Vital Records Certificates in New York State -
Understanding How the State Processes Them
Cliff Lamere Oct 2004
New York State has indexes of deaths, marriages and births on microfiche at several locations around the state (Albany,
Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and New York City as of October 2004). The indexes list vital records from the whole state
except New York City.
Each index contains typed information that was originally handwritten. As a result, spellings may not always be perfect, because handwriting is sometimes difficult to read. The indexes begin in 1880 for deaths (almost none that year), and 1881 for marriages and births. The earliest 2-3 years did not have very many entries. At the time, collecting vital records to send to the state was a new requirement of local governments. It apparently took some localities longer than others to get properly organized.
One or more of the indexes uses Soundex at some point, but probably not before 1920. The details I give below are for the non-Soundex parts of the indexes. I am more familiar with those.
DESCRIPTION OF INDEXES
DEATH INDEX (1880-1954) - deaths are kept private for 50 years in New York State
The death index gives the name, date of death, place of death, and state certificate number.
Even by 1909, not all deaths were being reported to the local government (see my
on the subject).
MARRIAGE INDEX (1881-1954) - marriages are kept private for 50 years
The marriage index gives the name, date of marriage of the person, place of marriage of the person, and state certificate number.
The individuals who married are indexed separately under their own surnames. There are so many names for each year that it is not practical to scan all names to find the other person that has the same certificate number. If you already have an inkling as to who it might be, that person's name can be checked to see if the number is the same.
BIRTH INDEX (1881-1929) - births are kept private for 75 years
The birth index gives the name, date of birth, place of birth, and state certificate number.
For the surname that I research (Gardenier, Gordinier, Gaudineer), only about 50% of the pre-1900 births in the index contained the given name of the child. For the entries lacking it, only the sex and surname was listed. Apparently, the information was reported locally before the parents had selected a name, and the certificate was sent to the state without a given name on it. Since the sex of the newborn would not have been know ahead of time, a name for the child may not have been selected prior to the birth. In 1900, midwives were still delivering most of the babies in the state (90%?). Many births went unreported then and later.
I have a copy of a 'delayed birth certificate' issued in 1942 for a person born in 1911. At least one other child in that family had a delayed certificate. Delayed birth certificates are not available to genealogists until 75 years after they were issued, no matter what year the person was born. This is unreasonable in cases where the person was born more than 75 year ago. It would not violate the privacy laws of the state to send the certificates.
In New York State, the price of vital records certificates used for genealogical research is $22 whether obtained from the state or from the local government. The price doubled in August 2003, but I was told in October 2004 that there was no decrease in requests from the state as a result of the price increase.
As of 20 Oct 2004, the waiting time for a certificate from the NYS Dept. of Health is 13 months. There is currently only one permanent employee finding microfilmed certificates and making copies, although they have put on a temporary employee to help out. Repeated requests by the Vital Records section for more employees have been refused for many years. The backlog of applications for certificates recently was as great as 16 months. The waiting time if the certificate is obtained from a local government is about 2-3 weeks. If the state fails to find the certificate, they charge the full fee nevertheless (for the labor). Local offices usually do not keep your money unless they can send you a certificate.
NOT ALL CERTIFICATES ARE EQUAL
What I have said above seems to make it obvious where you would want to order a certificate, however the certificates issued by the two sources are NOT equal. The ones ordered from the state are photocopies of the original certificates. Local governments tend to send out typed versions which leave out some of the information, although they include all of the most important information. Copies of the originals sometimes have signatures of the people providing the information. This is especially true on marriage certificates. And with copies of the originals you get to transcribe the spelling of your ancestor's names instead of leaving it to an office clerk who is unfamiliar with the names.
WHAT TYPE OF SEARCH DOES THE STATE'S VITAL RECORDS SECTION MAKE?
When you send in an application for a birth certificate, the NYS Dept. of Health first searches for the year of birth that you provide. If they donít find the person, they then search the year before and the year after. If those searches fail, then they search the index of delayed certificates (called the Supplemental List) for the single year of birth that you provided. If all of that fails, they charge for their labor by keeping the money that you sent. If the name is found in the Supplemental List, your money is returned. In my case, it was without explanation. If you want more than the normal 3-year search, it is available for an extra fee.
SPELLING OF THE SURNAME (important)
I research the surname Gardenier for the whole state. In various sections of the state, it has become Gord-, Gaud- and Guard-, all with many spelling variations. Census records show a great inconsistency of the spelling that was recorded for a single person. Gard-, Gord-, and Gaud- can all appear for the same person at various times in some counties. Some of the variation is caused when a census enumerator has imprecise handwriting making it impossible to tell an -ar- from an -or- (Gard- versus Gord-). At other times a person was listed as as Gard- in the home of his parents as well as on early censuses as an adult, but then he was consistently Gord- in later years. Some scenarios include a Gaud- spelling for a census or two in southeastern New York.
If I wanted the state to search for all three spellings a person might have used, I would have to send them $66. I was told that Smith and Smythe are different spellings. They only look for the spelling you supply on the application. If you wait 13 months for a certificate and get a report that they couldn't find it, that only means that they didn't find the particular spelling you requested. In my case, I would hope that they would look for Gardenier as well as Gardinier, two of the most common spelling variations, but I'm pretty sure they wouldn't because there would be a large number of Gardiners in between.
Gardenier and Gardinier differ only by having a middle -e- or -i-. In more than half of the censuses that I have viewed, the -e- is not looped or dotted, so you can't tell with certainty which letter it is. The state prepared a typed index from handwritten certificates, some of them as hard to read as censuses. The employee may have done the best that any conscientious person could do. Nevertheless, they could easily end up with a spelling that was different from what the writer intended or your ancestor used. The unfortunate result is that a genealogist might apply for the correct spelling, but the state's index shows a different spelling. Since the state uses their index to find a certificate, they will report a failed search and charge the $22 fee.
The current system of allowing only one surname spelling to be searched is inherently unfair. As proof of the unfairness, I offer the following. In 2003, I ordered over 200 certificates. All were spelled with a variation of Gardenier name in the index, but seven of the certificates actually contained the name Gardiner, an unrelated name (usually). The interesting thing is that the transcriber of those certificates actually added a letter that wasn't on the certificate, changing them from -ner to -nier. You would have paid for that mistake unless you had dealt directly with the director of the Vital Records unit or his assistant (as I did).
Most local offices would be much more liberal in what they would do for you. Many don't even charge for failed searches. Some, especially smaller localities, will tell you over the phone whether they have the person or not. I suspect many of them would look for several spellings of the same surname if you gave them a short list of spellings to search for.
WHERE SHOULD YOU GET YOUR CERTIFICATES?
That is a decision you must make for yourself. If having a copy of the original certificate is not important to you, and if you can determine the local office from which to order the certificate, then you might just as well receive them a year earlier by getting them from the local office (and have much less chance of getting charged for a failed search due to a spelling discrepancy). An advantage of the state's indexes is that you don't have to know the place where the birth, marriage, or death occurred (as long as it was outside of New York City).
It may be difficult for some genealogists to make a decision, but at least you now know enough about the situation to make an informed decision. There is also a third option I should mention since I am trying to make this a fairly complete discussion of the subject.
THE PERFECT SOLUTION FOR SOME GENEALOGISTS
If you go to one of the 5 locations where they have the microfiches, you can search for as many years as you like, and for as many spelling variations as needed. Then, you could send in the application listing the exact spelling (include the certificate number). The usual waiting time applies. However, if this research is done in Albany (at the NYS Archives), you can fill out an application and put it in a special box with a check or money order (no cash). Those applications are hand carried to the Vital Records office in the same city, and are processed in a month or less.
THE IMPERFECT SOLUTION
If you can't get to Albany, for a fee I can do the research for you, fill out the application, and drop it in the box along with your check or money order. I would check several different spellings that are supplied by you, plus any others that I discover as I am browsing. Depending on how much research time is required, the fee for a failed search is usually less. A considerably reduced rate is available for multiple searches done on the same day.
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