Monday, December 21, 2009

Madness Monday: The Death Certificate of James W. BARBER

Way back in January, I wrote the post "Who Are Our Brickwall Ancestors, and Why Aren't We Blogging About Them Regularly?"  I decided to write about one brickwall ancestor per month. I started off with my first brickwall post on my 2nd-great-grandmother, Berber J. "Barbara" (DeJONG) VALK. But when it came time to write about the next one on my list (I'm writing about them in ahnentafel order), I realized my information about James W. BARBER wasn't very organized and I had a lot of loose ends. Throw in a major computer crash that wasn't repaired until four months later, a return to a busy school year, and a state genealogical conference, and I simply got nowhere. I realized the answer to my question: we aren't blogging about our brickwall ancestors, because we aren't organized, and we don't have/aren't taking the time to analyze the information we do have!

I've mentioned recently that I purchased a subscription to Michael John Neill's Casefile Clues, and like many of his subscribers, I've been inspired to reexamine my information to see if I can break down my brickwalls. James W. BARBER, my 3rd-great-grandfather, is one of my most frustrating brickwalls. He has a rather common name, and thus far, I've not been able to find names of parents or siblings for him. I first discover him in 1871 in Canada, married to his wife, Elizabeth COLE, with the first four of their eventual 10 children. I know he was born in England and was a Baptist, a laborer, and apparently never owned land. Rather than list all the information I have on James W. BARBER in one post, I decided to highlight each document I have, working backward in history. I have three death-related records: a death certificate, an obituary, and a tombstone photo with sketchy burial information. I am highlighting James's death certificate first.

Michigan Department of State, death certificate no. 6 (1912), James Barber [indexed as Barbor]; digital image, State of Michigan, Seeking Michigan ( : 2009).

(click on above image to enlarge)

When I first downloaded this death certificate from the Seeking Michigan website, I was not disappointed to see that there were no parents listed for James because a step-descendant of his had already looked up his death record in the Genesee County Death Records and discovered this information a few years prior. However, the death certificate has more details than the death record, such as informant's name and address, the attending physician's name, the duration of the contributing cause of death, the undertaker's name, and burial date and location. When I first looked at this certificate, the only "new" thing that hit me was a burial date, since again, the step-cousin had found James's grave in Mount Morris Cemetery. What forced me to reexamine this document again were two things: entering all the pertinent data, line by line, into my RootsMagic software (with everything cited according to Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills), and preparing to write this post.

Something I already knew that bears mentioning is that the James's birth year and age are very likely incorrect on this document. Most of the documents I have found during his lifetime point to a birth year of 1841, and the 1900 U.S. Federal Census does confirm he was born in the month of July. So who gave out this incorrect information? Alex BARBER, the informant, was the youngest child of James and his wife, Elizabeth COLE. I find it surprising that he was the informant for several reasons: he didn't live in the community where James died; there were several other siblings who lived closer to the community where James died; and I have found through my genealogical experience that usually the spouse or one of the oldest children is normally the informant. Since Alexander was the youngest of nine surviving children, and one of the ones that lived furthest away from his father's place of death, I find it unusual that he was the informant. In my mind, it also explains the incorrect birth year and age listed for James.As a youngest child, he may not have been as familiar with the family information or known other older relatives that would have fixed a timeline of birth order and years into his mind the way the older children may have. Of course, this is merely conjecture, but it does provide a possibility as to the reason the birth information is incorrect.

Upon reanalyzing this document, I saw that the cause of James's death (injuries to the spine resulting from a fall from a building) had presented itself three years prior. That means when the 1910 U.S. Federal Census had been taken, he was disabled or in the process of being disabled, although a quick peek of that record gives no hint of this. It does help explain why he was enumerated in Montrose Township in 1910, but died in Mount Morris Township in 1912. Likely, he was being cared for by his eldest child, Lavinia, who is the only child in the obituary who is listed living in this location. It is also interesting that no residential information is listed on this death certificate. It would seem, too, that such an accident would perhaps warrant a newspaper article, so one idea is to try to find an account of this in a local paper to see if it yields further clues to other family relationships.

Next, I looked at the name of the attending physician. At first I thought it was P. H. CALLOW, but when running the surname through the search engine at Ancestry's 1910 U.S. Federal Census, I discovered it was actually F. H. CALLOW. Dr. Francis H. CALLOW and his wife Sarah E, lived in Montrose Village in Genesee Township in 1910; Dr. CALLOW had been born in England, just like James. Coincidence? Possibly. Did James and/or his wife Elizabeth seek out Dr. CALLOW because they preferred another expatriate to attend him? Did their families know each other in England? Or was it merely coincidence? It might be worth it to trace Dr. CALLOW's roots to see if they parallel the BARBER family's.

The next name I looked at was the undertaker's. I'm still stumped. It appears to be M. C. D'.... or DU...?  The next letter could be an "f", a "p", or an "r". I ran two searches at Ancestry: one for a keyword of "undertaker" in the 1910 U.S. Federal Census for Genesee County, Michigan, which yielded no results; and one for all listings in Mount Morris Township in Genesee County, Michigan, which yielded 1,131 results. I then ran through the list of results until I came to surnames beginning with D, and forenames beginning with M or C and found nothing that looked close to this surname. Despairing of having to expand my search to all of Genesee County, I looked at James's wife Elizabeth's death certificate to see if it yielded the same undertaker. It didn't; hers was from Lansing and appears to be T. R. PALIWA. So regretfully, I expanded my search to all of Genesee County, yielding 64,631 results and ran through the extremely long list until I came to the surnames beginning with D. I looked at 58 pages of  indexed D surnames with no luck. Perhaps one of my readers can figure out this surname! My hope is to locate the funeral home and see if there are more records on James located there. [Update: Read the comments to see how a reader helped successfully decipher the undertaker's name, and stay tuned for more information on where this clue led!]

So this death certificate has yielded three research possibilites: a newspaper article regarding James's fall; tracing Dr. CALLOW's roots to find a possible connection; and attempting to decipher the undertaker's name in order to trace funeral home records.

Next time, I'll highlight James's obituary.

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PalmsRV said...

Hi Miriam,

Since I'm interested in all things Genesee Co., MI, I tried to find your undertaker. In 1910, Mt. Morris, Genesee Twp, Genesee Co., MI, there was a ???Furcey, Mark, age 42, divorced who was an undertaker (as indexed by HeritageQuest). The marriage record of Marshall Field LaFurgey of Mt. Morris, listed him as an undertaker (;givenName=marshall;placeId=1;surname=lafurgey;searchType=standard;eventPlace=United%20States). My guess is that Mark & Marsh are the same person.


Miriam Robbins said...

Thank you, thank you, Cathy! Whatever would I do without my helpful readers?!

Janet Iles said...


I am thinking that the undertaker's last name begins with an L. and Cathy's suggestion of LaFurgey is a strong possibility.

I looked at other records in different years to see if the clerk had better handwritting. I did a screen print so I could take a look at several of them.

Is there a directory for this time period that could also be checked?

Thanks for the heads up on the Seeking Michigan site

Miriam Robbins said...

Hi, Janet,

I agree with you that Cathy's suggestion is correct.

As far as directories go, I've already checked with Ancestry. There are none for Montrose or Mount Morris Townships. Flint City Directories most likely would have had county information at the back of the directories, but Ancestry only has 1885 - 1899 and 1936 - 1939, 1941 - 1942, and 1945 for that area. This is one of the reasons I'll be focusing on Michigan directories soon on my Online Historical Directory Site - purely selfish, so I can work on some of my brickwall ancestors!

PalmsRV said...

Glad I could help, Miriam. I'll be watching for your city directory updates, too.


Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

An excellent example of the usefulness of the death record. My wife and I have had similar experiences... good new info, but always more questions to research.

Thanks for sharing. Hope some of our new researchers are lurking and learning!!

Keep those ancestor stories coming!

Bill ;-)
Author of "13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories"

Miriam Robbins said...

Bill, your comment of "always more questions to research" reminds me of pursuing a "reasonably exhaustive search" (step one of the Genealogical Proof Standard).

As with any teaching, I am learning as much or more as my students/readers! :-)

Thanks, as always, for dropping by.

Holly said...

Hi Miriam

Your post has made me realize I should get back in the game and post about more of my brickwalls (I have several). I got a bit 'stagnate' in the thought process of what to after the holiday! Thanks for sequence idea to keep it in a more organized fashion.

Miriam Robbins said...

Thanks for stopping by, Holly!