Posted by Ancestry Team on March 10, 2012 in Who Do You Think You Are?

Professional football great, Jerome Bettis went on an emotional journey on Who Do You Think You Are? to learn more about his great-grandfather who abandoned the family. But death certificates, newspaper accounts and other records helped put Bettis on the right path, where he learned that he comes from a line of family members who stood up for their rights, even as the odds were stacked against them. is a sponsor of the show. Missed the episode? Watch it on

Death records contain other clues, too. Place of birth for the deceased can help you locate birth records and age and birth date are typically included as well. You may also find an address of the deceased, as well as the place where he or she died, occasionally even how long the person lived in the area, maybe even in the country. Also note informant, the person who gave the information about the deceased individual. This is usually another member of the family tree.

Death certificates can rich sources of answers about your family. And they may be the key you need to discover even more.


  1. Anita Wages

    I was told that today, March 10, 2012 we’d get a chance to view the 1940 census, free. I don’t see where to view it. I’m a member so when it becomes available in April, I can see it, but wanted a sneek preview today. Was this true?

  2. Charlene Dotson

    I saw the Jerome Bettis episode and I was wondering if the death certificate that was shown really an online document or was it a ploy of the show?

  3. Dianna Taylor

    I was wondering the same as Charlene, I have never seen an actual death certificate from Kentucky being available on Ancestry.

    Also would like to know if there is proof to what one gentleman told Mr. Bettis about census takers intentionally misspelling names of African-Americans, Just about every one of my family (I’m white) names were misspelled at some point on a census and I’m not talking trascription errors.

  4. Rebekah

    I have numerous death certificates of relatives – online in many states. Parents’ names, causes of death (good for health histories), places of burial, occupations and other information can be obtained. Many mysteries can be solved but sometimes the informant gives incorrect information so be careful. Relatives or friends don’t always know the correct parents’ names and places of birth.

  5. Kim

    I was wondering what kind of box Mr. Bettis was using to store his documents – it was shown in the final scene of the program. Where can I find this type of archival box? Great series of shows – btw


  6. Sharon

    To Charlene and Dianna: I personally have scores of actual death record copies in my family tree–almost ALL of which I obtained on AND they are mostly from Kentucky.

    When you see a hint for “Kentucky Death RECORDS (as opposed to Death INDEX), you will find a prompt to the right of the record transcript that says “view original image”. Clicking on it takes you to a photo of the actual record, which you can enlarge and explore. I even right-click copy the image to my desktop and then upload it onto the person’s overview page. Then it’s always available with one click whenever I want to look at it in the future.

    I agree with one of the Ancestry bloggers who said, if you aren’t taking advantage of the “view original image” feature, you aren’t getting all you paid for.

  7. Carmen Gonzales

    Yesterday March 9, 2012, I was deluged with new information through I am under the impression that this information would not be available to me if I hadn’t upgraded my account to “world”. Is this true? I have been searching for many years , when subscribing was only $50.00 a year. :))

  8. Judy

    Sunday Mar 11 and for some reason I cannot look at any birth records. It tells me the id is invalid or no longer available. Is it just me ???

  9. MBritt

    As Rebekah 4 said, death cert. are a good source of info. but like she said alot of the time the info. is wrong so check and recheck the info that is given to try and verify if its right or wrong sometimes you get lucky and find a good piece of info. that gets you through those brick walls, I don’t have anyone from Ken. so I can’t say about their D. Cert. but I know Va. has very few at least for me, but N.C has alot. Does anyone know anything about finding Va. D. Cert.?

  10. Donna

    Dianne- I am not sure how true it is about intentionally mispelling names on a census. But from my research ( am white as well).I have discovered on both sides of my family that we had a lot of people who didn’t speak good English,(one side of my family is Sicilian and the other a mixture of Cajun French) they also could not read or write- so often times the names were spelled as it sounded. The census takers I would guess did the best they could. that is just my take on it.

  11. Donna

    The informants are not always the one making the mistake, my father died in 2001 and though the proper information was given- they listed him as being born in Henderson, NC not Chicago, Illinois. I had to pay to get the information corrected.

  12. Anna

    I’ve found the same thing as others here with regards to spelling errors. While I don’t doubt that some did indeed make intentional errors when it came to African-American’s info, from my experience ALL info gathering is subject to error.

    My family has MANY “variations” on spellings of first and last names, dates and places of birth, etc. This happens consistently across census and other records, such as death certificates. On quite a few of mine it’s been a grandchild or spouse of a grandchild who was the informant and it’s likely that they’re simply going on memories of what they were told – not always perfect.

    I have a gx2 grandfather whose parents I can only identify so far from the names listed on his death certificate. I’ve yet to be able to find any trace of them anywhere else, but I’m still looking!

  13. David Finster

    I’ve been doing family history since 1964, when I was still in high school. I found out the usefulness of death certificates early on, but this past summer, they turned out to be useful in diagnosing a rare herditary disease that I have. There it was (under older names) in those records, especially for my grandfather and great-great grandfather. It helped my neurologist at the Veterans Hospital in saying definitively that I have Hereditary Motor and Sensory Neuropathy (also called Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease, after its discoverers, and sometimes called peroneal muscular atrophy). It only affects 3 ten-thousandths on one percent of the world’s population, so it’s not exactly easy to identify, and the death certificates provided very solid clues.

  14. MsWinston

    In Virginia there was a public official in the mid-20th century who set out to eliminate (on paper) the identity of Native Americans in that state. His method was to classify them all as “coloured,” which has to this day caused many Native Americans in my state no end of trouble to obtain proof of race. The Virginia Historical Society documented this man’s “reign of terror” in an issue a few years ago.

  15. BEE

    I agree that death certificates can yield good and useful information, but also errors – my uncle gave an unheard-of name for his grandmother on his mother’s death certificate, an aunt gave a wrong birth date on her father’s death certificate, but known facts.
    I also agree about names on census. I’ve found some very “American” surnames spelled wrong on every census from 1850 to 1900. Ethnic surnames are sometimes impossible to find, especially when the family was using adopted “American” first names on one census, then back to their ethnic name, then nicknames.
    As far as names signed with an “x”, that was common among not only with my ancestors who didn’t arrive until after 1900, but many whites up until that time.

  16. Scott

    I would also like to point out that in the Bettis episode they dramatized the fact that his relative signed his name with an X, unable to sign his name. If you watched the show the slave owner also signed his will with an X which was not pointed out. It is not unusual for individuals in the south both white and black to be unable to read or write.

  17. Margaret Adams

    I find the dubious remarks made on a majority of WDYTYR episodes do a disservice to honest research. After combing though many census years, mostly through, I have found serious mistakes in spelling across all races & nationalities. Any competent researcher or academic historian would know that the info given on the census depends on several factors: the census taker’s spelling acumen; the informant/person giving the info to the census taker; legibility of filmed and or original records. The same can apply to death certificates. The information is only as good as the informant who may not be aware of all the facts concerning the deceased. Additionally MANY people of all races signed legal paperwork with an “X” as education was not always as readily available or open to them.I’m really surprised that ancestry hasn’t discussed the glaring list of factual inaccuracies that seem rampant in this series with the producers given the company’s prime business is providing good historical info to its customers & not opinions on historic events.

  18. I, too, agree with many people on the inaccuracies in the Census and in Death Records. In my case, my grandfather’s third wife gave the information for his death certificate, which gave the wrong name for his father. Also, the enumerator of the census contributed to my grandfather’s worst spelling of his surname possible, Cimarman for Zimmerman. I was informed by a very king person many years ago that Cimarman is the Czech spelling for Zimmerman. The only way I did find him on the 1920 Census is that I knew where he lived at the time and I read every page for the county.

  19. Kathleen

    MsWinston, Thank You for this information!! All these comments are Appreciated!!!! I did not know that happened in VA.

    I know that my grandpa’s father’s side had Cherokee but noticed everyone seemed to have to lay claim of being “white”. My gg.grandma…to my mom had some darker skin. They all show “white” however. I call myself “an American Mutt”. I knew I was many races…however even more then I origially thought thru research, although I have taken no test…but would sure love one!!!!realizing….I am many races.
    It irritates me to no end when documents question me what race I am!! That has always bothered me and since I haven’t figured what all I am……I am stumped as to what I should enter. Many expect me to make an entry by the color of my skin, and even get irritated I did not check “white”. I grew up with a melting pot of brothers and sisters…literally..and feel blessed that I did!!,so I take offense to questions like “what race are you?”.
    Now I only wish I could find a geneologist to help me with couple of tough questions. LOL

  20. Marilyn

    I tried to post my daily entry into the “Enter to Win Sweepstakes” usually on the Who Do You Think You Are? page of, but cannot find it because of the new 1940 census demo. I know I can enter daily until May 18, but can’t do that if I can’t find where to post it.

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