Online options when searching for vital records

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Recently, I was asked to do a presentation on Cook County Vital records. For anyone who has relatives in Chicago and the suburbs, this is an essential part of research.

Vital Records are a specific subset of the many types of records available to genealogists. No matter what part of the country or the world you research, vital records are:

  • Birth certificates
  • Marriage Licenses
  • Death certificates

Because they form the backbone of our research, we need them the most.

Before there were web sites, we used to have to order copies of these documents from the Cook County Clerk’s office. At one time, this could only be done in Chicago, and then they opened up branches in suburban county buildings to make it easier for us to go in-person.

We are finding out lately how important the web sites are. Cook County Clerk Karen Yarborough recently passed away. As a result, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle decided that, since we no longer have a clerk, the office will not be processing any requests for copies of vital records until a new clerk has been elected this November and sworn in!

Don’t get me started on the logic behind this decision.

At any rate, we are fortunate to be able to find copies for ourselves so we can continue our research.

We have FamilySearch to find copies of the three vital records, and another site to help. I’ll explain.

FamilySearch has the following years available:

  • Births 1878-1942
  • Marriages 1871-1950 and some 1960s
  • Deaths 1871-1998, missing some images from 1949-1963

For some reason, not all Cook County Deaths are on Familysearch, including some suburbs and some parts of Chicago. There are a lot of deaths 1949-1963 that are in the index but FamilySearch cannot show an image. There might be records that were not where they belonged when FamilySearch went there to microfilm them. So if you search FamilySearch for someone you know who died in Cook County and the record simply doesn’t exist, or you cannot see the image, you can try the Illinois Secretary of State web site, which is free. (The records aren’t free, but the web site is.)

Look for Illinois Statewide Vital Records Databases. They have a marriage database for the entire state but it goes back too far unless you have family in other counties that were not ravaged by the Chicago Fire of 1871. Cook County marriages on this database go only as recently as 1901. FamilySearch has 1871-1901 complete so you should never need the state index for Cook County.

If you search Familysearch for a death that you know for sure and the person is not there, try to find out if the person died in Cook County. They could have been over the county line and died in, for example, Elmhurst in DuPage. FamilySearch does not have a statewide death index for Illinois, or other counties in particular. They have some very old death records from other Illinois counties but not more recent. I found quite a few who died in collar counties using the ILSOS databases. There are two separate databases for deaths. One covers 1871-1915 and the other 1916-1971. The 1951-1971 is a relatively new addition. I hope they add more dates soon.

But the good news is that if someone died outside Cook County, even if they lived in Cook, you can at least find them here. Once you know which county and the death certificate number from the database, you can either contact that county and order that death certificate, or you can order from the state. Check the prices. Sometimes the state is cheaper than the county (DuPage is $17) and sometimes the county is cheaper (Lake County is $4).

Unfortunately, the Illinois Secretary of State site does not have images for us to view or download or print. We can only look up records and send for copies. But if you need a Cook County record that you only find on ILSOS, you can send to the state for a copy.

Searching this site is not as friendly or varied as FamilySearch. You cannot search by parents or spouse to narrow down your “Vito Russo” to the correct uncle. You cannot use wild cards (? *) that I have taught you about in so many columns. You need to type the beginning of the last name, the beginning of the first name, just to get a variety of spellings. For example, you may have to search for “RIL” to find many “Riley”s and other spellings.

Here is what the results would look like:

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So at least you have the name, death date, location and certificate number.

If you search FamilySearch and find the correct record, but you cannot see the image, remember that you must be at a FamilySearch Center or Affiliate Library. If you still cannot see the image, but the data is on the screen, you can still record everything on that screen, including the certificate number if it is there, and use that to order your copy from the Illinois Department of Public Health at the web site above.

Happy Hunting!!

About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.

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