United States Vital Records
As we discussed in the previous lesson, family researchers in the United States may simply refer to vital records as birth, marriage, or death records. The government may classify them as vital records or vital statistics. Our U.S. states may classify them as Health Department records and other countries refer to them as civil registration.
More entities than we may first realize have responsibilities for maintaining these records. While we may be aware of State Boards of Health, there are also city workers, military personnel, hospital workers, and others who must also oversee the keeping of these records.
Electronic and Printed Versions
This record group has found its way into print -- both traditionally and electronically. There are at least five great values to printed vital records over microfilmed or original versions.
- They can serve as a finding aid for other information. Quick access to information is available for genealogists.
- They are easier to read than originals.
- If electronically entered, they can often be searched in unique ways.
- When originals have been destroyed, these printed sources become invaluable.
However, there are some cautions to keep in mind when using printed vital records. A few of these include:
- Limited coverage is usually available due to privacy laws for most areas.
- An every-name index is not often available in early publications.
- The complete citation is rarely given, so they are often finding aids only, and the original must still be ordered.
- Many transcribers are untrained in paleography and nicknames, so frequent transcription, interpretation, or typographical errors may be found.
- Sometimes dating inaccuracies are found for the previous reason as well.
Even with their limitations, all researchers are anxious to find electronic and printed sources of vital records because, frankly, they speed up the process so much.
In 1994, Thomas J. Kemp produced a book which made it so much easier for genealogists to locate vital records, not only in the United States but worldwide. It was called the Vital Records Handbook International. With its up-to-date addresses, localities, requirements regarding information and fees necessary for each repository, and the easy-to-use forms he produced for ordering the records, it was a
bestseller. Today we can use the Internet to order many vital records, especially marriage and death records.
Vital Record Characteristics
As we discussed in the last lesson, looking at the latest event (death) first on someone we are researching often yields information of benefit on the other vital information (marriage and birth) we are seeking. Even interments reported to the Board of Health can provide the locality of death, parents, name of at least one descendant, age, date and burial ground.
As already covered in previous lessons of Your Great Ancestral Hunt series, American Vital Records are limited but Vital Record substitutes often provide the information sought after. For example, marriage dates may be found in a multitude of sources besides actual marriage records including:
- Court records.
- Legislative records.
- Home sources.
- Private collections such as Bible and family papers.
Marriage records are some of the most popular sources in electronic format. But we must caution users who are aware of studies conducted on original printed sources before they were put into electronic format. These studies prove that we should not make too many assumptions from what we find -- or do not find, for that matter -- in printed sources.
For example, researchers calculated the marriage rate in a county as provided in other sources such as federal census records, with that number which appeared in a printed marriage source for the same region and found that only one in seven of the individuals who married in the county, were actually listed in the marriage record. This occurs for various reasons and it reinforces the idea that many sources should be searched if your own research comes up against a "brick wall." One should not accept as fact that your ancestor was never in an area just because he or she is missing in a printed (or electronic) source. Just take it for its face value -- the ancestor was not listed in that source (assuming you have searched all name variants, possible transposition of characters, and other items mentioned previously). The vital record may be recorded in another source for the same area if you have a strong reason to think so (such as locating the person in the same county buying property before and after the event).
Also be sure to read the introduction to anyone's collection. Great insights into the types of records used, any problems with the records, specifically who was included or excluded, and historical background might be included in this introduction. A student purchased a CD several years ago and used it for over six months to search for numerous family marriages covering all letters of the alphabet. It wasn't until the end of that time that the student realized that the reason they were having trouble finding anyone near the end of the alphabet, was that the CD only covered A to G. They hadn't read the small print. For a more in -- depth study of printed vital records which could apply to electronic publications on the Internet or CD-ROM vital records, read the chapter on vital records in Printed Sources, (Kory Meyerink, Editor, Ancestry, Inc. publisher).
Large vital record projects have been undertaken by genealogy societies, and many statewide vital record indexes are becoming available by knowledgeable genealogists. These wonderful resources make it possible to locate an individual when you do not know the county he or she might have been married in. Just a few examples of vital records which are in print include New Jersey Marriage Records 1665-1800, New England Marriages Prior to 1700, Register of Burials in District of Columbia Cemeteries, 1847-1938, and 37,000 Early Georgia Marriages. Genealogical Publishing Company in Baltimore, Maryland provides the largest collection of vital records in published format.
You may have noticed that most of these published sources cover early years because rights of privacy laws preclude using vital record information which might cause any damages to those who are still alive. What this also means, is that the further back in time you go on your family, the more likely others have been there before you, and some of them may have taken the time to make the path easier for you to trod by indexing some of the records for you.
Accurate use of vital records in an area includes using them broadly. Often more than one family in an area has the same family name. Because the same children's given names are often used in every family, several children with the same given and family names could be born within a few years of each other. It becomes necessary to "unwind the tangled branches" of the family. To identify the correct direct-line ancestor and his or her parents follow some of these simple rules:
- Check 5 years on each side of the supposed birth year, and copy the entry of every child with the same given name and surname as the ancestor.
- If one or more entries exist, check area death records to eliminate those entries of children that died before your ancestor.
- If death records do not exist or you are not able to eliminate all of the possible entries, check marriage records to eliminate those who married someone other than your ancestor's spouse.
- If you still cannot eliminate two or more possibilities, trace all lines to see if they go back to a common ancestor. Then continue research back from the common ancestor.
- If you eliminate all the possibilities, check the surrounding area, and repeat the above process until you find the birth entry for your ancestor.
Since death records are open to the public long before birth and sometimes before marriage records, don’t overlook the possibility that death records may contain birth and marriage information not available anywhere else. Even if you know the death date of someone, obtain the death record for other leads that might be given to you such as newspapers, funeral home, church, cemetery, and probate records. Since each record was created for a different purpose, any one of them could give new family information.
Does this mean you should search for other records when you have already found the date you want in one record? Yes, it is wise to search all possible records. This is why we are focusing on record groups in this online course. Any record created around the death of your ancestor helps to identify the place where your ancestor last lived, which could open the door to additional records for that place that may mention your ancestor. Your ancestor's death is more recent than his birth or marriage. In addition, more recent records give more information than earlier records. For example, death records after 1907 often contain birth, marriage, and burial information as well as death information. It is usually best to work from recent events backward, from the known to the unknown.
How to Obtain Vital Records
There are many finding aids available for you today. Vital records are available on the Internet at Genealogy.com by clicking on "Reference Materials" then going down to "Research Directory" and then clicking on "United States Map-State Resources" which provides a map of the United States. Merely select the state you are interested in for the most current addresses, phone numbers and fees for ordering vital records. If you want the address for the counties, go back to the "Research Directory" and click on "County Resources."
If you want to locate vital records online, use this site as well by clicking on "Helpful Web Sites" and typing in the word "vital records" to search on. Other search engines will help as well, but you don't have to go far by using what is available here.
If you have Canadian ancestors, stay tuned for the next lesson on Civil Registrations in Canada. In the meantime, check out the assignment below.
Locate one CD-ROM Vital Record example and compare it against its parent product in printed format. For example you may find a collection of marriages in book format and on CD. Ask yourself these questions:
- Do both have an introduction?
- What did you learn from the introduction?
- What are the limitations to the collection in printed version?
- What are the limitations to the collection in electronic version?
- Are their things you can do with a printed version you cannot do with an electronic version? How about if that question were reversed?
- Pick out several references. If you have access to the original records from which theses were derived, compare them to the original. Are the essential facts included? Are any omissions found. If so, were they mentioned in the front of the reference?
- If this is a printed index, compare several references in the book to see if they actually appear in the index. Are witnesses or others included in the index if they are in the record itself in the printed index? If they are not, does the introduction or cover indicate this is the case?
- Now compare the electronic version. Are witnesses or others included in the search if they are in the record itself in the electronic text? If they are not included, does the cover indicate this is the case?
- What do you know about the reputation of the editor and publisher? Are they reputable?
About Genealogy Research Associates
Karen Clifford is the Founder and President of Genealogy Research Associates. She is an Accredited Genealogist, an instructor in an Associates Degree program in Library Science-Genealogy and Computers at Hartnell College (Salinas, California) and Monterey Peninsula College (Monterey, California). She has authored several family histories and textbooks including Genealogy & Computers for the Complete Beginner; Genealogy & Computers for the Determined Researcher; Genealogy & Computers for the Advanced Researcher, and Becoming an Accredited Genealogist.
Karen currently serves as Vice-president of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) and Vice-president of the Utah Genealogical Association (UGA). She is a member of the California State Genealogy Alliance, the Association of Professional Genealogists, the National Genealogical Society, and the New England Historic Genealogical Society. In 1998 and 1999, Karen served as Director of UGA's Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy.
She has received several awards for her volunteer work in the genealogy community including the FGS Award of Merit and the FGS Outstanding Delegate Award.