s why it’s critical to fully understand the nature of any kind of record we search. Too often, if we don’t find the person we’re looking for in a record, we walk away and don’t always understand whether or not the person should have even been included in that record. If they should have been included, then what does it mean that they are not there? We quickly learn the content of the record, but even when we know the scope of the record (who was the “target” population who should be listed), do we understand the coverage?

By coverage I mean, ”How much of the target population was actually captured in that record?” We all know some families were missed in census records, but “What about passenger lists, or birth and death records?” Well, thanks to a ground-breaking study by a physician and eminent genealogist Dr. William B. Saxbe, Jr., we now understand that 19th century death records were much less comprehensive than most of us might have imagined. In fact, the decennial census mortality schedules (1850, 1860 and 1870) may actually have identified more deaths than the county death registers for the same time period!

Ten years ago, Dr. Saxbe published an important, but often overlooked study, “Nineteenth-Century Death Records: How Dependable Are They?” in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (March 1999). This eleven page article will enlighten every researcher with his discussion of the content, accuracy and coverage of these important records. The article reports on a study he conducted in comparing the deaths reported in three contemporary sources for the same locality and time period. He examined the deaths reported in one Ohio county from 1 June 1879 to 31 May 1880 in the county death registers, the 1880 mortality schedule and the obituaries in three local newspapers.

His primary focus was on causes of death, but the study also revealed significant additional information regarding the limitations of the records and completeness of coverage. Dr. Saxbe has graciously given his permission for ProGenealogists.com to reprint the entire article online (link below). Take a few minutes to read it and you’ll learn how few deaths appear in all three sources and that almost half are only in one of those sources! You’ll also learn more about the contents of these records, along with what was killing off our ancestors in that era. There’s even a handy glossary of 19th century diseases. Take some time to make yourself a better genealogist!

ProGenealogists thanks Dr. William B. Saxbe, Jr. for permission to reprint his important study, Nineteenth-Century Death Records: How Dependable Are They?

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