Genealogy: Searching Arizona Vital Records

Chris Seggerman from the State Library of Arizona, Genealogy section discusses how to search Arizona Vital Records.

Researchers who study family history in Arizona have access to a powerful tool: the website of the Department of Vital Records, which gives access to copies of death records fifty years or over, and birth records seventy-five years or older. The website is located at http://genealogy.az.gov/. Probably not a week goes by where I do not use this website myself, or direct researchers to it. The website sorts births and deaths in a variety of ways researchers can tailor to their own needs, though a few facts and tricks can make their research even more successful.

Early records

Remember, Arizona did not start recording births and deaths at a statewide level until 1909. The earliest date this database shows is 1855. Sometimes people ask me about that date, so I ask researchers to unclick the little box that says “Search Public Death Certificates” so that you only search birth certificates, and look for birth certificates from 1855 to 1855. You will notice doing this gives you about 65 people—at least that’s what it gave me when I searched. You will notice a lot of blank spaces in the spot under birth date.

The blank spaces happen because the person indexing the certificate for the database did not feel comfortable putting a specific date into the index—is the last number a 5 or a 6?—so they put a blank space and moved on. If you look on the certificate itself and think you know the date, you can contact the website’s administrator via the contact link below so they can update the information.

But specifically for 1855, aside from those blank spaces, only one certificate shows up with the actual year of 1855 listed, for Filomeno (Philomeno) Galvez. If you click on that certificate, you will find it is not an actual birth certificate, but two documents swearing to when Filomeno Galvez was born.

You can look in whatever year you think your ancestor was born in, but in general I consider finding documents from before 1909 a hit-and-miss proposition. Even after 1909 it took some counties awhile to really record births, and if the birth happened in a rural area, it may not have been recorded. With that in mind, that still gives a large swath of information from 1909 up until 50 years for deaths and 75 years for births to look through.

How do you go about doing it?

Searching from 1909 +

If you are only searching for a death certificate, uncheck the box that says “Search Public Birth Certificates”. If you are only searching for a birth certificate, uncheck the box that says “Search Public Death Certificates”. If you don’t find anything of interest with either of those boxes deselected, try searching for your surname with both checked. You may be looking for a death and not a birth, but a birth certificate will sometimes lead you to siblings or cousins and the certificate should tell you where they were living—the same thing works for death certificates.

I usually begin my search as specifically as possible, with the spelling, and county a patron provides, for example John Smith who died in Apache County. I usually don’t put the year unless I get back several pages of results or I know the year—and you may not know the year. If you don’t want to sift through hundreds of names, you want a search that is wide in some ways but very narrow in others—what Douglas Adams referred to as “rigid areas of doubt and uncertainty”.

Here’s what I do.

If I find nothing, I will search with the given name removed, using only the surname and maybe a date. If I find nothing that way, I will sometimes use the given name and a date and not the surname, especially if I think the surname may be misspelled. If you think it’s misspelled, you can also try searching by soundex—the index gives you that option. After that I try expanding the search outside a particular county. I try to make my list only be about 50-100 people. Sometimes you have to go through page after page of people to find something, but narrowing the odds will save you time and effort. You want to narrow those odds in logical ways.

 

SORTING BY DATE

If a person should be on the index, but does not seem to be there, I sort it by date instead of name. If I know they died in 1934, I tell the index to search from 1934-1934. The database allows you to sort it by date. In this case if you click on the “Died” tab it will sort them by date starting January 1. Clicking on it again will reverse the order of sorting, starting with December and working back to January. I have mentioned before that this index lists people with blank spaces where the birth and death information should be, and it puts the blank slots first, here, too.

If you scroll down, however, you should soon see deaths beginning January 1 of 1934. At the bottom of the page it should tell you which page you were on—1 of 452, for example, or 2 if there were a lot of blank spaces. You can go to page 225 and see if that takes you into June, then use the “Previous Page” and “Next Page” arrows at the bottom of the screen to get close to the exact date. If you know the month you’re looking for but not the day, you can also look at all the days in a month this way.

There’s no telling how many births happen in a particular day—some days in some years in Arizona just had more births. Sociologists might have fun with this data but that does not help you until you get near to the date you want.

As you get near to the date you’re looking, look a day before and after. If the information you have is especially vague, such as family oral tradition, you may find the date to be slightly off. It is possible that even the tombstone date is incorrect: Remember, information is only so accurate as whoever supplies it, and memory can be inaccurate.

Be aware of spelling variations. Arizona vital records are slightly better than census records for Hispanic or Native American surnames, but the usual substitutions happen, such as S for Z and sometimes B for V. If you find something that looks close, but does not exactly match your person, also look at the parents, and see if they match information you have.

 

BONUS DATA

Sometimes a surname-only search will not find your particular ancestor, but someone related to them, such as a brother or sister. Once I found a sister of the ancestor I was looking for, but it only said “Baby Girl” and the surname. Documents attached to the certificate said that “Baby Girl” had taken extra steps to prove this was her birth certificate, using records from the church she was baptized at. I advised the people looking for her sister to inquire at that church for the ancestor they could not find in the database.

Sometimes if you search by surname only, you can find things about your ancestor you did not know, such as a previous marriage, a child they had that did not live long, so was not considered part of the family. Sometimes searching only for surnames can help in researching an unfamiliar family that lived in Arizona: You can see how many people had that surname and where they lived. I have used this method to try and find out about Arizona landowners in the earlier part of the 20th century, combining this research with census and land ownership research.

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