People for Better Pennsylvania Historical Records Access  (PaHR-Access)

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This webpage is has some helpful and interesting information about genealogical research and this cause.




Pennsylvania County Birth and Death Records 1893 to 19??

All Pennsylvania counties recorded births and deaths starting in 1893. Most of the counties stopped recording deaths after 1905 when the Pennsylvania Department of Health started a  statewide system of recording births and deaths (the same restricted system we have been trying to change). Quite a few counties didn't stop until sometime in 1906, 1907 or 1908. However, a handful continue to record births and deaths well after 1905. Greene, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties recorded births and deaths up to 1915. Perry County do so up to 1918 for births and 1919 for deaths. Amazingly Northampton County recorded deaths up to 1936. At least two municipalities also recorded births and deaths after 1905: Blacklick Township, Cambria County up to 1923 for births and 1921 for deaths; and Orwigsburg, Schuylkill County recorded both up to 1943. Undoubtedly there were probably many more municipalities that did the same. The result is that anyone who was born or died after 1905 may have had their birth or death, not only recorded with the state, but also in a county and/or municipal registry as well.


For births, basically the data included were name, location, residence, date, parents' names and father's occupation. For deaths, basically the data included were name, age, marital status, place of birth, occupation, date, place and cause of death, place and date of internment, and parents' names if a minor.  The biggest difference between a county death record and state death certificate is the state death certificate would include the date of birth and the parents' names (including the mother's maiden name) for all persons. While all births and deaths were required by law to be reported to the PA Dept of Health as of January 1st, 1906 county birth and death registries basically consist only of those births and deaths reported to the counties by physicians and possibly midwives.


The county and municipal birth and death  records have always been open records and available to the general public. There has been no concerns about privacy or revealing the cause of death for these records.


A chart showing what county/municipal birth and death records are available, who holds them and if they have been copied or data extracted is available through a link under the Vital Records Currently Available Online section of our website (the fourth Pennsylvania listing). Extracted data and indexes for some Pennsylvania county birth and death records are available online. Go to the same section for links to these databases.


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From the politician's viewpoint & The Squeaky wheel

Perhaps having a better understanding of the political process will explain why we have asked for as many letters, emails, etc. as possible to be sent to Pennsylvania state legislators and Governor. Some people seem to have the impression that, once a legislator or governor knows about a cause and learns what issues are involved, they either are or are not interested in favoring the cause and will or will not do something. Also that somehow they should automatically know this is a worthy cause with widespread support. Otherwise, some believe, there isn't much point in anyone else also writing to them since they already know about it.


On a regular basis most of these politicians are constantly bombarded by colleagues, constituents and others who want help with this or that issue. As one Pennsylvania state legislator said without exaggeration there are probably 10,000 pitched to them each year. Of these over 2,000 are introduced as bills  each year in the Pennsylvania Legislature (known as the General Assembly). Imagine yourself trying to figure out each work day which ones of an average of 8 bills and 40 causes and ideas are worthy and important.


Since politicians, just like anyone else, are not mind-readers and most causes like this one are not asked in a Gallup poll the only way the politicians have to know that this or any other cause has widespread support is by having as many people and organizations as possible speak up. Otherwise, just like anyone else, the politicians can only assume there isn't wide spread support and that this cause, especially an issue they may not know much about, isn't a worthy and important cause to all that many people.


That's not to say the politicians will do something anyway. As a state legislator put it "It really is about the squeaky wheel".  With so many bills, ideas, issues and interests vying for attention the only way for our cause, any cause, to be seen as important is to make sure it is heard as loudly and often as possible. This is best accomplished by a grassroots effort of having as many people as possible join the chorus. That's how Pennsylvania's new Puppy Mill Law and Open Records Law were passed. It is how we got Pennsylvania's vital records law changed. The state legislators and the Governor were bombarded with letters, faxes, emails, phone calls and personal visits over and over and over again. It certainly wasn't accomplished by wishful thinking alone or by those who did nothing.


Politicians generally don't compile lists of who has already sent them messages, letters, signed a petition, etc. For the most part they look at how many they receive. So there is no reason why everyone who wants to cannot send more than one, if not many, emails, letters, etc. Besides it lets Governor Corbett know you are serious about this cause.


The bottom line is if you don't consider this cause or for that matter any cause important enough to do something why should the politicians? In other words the more serious we are about wanting this the more serious they will be in doing something.


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helping the entire genealogical community

For some researchers who do not have much of a Pennsylvania genealogical connection or if they do the people they are interested in left Pennsylvania before the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania started to record deaths in 1906 this cause wouldnít seem important to them. After all it wouldnít help them in their research. But perhaps they should consider the indirect impact this sort of effort could have on their research.


The Next State: As each state makes its vital records available online the easier it should be to get the next state to do the same. The fact that several other states have already done so greatly helps our argument for Pennsylvania to do it as well. The more people in the genealogical community speak up and the more attention they bring to genealogical issues in general the more access and preservation of historical records will be considered by those who control the records. Not speaking up allows those who donít care to decide what records we can have access to and to what degree historical records are preserved.


Unexpected Sources: You cannot always be sure where you might find the record of the person you are looking for. Two examples illustrate what we are talking about. In accumulating data on all the descendents of a common ancestor one researcher found a record where he didnít expect it. One relative he found in the Ohio death certificate database was born in Oklahoma and moved with his parents to Washington State. The researcher has no idea how this relative ended up dead in Ohio. Another researcher had considerable trouble trying to find the death certificate of her great-grandfather. He was born in Pennsylvania. He lived in Pennsylvania and he is buried in Pennsylvania. Logic says he would have died in Pennsylvania and therefore he would have a Pennsylvania death certificate. It was only after spending a fair amount of money for extended searches did she learn he had died in Texas in an accident and therefore had a Texas death certificate.


Parallel Research: Another impact would be in the use of what is known as Parallel Research. When you are stuck at a roadblock and cannot trace further back rather than concentrate solely on your direct ancestor try finding something on their siblings when they are known. One researcherís ancestor died in 1883 long before Pennsylvania started recording deaths. He couldnít determine who her parents were, but he knew who her siblings were by her obituary. It turns out this ancestorís sister died in 1916 and her death certificate provided the names of the parents including the motherís maiden name. The parents were born in the 1780ís. So even though Pennsylvania didnít start to record death certificates until 1906 the information that can be found on them can reach back much further than you might think as well as across the country. You might find that the death certificate of a sibling in a state other than the one your ancestor died in has the very information you are looking for.


Sometimes roadblocks (brick walls) should be seen as detours rather than dead ends.


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The difference death certificate databases can have in doing research

To illustrate the difference online death certificate databases can make in doing research (especially when you can search by the parents' names), in ways that are not always practical or even possible otherwise, we refer to the following examples.


One researcher was trying to find information on her ancestor William Hosey who according to his Ohio death certificate and the census records was born in Indiana in 1832. Also according to his death certificate his parents were Andrew Hosey and Mary nee Hutton.


However, in checking the Ohio Death Certificate database for these same parents (the link can be found through the main page of this website) the death certificate for another child of Andrew and Mary was found, that of Kate, wife of William H. Dorworth. It indicated that not only was Kate born in Rhimersburg (Rimersburg), Pennsylvania in 1849 but that Andrew was also born in Rhimersburg. Sure enough when the census for 1850 was checked for Rimersburg it listed Andrew and Mary Hosey with a son William and a daughter Catherine both of the right age.


The above example also shows how important finding more than one death certificate can be when tracing back especially when the information on your ancestor's death certificate may be incorrect or incomplete. Here is another.


Another researcher was trying to determine where in Ireland her immigrant ancestor William Koyle (who lived in Missouri) was from. She also didn't know where in Maryland William's wife Mary was born or her maiden name. In checking the Missouri death certificate database  (the link can be found through the main page of this website) for the known children of William and Mary the death certificates of two of their sons were found. Both indicated Mary's maiden name was McDonald. One death certificate indicated William was born in Ireland and Mary in Maryland (as was already known). However, the other indicated William was born Belrash, Ireland and Mary was born in Baltimore, Maryland.


As any experienced researcher can tell you the information found in records and even that etched in stone is not always correct. However, greater access to more records, as in the case of online death certificate databases, can help you go in the right direction.


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How Death Certificate Databases may help others outside of the genealogical community

In addition to stopping identity theft of deceased persons and assisting people in learning more about their family medical histories, having Pennsylvania's state death certificates online could benefit a number of people and organizations that have little or no interest in genealogy or family history.


Funeral Directors and Cemeteries: Many cemeteries and sometimes even funeral directors have incomplete or missing records. Since most death certificates indicate where the person was buried and who handled the burial, funeral directors and cemeteries could use the proposed database to update their records when needed and to facilitate responses to persons requesting information regarding burials.


Most funeral directors and cemeteries have probably been contacted by a number of people who are trying to find out when someone died or where the person is buried.  Since requesters rarely have the death certificate information and are sometimes trying to discover this information in order to obtain a death certificate it often becomes a fishing expedition to determine which funeral director handled the burial or which cemetery the person is buried in. The result is a number of these requests are misdirected and waste the time of the funeral directors and cemeteries that were not involved in the burial. At least if after having this data online when a cemetery or funeral home is contacted it will more likely be because they did actually handle the burial. 


Cemetery and Graveyard Lists: For various reasons many organizations and individuals have compiled lists of tombstone inscriptions.  It goes without saying that many grave markers are difficult or even impossible to read. Often it is only possible to make out part of the inscription.  Also, in most cemeteries, a significant number of persons buried there have no grave marker. For example, even in modern cemeteries, it is not uncommon to find plots of entire families with markers for only one or two individuals. 


The proposed database would make it possible for compilers to easily check death certificates for the missing information on the grave marker. Also, if there are no burial records for the cemetery, or the existing list is incomplete, compilers would be able to determine the names and dates of individuals buried there without grave markers.


Historic Figures and Disasters: Many veteran organizations, scholars, historians and historical societies could take advantage of greater access to Pennsylvania's vital records to allow them to find more information on the specific veterans or historic figures they are interested in, particularly when the information they have is incomplete.  Perhaps they are missing the date of death, don't know the burial place or are not sure when the person was born, parents' names, etc. This is especially true of people and groups who are trying to find information on veterans from the Civil War to the present.


In other cases scholars and historians are researching a particular disaster such as in a flood, fire or mine. One example might be a historian researching the 1908 Rhoads Opera House Fire in Boyertown, PA, in which 171 people, including entire families, perished. Having access to the death certificates at that time would allow the historian to find information on each and every person who died in the disaster that cannot be found elsewhere.


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the Irish connection

We have heard from people from not only from throughout Pennsylvania and the United States but many other countries including a number in Canada with Pennsylvania ancestors. Others we have heard from are Americans who are living aboard in Mexico, Costa Rica, France and England. Interestingly we have also heard from people in England, Scotland, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia who are trying to find the American descendents of a common ancestor. The following is an article written for us by Brendan Tormey of Ireland. No doubt there are similar stories for other countries where they want to know what happen to many of the emigrants from their country, especially where the records of them in their native land are missing or incomplete.


As genealogists and family historians, we, along with many others, rely on a variety of source documents to reconstruct family trees.  One of the documents of particular importance in this research is death certificates. The information contained in death certificates such as the names of the parents of the deceased person is invaluable and often cannot be found anywhere else. It is also useful in documenting family health history and what to look out for in health matters. For instance eyesight seems to be a problem in our particular family.


In Ireland the Public Record Office was opened in 1867 and from then until around 1922, the Office was the centre for the collection and cataloguing of national records. Unfortunately, this building suffered devastating fire damage during the Civil War in 1922 and many records were destroyed, in particular the nineteenth century census returns, Church of Ireland parish records and the enormous collection of original wills.


A lot of people from Ireland went to the States and we think that their lives and work should be remembered here in their homeland. Some of these were our relatives and about whom we would never have known except for information held in the records to be found in the country they migrated to.


With so many emigrants and their descendents it would become quite expensive to obtain the various vital records that exist on them in the United States. Obtaining the information through other means, assuming it could be done, would be equally quite expensive. Also many people, like ourselves cannot travel such long distances to view the records, so for all practical purposes the internet is the only tool for us.


We in Ireland appreciate very much accessibility to these as we have a gap in our own sources due to fire damage in 1922 in which a lot of invaluable data was destroyed. We cannot emphasise enough the importance of having greater access to these historical documents.


We believe that their use for illegal purposes can be easily curtailed. It is not outside our intellect to devise methods to do this.


From all in Ireland


Brendan Tormey

Sonya Tormey-Brierton

Patricia Tormey-McCarthy


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M. L. Mencken's Treatise on Given Names and Surnames

In 1919 H. L. Mencken wrote a fabulous book titled The American Language (An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States). It is an excellent study of the English language as used by the American People. Chapter 10 is a wonderful treatise on given names and surnames. Some of the wording is dated and may not be considered politically correct by today's standards. Nevertheless, amateur and professional genealogists may find it very helpful in understanding how some names were created, evolved, and changed especially among certain ethnic groups after they arrived in the United States. For those stuck at a brick wall because of spelling it might even be considered required reading. The other sections of this chapter on Proper Names is also compelling.


H. L. Mencken's The American Language - Chapter X: Surnames


H. L. Mencken's The American Language - Chapter X: Given Names


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Humorous Genealogy quotes

"Only a Genealogist regards a step backwards as progress".


"If you are having trouble finding your relatives just win the lottery"


"Why waste your money looking up your family tree? Just go into politics and your opponents will do it for you!" -- Mark Twain

For more genealogy humor go to:


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an interesting quote

Stephen P. H. Frakes of Salem, Illinois sent us this interesting quote by the 18th century English notable Edmund Burke:


"Those who do not treasure up the memory of their ancestors do not deserve to be remembered by posterity"


In other words the best way for you to be remembered in the future is to remember those in the past. If you don't consider it important to remember your ancestors neither will your descendents.


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Tim Gruber



Tim Gruber


We would enjoy hearing from you



(updated January 1st, 2013)