Genealogy: Researching civil vital records

Researching civil vital recordsVital RecordsBy Barry J. Ewell

Civil vital records—for births, deaths, marriages, and, sometimes, divorces—denote the key milestones of our lives and are the cornerstone of family history research. Vital records can offer details often found through no other genealogical resource. Adoption records are also considered to be vital records but will not be covered in this section.

What you will find. The following is a brief overview of what you will find in vital records.

Birth records. Birth records are considered primary source records because they are completed at, or close to, the time of the birth by someone who was present at the birth. Birth records generally give the child’s name, sex, date and place of birth, and the names of the parent. Additional information can include the name of the hospital, birthplace of parents, occupation of the parents, marital status of the mother, and the number of other children born to the mother.

Marriage records. Marriage records are primary source records because they are completed at, or close to, the time of the marriage by someone who was present at the marriage. A marriage record can provide the age at time of marriage, church of marriage ceremony, county where the marriage took place, date or place of birth for bride and groom, date of the marriage, full names of bride and groom, name of minister or priest, names and birthplaces of the bride’s and groom’s parents, names of the witnesses to the marriage (often relatives), occupation, residence of the parties, and whether single, widowed, or divorced prior to the marriage.

Marriages are usually filed with each county court. Some counties may have given their early marriage records to the historical society.

Death records. Death records are especially helpful because they are the most recent record available about an ancestor and may often exist for persons who have no birth or marriage records. Keep in mind that most of the information on the death certificate is provided by a person who knew the deceased, thus it is considered a secondary source for information such as the birthplace, birth date, and parents’ names of the deceased.

The death certificate can provide information such as age at death, cause of death, date or place of birth, date or place of burial, details about the length of illness (if applicable), disposition of cremated remains, exact time of death, how long they lived in that country or location, maiden name (for deceased woman), marital status at the time of death (single, married, widowed or divorced), name of surviving spouse, name (and sometimes address) of informant (frequently a surviving spouse, child, or other close relative), name and location of mortuary, names of parents, occupation or name of employer, residence of the deceased, religious affiliation, signature of attending physician, and witnesses at the time of death.

Divorce records. Divorces before the twentieth century were uncommon and in some places illegal. Records of divorces contain data on family members, their marital history, their property, residences, and dates of other important events such as the children’s births. Divorce records are primary source records for the information on property, living children, age of husband and wife, and date of divorce, and they are secondary source records for information on the marriage, birth dates of children, and so on. Divorce records are often open to the public and can be obtained by contacting the clerk of the court.

Civil Vital Records Research insight
It is important to know that vital record searches are most useful for finding relatively recent information. Most US states did not assume legal responsibility for vital records until around 1900. The first state to start keeping vital records was Massachusetts in 1841, and the last was New Mexico in 1920.

One of the most important details about a birth, marriage, or death record is the person providing the information. This person varies, and, therefore, the accuracy of the information varies. A parent may give the information on their child’s birth record. A bride or groom will usually provide the information for the marriage record, and the widow or nearest family member may give information on a death record. It is also possible for non-related persons to give information on any and all of these types of records. Many records will provide the name of the informant toward the bottom of the form.

Always start your vital record search with the death-related records. It’s the most recent event in your ancestor’s life. You usually learn where your ancestor last lived, which provides a starting point for where to look for other records. Death records also include birth and marriage information. Other key death-related records include burial and probate records. As a practice, also search the death records of your ancestor’s siblings if available. I have found key pieces of information in them that was lacking in my ancestor’s records.

I make it a practice to ask myself the following questions to make the most of the information I find when reviewing vital records:

  • What dates does this record provide?
  • What ages are given?
  • What places are mentioned in this record?
  • Are parents or a spouse named?
  • Are witnesses to the event related to the family?
  • Who provided the information? Was that person someone who knew the family well?
  • Does the death record give the name of the cemetery or funeral home? If yes, see if cemetery records are available to search for more information.
  • Does the information from the record fit with what you know about the family from other records? If not, it may have been miscopied by a clerk. Check the sources.

Where to find civil vital records. Each state has the equivalent of a bureau of vital records. It’s generally called the “Bureau of Vital Statistics,” “Division of Records and Statistics,” “Division of Public Health,” “Vital Records Division,” or some similar title. No matter the name, the state agency is where you go to obtain birth, marriage, and death certificate. Historical and genealogical societies are an important resource for vital records prior to the state’s date of taking legal responsibility for vital records.


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