Vital records are those records created because of a life event. They give direct evidence on the circumstances of an individual's birth, marriage or death. The term usually brings to mind the modern certificates issued by a central state office. However, with the exception of New Hampshire, which began keeping mandated records of births, marriages, and deaths in 1640, official state vital records are a late nineteenth and twentieth century phenomenon. Despite their late advent on the genealogical research scene, this type of vital record is a very valuable source of information on our nineteenth century ancestors and may even provide information on family members born in the eighteenth century. There are several other classes of vital records that must also be searched: town and county records, church records, cemetery records, and newspapers. Each is treated separately here.
Your first step in searching for a vital record certificate is to determine where that event took place. Family records may give the first clue, but there are also many indexes to vital records. Many of these are now available online. Many have been microfilmed by the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and are available through the local branch of the Family History Center. Other indexes, especially those for New England towns, have been published in book format and may be found at the Library of Congress, a local library or occasionally even online.
Finding your subject in one of these indexes is only the first step. The information in indexes and transcriptions is incomplete and may contain critical errors. You must locate the original record.
Before writing for a copy of the original document from the State Vital Records Office, search for an index to the state's vital records. A Google search using keywords: state name and type of record will yield a list including online indexes as well as background information on available years and ordering requirements. Many state vital records databases can be found through Ancestry.com. Some of these include links to the actual record images. Next, search the Family History Library Catalog for additional indexes and microform copies of the actual certificates. If that microfilm or microfiche exists, order it from your local Family History Center. Not only will you be able to study the original vital record entry for your ancestor, but you will be able to search for all family members in the record books for a fraction of the cost of one vital records certificate.
Alas, the Family History Library has not microfilmed the document you need. You must write to the County Registrar or State Vital Records Office to request a copy. The necessary information on time period covered, addresses, fees and forms can easily be found online at the United States Vital Records Information site. Note that this site contains links to information on obtaining foreign vital records, as well. Information can also be found in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' compilation, Where to Write for Vital Records - Births, Deaths, Marriages and Divorces or in the International Vital Records Handbook, available in most public libraries.
It is important to provide as accurate and complete a description as possible of the record you request. You will be charged a fee, whether or not the search is successful. The more information you can provide when requesting a record, the more likely you are to receive your record. Request forms may be found online or in the International Vital Records Handbook. If no form is available, write a clear and concise letter of request to the repository. This request for a birth, marriage or death certificate should include:
Remember that these official vital records are expensive to obtain. Solving a "brick wall" problem may require finding birth, marriage and death certificates for most family members. A thorough search using only these sources may be cost-prohibitive, so try to find as much information as possible about collateral families from less expensive sources, reserving the more expensive certificates for key family members.
The information found on a vital record certificate varies depending on the time period and the location. As with most genealogical sources, the more recent the record, the more information it contains. In this country, the death certificate seems to contain the greatest amount of information about an individual. Information usually includes: name, address, Social Security number, age at death, cause of death, death date and place, birth date and place, names and birthplaces of parents, occupation, marital status, spouse, attending physician, burial date and place, funeral home, and a very important category: informant. The quality of the genealogical information found on a death certificate will depend on the knowledge of this informant. If the informant is only distantly related, much of the genealogical information will be suspect. When searching for the death certificate of a female ancestor, remember that it will be found under her surname at the time of death. Your widowed grandmother may have remarried. If you do not know the surname of her husband at the time of her death, you will be unable to locate her death certificate.
Free online indexes to death certificates may contain links to the actual certificate images themselves. Arizona, Georgia, Missouri, Utah, Washington, and West Virginia are among the states now providing this service. When searching for death records in the last half of the twentieth century, the Social Security Death Index should be your first choice. Although not an all-inclusive record series, this is an nation-wide index and is especially useful if the place of death is unknown, and may even be helpful when searching for clues to a remarriage. The Social Security Administration maintains an excellent website with information on its history, the various Social Security Acts, and its special collections. A link to this site is on the left.
In addition to the actual marriage record, don't forget to search for the marriage license application. This record usually provides more information about the bride and groom. Free and subscription online indexes for both marriage and divorce records exist. If you can't find a marriage record, remember that a divorce record is just as useful.
Birth certificates in this country are the least informative of all vital records. Privacy concerns, as well as increased security restrictions, have only diminished their value. Nevertheless, many states still provide online indexes and a few include links to certificate images.
Although modern vital records in this country are maintained by a central state repository, the initial registration of a birth, marriage or death usually takes place on the county level. In most states, county registrars maintained a record of these events before state laws requiring these records were passed. In the New England states, these vital records were maintained at the town level.
If you are searching for a vital record that predates record-keeping by the state, you must obtain that record, if it exists, from the town clerk or county registrar. Fees charged by these jurisdictions are usually less than those charged by the state. Some counties and towns maintain online indexes to vital records. Links to these official sites are most easily found through CyndisList.com or through the relevant USGenWeb county site. In addition, many of these early county and town registers have been microfilmed by the Family History Library. Before you spend a lot of money requesting these records, check for microfilm copies at the local Family History Library. Searching the registers for all members of your family is not only less expensive than writing for certified copies, it is also much more productive. Note that the record you will receive in response to a written request will usually be a transcribed or abstracted copy of the record, not a photocopy of the original register page.
The church registers of baptisms, marriages, and burials may predate state vital records by centuries, but there are many problems in using these records. First, you must determine to what church your ancestor belonged. Then, you must locate the records of that church. Unlike vital records registers and certificates, church records are seldom found online. Check CyndisList.com and the appropriate USGenWeb county site for possible indexes. Published records may be found at Ancestry.com, HeritageQuest, or through a Google Books, OCLC, or Library of Congress catalog search.
The final problem encountered in the use of church records is understanding those records. You must become familiar with the doctrine of the church in question. For instance, if the church did not practice infant baptism, you may make serious errors in assigning birthdates to ancestors. Use the Internet as your first source for background information on a religion.
There is excellent information online on the use of church records in genealogical research. Read Val D. Greenwood's excellent article, " Locating Church Records." RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees is a fine series of research tutorials. Lesson 17 covers Church Records.
Cemeteries and their associated records are among the most familiar sources for vital records information. There are four basic types of cemeteries: church burial yards, family burial plots, public cemeteries, and commercial cemeteries.
Many cemeteries have been transcribed by local genealogical and historical societies, and tombstone photographs appear online constantly. Conduct a search of derivative sources to locate these records. Online, begin your search with the USGenWeb's Tombstone Transcription Project. A second online source is Interment.net's Cemetery Transcription Library. Their section dealing with United States Veterans Cemeteries is good, but note that most other cemeteries are only partially transcribed. Not all genealogy sources come nicely labeled as such. Many tombstone photographs have been uploaded to Flickr. Access to these photographs is not convenient, however. Search "Groups" for location and class, such as "Revolutionary War."
Many cemeteries maintain their own websites. These sites may contain indexes to burials, plat maps, obituary archives, and even tombstone photographs. Find these sites with a Google search using location and cemetery name. Here are a few examples I've run across in my research.
Don't forget that families tend to be buried together. Just as you should identify all members of a census household, or all witnesses to a deed or will, you should identify all people buried near your ancestor and all people in the cemetery sharing your ancestor's surname. Many of them will be relatives.
Newspapers also provide vital record information, but their content will vary greatly according to location and time period. In addition to obituaries, search for death notices, annual death lists, casualty lists, and headline stories. Marriages may be found in marriage license notices as well as marriage announcements. Divorces and separation notices will also be found in newspapers. Birth announcements were not as commonly found in early newspapers, but may still appear in local news items or yearly lists of births.
Although many published newspaper indexes do exist, they fall far short of every name indexes. Be advised that an obituary index does not include the many death notices that will be found in the newspaper. When searching for vital records in a newspaper, note that the placement of news items depended on space available, not on logical organization. You must be prepared to read each newspaper thoroughly. If more than one newspaper was published in the area, check all available copies. What is not found in one newspaper may be found easily in another.
To find copies of newspapers, check the local library, county library, state archives or library, and any area university library or historical society. The United States Newspaper Program is an on-going effort to locate, catalog, and microfilm all local newspapers, so the odds of finding copies are particularly good. Clarence S. Brigham's History and Bibliography of American Newspapers 1690-1820 and Winifred Gregory's American Newspapers, 1821-1936: A Union List of Files... cover the early years. The Library of Congress published Newspapers in Microform, which covers the years 1948 - 1983, and includes a listing of foreign newspapers for the same time period. Although the price list will terrify you, one of the best sources for identifying newspapers is University Microfilms International's Serials in Microform Catalog. When you find a newspaper of interest in this catalog, search WorldCat for a library whose holdings include that newspaper. If you can't visit the library yourself, investigate the possibility of an interlibrary loan. The National Digital Newspaper Program is an outgrowth of the USNP. The beta version of this program, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, is available online through the Library of Congress. It includes a limited number of newspaper pages from 1860 to 1922 and an extensive directory of American newspapers from 1690 to the present.
Many current newspapers have online editions that may include obituary archives. Begin your search for these more recent obituaries with RootsWeb's Obituary Daily Times. Another important source for modern obituaries is Legacy.com. Obituaries don't stay there forever, though, so be sure to print out a copy for your records. Several states and counties have digitized historic newspapers and placed them online. A Google with the term digital newspapers coupled with the word historic and a location may uncover some of these sites. The most up-to-date list I've found for these projects is maintained by the International Coalition on Newspapers (ICON), but Wikipedia's "List of online newspaper archives" should be investigated, also. Indexes to these images have been created by optical character recognition (OCR) software and vary with the newspaper's image quality, so be imaginative in searching them. Use a surname coupled with words like died, married or obituary. Search for an address rather than a name, or limit your searches by date and browse page by page.
Currently, the bulk of digitized newspapers are available only through subscription sites. If you don't have a personal subscription to some of these sites, your local library or local family history center may provide free access to some or all of these major databases:
Each state in this country has a State Archives that is the repository for all records 'of permanent value' created by the state. In addition to government created documents, these state archives are frequently the repository for church records, colonial records, land records, probate records, censuses, military records, and newspapers. All state archives maintain home pages on the Internet where you will be able to find information about location, hours, holdings, copying fees, and research fees. Some of these web sites also contain shelf lists of holdings, inventories, and guides. The Maryland State Archives web site is a very good example of the information that may be available. Any research trip to another state should include a well-planned visit to that state's Archives.
To illustrate the importance of searching all vital records sources, consider the search for evidence documenting a marriage. Direct evidence can be found in any of the following sources. Not all of them exist for each person; and none of them, when taken alone, would tell a complete story. The class lecture will illustrate some of the misunderstandings which may occur if all sources are not considered.
This list, in addition to the sites mentioned in the text, illustrates the growing number of free online finding aids for vital records. It is not meant to be an all-inclusive list. Please notify me if you find other links you think should be included here.
You're already familiar with several of these sources from the class on derivative documents. Find these publications through title and keyword searches. Location is usually the best keyword.