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Minnesota Historical Society: Minnesota Death Certificates Index

Why can’t I find a certificate that I know should be there?
Creating a death certificate and creating a database index are not exact sciences. When the information for a certificate is first compiled, there is room for error. People who give information about deaths are often family members in a time of stress. They may give out erroneous information about the deceased. The people recording the information can make mistakes too. For example, it is not unusual to find misspellings in older records of all types. In addition, the data entry process for the index allowed some room for error in typing and re-typing information.

While both the Department of Health and the Minnesota Historical Society are both greatly concerned with the quality of this index, not all these errors can be corrected. Information in original records, even when erroneous, cannot be changed. To help make your searches successful, you should be aware of the possibilities of misspellings and different spellings. Consider all the possible variations in a name when doing a search (e.g., Johnson, Johnsen or Jonson). Use the Soundex options to give yourself the best chance to find a name. In the last resort, remember that the complete record is not available through the index; you may need to order copies of a number of certificates in order to get more information and narrow down your search. 

Although it is difficult to generalize about entries in the index, many 1996 deaths are missing from the index. It appears that certain months for certain counties are missing altogether and others are incomplete. On a smaller scale, this appears to be the case for 1980 and 1991 also. If a researcher knows of a specific death at a specific place but is unable to find an index entry, additional research on the microfilm should be considered. Staff in the Minnesota History Center Library can assist you in narrowing this search.

Where do I find death certificates?
The Minnesota Historical Society Library has copies of original death cards from 1900-1907 and original death certificates on microfilm for the years 1908-2001. This index provides clues about how to find these certificates on microfilm. They can be viewed at the library or borrowed through interlibrary loan.

For death certificates before 1900, contact the county in which the person died, not necessarily the county of residence. Deaths since 2001 are filed with the Minnesota Department of Health and the county of death.

How can I get copies of death certificates?
You may use this site to search for and gather any certificate copies that you wish to order. Once you are ready to purchase your selected certificate(s), our Online store will safely and securely process your transaction.

Library staff will make uncertified copies and mail them to you for $8.00 per record. This service does not include verification of additional information not appearing in the index.

As an alternative, you may use microfilm containing the death certificates free in the Minnesota Historical Society Library in St. Paul and make uncertified copies on any one of the library’s reader-printer machines for a nominal cost, currently 35 cents per page.

You can also view or copy the microfilm in your local library through interlibrary loan. Ask your local school or public library to make a request for up to six reels of microfilm at a time. The Society lends the microfilm to local libraries for a rental cost of $3 per roll, plus $2.50 for shipping and handling for each order of up to six rolls.

What will the Online index tell me?

The index should provide the first, middle, and last name of the individual, date of death, county of death and the certificate number. Index entries from 1908 to 1954 will not include date of birth, place of birth and mother’s maiden name. However, that information may appear on the certificate. Records issued after 1954 (the index currently goes through 2001) and those for 1904 through 1907 will include this information and may include birth date, mother’s maiden surname, and whether the deceased was born in Minnesota. The two most crucial pieces of information are the year of death and the certificate number because they will determine the location of the record on microfilm. If the original certificate was not completely filled out, the missing information will not appear in the index.

All index entries for 1908 through 1954, as well as some entries for earlier and later years, will have the term “not indexed” in the date of birth, place of birth, and mother’s maiden name fields. The indexing guidelines did not require these fields to be completed. However, in most (but not all) cases this information will appear on the death card or death certificate.

How do I use the Online index?

This Online index allows for specific or general searches for three basic types of data: name, year of death, and county of death.

The name category has fields for the first and last names to focus the search for a particular individual.

The two pull-down menus to the left of the first and last name fields allow a query for an exact name or for only part of a name. For example, if you were looking for a J. Doe but you weren’t sure of the first name, the first name field menu could be set to “begins with” to include all first names that begin with J. See help page for further instructions.

When you are not sure of the spelling of a name, you may also try the Soundex option. This feature is addressed more fully in the “What is Soundex?” portion of this FAQ.

The death-year category can be set to search all years, one year or a range of years. The county-of-death category allows searches of a single county or several counties simultaneously.

A query might produce a long list of results. By default, the index will arrange the results alphabetically by surname, but you can request the results arranged by first name, last name, death year or county of death.

For more detailed directions, see the help page.

What is Soundex and how can it help me?

Soundex is an indexing system based on how a surname sounds rather than how it is spelled. This system enables one to search for a name even if it had been recorded with a variety of spellings. By selecting one of the Soundex options on the search screen, this function will be performed automatically. You will not need to enter any codes. If you wish to perform your own soundex conversions, try our Soundex tool.

This index gives the researcher the choice of using either the traditional Soundex system or the Extended Soundex system. The traditional system is based on the first letter of the last name, so it is crucial that this letter is known and has been correctly transcribed from documents. Occasionally, letters such as ‘I’ and ‘J’ are misread from paper documents and then incorrectly entered into the database. In such cases, the traditional Soundex system will not be useful.

The Extended Soundex system, however, assigns a numeric code to the first letter and to later consonants. Because the code consists of only six numbers and there are 20 consonants in the alphabet, it is likely that a number will represent more than one letter. Therefore, a search for a surname that begins with one letter could result in surnames that begin with other letters. For example, the results of a search for the name “Jenson” would also include “Swenson” because the Extended Soundex program would similarly code the two names.

The National Archives and Records Administration’s web site provides more information on Soundex and genealogy.

What information is on a death certificate?

Death certificates contain two types of information: information about the person and information about the death.

Information about the person may include: first name, last name, middle name, age, sex, race, date of birth, place of birth (state or country), marital status (including number of children), spouse’s name, occupation, father’s name and birth place, mother’s name and birth place, and signature and address of person providing information about the deceased.

Information about the death may include: date of death, primary cause of death, contributing cause of death, duration of the primary and contributing causes of death, signature and address of the physician, former residence if death occurred away from home, place of death, place of burial, date of burial, signature and address of undertaker, date when the certificate was filed, and signature of the local registrar. If interested, you may view these examples of death certificates.

Not all of this information will be on every death certificate. The forms were not always complete. Earlier death records frequently used abbreviations and medical terms that are now outdated for illnesses. View the RootsWeb site to find modern equivalents for older medical terms. Further information can also be obtained through the staff in the Society’s library.

How can I locate death certificates on the microfilm?

To use the microfilm, you need to know two things: 1) the year of death and 2) the death certificate number. Both can be found in the index. Use the year of death to select the appropriate reel from the library’s inventory of death record microfilms. The inventory is in chronological order, listing all the microfilm reels for that year. It also notes the sequential range of death certificate numbers found on each reel.

The death certificates themselves are arranged in a complicated fashion on the microfilm. The primary arrangement is by year, then by political unit. Each county is listed in alphabetical order. Each county is then broken down into its civil subdivisions (townships, villages, cities, and unorganized territory, if any). These civil subdivisions are arranged alphabetically with unorganized territory at the end of each county sequence. Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth are categorized separately, being listed after the last of the counties.

Will I find any additional information besides the death certificate?
In some cases, supporting information may appear along with the death certificate. These attachments have been microfilmed and directly follow the certificate itself on the film. This supporting data can come in a range of styles and include a variety of information. For example, if a mistake was made on the original death certificate, the Department of Health would draft an official Affidavit of Correction with the correct information. In other cases, the Department of Health may have required a doctor to provide additional information about a death certificate.

How can I find death certificates for Native Americans?
Locating death certificates for Native Americans may require some extra research. Many of the certificates contain Native American names in the original Ojibwe language, for example, or a combination of native and Anglicized versions. Researchers should check all variations of such names in the index. Certificates for deaths that occurred on Indian reservations are frequently filed under the category “Unorganized Territory” at the end of the county’s organized jurisdictions. This was an especially common practice before 1940.

Are there other sources for death records?
The Society’s library has microfilm copies of statewide death registers for 1899 and a death record card file for 1900 through 1907. The cards are transcripts of death certificates; they are not complete, nor are they official documents.

The index to death cards for 1904 to 1907 can be found in the online Death Certificate Index.

To find an official death certificate dated before 1908, you may need to contact the individual county in which the death occurred. Minnesota did not have an official statewide death records system until 1908. Until then, each county maintained its own death registry.

Death certificates/registers are usually under the care of the county vital statistics officer. The vital statistics officer is frequently the county recorder, but records may be found in other county offices. These early records may not contain as much detail as later ones.

Death records after 2001 can be found at the Minnesota Department of Health and, possibly, at the vital statistics registrar’s office in each county. You should be able to obtain copies of a death certificate from either location for a fee.

How were the death certificates created?

When someone died, a physician or mortician compiled information about the deceased on a death certificate. The certificate was registered with the local county registrar and the original copy sent to the Office of Vital Statistics, Minnesota Department of Health. There, the vital statistics staff ensured that the information was complete and that it met the state’s standards. At that point, the death certificate at the Department of Health became the official, permanent record.

Where can I get certified copies of a death certificate?

Certified death certificates may be requested from the vital statistics registrar at a local county office or from the Minnesota Department of Health. Certification requires the completion of an application to establish your tangible interest in a certificate. Certification is designed to prevent fraud by restricting access to certificates used for legal purposes, such as settling an estate. The Department of Health’s web site provides more information about certified death certificates.

Are there other research tips and warnings?
Keep in mind that certificates are issued and registered in the county in which the death occurred. This may be different from the county of residence.

For example, records for a highway death near Willmar would be in Kandiyohi County where the accident occurred, even though the victim was traveling from Minneapolis to Ortonville. Hennepin and Big Stone counties may not have any records of the death. The search engine selection for all counties will retrieve the death listing.

If the person died outside of Minnesota, the death records would be in the state in which the person died.

Remember that some Minnesota counties were established after 1908. Pennington County was formed in 1910 from a portion of Red Lake County, and Lake of the Woods County was formed in 1922 from a portion of Beltrami County. As a result, the record of a death in Baudette in 1920 was recorded in Beltrami County but one in 1923 in Lake of the Woods County.

Creating a death certificate is not an exact science. People who give information about deaths are often family members acting in a time of stress. They may give erroneous information to authorities, and errors of communication can occur between the person giving and the one receiving information in stressful circumstances. In addition, people can make mistakes in entering data into forms and databases. Thus, you should consider all the possible errors and spelling variations when trying to locate a death certificate. Check, for example, the various spellings for last names (e.g., Johnson, Johnsen or Jonson).

What is the background of this indexing project?
In 1997, the Minnesota Department of Health began its Vital Statistics Redesign Project, which is explained on its web site. The State Archives Department of the Minnesota Historical Society contributed advice on the records management aspects of this project and, along with the Genealogical Society of Utah, participated in microfilming death records.

An important project component is this database index to death records, covering the years 1904-1996. The Minnesota Historical Society designed and hosts the web site for the death certificate index. The index for the years 1908 to 1996 was compiled under the auspices of the Department of Health by a private vendor. The index for the years 1904 and 1907 was produced by the Minnesota Historical Society utilizing a volunteer indexer. Additional volunteers have now joined this project with a goal to index the microfilmed statewide death records from 1899 to 1903.

For certificates since 2001, researchers must contact the Minnesota Department of Health or the county of death.

What are the death cards for 1900-1907 and how do they differ from the death certificates?

The death record cards date from 1900 to 1907 and precede the official death certificates. The cards are transcripts of death information that were compiled by the Health Department. Although they cover the entire state, they are not complete, and they are not official documents.

Each card, if completely filled out, includes the date of death (year, month, and day), place of death (local jurisdiction and county), primary and contributing causes of death (and frequently the during of each cause), the decedent’s full name, age, sex, color, marital status, birthplace (usually only state or country), and occupation; the father’s name and mother’s maiden name and birthplace of each (usually only state or country); names and addresses of attending physician and undertaker; place of burial and burial permit number; and the name and address of the person reporting the death (usually the township clerk, village clerk or city health officer).

Researchers should know that many cards were filled out very incompletely. Cards, especially for the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, frequently contain little more information than the name of the decedent, date of death, sex, marital status, birthplace, cause of death, and person reporting the death.

How was the birth/death year on the index calculated?
The death card index, presently for the years 1904 to 1907, generally contains only an age at the time of death. In order to determine the estimated birth year that appears in the Online index, the age at death in years was subtracted from the death year. Months and days were not considered in this calculation. The estimated birth year appears in brackets in the index (e.g. <1872>).

Sometimes an exact month and day of death is not given on the death card, either because the date could not be determined or it was simply not recorded. Because the death index database requires a month and day, indexers supplied estimated death dates. Those dates are recorded in brackets (< >) in the index. If only a year were known the date of death will appear as January 1; if a month were known, the date of death will appear as the first of the month. These inexact death dates should prompt researchers to view the death card for additional information about the circumstances of the decedent’s death.

How can I keep track of my search results?
This web site has a Save Query feature that can help you keep track of your research. Save Query allows you to copy the results of your search to a CSV file (comma separated values) which can then be imported into popular family tree database or spreadsheet software, where you can keep track of your research. Look for the Save Query icon in the left navigation bar on all search results pages. Click on the icon and you’ll be shown a screen that instructs you how to save your search results. Please avoid using the shopping cart to keep track of your search results, as it could be affected by changes made to the shopping cart system.

Why Is the Fee Increasing?
Following a request from the State Department of Health the fee for a copy of a non-certified death record increases to $9 on December 1, 2007. The Minnesota Historical Society has agreed to conform to the prices and practices of local registrars and the Office of the State Registrar:

As of December 1, 2007, copies will cost $9, the price set in statute (see Minnesota Statutes, 144.226).

A variety of concerns about individual privacy, identity theft and national security all inform decisions about access to vital records. The Society’s goals are to manage its resources responsibly and to support the research of its patrons.

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