Friday, June 5, 2009 California Death Index

I recently received this e-mail from one of my readers:

Hi! Been reading about the search and the frustrations therein. Thought I'd send along a great example.

Looking for Fredrick Murphy, born 1902 and died in California.

If you follow the links below, you will find that he does come up when you search RootsWeb’s California Death Index, but does NOT come up when you search the same database in

* sigh *
Cherie in OC

Dear Cherie,

Thanks for your question. Problems with the search software are one thing. Problems in the databases which are searched by that software are another. The deficiencies of the Ancestry.comCalifornia Death Index, 1940-1997” database have been discussed several times by genealogists. See for example the long discussions started with each of the following messages.

According to the post by Randy Seaver, the database has 8,194,784 records, which is smaller than the RootsWeb database by 13.5%. Almost a year ago Phil Carnahan asked for comment and was told:

We appreciate your message. We apologize for any inconvenience. At this time we are working to complete the posting of information in the California death index . We do not have an official release schedule for future postings. Certain information may not currently be available due to varying issues. These include (but are not limited to) research, rescanning, and quality assurance matters. We will complete the posting of this database as quickly as possible, but there will be some delay before the entire project is completed. Thank you for your patience.

PLEASE NOTE: In addition to the above issues governing when more information is added to this database, this data is supplied by a third party. Periodic updates to this database are provided to as these are made by the organization responsible for collecting this information. However, the frequency of these updates varies.

Another poster, EdrieAnne Broughton attributes the missing entries to California privacy laws.

This [] database cannot be updated due to California privacy laws and I doubt they are going to waste manpower and resources to pick up the missing [names] from the first transcriptions.

Other Online Sources

The California Death Index (CADI) is available from several other sources online.

While the “California Death Records [1940-1997]” database has 9,366,786 records, it is not without its problems. One poster noted a wrong birthplace in the RootsWeb CADI and a correct birthplace in the CADI. Carnahan noted in a later post,

I tried a search for anyone born in 1900 on RootsWeb and found none. I tried the same search on Ancestry and found many. I then jumped over to the CDs issued by the state and guess what, there are no births listed on the death index as 1900 on any of the CDs. I checked a couple Ancestry said were born in 1900 and the CDs had them listed as being born in 1901. I finally found a death listed in the Ancestry CADI which was also listed in the SSDI [Social Security Death Index]. The RootsWeb CADI and CDs gave a birth year as 1901 and the Ancestry CADI and SSDI gave a birth year as 1900. I guess we're all forewarned! None of these resources can be fully trusted to be correct.

The source listed for the RootsWeb CADI is “The California Department of Health Services Office of Health Information and Research vital Statistics Section.” Carnahan’s post makes it appear that this source is the set of CDs issued by the state of California. The source for the CADI must be something else.

The “California Death Index (1940-1997)” database contains 9,366,409 records (5,130,708 males and 4,235,701 females). This total is a smidgen less than the database, which makes me wonder if they have the same source.

I wasn’t able to identify how many records were in the “California Deaths, 1940-1997” database, although I was able to search the database for free. It does have births from 1900. Apparently, their database was previously published by Pearl Street Software in 2004-5. Beyond that, I don’t know the source of their data.

I am also unable to identify how many records were in the www.vitalsearch-ca.com1940-2000 Death Index Summary,” which can only be searched by “Premium Search Members.”

Source of the Sources

This information makes it clear there are at least two separate sources for the different online California Death Indexes. One is the set of CDs previously mentioned. Phil Van Camp gives a titch more information about the CDs in a post.

Calif[ornia]'s dept of Vital Statistics was selling it, a set of three CD's [covering deaths] from 1940 - 1979 for approximately $100, last I heard.

Unfortunately, last I heard, those CDs are no longer available for purchase. According to the Family History Library Catalog, the CDs are available for use at the Family History Library. Pt. 1 covers 1940-1979 and Pt. 2 covers 1980-1997.

Another source for the CALI is a set of microfiche. See “California Death Index” by Sandra Harris and Dan Mosier on According to this article, some California libraries that have parts of the fiche set are:

  • Oakland Main Library, 1940-1987
  • Sacramento, California State Library, 1905-1990
  • San Francisco Main Library History Center (6th Floor), 1940-1987
  • San Francisco Sutro Library, 1940-1993
  • Santa Clara Library, 1940-1987
  • Thousand Oaks, Thousand Oaks Library, years not stated

Film and fiche for 1905-1994 are listed in the Family History Library Catalog. There are no notices excluding lending to local family history centers (FHCs), so I’m guessing that these films and fiche can be loaned to your local FHC. However, some of the fiche are in sets of 100+ fiche with loan fees of $.15 per fiche, so you are looking at more than the standard $5.50 film rental rate for some dates. Once the FHC has the fiche, it may keep it indefinitely.


  1. The problem that I have with Ancestry search is found in the WW1 draft registration cards. For every ten men that I find in the index, more than half will display the incorrect card. Ancestry tells me to report them so they can be fixed. I tell them the problem is so huge that I'd be paying my subscription fee to work for them!

  2. The 1905-1929 California Death Index at is still free to use, but you need a "guest pass" (via email, which puts you on their mailing list).

    The 1930-1939 CA Death Index requires a Premium membership now.

    Many CA FHCs have the microfilms for these death indexes on permanent loan.

    Good post -- Randy


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