How to Evaluate a Death Record for Your Ancestor
In genealogy research, we move from record to record, building a case about our ancestors. When working with records with sparse genealogical information, how can you determine a record pertains to your research question? Moreover, how can we evaluate whether a death record pertains to our ancestors?
Genealogy Research Question
When and where did Martha (Gordon) Brown die?
How do you determine whether the records you discover pertain to the same person?
Martha Gordon is Charles Gordon and Jane Fickel's daughter, born 1 March 1827 in Perry County, Ohio, United States. She married Samuel Curtis Brown in Logan, Hocking County, Ohio, on 15 October 1846.
Samuel died on 14 January 1899 in Columbus, Franklin, Ohio, leaving Martha a widow. Much of the information I have comes from Martha’s daughter-in-law, Emma Virginia Townsend, kept by these two Bible entries.
Emma Townsend Brown Bible, recording her in-law’s births.
Emma Townsend Brown Bible, recording the deaths of her in-laws.
Validate Family Bible Records
The Family Bible entries warrant additional evidence to validate the information. I found census records, a marriage record, and death records for Samuel and Martha’s children.
Martha appears in the 1850 Census with likely parents Charles and Jane Gordon and her eight siblings, even though she’s supposed to be married (as of 1846). The mystery of where Samuel Brown was living in 1850 is still a mystery, but I’m focused on answering the question of when and where did Martha die.
While searching the Ohio, County Death Records, 1840-2001 with the search terms “Martha,” “Brown,” “Franklin County, Ohio” for the death place, and “1901” for the death year, I received a result.
A search of Ohio, County Death Records, 1840-2001 for Martha Gordon
Since the FamilySearch result had a camera icon, I knew I could investigate the original image.
“Ohio, County Death Records, 1840-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:F6CG-CY1 : accessed 30 February 2016), Martha Brown, 11 Apr 1901; citing Death, Columbus, Franklin, Ohio, United States, source ID v 3 p 152, County courthouses, Ohio.
Extract the Information From the Death Record
To evaluate this record's information (which actually continues onto a second image), I extracted all the information.
Name: Martha Brown
Place of Birth: [blank]
Marital Status: W
Duration of Last Illness: 2 years
Death Date: 11 April 1901
Cause of Death: Old Age nervous exhaustion
[note: (paralysis) – unclear if it pertains to Martha or the entry above.]
Physician: D J Synder
Occupation: [blank] Residence: 796 Campbell
Ward: 13 Tenement / Private Residence: P Time of Residence in Columbus:6 Mos
Place of the Previous Residence: Valley Crossing, Ohio
Name of Father: Charles Gordon
Name of Mother: Susan Gordon
Nativity of Father: Am
Nativity of Mother: Am
Place of Intended Interment: Lutheran Cemetery
Date of Intended Interment: 13 Apr 1901
Name of Undertaker: G J Schwedinger & Bros
Evaluating a Death Record
How can I prove that this death record pertains to my research question? I need to evaluate the information.
Evaluate the Document
It is unclear when the government official in charge of creating the death register recorded the deaths. The handwriting is very consistent, as if they were creating a copy of a separate record rather than recording deaths as they happened.
The record is an official government document created to record deaths for health studies and for adjudicating probates. The motive to record inaccurate information is low. The record does not identify the informant for biographical information such as parental names and birth dates. This information is secondary, and we are unable to determine the accuracy of the information provided.
Evaluate the Information
Compared to the Family Bible entry for Martha’s date, a 2-day discrepancy appears. The Bible records April 9th, and the death register indicates April 11th. The correct death date is unknown.
Since a researcher cannot determine when the county official recorded the death date, the 11 April date's reliability is questionable.
In contrast, the 9 April date appears in the Family Bible for Martha’s daughter-in-law, Emma. Emma married Martha’s son in 1895 and lived in Columbus at the time of Martha’s death. Emma may have recorded the death from her memory, having witnessed her mother-in-law’s passing.
The names of Martha’s parents could be Charles Gordon and Susan if the death record is accurate.
In reviewing the family research, Charles Gordon and Jane Fickle's names have been passed down on Family Group Sheets. The record in which Martha appears with these potential parents is in the 1850 Census, which suggests but doesn’t explicitly state that her parents are Charles and Jane Gordon.
The informant providing the parental names for the death register is not identified. A researcher can not conclusively determine whether Charles Gordon and Susan Gordon are Martha Gordon's parents, who married Samuel Brown.
Martha’s birthplace is listed as Valley Crossing, Ohio. Martha married into the Brown family, and Valley Crossing, Franklin County, Ohio, often appears in records related to the Browns and Gordons. Therefore, this information may be accurate if the unnamed informant is to be believed.
The funeral providers are Schoedinger & Bros (or Schwendinger & Bros). This company frequently handled funerals for generations of Browns.
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Search for Genealogy Documents to Support the Death Record
The death record seems plausible, but questions and conflicts prevent me from declaring the document definitively pertains to my ancestor. How can I make a better determination?
Determine if other Martha Browns died in 1901
A genealogist should determine if there are other individuals with the same name who died at the same time in the same place.
A search for Martha Browns dying in Franklin County, Ohio in 1901 returned only one entry – the one shared above.
Expanding the death year range to 1896 – 1906, only one additional result appeared – for a Martha Brown who died in Trenton County, Ohio. Martha Gordon Brown did not appear in records affiliated with Trenton County.
Who else was in her household
City directories help establish when and where an ancestor lived, often based on their address. In the City Directory for the year 1900, I discovered the following entry:
“U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995,” database with images, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 3 Aug 2018); entry for Martha Brown, 796 Campbell Av; citing Columbus, Ohio City Directory. Columbus: R L Polk & Co.,  pg 169.
This entry establishes that Martha, widow of Samuel, is boarding at 796 Campbell Avenue. She could also be boarding at 457 Jackson Street. Do these entries represent two people, or the same one diving her living arrangements between the two homes?
The address of 796 Campbell Avenue correlates with the death register but does not clearly prove that the death register entry pertains to Martha (Gordon) Brown, who is the focus of my research.
Who was in her household?
Before we start searching every entry of the City Directory for Martha and her husband Samuel, a search for their children in the 1900 City Direct seems more logical since you already have the record open.
Of their living children, I found the following:
Jefferson and Eliza (Brown) Ranck lived at 763 S Wall, Columbus.
James and Ida (Brown) Ranck lived at 796 Campbell Avenue.
The whereabouts of George Elias Brown is unclear after his marriage in 1885.
Sherman and Emma Brown lived at 457 Jackson Street.
George and Hattie (Brown) Geisler live in Madison, Franklin County, Ohio.
Leo and Effie (Brown) Chase live at rear 81 W 8th av.
Searching for Extended Family Connected the Dots
Since the Campbell Avenue and Jackson Street address appear in the 1900 City Directory for two of Martha’s children (Ida and Sherman), one can conclude that Martha Brown (widow of Samuel) is the same person residing at the homes of her children.
Since the 796 Campbell Avenue address is the home of Martha (Gordon) Brown’s daughter Ida Brown, one can now conclude that the death register entry in question does pertain to the individual I am researching. The key link is the address of 796 Campbell Avenue at the time of Martha Brown’s death.
Now that I have discovered the death register entry for Martha (Gordon) Brown, I can attach it to FamilySearch and then begin to process the remaining questions:
Who are Martha’s parents? Charles and Susan Gordon or Charles and Jane Fickle?
Is it possible that Jane Fickle is actually named Susan Jane or Jane Susan Fickle?
Is Susan an error?
Isn’t it amazing that one record can provide the answer for one research question and then cause a new set of research questions? What records have you found that answered one question only to create additional research challenges?