Over the next few months, I’ll go over the best ideas for finding your ancestors in pre-1900 Rhode Island, and learning their stories. This is a series of posts combining some things I’ve figured out, some resources I’ve mentioned, and maybe some advice along the way. If you’re starting out on the hunt for your Rhode Island ancestors, this will help you.
If your genealogy journey hasn’t started at all yet, be sure to consult other sources for a more complete introduction to genealogy while you pursue these tips. I’ve heard good things about How To Do Everything Genealogy, 3rd edition by George G. Morgan (2015). Two other books that helped me when I was newer to genealogy are The Family Tree Problem Solver: Tried-and-True Tactics for Tracing Elusive Ancestors by Marsha Hoffman Rising (2011) and The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 3rd Edition by Val D. Greenwood (2013). I also have a beginner’s post here, 10 Steps for Starting Your Family History.
I also encourage you to be guided by the following two excellent articles:
- Bamberg, Cherry Fletcher. “RI Genealogy FAQ.” Rhode Island Genealogical Society website. http://www.rigensoc.org/cpage.php?pt=24 : 2015.
- Taylor, Maureen A. “Genealogical Research in Rhode Island.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 88 (March 2000): Image copy. http://www.ngsgenealogy.org/cs/ngsq_archives [see vol. 88]. Access limited to NGS members.
WEEK 1: Vital Records
I often think vital records are NOT the most valuable records out there. And here’s why: they are too short. They don’t tell you enough. We need records of birth, marriage, and death, but it is too easy to find names that match what we know, see no other records that could be right, and instantly conclude that we have found the right record. Eek.
A more experienced genealogist would reach the following conclusions:
- that record is a great clue, to be compared eventually with all other information that can be found. And so they keep looking.
- the event they are seeking a record of may, instead, have occurred in another place.
- SO MANY vital records were not created in Rhode Island (a birth never registered, for instance) or were created in a manner that we cannot find now (a church marriage record that was lost, for instance) that the ABSENCE of records proves nothing; it does not prove that the one record found belongs to our ancestor. (see, for instance, James Arnold’s introduction to volume 1 of his Vital Record of Rhode Island for his estimates of recorded events).
- in any town, there are OFTEN men and women with the same name and similar age, sometimes cousins, as brothers sometimes each named a baby after their own father or mother. It would not be rare to find a record that applied to a different person altogether than the one we are seeking.
At the very least, you want to be sure you find all existing vital records. And that cannot entirely be done online.
Pre-1850 vital records
QUICK FACT #1 If an event happened before 1636, it did not happen among the English settlers of Rhode Island. Once settlements started, local law called for vital events to be recorded in the town in which they happened (see, for instance, Records of the Colony of Rhode Island, vol. 1, p. 187, the law on “Marriages”). That practice is still in place.
QUICK FACT #2 Current Rhode Island law restricts access to birth and marriage records that are less than 100 years old, and to death records less than 50 years old, to those who can prove a very limited set of relationships with the principal person on the record. This must be enforced in every government site that provides access to records. Even given the limits on the records you can see, occasionally, your ID as a genealogy society member may also be requested by a town hall before you can see even the older records.
Some commonly used sources:
- James Newell Arnold published what I might call abstracts of the town vital records, and also various church, newspaper, and military-based vital records, as Vital Record of Rhode Island, volumes 1-21 plus a volume for Rehoboth, Mass. For marriages, he printed more information (if available) under the groom’s entry; the bride’s entry should be used to find the groom’s entry. Each volume has a single index up front for quick checking. IF YOU FIND AN ENTRY of interest, make every effort to check the original book in the town clerk’s office, or on microfilm from the Family History Library. Arnold’s records are also on Ancestry.com.
- Alden G. Beaman published some further work on vital records, providing coverage in Newport, Washington, and Kent Counties only. His Rhode Island Vital Records, New Series. Volumes 1 – 13 were often gleaned from other record types – for instance, gathering death records by looking in cemeteries, or gathering the births of children by reading later probate records for the parents. Such work is ambitious and valuable, but it’s possible he made assumptions – always use such work as an index, and check out the real record for yourself. The books are under copyright, so not available online, and no longer for sale as far as I know. Look in libraries.
- Clarence A. Torrey spent years in the early 1900’s compiling a bibliography of marriage records gleaned from the many resources at the New England Historic Genealogical Society Library at that time. I like this edition of his work: New England Marriages Prior to 1700, vol. 1 – 3 (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2011). It is found in many libraries. Look up your entry and note the abbreviated sources. Then consult his long list of reference books to see what books or articles he is pointing you to for that couple. Consult those books. Although this is not a task you can start at home, unless you own the Torrey books, you CAN sometimes find the books and articles he is pointing to online, in Google Books or Internet Archive, because they may be pre-1923 and no longer hold copyright.
- You will find that Ancestry.com, Familysearch.org, NEHGS (at americanancestors.org, a members’ site) and other sites have some abstracted birth, marriage and death records. In other words, they offer few pictures of the page the record was copied from. These abstracted records may be missing important information or clues that might be gleaned from the original page.
- MOST Rhode Island town hall vital record books have been microfilmed and are available on film at the R.I. State Archives. They are also available through rental from a local Family History Library. Check the CATALOG in FamilySearch.org.
Records from 1851 through the legal cutoff for access (1916 for birth & marriage; 1966 for deaths)
While these records were recorded in the towns, the intention was that the town clerk would provide a full copy to the state for their records. This worked well, or, occasionally, didn’t work well. But for records after 1851 up to the legal cutoff (or perhaps not quite up to the cutoff), you can ask for the state copy at the state archives. There is an index, and most of the records are available, by town, on microfilm.
Try this growing set of imaged and indexed records at Familysearch.org.
But there is more – I recently I learned that some of the Rhode Island pages are turning up, unindexed, on FamilySearch.org. So these don’t come up in a search; you must seek out the record set and page through it. It’s a lot like using a roll of microfilm, which is essentially what the images are. Christopher C. Child of NEHGS recently wrote a helpful blog post about this, “Browse the Images Online.” He discussed the difficulties in discerning whether images were available for certain FamilySearch record sets. I was familiar with that problem. But one example he used was from some Providence death records. It was a wake up call to me, as I realized that although I had been anxiously awaiting more image files on FamilySearch.org, I hadn’t been checking all that much.
Some collections with images on FamilySearch.org
It is not trivial to look for these collections, so here is what I have found so far. Remember, ONLY a listing with a TINY CAMERA next to it will have images available. Most others are either library books or microfilm rolls. You can always order the microfilm. What a hodge podge these listings, below, are, but it’s exciting to have this much available.
Remember, vital records were only recorded in Rhode Island’s (now 39) towns and cities. FamilySearch lists many villages, because perhaps there’s a book about them. But those villages will never have vital records. The list below are the images I found in March, 2016 (some towns have none). Leave a comment if you find more.
- Marriage index: book 1A (1846-1900) ; book 1 (1766-1881) ; birth index: book 1 (1766-1881)
- Death index: book 1 (1766-1881) ; book 1A (1854-1900)
- Birth index: book 1A, A – P (cont.), 1852-1897
- Death certificates 1901- 1915 ; birth certificates 1901-1903
- Births, marriages 1807-1882 (item 2 : includes family records from 1747) Births 1855-1900 (item 3) Marriages 1851-1900 (item 4) Deaths 1855-1900 (item 2)
- Index to marriages 1850-1889
- Index to deaths 1850-1948, Deaths Vol. 3 1850-1886
- Marriages Vol. 3 1850-1889
Intentions and returns of marriage, 1896-1897
- Births, marriages, deaths 1702-1870
- Births, marriages, deaths 1830-1900
- Birth records: Jan 1891 – Jun 1900
- Birth records: Jun 1900 – Dec 1906
- Birth records: Jan 1907 – Jun 1910
- Death records: v. 6 1906-1913 ; v. 7A 1913-1915 ; v. 7 1914-1915 Items 1 – 3 on film
- Item 1 : town meetings, births 1722-1817 marriages 1722-1828 deaths 1756-1853 Item 2 : births 1782-1848 Item 3 : births (few in 1818) 1851-1868 Items 1 – 3 on film
- Index to births and deaths for books (volumes) 1 & 2, 1722-1849 Item 2 on film
- Births 1851-1868 (includes some births which took place in 1818) Item 3 on film
- Births 1869-1890 (includes index in front) Item 1 on film
- Deaths 1850-1877 Item 1-2 on film
- Births, v. 4 1853-1901
- Births, marriages, deaths vol. 1-3 1707-1865
Exeter death records and index: 1903-1915
Glocester births, marriages, deaths (1726-1815) and deaths (1902-1915)
- Hurray for Hopkinton! – find helpful record transcriptions from the Hopkinton Historical Association – BIRTHS 1727-1902 and DEATHS 1728-1902.
- Record of marriages in Hopkinton, Rhode Island, from August 15th, 1804 to January 1st, 1838 : as performed by Elder Matthew Stillman, pastor of the First Hopkinton Seventh-day Baptist Church
- Births, marriages, deaths 1844-1852 School committee records 1828-1899 . List of militia 1869-1882 Marriages 1838,1853
- Lincoln vital records and indexes 1894-1915
- See also Central Falls
- Volume 7, death records, 1901-1915
- Births, marriages, deaths 1700-1870
- Births and deaths from Newport and Portsmouth : births of seamen 1798-1799, Job Townsend coffins 1803-1828, Benjamin Pearce coffin record 1835-1841, and deaths copied from Almanac no. 1, 1803-1844
- Index to vols. 1-2 1700-1870 births, marriages, deaths v. 1-2 1700-1870
- Births, marriages, deaths vols. 3-4, 1814-1910
- Death records, v. 5 (1910-1915)
- Records of births, marriages and deaths of North Providence and Pawtucket [Rhode Island], 1748-1885; indexes to births, marriages and deaths, 1728-1914
- Birth records 1871-1900
- Marriage records 1871-1900
Death records 1871-1915
- Births 1886-1902 and marriages 1885-1902, returns of births and marriages 1900-1902
- Death records (1872-1945),and returns of death (1900-1921)
- See also North Providence
- Deaths registered in the city of Providence 1893-1894
- Intentions of marriages, 1881-1894
- Providence : births (1876-1890), marriages (1870-1891), and deaths (1880-1892)
- Providence marriage records 1906-1915
- Returns of deaths, 1844-1849, 1851-1855
- Returns of deaths, 1856-1921, city of Providence
- Returns of marriages, 1879-1892
- Vital records, 1894-1899
- See also index books.
Death records — Feb 1911 to Dec 1915
- See Central Falls
- Births, marriages, deaths 1730-1850
- Births 1850-1901
- Marriages and deaths 1850-1901
- Birth, marriage, and death records, 1906-1915
- Death records 1906-1915
- Death records 1913-1915.
Volume 3, death register and index, 1908-1921
- Woonsocket vital records (1880-1915)
- also note: The French American Genealogy Society has wonderful printed compiled vital record books.