Blogs: Genealogy

19th century marriage certificate

Can’t remember when your divorce was final? Need a copy of your birth certificate? Trying to remember when your parents got married? Looking for your grandmother’s death certificate? These are all examples of vital records: documents related to a person’s birth, marriage, divorce and death.  If you’re looking for any of these, the library is here to help!

There are a few things to keep in mind when searching for vital records at Multnomah County Library:

  • Public libraries don’t keep archives of public records. You can request copies of birth, marriage, divorce and death certificates from the Oregon Center for Health Statistics.
  • The library does have indexes you can use to verify vital records information in Oregon. However, these indexes don't cover all time periods -- and the most recent year is 2008.
  • The library has a wealth of genealogical resources including useful blogs on topics such as finding obituaries and researching house history.
  • Many historical vital records are available from the Oregon State Archives.
  • Library staff are always happy to assist you in your vital records search.  Please call us at 503.988.5123 or email a librarian anytime.

Getting copies of vital records

Most vital records in Oregon are available through the Oregon Center for Health Statistics. Because there are restrictions on who has access to these records, you will need to provide a significant amount of information about yourself and/or the subject of the vital record. Also keep in mind that the Center for Health Statistics charges fees for vital records. The more research they have to do, the higher the fees.

In order to ensure you receive the correct record, expedite your order, and potentially save yourself some money, you can consult the Oregon Vital Records Indexes available at the library. These indexes provide the name(s) of the individual(s), the county in which the event occurred, the date, and the record number. You can use these indexes yourself at the Central Library or contact the library and have a staff person search for you. Should you need vital records for states other than Oregon, check the Centers for Disease Control's list Where to Write for Vital Records for every U.S. state and territory.

Birth records

The state of Oregon began recording births in 1903 but there is no statewide index to birth records. If you need your own or an immediate family member’s birth certificate contact the Oregon Center for Health Statistics.

For genealogists, birth certificates more than 100 years old can be accessed by anyone.  If you need local birth records, you can use the Ledger Index to City of Portland Births which is focused on the years 1881-1917 within the city of Portland. Keep in mind, however, that the city was much smaller then than it is now.

Marriage records

If you need to verify marriage information, Multnomah County Library has the Oregon Marriage Index (1906-1924, 1946-2008). This index is organized by the name of either the groom or bride and is also available through Ancestry Library Edition (accessible only in the library).  To get a copy of your own or an immediate family member’s marriage certificate, contact the Oregon Center for Health Statistics.

For genealogists, anyone can request a marriage certificate more than 50 years old. In Oregon, counties issue marriage licenses, so to find records that are not included in the Oregon Marriage Index you can check the Oregon Historical County Records Guide.

Divorce records

If you need to verify divorce information, Multnomah County Library has access to the Oregon Divorce Index for 1925-2008. Online, Ancestry Library Edition (accessible only in the library) also has Oregon Divorce Records, 1961-1985. If you need a copy of your own or an immediate family member’s divorce certificate, contact the Oregon Center for Health Statistics. If you need the full court record and divorce decree, you will need to contact the issuing court, usually the county circuit court. To help, Multnomah County Archives & Records Management has prepared a handy guide to obtaining divorce records and decrees.

For genealogists, anyone can request a divorce certificate more than 50 years old. If you’re looking for the court records, some counties have all of their circuit court records but others turned over their older documents to the Oregon State Archives.

Death records
Graveyard in Gjemnes, Norway

If you need to verify death information, Multnomah County Library has the Oregon Death Index (1903-2008). This index is also available through Ancestry Library Edition (accessible only in the library). If you need a copy of an immediate family member’s death certificate, contact the Oregon Center for Health Statistics.

For genealogists, anyone can request a death certificate more than 50 years old. You can also search for local deaths before 1903 using the Ledger Index to City of Portland Deaths (1881-1917).

If you still have questions about vital records or other genealogical research questions call or email a librarian to get personalized help. If you’d rather have face-to-face assistance, ask the librarian on duty the next time you visit the library. We're always happy to help!

 

 

heading from an early page of the Ledger Index to City of Portland Deaths

Have you ever had trouble finding an obituary for a Portland ancestor who died around the turn of the last century?  You’re not alone!

In the 19th century and even in the early 20th, newspapers often put obituaries in with the regular news, making them hard to find.  This was also before it was common for Portland newspapers to include a "Daily city statistics" section listing the names of people who had died in the city recently.  So it’s no wonder that it can be a big challenge to find Portland obituaries from before about 1910.  

But I have good news for you: if your ancestor was a Portlander, and if they died within city limits 1881-1917, their death was probably recorded in the Ledger Index to City of Portland Deaths.

What is the Ledger Index?

The Ledger Index to City of Portland Deaths is a long list of people who died in the city of Portland 1881-1917.  It’s quite a bit more robust than most modern death indexes -- in addition to the name and death date of each person included, it includes details like the address or name of the place where the person died, their cause of death, and (in some years) the name of the cemetery where they were buried.  This additional information makes the Ledger Index a pretty decent substitute for obituaries.  

Here’s what the Ledger Index actually looks like.  The library has a microfilmed copy, which is why it’s white text on a black background.

Finding your ancestor

The Ledger Index is arranged by date of death -- because of this, it’s sometimes referred to as the “Chronologic Index.”  If you know the date your ancestor died, simply go to that date and hopefully you’ll find them!

If you don’t know your ancestor’s date of death, try looking for their name in the Oregon State Archives’ Oregon Historical Records Index.  This index includes most records from the Ledger Index to City of Portland Deaths.  If your ancestor is listed, their date of death should lead you to the correct page of the Ledger Index.

Racial classification in the Ledger Index

There are some challenges to using the Ledger Index.  The information in the Index is a primary source, created a full century ago, and it is a government record reflecting the mainstream standards and ideas of its time.  There is no context or commentary to interpret the index for you -- you will have to provide your own analysis.  

One thing these records show us is the unexamined racism of the past.  The Ledger Index states the race of each person listed, often using terms that are decidedly not used in polite speech today: “Chinese,” “Colored,” “Half-Breed,” “Mulatto,” “White,” and possibly others.  Some of these terms appear on detail from January 1882 at left.  In later years, single-letter abbreviations are used.  There is no key showing what the abbreviations meant, but I’ve guessed that “C” stands for “colored” (meaning Black or African-American); “W” for “white;” and “Y” for “yellow” (meaning Asian or Asian-American).   

Causes of death in the Ledger Index

This detail from a January 1882 Ledger Index page shows some familiar-sounding causes of death: “still born,” "consumption," “scarlet fever.”  But read if you read through a few pages worth of deaths, you'll also find unexpected causes like “softening of spinal marrow.”  If you find your ancestor’s death has officially been recorded due to something that doesn’t sound like it would kill a person, be prepared to draw gentle, careful conclusions.  And remember, you may need to do some research to discover what a cause-of-death term meant in the past. 

Portland deaths only

Another thing to beware of when using the Ledger Index to City of Portland Deaths is that it only includes people who died within the city limits of Portland.  And the city was quite a bit smaller 100 years ago than it is now! 

Fortunately, the Portland Bureau of Planning & Sustainability has a very helpful map showing historical annexations to the city of Portland (pdf), which you can look at to get a sense for where city limits were during your ancestor’s lifetime.  

Of course, people are mobile.  The Ledger Index lists people who died in Portland, not people who lived there.  Your ancestor who lived in Linnton or East Portland or St. Johns could well have died within Portland city limits, particularly if they died in an accident or in a hospital.

Using the Ledger Index, and getting help with it

You can consult the Ledger Index to City of Portland Deaths at Central Library.  Ask at any reference desk, and the librarian on duty will help you get the volumes you need.  To read it, you’ll need to use one of Central Library’s microfilm machines -- read more about that in my colleague Ross B.’s post Microfilm at the library.

But you don’t have to visit the library to tap the riches of this great resource --  librarians are always happy to help.  Just get in touch with us by phone or email via Ask the Librarian, and we’ll do our best to answer your questions or help you plan your research. 

In the meantime, happy researching!

 

Earlier this summer, people around the world marked the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, later called the First World War, and the anniversary has created a flurry of interest in the conflict and its impact on people across several continents.

The Great War was great in the sense that it was huge and record-breaking. The 30 or so participating nations sent about 65 million people into battle. It is hard to make an exact count of casualties and injuries that resulted, but it is generally accepted that about 21 million uniformed personnel went home wounded, and 8.6 million died. In addition, about 6.5 million civilians were killed in the fighting.* Obviously, this war had a dramatic effect on people across the globe, altering personal stories, disrupting family patterns, creating opportunities for some and closing doors for others.

Family historians should take note of how the war may have affected their recent ancestors. One way to do that is to get a little context for what the war was like for real people -- you might start with my colleague Rod’s great reading list of books that illuminate the experiences people had in the First World War, both on the battlefield and on the home front.

Of course, you family historians want to track down your own specific ancestors too. Lots of general genealogy books teach you how to find official sources like draft records, military service records, and records of veterans, but the library has a great local resource you may not know about!

If your ancestor served in World War I, survived, and later lived in Oregon, he may be included in the library’s collection of 1930s-era newspaper clippings, [European War, 1914-1918 Participating Oregonians].

On the right you can see an scan of one of the clippings in the collection -- it’s an article about Dr. A. H. Huyke, from the Oregon City Enterprise, published December 8, 1935.

This is one of thirteen articles and obituaries about Oregon WWI veterans, collected by the library in 1934 and 1935 and preserved together in a binder.  We’re not sure exactly why these articles were set aside and given special treatment; and we don’t know whether they were clipped by a librarian, a library volunteer, or a community member who later donated them to the library. But here they are, a lovely little slice of history just waiting for a genealogist digging into their family’s Oregon past!

I share this collection with you for two reasons:

The first reason is that maybe you are digging into an Oregon ancestor’s World War I military service and this is just the perfect resource for you! But there are only thirteen newspaper clippings in this collection, so it’s a little bit unlikely that many of you will find this the perfect source.

My second reason for sharing this collection is that I want you to remember that the library is rich in unusual, deep, and useful sources for your family history research.

Not least among these rich resources is our amazing complement of skilled librarians. Whenever you have an odd or challenging question that you can’t easily find the answer to; whenever you wonder if there might be a great resource that would illuminate the story of one of your ancestors’ past perfectly, ask us!

Librarians, I like to say, love questions. We are ready to help you find the right tools and resources for your genealogy research, and we’re happy to show you how to use those tools efficiently and effectively. So ask us the next time you’re at the library, or call or email us anytime.


* I got these numbers from Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Encyclopedia of Casualty and Other Figures, 1494-2007, by Micheal Clodfelter (Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland, c2008). The book has a huge amount of detail about the various casualty figures and other war-related data.


 

Have you heard the news that Spain is expected to relax its citizenship requirements to make it easier for people who can prove they have Sephardic roots to attain Spanish citizenship?

In 2012, Spain passed a law with special provisions for people of Sephardic heritage to become Spanish citizens.  Now the Spanish parliament is considering a new law that would allow people who can prove Sephardic heritage to become dual citizens of Spain, and speed up the process.  This relaxing of citizenship rules is intended as partial reparation for a “historic mistake” -- in 1492, Spanish Jews were given an awful choice by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand: convert to Christianity, or be forcibly expelled from the country within four months.

If you have Sephardic heritage, or think you might, this is a great time to begin to research your family history!  The Sephardic roots booklist below should help you get started -- and it includes several general books about Sephardic history as well.  The library also has lots of books about general Jewish genealogy research.

Perhaps you want more background about Spain’s 2012 citizenship law and the revisions currently being considered?  Here are some basics to get you started:

You may also want to mark your calendar for the upcoming exhibit at the Oregon Jewish Museum: Viva Sephardi: A Century of Sephardic Life in Portland.  The exhibit opens June 11th, 2014.


Do you have more questions about genealogy research?  Are you working on your own family history?  If you'd like specific advice or help with your research challenges, do please Ask the Librarian!


 

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