Digging into Death Records

Organizing for genealogy, or anything else for that matter, is like eating vegetables.  I don’t much enjoy doing it, but in the end I know it’s good for me.  I analyzed and digitized all of the hard-copy documents I’ve accumulated from various sources.  I also named and organized all of my digital documents, so now there are folders for each surname, with somewhat-clearly labeled files within them.  I still need to organize my interview notes and do a deep-dive into the online documents I’ve linked to, but I’m heading in the right direction!

I thought I’d take this time to share a little background information on the other surname that’s taking up my genealogical research time.  My mother’s maiden name is Blake.  She was the fourth of six children born to my grandfather, Frank, and grandmother, Donna (Lindsay), whose surname I’m anxiously awaiting DNA results for.  I spent some time recently with my grandfather, telling him of what I’ve found of his family and listening to what he knew.

Frank was the second of three children born to Harry Blake and Dorothy Klenzendorf, who lived in the Chicago suburbs.  According to him, Harry worked hard to keep the family afloat during the Great Depression, first as a truck driver for a retail store and later in a defense factory building plane engines during World War II.  Harry was the third of seven children, born in 1905 to Nelson Blake and Matilda (Williams)—my great-great grandparents.  Nelson was born in Detroit, and his ancestors came to America from Ireland sometime in the 1880’s.  Nelson ran a landscape business, but had a hard time finding work after 1910.  He and Matilda separated and he died around 1920.  Other than that, my grandfather didn’t know much about that side of his family.

I did some research on Nelson to find more about him and extend the tree back further.  The first thing I found turned out to be the best find!  The Illinois Death Index said that he actually died in 1940, not 1920 like my grandfather had heard.  It also listed his birth as 1875 in Michigan, to his parents Patrick and Eliza Blake, both from Ireland.  Before I shared this information I wanted to validate it.  The 1930 census had Nelson living in a home similar to a shelter, and the 1940 census listed him as a “patient” at the Oak Forest Infirmary, which was a place for people who were sick, as well as those who were homeless or enduring hard times.  Both census records matched his age, profession, and birthplace (Michigan).

Apparently he didn’t die in 1920: He lost contact after he separated from Matilda and moved out.  Next I found the 1870 & 1880 census records, which confirmed Nelson was raised in Detroit, had nine older siblings, and his parents were named Patrick and Eliza!  Patrick was an undertaker, born in Ireland around 1831.  Eliza was born around 1832, also from Ireland.  One of their sons, William, was also listed as an undertaker, so possibly working together with his father.  Patrick’s personal estate value was $14,000, a decent amount of money back then.

Finally, I found Patrick’s Death Certificate, and also a book on Google called History of Detroit and Michigan, by Silas Farmer.  In these I learned that Patrick was born in 1833, potentially in Dublin.  His parents were John and Catherine, although her maiden name is different on each record.  He may have come to Montreal, Canada in 1834, before moving to Detroit in 1849.  He eventually started a successful undertaker business called P. Blake & Sons & had 10 children before dying in 1903 at the age of 71.

Needless to say, my grandfather was excited to hear the new information on his family.  I still have facts to confirm and details to unearth though, so I let him know there would be much more to come.

But before that, I think I owe my wife a long overdue date night this week to thank her for putting up with the late nights spent at the computer.  Have a great week everyone!


Family Tree Firsts is an ongoing blog series featuring newbie genealogist Brian Parotto of Hampshire, Ill.


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