History has had its fair share of adventurous spirits who ventured out into the world for various reasons. Travel abroad became much easier in the 19th century with newer and faster ships, while cultural factors motivated people to believe that there were new opportunities in other countries. Therefore, travel to and from countries became more frequent. Perhaps your ancestor was born to be a traveler, fell in love abroad, or sought business opportunities. We must also consider the fact that with traveling came the risk of disease, violence, and many other day-to-day threats depending on the circumstances.
Records of deaths overseas are very useful if you knew your ancestor traveled abroad often and are having trouble locating any evidence of when they died. They can sometimes be the only acceptable documentation on an individual’s death, which might be difficult to obtain in another form. Knowing the original date of death from these reports can lead us to finding obituaries and death certificates.
I. United States
In the United States, deaths abroad are reported to the U.S. Consul, which is a function of the Department of the State. The United States appoints consuls to handle relationships between their own government and foreign countries. Records of Civilian Deaths Overseas are in Record Group 59, General Records of the Department of the State and are on microfilm at the National Archives from 1789-1974. Modern records from 1975 on are still held by the Department of the State. These records contain a phenomenal amount of information and prove to be an exciting find for any genealogist. Through the consul’s report, you can find the full name of the deceased, occupation, naturalization information, age, date and place of death, cause of death, and the disposition of the remains. The consul also indicates the names and addresses of any family members or friends that were informed of the death.
You may need to visit Archives II in College Park, Maryland to find an ancestor who died overseas, but I would recommend trying first “Reports of Deaths of American Citizens Abroad, 1835-1974,” available at Ancestry.com. Through a search of this database, I was able to obtain the consul's report of my great-grand aunt Helen Oliver, born 5 July 1891 in San Francisco, California to Bartholomew Patrick and Kate (Connor) Oliver. After she married Albert Campbell Cornish and the couple relocated to China, the reason, to my knowledge, being because Albert Cornish worked for an oil company. The consulate reported that she died from giving birth the evening of 5 Sep 1922 in Tientsin, China. The document lists five next of kin who received the report and indicated how they were related to Helen. Two slides earlier, I was able to find that the U.S. Consul had indeed also filed a report of the unnamed stillborn. Without these two documents, I would not be able to know that Helen survived her child more than a day. These documents do bring to the surface tragic events in our family history, but there is a staggering amount of evidence to be gathered from the consul's report.
Death Report for Helen Oliver Cornish, 6 Sep 1922.
II. United Kingdom
Records of deaths overseas date back to 1627 in the United Kingdom, but are much more thorough beginning around the mid 19th century when it became the law. Before the creation of the General Register Office (GRO) in 1837, there was no obligation to record events overseas and was only made possible by the goodwill of someone. The National Archives (UK) holds records of overseas deaths from consul reports as well as deaths of mariners and military personnel. According to their online guide, these records and indexes are incomplete . Records of death at sea or in foreign countries have also been recorded in the GRO. Events that occurred beyond the shores of England are considered ‘non-parochial’, meaning not recorded within a parish jurisdiction, and available in the following GRO Registers:
- RG 32 – General Registrar Office Overseas, 1831-1969
- RG 33 - General Register Office Overseas, 1627-1960
- RG 35 – General Register Office, Miscellaneous Foreign Death Returns, 1791-1921
- RG 36 – Registers in the Protectorates, Etc. of Africa, 1895 -1965
Overseas deaths recorded in the GRO Registers can be searched free at BMD Registers but you will need to pay to view the original record from the National Archives Collection. If you do find a British ancestor in an overseas death record, you will be able to learn part or all of the following information:
- Name and surname of deceased
- Date of death
- Place of death
- Gender, age
- Rank, profession, occupation
- Last place of abode (last residence)
- Cause of death
- Ship name
- Indicates whether passenger or member of crew
Return of Deaths at Sea (BT 159/8), Apr 1877, page 68. Accessed at BMD Register.com
For those with access to the National Archives (UK), you can pull the correct fiche number for the index by using the Family Search Wiki for reference.
I would also recommend trying findmypast.com because they have two great databases for civilian deaths overseas in the U.K., British Nationals Died Overseas, 1818-2005 and British Nationals Armed Forces Deaths, 1796-2005, which compiled the index books from the different overseas death registers. Through a subscription, you can access the original page from the index, which includes their full name, age, name of vessel or consulate, and page number for the original death return.
Marine GRO Indices, 1854-1906, page 45. Accessed at findmypast.com,
British Nationals Died Overseas (database).
Moving north to Scotland, you can find a large collection at the National Archives of Scotland called The Minor Records. These are registers of births, marriages, and deaths outside of Scotland collected from different departments. They are mostly related to military casualties and deaths at sea. The earliest date back to 1855 in the Marine Registers, but the majority is concentrated on late 19th and 20th centuries.
Jake Fletcher is a genealogist and blogger. He received his Bachelor Degree for History in 2013 and is now researching genealogy professionally. Jake has been researching and writing about genealogy since high school using his blog page Travelogues of a Genealogist.