We’re exploring the children and grandchildren of my great-great-great grandfather Joshua Perry (1805-1866) & his wife Louvicia Anne Wade Perry (1806-1884). Joshua is currently one of my “brick walls” in my family history, showing how I trace my family roots back to him and why I can’t get any farther back.
So far, using the 1920 and 1930 census records, we’ve seen that my grandfather, Frank Maxwell Perry (1910-1970) was living with his father John I Perry, Sr. (1878-1956) and siblings John I Perry, Jr, Ruth Perry and William P Perry. The 1920 census shows that my great-grandmother Lyda E [Maxwell] Perry (1890-1922) was living with her family, but that by the 1930 census John Sr was married to Lulamae [Mullis] Perry (1902-1963).
Death certificates are a key type of primary source record. They establish name and place and date of death. They are valuable secondary sources for birth and marriage and sometimes a pointer to parentage. The name, birth date and place, and the names (and possibly birth places) of the parents are supplied by an “informant”, usually a person close to the deceased, ideally a close relative, but the information cannot be regarded as infallible.. At best, use this information as a pointer to finding additional sources, or as additional confirmation of facts that can be sourced elsewhere.
State law did not required death certificates in Georgia until 1914, and it was 1919 before most counties were complying with the law. But not until 1928 did compliance become universal. The counties maintain death records; copies began to be filed with the state in 1928. So you can write the county vital records office directly if you are positive in which county your ancestor died, or you can write the Georgia Division of Public Health. Their web address is http://health.state.ga.us/programs/vitalrecords/death.asp. The fee is currently $25 for a certified copy of a death certificate, and there is no option to order a non-certified (genealogical) copy as in some states.
For relatives who died between 1914 and 1927, a possible alternative source is the website Georgia’s Virtual Vault from the Georgia Archives and the Georgia Secretary of State’s office. As with marriage records, the exact dates covered vary by county, and the quality of the digitized images varies as well. There are two links on the left side of the screen for death certificates: Georgia Death Certificates and Georgia Non-Indexed Death Certificates, 1928-1930 . There are the usual pages with sources details and a search section at the bottom. Of the two, the Georgia Death Certificates (covering 1914-1927) is easier to search as there are a number of search options. Searcing the 1928-1930 images is basically like a digital microfilm search; there is minimal indexing in the images themselves and you almost have to view each image to find the one you are looking for. The advantage is that you can do this at home in your PJs. Read the source details pages carefully. Neither of these image databases is a complete record of extant death certificates. They are merely copies of the records on file with the state for the covered years.
I used the Georgia’s Virtual Vault web site to find my great-grandmother Lyda Perry’s death certificate (above). It gives her name, age and death, confirming “common family knowledge” that she died in 1922. She was the wife of John I. Perry, who provided the information on the certificate. He knew here maiden name (father’s last name) was Maxwell, again a confirmation of what I already knew through family lore, since that is also my grandfather’s middle name (as well as the middle name of one of my brothers). Unfortunately, for mother’s maiden name they “doo not no” [sic]. She died of “apoplexy” in Sale City, Mitchell County, Georgia on 8 Jan 1922, and was buried in Sale City the next day. The doctor and undertaker signed the certificate as well. So there’s a great deal of information here, but also much that is missing. As you can see by the spaces provided there is much more they could have filled in. Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don’t.
I was luckier with my great-grandfather’s death certificate (right). My mother’s cousin Barbara already had a certified copy obtained from Fulton County and was kind enough to share it with me. As you can see, the form has changed, but the basic fields are still there, and compliance with the filling out of the form is much improved. His son William P. Perry (my great uncle Bill) was the informant, and he knew John’s date of birth and his parents names. John was living in the Atlanta area, died of multiple causes (basically heart attack and pneumonia) at the Army hospital at Ft. McPherson on 7 March 1956.
As further corroborating evidence, to consider when evaluating the death certificates, you can search out your ancestors' tombstones or grave markers. I was lucky enough to find the tombstones for both John & Lyda Perry. Most of the dates on the tombstones agree with the information on the death certificates. The exception is Lyda’s birthday. The death certificate gives her age as 31, but the gravestone says she was born in October 1886, which would have made her 35 years old in January 1922. These two sources aren’t enough to resolve that question, so we’ll have to look for the answer elsewhere. Both of these gravestone images are from FindAGrave.com, a wonderful resource for locating burial sites around the world, many with pictures of the tombs and gravestones. There is also the ability to request pictures of volunteers, who graciously help you fill in the blanks in your family records when it’s difficult for you to obtain the pictures yourself. These pictures of my great-grandparents graves were taken by Sue Edwards and can be found on the FindAGrave.com website in the Sale City Cemetery, Sale City, Mitchell, Georgia, USA.
So death certificates are available in Georgia for most of the 20th century. Just don’t get your hopes up if you’ve done research in other states. It’s still possible to find them, and there are even a few available for free. And it doesn't hurt to add burial information from the graves of your relatives. As we go back prior to the start of the last century, though, documentation gets scarcer, and a great deal of detective work is required. I’ll continue with my Joshua tree in the next installment.
Here’s your summary:
- Georgia’s Virtual Vault is a digital document resource from the Georgia Archives and the Georgia Secretary of State’s office. In it you can find a number of documents that qualify as primary sources of information.
- There is a compiled list of Georgia courthouse disasters available from a USGenNet page, among other places, Destruction of Georgia Courthouses at http://www.usgennet.org/usa/region/southeast/gajackson/destchse.html. This list is based on information available from the Georgia Secretary of State’s office.
- Accurate official vital records are pretty much a 20th century invention in Georgia, and enforcement of the requirements was lax until the late 1920’s. Nevertheless, with perseverance many documents that qualify as primary sources can be found.
- FindAGrave.com is an excellent resource online, not only for locating the place of burial, but particularly for obtaining pictures of your dearly departed. It's all done by volunteers, so if you make extensive use of the pictures, please consider volunteering in your own area to take cemetery pictures for others. And always give credit for any pictures you use in your research.