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Overheard on the Message Boards: Requesting Vital Records
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

September 19, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Before I send off $18 for marriage information about my ancestors, could anyone answer the following questions:

  • Can I get record of a marriage that took place in 1876 if I don't have any documentation that proves this is my relative?
  • What exactly will be on the record? If it makes a difference between states, I am requesting one from Branch Co., MI.
  • Aside from their names and the wedding date, will I learn the location, parent names, birthplaces, witnesses, minister? (The names of the parents are what I am looking for.)
  • What exactly will I be getting? Will it be a copy of the certificate?                                    -- B Baker

A: Genealogists have been paying for copies of vital records for years. For many of those years genealogists got these records for little cost. Recently, though, some courthouses and archives have raised their rates leading us to question whether requesting the record is worth it.

In addition to the rates that the archives and courthouses are charging, genealogists are now discovering that for a few extra dollars, the records can be ordered online using credit cards. This offers a much faster turnaround for the request since you can sometimes receive a record within a few days. Of course, the researcher wants to know that what he is getting is worth the cost.

Are vital records worth the price?

What to Expect

Vital records vary from state to state, even county to county within a state. A lot depends on when the record was recorded and the laws of the state or county of that time. There are different types of records created over the years as well.

Even within a county you may find that some of the marriages are found in registers, whereas others are found as certificates or licenses. There are often differences from one record to the other. These differences will change the information found and how useful the record will be. You are hoping for absolutes and seldom do we get such absolutes.

While we hope to find all the information you mentioned, there are times when the only information we get is the names of the bride and groom and the date of the marriage. This is especially true of early registers of marriage. Sometimes the ministers name will also be listed in these early registers. In the case of Branch County, Missouri, for 1876, this is what you will find.

Saving Money

While you have mentioned that it will cost $18.00 for a copy of the vital record, there may be another way that will help you save money. Getting the record through your Family History Center.

If you are unfamiliar with Family History Centers, they are the branches of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. The Family History Library offers genealogists access to records from around the world through their microfilming. While they have a large collections of books as well, these cannot be borrowed to your local Family History Center.

Family History Centers are available worldwide. They can be found in local chapels of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but they are open to the public for anyone interested in researching their family history. Through your local Family History Center you can borrow the needed microfilms for 30 days, 90 days or indefinitely. Each length of time has a different minimal cost associated with it, that is basically to cover the cost of processing and mailing the films from Salt Lake City to your Family History Center.

The Family History Library is actively microfilming around the world, so researchers are encouraged to check back from to time to time if they discover that records for their time period or location are not presently available on microfilm.

Branch County, Michigan

A search of the Family History Library Catalog revealed that there are number of resources available at the Family History Library for Branch County, Michigan. Under the Vital Records heading they have eight entries. Some of them are books, but they also have birth and marriage records available on microfilm. These are the vital records found in the county courthouse. For marriages they offer a set of four microfilms that you will find most interesting

  • Index to brides, 1921-1970, Index 1833-1920 - film no. 930795
  • Record of marriages v. A-C 1833-1898 - film no. 930796
  • Record of marriages v. D-F 1863-1915 - film no. 930797
  • Record of marriages v. G 1887-1906 - 930798

While I would suggest that you order the index first, you might want to save waiting time and order the first three films. The years of the marriage record volumes cover the period you are interested in. The index will save you time by telling you which volume the marriage took place in, but you may find that others in your family were married there. Having all the films at your local Family History Center at the same time may reveal information about a number of individuals instead of just the two you are currently seeking.

At the present time, the fees for borrowing the microfilms to your local Family History Center are about $3.50 to $4.00 a film. Even if you order all three films, you are still getting the information for less than you would be paying if you order the one marriage record from the county courthouse.

Finally, working the microfilmed records is like going to the county courthouse and looking at the original volume. You were concerned with whether or not you would get a copy of the original, viewing the information on microfilm ensures that you are viewing the original record. While most county courthouses send photocopies of their records, there are a few that use a form to abstract the information to, which means you don't get to see the record, nor do you get to decide what information you feel is important.

In Conclusion

While I have often ordered vital records from the county courthouse or town hall, I make it a point to check the Family History Library Catalog first to see if the records I need are available on microfilm. Invariably the cost of getting the microfilm is cheaper than if I write away for the vital record.

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 rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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