Discrepancies in vital records and indexes
at the New Jersey State Archives
By TOM RUE
In the early 1980s I was employed as a senior vault clerk at the New Jersey State Archives in Trenton. At that time, the Archives were housed in a lower level of the State Library, but have since moved to what are presumably more commodious quarters nearby. The purpose of this article is not to orient the potential visitor the Archives, since the staff of that agency maintains an ample website which does just that. Nor do I fault anyone for the condition of the records under discussion. Rather, I merely intend to summarize some notes that I took, which are still in my files, of unusual entries or notations in the records themselves. Staff members of the Archives are best equipped to answer any questions which this article might raise. As stated above, I am merely summarizing 20-year-old research notes.
During my work at the Archives, it was my job to search official state vital records, spanning the years 1848 to 1878, and to respond to genealogical inquiries and record requests from the public who most often were seeking information concerning their ancestors. State employees still provide this service to the public, for a reasonable fee. Since I no longer work there, it will not help you contact me for such services now. The form to use to make such requests is available here.
In the course of these searches, it was not terribly uncommon for me to make note of apparent errors or discrepancies in the records. This in itself is nothing unusual, since municipal clerks are as human as any of us. Based on experience with records of this period elsewhere in the United States, I believe New Jersey's are fairly typical in this regard. However, it may be of interest to those who search for their ancestors to keep in mind that some entries may have been missed in record-indexing or microfilming, and that primary source documents are sometimes flat wrong.
The present article by no means pretends to include an exhaustive list of such errors and omissions, but will discuss a few in order to provide some insight for beginning researchers and as a warning to search thoroughly -- as well as searching the original record where possible, rather than relying exclusively on microfilm.
Old-time clerks who recorded vital statistics were as human as we are. They made at least an equal number of mistakes as moderns do, since today we have computers to rely on (or blame). The form and content in which information was recorded was not always uniform. Some record blanks were not filled out completely, while others contain more than the information called for by statute. Occasionally, clerks would comment on the subject or completeness of their records in the form of marginal notes.
For example, one clerk took note of what may have been an instance of bigamy, unless the lady passed away shortly following the groom's first nuptials: "This is the same man married twice," to two different brides who recorded on the same page of the record (Vol. BG, p. 603). Stranger than this is the case of Israel Freeman, who is recorded as having died on two different dates (cf. Book N, p. 365 and Book J, p. 558).
Equally as remarkable, the death record of Penelope Cray provides an extra bit of genealogical information, noting that at age 52 she died "having conceived 20 times & brought to full period 17 children." Comments of this nature concerning the subjects of vital records during this period of New Jersey are relatively rare.
Causes of death given were sometimes vague, but since something was evidently required to be entered into the field on the form, clerks dutifully complied. But some entries don't tell us much. For example, one entire page (Book AO, p. 315) lists the cause of death of every person recorded thereon as "sickness." How informative!
In another case, the clerk wanted it known that his entry contained "all infon. that could be processed from physicians & from actual inquiry..." Precisely why the clerk found it necessary to insert this statement is unclear. Perhaps it was felt that the good doctors were not providing enough information and the clerk was following the old bureaucratic mandate known to moderns as "CYA".
One of my own maternal ancestors, Elizabeth Callan (nee McGregor or McGrooder), lived 100 years, according to her death record (Book S, p. 24). Is it any wonder, then that when she died on 3 February 1876 that it was of "old age" (which was listed as the actual cause of her demise). Her occupation was given simply as "Lady", perhaps meaning that she was not employed outside the home at the time. How many centenarians are? Whether Elizabeth actually lived a full century or not is uncertain, since census records give her age variously as 60 in 1850 and 84 in 1860. These conflicts lead me to suspect all three sources and to the conclusion that this old Irish lady probably didn't like to tell people her age and may have given a different answer every time she was asked.
The meaning of "teething" (see entry for Louis Hancock, age 2, Book X, p. 122); or "convulsions from teething" (Mary Eliza Lyle, Book CE, pp. 534 and 450), as the causes of death of infants, may be unclear to some since children today normally do not die of teething. Perhaps infections set in more commonly in those days as a result of teething sores in combination with contemporary practices related to that natural process, which somehow led to infant mortality. Shirley Hornbeck seems to support this hypothesis in her Tips on Diseases, Medical Terms and Epidemics where she offers this definition:
Teething: The entire process which results in the eruption of the teeth. Nineteenth century medical reports stated that infants were more prone to disease at the time of teething. Symptoms were restlessness, fretfulness, convulsions, diarrhea, and painful and swollen gums. The latter could be relieved by lancing over the protruding tooth. Often teething was reported as a cause of death in infants. Perhaps they became susceptible to infections, especially if lancing was performed without antisepsis. Another explanation of teething as a cause of death is that infants were often weaned at the time of teething; perhaps they then died from drinking contaminated milk, leading to an infection, or from malnutrition if watered-down milk was given.
These examples illustrate that causes of death may sometimes seem odd, but taken in the context of the times may have been quite ordinary and a reflection of the state of medical science of the era.
Sometimes viewing the entire page of a record can give broader insight than can be gained by merely obtaining a typed transcript of a single event's record. For example, if one had an ancestor who died in 1854, it could be noteworthy to observe that a cholera epidemic seems to have occurred in the Irish sector of Lambertville's population around that time. Death Book S, p. 347 lists as many as 26 persons as who died in that locality of cholera that year, all with Irish surnames, and all entries listing the nativity of the deceased by specific counties in Ireland. (More commonly in old records of this type, only the country of birth was listed for foreign-born individuals. In these cases case, however, the clerk took the trouble to record from which county the immigrant originated.) Were not these immigrants' families, or others around them, have been struck by the illness? The only ones shown on this particular page as having died of cholera seem to be immigrants, as shown by their birthplaces. Perhaps they traversed the ocean together on one ship, or worked at close quarters in a local factory sweatshop, thereby infecting each other? Again, this is baseless speculation over questions raised by the record which might be answerable by consulting other records of the era. For example, 20 years earlier in June of 1834 the Delaware & Raritan Canal was built, but not without hardship. Reportedly, "4000 Irish immigrants were hired to dig the canal with pick and shovel. During the construction an epidemic of Cholera broke out and dozens of men were buried along the banks of the canal and the Delaware River" (see the website of the City of Lambertville).
It is fair to believe that most record clerks were conscientious about the manner in which they performed their jobs. Occasionally we find letters of correction inserted into their document books, signed by the clerk who made or corrected the record. One letter (Book BV, p. 675) contains an unusual reference to "water melon parties" the meaning of which is unclear. Perhaps the clerk found it noteworthy to mention that the office staff partook of something not unlike a present-day office pizza party, but with healthier food?
One classic hallmark of modern bureaucracy is the invention of the rubber-stamp. Actually a descendant of more ancient forms of official seals and indicias, the first example of what appears to be an actual rubber-stamp that I saw in New Jersey vital records was dated 1879, stating that a particular page of marriage entries had been "Filed with Dept. of State." Rubber stamps were still fairly new in this era, as one manufacturer informs us that the product was perfected, using vulcanized rubber, in 1866. (See The History of Rubber Stamps on the website of Golding Handcrafts of Wellington, New Zealand.)
As to the identity and experience of those who handled and processed the records, leaving them in their present form, the record volumes presently stored in the stacks of the Archives were evidently bound during the summer of 1936, as indicated by a note dated June 16 of that year appearing on Marriage Book CN, p. 552; likely a government job created under the New Deal.
Some record handlers who either created the indexes or microfilmed the documents do not appear to have been consistently careful. There were numerous examples of records that I noticed missed in microfilming or left out of the volume indexes. If I found these, there are certainly many more that exist. When searching such records, it is therefore important not to rely exclusively on the volume index, but to examine the pages where the record would be expected to be found chronologically wherever possible. Likewise, if all you have is access to a microfilm of an source record, take careful note to observe whether any pages may be missing.
EXAMPLES OF RECORDS NOT ON MICROFILM
2 pages of entries, from Joast Denelsbeck to Female Denman
50 pages of entries, from Eliza Gardner to Female Geiger
1 page of entries, from Abigail Lock to Mary Lock (film image badly blurred)
2 pages of entries, from Louise Collins to Sarah Collins
1 page of entries, from Son of John Spear to Charles H. Speer (film image blurred)
Book BI, Page 289
EXAMPLES OF RECORDS NOT IN THE INDEXAA:163D - Twenty-two births, Brick Township, Ocean County, 1852-1853. (Notation in record indicates that the clerk ran out of "blanks... return Births on," and asks that more be sent to him.)
AH:81 - Twenty marriages, Greenwich Township, Warren County, 1853-1854 (Page is bound into volume backward.)
AH:195 - One marriage, Belvider Township, Warren County, 1861 (one entry on page, filed three years later.)
B:221 - Twenty-two marriages, 1843-1845, Bergen County.
C:1-2 - Burlington County Marriages, 1843-1848.
AF2-103 - One birth, William Ketcham, son of Benj. & Levina, 1 July 1853.
BC:583 - One birth, Chauncey Norris to Jabez, 1877. (There is a jump in the alphabet but no pages are missing from the volume. A note explains, "cards lost" during indexing.)
EXAMPLES OF APPARENT ERRORS OR OMISSIONS IN INDEXINGAF:602 - Death of Rachel Johnson, p 602, says parents are "unknown"; p. 618. However, AF:618 gives their names but entry is crossed out and not indexed.
H:64-67 - One marriage, David Lorey, page is out of sequence.
Index - Two pages of Index to Death records, Walker Johnson to Emma Jones, 48-67 follow page ending with Bordon Joline
The underlying message to researchers is to be thorough and systematic in searching for the information you hope to find. Indexes made after the fact, or microfilms of records for that matter, may not be wholly reliable. Seek to examine original records whenever possible, if you can get there and if the repository's rules will allow you.
related external links:
Fact Sheet, State Resources for New Jersey
New Jersey State Historical Commission
New Jersey Genealogy Central
New Jersey Resources at Rootsweb
New Jersey State Library
© 2001, Tom Rue