Before 1900, what we consider death certificates did not exist in Hawaii. There are no death certificates on file for the early era. The official documents consist of the death register books and indexes. Most of these have been microfilmed by one group or another.
Let’s look at a typical register page. This example comes from the island of Kauai, but is probably the same style used on the other islands. Each book is divided by district and island. Each deceased individual is listed on one line. This is the information recorded in 1900.
Date of death
Age (year, month, or days old)
Place of death
Cause of death
This is an example of registry entries for 1900. Each entry spread out over two pages. The highlighted entry is for Frank Pacheco, son of Francisco Pacheco and Alexandria de Caires.
The Usual Problems
While providing a good amount of information about the deceased, these records are less than perfect. The main problem lies in the fact that the official record keeping before 1900 was not consistently enforced. While one district may have records back to the 1870s, another might not start until 1890. Because recording was not enforced, individuals were often left out of the books.
Other problems pertain to the information collected. Let’s go over some of these:
–No informant given–
Because no informant is listed, you have no idea who reported the death. Was it a family member, friend, or someone who represented the plantation? You have no way of knowing how close the informant was to the deceased.
The death registers are riddled with the same inconsistencies as other records. Some entries only include a first name. In the case of babies, many times the name field only says “stillborn”, “unnamed”, or even “infant of Jose” (Jose who????). Without the parents names, it’s next to impossible to figure out who these babies belong to. You almost have to wait for divine intervention if you’re going to solve this one!
Well, what can you say? Anyone who has looked at the census knows that birthdates and ages are not an exact science. It’s hard enough for a living person to give their correct age. Age at death is an estimate at best.
In the early record, the name of the cemetery was not given. Perhaps they did not have names or there were only small plots on church grounds, plantations, or family property. Instead of a cemetery name, the town or city is given. You may have to a little research to find out where the exact burial is located.
One would like to think that the death date is finite. You either died on a specific day or you didn’t. End of story! Because registration wasn’t required, there was no motivation to record deaths or to do it in a timely fashion. In looking over the registers, one can see that not weeks but months could pass before a death was recorded. One example is of a woman who died 12 May 1898. Her death was not recorded until 22 Aug 1898. 3 months passed before the information made it to the books. The more time that passes, the more likely the informant will mix up the information.
And, let’s face it. When a loved one dies, we do not think clearly. The bereaved are the worst people to be expected to give exact and accurate information.
Can Records Be Found?
It is possible to locate your ancestor’s death in the registers. Be aware of the inconsistencies. Here’s a research tip: Many early registers are available through the Family History Library of the LDS Church. These microfilmed records are the exact same records you’ll find at the Department of Health in Hawaii. There are no other records available. Save yourself some money and view the microfilm at your local Family History Center. Not only will you save some pocket change, but you’ll also be able to view the records yourself. This is a plus. The DOH will look for exact matches, but they won’t know about your families little idiosyncracies. Only you will realize the Maria Clemente who died in 1 Aug 1905 is really your great grandmother, Marianna (Clemente) Souza. You have the definite advantage of being able to deduct which names may fit your ancestors–instead of a blanket reply stating that no record exists.
Originally published on yourislandroutes.com 2009. Revised 2015.
Copyright 2009-2015 Melody Lassalle-All Rights Reserved
Genealogist and writer. Creator of the Portuguese Hawaiian Genealogy and Heritage website, yourislandroutes.com