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Saturday, January 11, 2014

Transcription Errors on that Death Certificate Could Change Your Family History

We all know that family information provided on a death certificate is only as reliable as that family member’s knowledge and memory of the events.   However, have you considered errors made in transcription?  I have several family census records that have obvious transcription errors, but until last month, never thought that transcriptions could be an issue on a death certificate.

I have two copies of my great-grandfather’s death certificate. The first obtained by my father from the Baylor County Clerk’s office in the 1970s and the second, found at, was digitally copied from records at the Texas Department of State Health Services. 

In Texas, reports of death were completed by a county clerk, medical professional, or mortician who talked to the informant. These reports of death were filed with the county clerks or local registrars who sent the information to what is currently known as the Texas Department of State Health Services. Copiers were not common place in offices until the 1960s. So, human transcription was usually the method of making copies prior to that time. 

Although, the certificate saved on my computer from was the record of choice when looking for Hairston information last month, I suspect that the information that I had in my retrievable memory came from the certificate from the Baylor County Clerk.  On the certificate found at (see above), I noticed that the name of my great-grandfather’s mother was written as Liza. I have seen Liza in a few family trees, but the death certificate that I remembered had her as Eliza. Looking a little more closely, I notice that the informant was Mr. or Mrs. (not legible) R. E. Bryant. My grandparents were Mr. and Mrs. R. E. Bryan. 

I got out the paper copy of the certificate sent from the Baylor County Clerk and sure enough, my grandmother did spell her name as Bryan and her grandmother was listed as Eliza. Spelling and handwriting differences show that the certificate obtained at was probably the transcription. I assume that it was made in Baylor County, prior to sending it to the state offices in Austin. 

This is the death record received from the Baylor County Clerk in the 1970s. Accompanying the death record was this note: We are unable to find the name John L. Hairston on our death records {apparently Dad was looking for John L. Hairston}. The enclosed death certificate is indexed under P. A. Hairston, but shows no name filled in but does have his father's name J. L. Hairston, and the correct birth date. The copy is $2.00 and would appreciate prompt payment. 

The errors in the transcription did not make a huge difference in my family research, but transcription errors could easily change a family tree if important names and dates are misinterpreted.  If you have questions about spellings, dates, or illegible handwriting on a death certificate, you might want to try to find another source for the record. 

Postscript – For those of you researching this particular family, John L. Hairston and his wife were probably not born in Virginia. All census and other records indicate that John was born in South Carolina and that his wife was born in Georgia or Alabama. The fact that my grandmother, Myrtie, stated that they were born in Virginia leads me to believe that her father may have known about and talked about his Virginia heritage. 


© 2014

Sources: Texas, Death Certificates, 1903–1982 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2013. Original data:  Texas Department of State Health Services. Texas Death Certificates, 1903–1982. Archives, Orem, Utah.

"Copying Machines Used to Make One or a Few Copies of New Documents,  Mainly Outgoing Letters." Copying Machines. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2014.

"Texas, Deaths (New Index, New Images), 1890-1976." Index and Images.FamilySearch. : accessed 2013. Citing Bureau of Vital Statistics. State Registrar Office, Austin.


  1. But.... the top one has different handwritings and different inks throughout the certificate, a sign that different people were filling it out at different times. (The doctor filling out the medical section, the informant filling out other sections.) The bottom one is all one handwriting and one ink, suggesting one person wrote it at once. My thought is that the bottom one is the transcript, written out by a clerk that didn't have access to a photocopier. Just a thought.

    1. Good thought! I have other two old obituaries from that courthouse that are written in the same handwriting on both sides as well AND there were differences from the ones at Ancestry. My difficulty is understanding how the correct information would have been put on the transcription - Eliza vs Liza and Bryan vs Bryant. I wonder if there were other copies. This will have to be revisited. I love having another set of eyes. Thank you for looking at this!

  2. I completely agree with you about transcriptions. I have a couple of transcribed records that I have been trying very hard to replace with actual copies of the document. The ones I have were transcribed by typing and I want to see the handwritten records. These are back in the 1850's so I know the records were not typed originally.