Vital Records


In the United States, vital records for births, marriages, and deaths are a major source for genealogical material. Birth records in modern times, for example, usually have the names, residence, and perhaps the ages and birthplaces of the parents. Death records may include birth information, cause of death, names of parents, and the name of a relative or friend who was the informant.

In colonial times, records may have been kept at the town level. Later the counties took over this function, and more recently vital records are kept at the state level. Some large cities keep their own records. There is no set date when the records began to be kept at any level. In the United States, we have over three thousand counties and each had its own laws, policies, and procedures about keeping records. Some of the eastern and southern states have vital records as far back as the 1600s.  Some places didn’t keep records until the 1900s. Some started and stopped again before resuming collection. Your ancestor may have been born in a place that has since changed its name. Your ancestor may have filed for a “delayed birth certificate,” if he or she were born before the government recorded vital statistics.

Foreign countries kept vital records as well. Often these are kept at the village level by the parish priest.

The more detail you give us, the better your odds are that we can find a record. A full name, including any nicknames, exact dates and places, will help you get the answer you need. It is common for names, however unusual, to be used again and again by different branches of the family. Janna Larson researches the Bennington surname. In her files she has 213 men named John Bennington who were alive during the decade 1850-1860 and 34 men named Clarence Bennington.

Birth Records

Many years ago, the states were not required to keep vital records. Fortunately, many did keep these records on their own. It wasn't until the early 1900s that the federal government made it a law that states must keep birth and death records. Records before the federal law were usually kept at the county level.

Birth records for living people are usually confidential. You can send for your own birth record or the birth records of your children by writing to the vital records office in the state where you or your children were born. To obtain birth records for deceased parents or grandparents you may be asked to show your relationship to these people. Most states have a cut-off date for when vital records become public records and you do not have to be a direct descendant to receive copies of these documents. The usual cut-off date is seventy-five years or longer after the date of birth depending on state regulations and fifty years or longer for death records.

Help Me!  Find out if civil birth records exist for my location and time period.

Help Me!  Find the correct address for the vital records office, tell me if a form is required, and how much to send.

Help Me!  Find a vital records substitute.

Help Me!  I have written to the county courthouse for a birth record for my ancestor, they say that the courthouse burned. How can I find a date of birth?

To ask these or similar questions, click on Help Me!, fill out the form that comes up, and submit your questions.

 

Marriage Records

Marriage records are public. Anyone can find out when and where someone was married and whom that person married. A few states have indexed their records, but generally you will need to know at least the name of the county, and in some cases, the name of the city in which the marriage occurred. It helps to be equally specific about the date. Marriage records are often recorded in municipal and county courthouses. These records are eventually sent to the vital records office of the state. If the marriage was long ago and you do not know the town, you may find the marriage record at the state level. For information on how to locate a marriage record let Janna find the information for you.

Help Me!  My great-great-grandparents were married “such and such a town” in 1857, can you find a marriage record for me?

Help Me!  I can’t remember when or where my grandmother and grandfather married or where. Do you have a suggestion about what I should do first to find this information?

To ask these or similar questions, click on Help Me!, fill out the form that comes up, and submit your questions.

 

Divorce Records

You may have the impression that there were no divorces in early America, but that isn't the case. Divorce has always been with us, and valuable genealogical clues may be hidden in the records.

Many divorces occurred during and after wars. Divorce records can be tricky to find if you don't know the court of jurisdiction. They may have been granted at any level from the governor's office to a domestic court. Churches may be involved in the process as well. Many types of records may be available, including statements as to grounds, depositions by persons familiar with the circumstances, annulment, legal separation, damages, division of property, alimony, child support and custody, and published notices.

Last but not least, divorces are often sought in a county remote from the residence of the parties. Some states, counties or cities became known as "divorce Meccas" because of short residency requirements or low fees. One of Janna's ancestors separated, got a divorce, remarried and never told his first wife. He had moved to Iowa; she returned with her seven children to Pennsylvania to live with her parents. The unfortunate woman found out after he died when she applied for, and was denied, a Civil War pension based on his service. The hefty Civil War pension file turned out to be a gold mine of information.

Help Me!  Find a divorce record for my ancestor.

Help Me!  Learn what courts of jurisdiction may apply to my grandparent’s divorce case.

To ask these or similar questions, click on Help Me!, fill out the form that comes up, and submit your questions.

 

Death Records

Death records are usually confidential for a number of years after the death of a person. To obtain death records for deceased parents or grandparents you may be asked to show, in writing, your relationship to the people for whom you are requesting a record, i.e., submit a pedigree chart and a copy of a photo identification card such as a driver’s license. Most states have a cut-off date for when death records become public records, at that time you do not have to be a direct descendant to receive copies of these documents. The date is often fifty years or longer after the date of death depending on state regulations. Some states, such as California, Texas, Maine, and Kentucky have death records online up to recent times.

Help Me!  My ancestor died in a particular county in 1857 but the courthouse does not have the record. What can I do?

Help Me!  I have tried everything I can think of, where can I find a death record substitute?

To ask these or similar questions, click on Help Me!, fill out the form that comes up, and submit your questions.