What are vital records?
There are many things of vital importance to a hunter. They may be the foundation to his success. For example, a hunter needs knowledge about the terrain and weather. He should also have a good sense of direction and know the best location for the objective. Once the hunter has found a location, knowledge of the resources that are available is also important.
In genealogical research, vital records are the foundation to our success. Vital records pertain to birth, marriage and death records. Divorce records are sometimes classified as vital records, but more often, as court records.
The order in which vital records are obtained can speed up successful searches. By first searching the last vital event in a person's life (his or her death), you will find clues to earlier events and often save time and money.
Ordering copies of vital records offers extraordinary advantages to the ancestral hunter. Click on each type of vital record to learn what information may be found:
To protect the rights of others, there are standard laws which govern vital records. Although the Federal Government mandated that the states should maintain vital records at the end of the 1800s, compliance was not achieved in all the states until much later. In addition, some states did not mandate that birth, marriage, death, or divorce records be centralized at the same time or in the same manner.
For example, Alabama's birth and death records were centralized at the state level in 1908 while marriage records were not centralized until 1936.
As you might imagine, access to birth records is more difficult than other vital records because they are sometimes used fraudulently, or they may contain confidential information such as illegitimacy. Marriage and death records are more available. Some states open their restricted records only to the parties involved, such as divorce records in the state of New York.
If you desire to contact state or government offices for vital information, you may wish to contact a private company specializing in this service. At VitalChek Network, Inc. (1-800- 255-2414), you will be given the correct telephone number to over 100 state and local government offices in forty-seven states. These government offices can process your telephone orders for vital certificates and you can pay with MasterCard or Visa. Your billing statement will include the cost of the certificate ordered, the overnight fee (if requested), and a service fee.
Another way to order a copy of a vital record is to use the International Vital Records Handbook, 3rd ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1994), which provides copies of applications that may be photocopied and used to request vital records from every state. Since prices are constantly changing, it is a good idea to telephone for correct prices to avoid delays. It is less expensive, but takes longer, to order by mail.
Obtaining Post-1910 Vital Records
Follow the steps below to obtain a post-1910 vital record in most of the United States.
Select the state in which you wish to obtain a birth, marriage, or death record.
Select the type of vital record you wish to receive, whether it is a record of:
Either fill out the form from the book mentioned previously or write a letter including the following information in your own correspondence. (Caution: Several states require a form to be filled out, and may mail one to you, before acting on your request.)
- Name as it would appear on the record (maiden name if ever married).
- Date or approximate date of the event (birth, marriage, divorce, or death).
- Place or approximate place of the event.
- Name of the father.
- Name of the mother.
- Purpose for which the certificate is ordered ("For genealogical purposes").
- Explain how you are related to the person named on the certificate.
- Your signature, address, and telephone number.
Include a check for the amount required by the state. It is usually not necessary to pay the extra fees for a certified copy of a vital record for genealogical purposes since the information is the most important criteria. It is a good idea, if a state suggests the option of either a "short or long form," to get the long form. The long form is a complete transcription of the original rather than a brief "short" abstract of the information. You want to get as much genealogical information as possible.
Obtaining Pre-1910 Vital Records
There may be a bit of lag time between when vital records are legally accessible to the public and when they become readily available on microfilm, microfiche, published books, or electronic medium. Most of these have been produced prior to 1910.
Many repositories, however, such as large public libraries, state libraries, and historical or local history libraries, will list birth, marriage, or death records as part of their collection.
These public collections include a very small number of actual vital records, photocopies of the original, or scanned documents in an online format. The majority of these records are indexes which may be on microfilm, microfiche, online, or in a published format.
The largest collection of marriage record indexes in an electronic format available on Ancestry.com. They may be first accessed by searching for the individual on Ancestry's records search.
Remember, however, many of these "records" are still only indexes. The original marriage record would provide much more information. To get original records, you can look them up yourself or order them. Ancestry offers third-party look-up services for other vital records.
Vital Records may be obtained from the county in which the event occurred. County addresses are found in:
- The Handy Book for Genealogists, 8th ed., (Logan, UT: Everton Publishers, 1991). Also available on CD-ROM from the publisher.
- Ancestry's Red Book, revised ed., (Salt Lake City: Ancestry,1992). Also available on CD-ROM from the publisher.
- The Genealogist's Address Book, 3rd ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1995). Also available on CD-ROM from the publisher.
- Family Tree Maker's Genealogy "How-To" Guide.
Some vital records have been published in electronic or book format. Kentucky is one state which offers vital record services online. This may be viewed at http://ukcc.uky.edu/~vitalrec/. The majority of published vital records are in the realm of indexes or abstracts.
How to Find Published Vital Records
The largest collection of vital records in the world is found in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The holdings of this library may be studied by using the Family History Library Catalog (FHLC) on CD-ROM at a local Family History Center.
Local Family History Centers are listed in the telephone book under The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or you may obtain a list by writing to the Family History Library (35 North West Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah 84150). These facilities are free to the public, but since they are manned by volunteers they may have limited hours. It is always wise to call ahead to see if they are open.
Once you are in the Family History Center and using the Family History Library Catalog, search in the locality section on CD-ROM or on microfiche under the name of state and the category, "Vital Records."
For example: DELAWARE, VITAL RECORDS will indicate that a statewide Delaware birth index exists between 1861-1913 in the catalog.
Available in the Family History Library Catalog are:
- Statewide Birth Indexes available at the Family History Library: Alabama, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York City, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.
- Statewide Marriage and Divorce Indexes available at the Family History Library: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, D.C., Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, New York City, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
- Statewide Death Indexes available at the Family History Library: Alabama, California, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York City, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia only), Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.