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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Researching Outside the United States
by Rhonda R. McClure

November 08, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

This is an all too familiar story. Your research is humming along. You have become proficient in locating and requesting vital records for the births, marriages, and deaths of your ancestors. Then, all of a sudden you discover that your research has now taken you to a date before the recording of vital records.

Vital records are a major source of information for researchers. With the birth certificate we not only prove the date and place of birth for an individual, but we pick up clues on the dates and places of birth for the parents. Similar information is often found in marriage and death records. Because they're so helpful, we sometimes panic when we discover that we are no longer going to be able to rely on these valuable records.

Vital records are not the only source of birth, marriage and death information.

A Look at History

For most of the United States, vital records are a modern record. Most states did not see a need to record births and deaths until the 20th century. Some of the states didn't begin to record these events until well into the 20th century.

Traditionally, marriages were recorded earlier than other types of vital events. This record was necessary to prove a relationship during the probating of an estate. However, the information recorded for a marriage has changed dramatically over the years.

Most researchers stop looking for vital records when they discover that a state did not keep records until the 20th century. This is a mistake because, in many cases, counties kept their own record of events. For instance, the state of Illinois did not begin to record vital records until the 1900s but Illinois's counties began to record birth and death information in 1877. In addition, most counties recorded marriages as soon as the counties were created.

Those researching in New England will find that vital records are most often recorded at the town or city level. Also, many of the New England towns have been recording this information since the creation of the town.

The early records, whether town or county, are often not as detailed as the later records. Early records often mention the event, and few other details. A birth record, for example, will list the name of the child, the date of birth and the names of the parents, usually with the mother's maiden name omitted. Death records often list the name of the deceased and the date of the death. Marriage records simply list the names of the bride and groom and the date of the marriage.

As the years went by though, standardized forms began to replace the blank pages used to record these events. In many cases the forms asked for additional information, providing genealogists with a gold mine when it comes to using them. But what if you are in an area or time period that does not have vital records? There are alternatives.

Church Records

In many instances church records will take over after vital records end. While it is true that you will need to determine the religion of the family, these records may prove useful. There are some denominations, such as Baptist, who did not record childhood baptisms (a replacement for birth records). Before pursuing the church records, you will want to familiarize yourself with the types of records recorded by a given denomination and where they are likely to be found.

Baptisms and burials must be used differently from a birth or death record. If you are lucky, the baptism or burial record will list the actual date of birth or death. However, if it doesn't, then you need to call attention to this in the recording of your information. For instance, when recording a birth based on a baptism date of 23 Mar 1675, without the actual date of birth, you would need to record in your database or on your family group sheet a birth of "bef. 23 Mar 1675." The same is true of burials.

Marriage records are the only ones that are the same date whether they are a civil record or a church record, with a few exceptions. There are times, especially in the 20th century when some military personnel were abroad, that there could actually be two marriage dates — a civil one and a church one. These dates will differ and both are correct. Generally the civil date precedes the church one. In general though, if you are using church records because civil records were not recorded, the date would be the same and require no additional notes.


Newspapers are another alternative to vital records. For those researching in New York during the 1800s, newspapers are often very helpful in finding information on births, marriages, and deaths. There are some multi-volume works that have been published for New York abstracting the vital records found in the newspapers across New York.

While the newspapers may not have been abstracted and published, you will want to pursue this avenue if you are at a standstill with your research. Newspapers for small towns were often more elaborate in the reporting of these events. In general, they had less news to publish and would often write up a little story about the birth or marriage. The obituaries are often written by family members and may include valuable information about parentage or date and place of birth of the deceased.

In Conclusion

While we often rely heavily on vital records, there is no need to panic or assume your research is at a standstill if the vital records do not exist. It may require a little additional leg work, but there are often vital record alternatives that will have the information you need.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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