The research process for finding information about the death of an American citizen in a foreign country depends upon the time period (because record keeping practices change over time), where the death occurred, and perhaps other factors. I was recently asked how a person could find information relating to the death of an American citizen in England in 1891. I hope that outlne below will help other researchers think through the process of finding information for someone in which they are interested.
For an American death in England in 1891, I suggest the following things that can be done online:
(1) Death Notices of United States Citizens Abroad, 1857–1922 at catalog.archives.gov/id/1227673 is fully digitized. The records are arranged by time period, so an 1891 death should be in either the 1887-1891 volume at catalog.archives.gov/id/200947510, or the 1891-1892 volume at catalog.archives.gov/id/200948749 unless somehow there was undue delay in reporting the death. These death notices are also online at Ancestry.com in their database called “Reports of Deaths of American Citizens Abroad, 1835-1974.”
The next thing to do – even if there is nothing in the “Death Notices” – is to delve into the consular despatches to see if the decedent was the subject of correspondence between a U.S. consular officer and the State Department. Fortunately, these records were microfilmed years ago and that microfilm is now digitized and in our online National Archives Catalog. “Despatch” (correct spelling) is a funny word but it basically means “correspondence.”
(2) Registers of Consular Despatches, 1870–1906 at catalog.archives.gov/id/603930 are finding aids. Registers are like checkbooks: they are generally chronological listings and contain information to help you locate further information in other records. Each entry provides the despatch's date, the consulate from which it was received, and an abstract of its contents. Keep in mind that correspondence (possibly one or more times) may be days, weeks, or even months after the person’s death, depending on circumstances. The volume for January 1889 to September 1891 at catalog.archives.gov/id/213844269, or the volume for October 1891 to June 1894 at catalog.archives.gov/id/213845150, will be most relevant to a death in England in 1891. If you find one or more entries, the information will enable you find the actual consular despatches without too much trouble. There were 15 U.S. consulates in England in 1891 so knowing which one (or perhaps which two…, if the body was shipped), is a huge timesaver.
There is something important to keep in mind, however. There is no guarantee of finding a record. If no one told the consulate about the death or was not involved in shipping the remains back to the United States, there won't be any reports or despatches.
(3) Despatches from U.S. Consuls in [Location]. The image below is from a search done in our online microfilm catalog that is part of NARA’s “Order Online” system at eservices.archives.gov/orderonline. (You do not need to register or buy anything). The image shows all of the U.S. consuls in England from the 1790s to 1906. Digital images of all of these microfilm publications are freely available in the NARA Catalog.
Let’s say there was correspondence from the consul in London about the decedent. If you go to catalog.nara.gov and type in the search bar these words: despatches consuls London and then hit enter - the microfilm of the “Despatches from U.S. Consuls in London, England, 1790-1906” at catalog.archives.gov/id/196006827 should be the very first result listed. Again, you’ll have the relevant dates of correspondence from the Register, so you’ll just need to go to the digital images of the correct microfilm roll, which will probably be Roll 56, January 1890-May 1892, at catalog.archives.gov/id/211619475. The records will then be in chronological order and will include the full text of what the consular officer said.
(4) If the consular officer asked for instructions from the State Department for any reason, the State Department’s instructions have not been microfilmed or digitized yet, but firstname.lastname@example.org would be able to assist in getting a copy.
In addition, the foreign country may have made a record of the death, and inquiries should be made to the appropriate records repository in that country. American newspapers may also mention the death.
Our webpage, “Genealogical Research Using State Department Records” at archives.gov/research/foreign-policy/state-dept/genealogy also contains information on researching American deaths overseas and other topics.