thrive on finding birth, marriage, and death records. These sources were
normally created on the local level. The most common jurisdiction recording
these kinds of documents was the county. County clerks, county court clerks,
and probate court clerks were the usual scribes. An exception is New England.
There, town clerks kept vital records. Records of births, marriages, and
deaths may date from the middle of the seventeenth century.
Before the institution of probate districts in some areas of New England,
it was the town clerk who also recorded wills. Land records deeds
were also recorded by local town clerks. In the states of the
South and the states between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, most
records were kept by county or county court clerks and begin about the
middle of the eighteenth century. In the West and Southwest, records
begin with settlement of the area by Americans on the move westward.
Near the beginning of the twentieth century, most states mandated
that copies of birth, marriage, and death records be filed with a state
office of vital statistics. Remember, if the vital records of a state
were destroyed at some point, look for copies on the county level. If
a county courthouse was destroyed after about 1900, look for copies
of birth, marriage, and death records at the state office for vital
After the passage of the Social Security Act of 1937, many Americans
found they could not apply for Social Security benefits because they
had no birth certificate. To overcome this problem many persons applied
for delayed birth certificates. The applicant provided witnesses or
some other proof of birth to the county or state officials and received
a birth certificate. These records appear in county and state offices
under the title "delayed births" or "delayed birth certificates." Researchers
may neglect to ask for searches in these records because they generally
begin in about 1940 and appear to be too recent to contain a birth from
the 1880s. In fact, these records contain birth data on many persons
born before 1900. Thomas Kemp's International Vital Records Handbook
(3rd ed., Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1994) provides details
about obtaining copies of birth, marriage, and death records for all
states and many foreign countries.
If you cannot find an ancestor's death date, determine whether or not
the local county clerk's office has probate records or land records
for the time period in which the forebear died. Many people believe
that probate records exist only if a person left a will. Most of our
ancestors died intestate, without wills. Nevertheless, judges in the
local city court, county court, or probate court were required to identify
heirs as well as creditors. The probate packets created to deal with
the deaths of most persons include inventories of personal property
and often a death date. If ancestors owned land, local deed books will
record the transfer of property to heirs. The dates of these transactions
help identify the period in which a person died, and in some instances
a death date may be recorded in the deed book.
How do you find the addresses of town and county clerks and clerks
of local courts? The information can be found online or in any number of genealogy how-to books.