A birth certificate is the result of modern legislated vital registration. It
provides us with the key elements we want for a birth record: full names of
child, father, and mother (maybe with maiden name); exact place and date of
birth. As our research pushes backwards in time, we learn that such records
were never created. What do we do then?
Changing Mind Set
To be realistic, we must restate our goals. We want to find as much "birth information"
as possible, citing the best documents (plural, not singular) available. We
need to be prepared to qualify what we find with weasel words (probably, possibly,
perhaps) and date brackets (before, between, after).
We need to recognize that the most exact source may not be the most accurate,
that we may find conflicting sources, and that we must be prepared to enter
our information in a way that accommodates those realities.
Consider names, dates, and places as discrete information elements related to
the birth. In a modern birth certificate one or more of those elements could
be inaccurate. In 1820 Ohio it is not likely that we will find any document
with all that information. We must seek them separately.
Not only do we need to look for a record substitute for a birth certificate,
we may need to seek out a substitute for the birth event. Substitute birth events
include pregnancy and baptism.
Now that we've restructured our thinking, let's consider the three groups most
likely to have an interest in noting a vital event: family, church, and state.
Their interest in the vital eventand the records createdvaries considerably
based on time, place, and circumstance.
The first family record that comes to mind is a bible record. Bible records
are not created equal. If the entry is made contemporaneous to the birth, it
is more likely to be accurate than a compiled record written generations later.
In other words, your documentation of a bible record should include your analysis
of the handwriting (if you have a photocopy of the original), stating if the
entries were made at different times or at the same time, and identifying the
writer if possible.
Compiled records written by an immediate member of the family group are
usually accurate. Think of where you might find such records. The desk drawer
or cardboard box where important papers or personal memorabilia were saved are
good places to check. Don't assume it will be in a special book or on a pretty
form. My grandparents' family recordgiving birth dates for their parents,
siblings, children, and grandchildrenis on three sheets from a freebie notepad
given out by the Holdrege [Nebraska] Seed & Farm Supply Co., headed (ironically)
"SuperGene Quality Seeds." It spans over a century of births.
The family might have mailed birth announcements to family members, but you
may not find a surviving announcement in the immediate familyask cousins to
check their memorabilia boxes. Baby books became popular in the twentieth century.
In modern times, the family may have sent birth announcements to the local
paper. In the past, the birth of a five-legged calf might have rated newspaper
ink, but not the birth of a healthy baby.
Family and friends were often informed of a birth in letters. Again, the letters
usually survive with the recipient, not the sender. A sister may have noted
in her diary that she received a letter mentioning the birth of her nephew.
Don't limit your search to after the birth. The evidence may be in a letter
from the expectant mother months before the arrival, lamenting the fact that
the baby is expected to arrive at the sultry end of August.
Look for small clues in later records. Be creative. Perhaps you have a black
and white photograph of gawky teenagers with a penciled "Mary age thirteen and
Mark age fourteen at Lovely Lake" and a photo-developing date printed in the
margin. A photo of grandmother holding a baby on her knee tells you that the
baby was born before the grandmother's death.
Birth is not a religious event; baptism or christening is. You need to know
about the beliefs of the church to which the family belonged to understand if
they believed in infant baptism, and how long after the birth it normally took
place. In some denominations, because of the high infant mortality rate, the
baptism would be performed as soon as possible. Other denominations do not believe
that whether or not a person has been baptized determines the state of his or
her soul at death, hence baptisms of older infants and children were typical.
Study the baptismal records in context. Some clearly seem to be recording the
date of birth; others to be recording the date of baptism (only when you are
lucky do they give both). Copy the wording of the entry and any column or section
headings exactly. Analyze several pages of entries. If the dates are in strict
chronological order, have a pattern of dates seven days apart, or if multiple
children are baptized on the same date, this suggests the dates are baptismal.
Not all church records reside with a church. In some cases, the minister may
have carried his own volume in which he recorded baptisms. This was a personal,
not an official, record. It may have ended up with the minister's family, or
it may reside with a church in which he later preached.
There may have been a record made of the mother's "churching," although these
records are rare. This service of readmitting the mother to church after a birth
existed in many denominations. See users.ox.ac.uk/~mikef/church.html
for more information.
In many denominations, children were confirmed and took first communion at about
age thirteen or fourteen. For someone who died before the 1850 census, a confirmation
record may be the best record for approximating birth year.
Except for New England, governments haven't expressed much interest in recording
births until about the second decade of the twentieth century. There was, however,
a flurry of interest in collecting vital statistics in the 1860s in some states.
Almost all of the legislated efforts to require registration of birth and death
were discontinued (in part because of opposition from the populace), with some
revivals of interest occurring in the 1890s.
Although the state might not have taken much interest in a birth, later in an
individual's life they often had an intense interest in the resulta person's
age. As we move further back in time, genealogists find ourselves relying more
and more on statements of age to estimate birth year.
Military pensions seem most likely to provide exact dates and places of birth
for early ancestors, but the information wasn't required. Muster rolls or mustering-in
records sometimes list age.
As we research, our technique should be first to ask "when would this person's
age have mattered or been recorded?" and then look for those records.
We might classify "age" records as:
those on which age was recorded, but not restrictive (i.e., census)
those on which age was recorded and restrictive (i.e., draft)
those on which age was not recorded, but restrictive (i.e., land sale)
Another example in the first category is depositions made in court. This often
is the only age we can find in early New England and early Virginia. Be aware
that these ages may be off by more than one year, perhaps rounded to the nearest
five, but should be in the general time frame.
Not all age restrictions are recorded in government statutes. Many of them derive
from English common law, which is the basis of much of the early legal system
of both the colonial and federal periods. Unless legislation dictated otherwise,
men had full rights at twenty- one, but other actions, such as witnessing documents,
were accepted at earlier ages. For other actions and ages, see the table on
pages 209 and 210 of Arlene H. Eakle's "Court Records" in the Revised Edition
of Ancestry's "The Source."
Consider and evaluate all sources. Records closer to the event may be more accurate,
although less precise. For example, an exact birth date on a tombstone may be
rendered unlikely by a contemporary census entry, requiring us to say, "said
to be born 13 November 1838 (tombstone), but no male under five on 1840 census,
possibly born 13 November 1840."
Although the census in 1850 and 1860 named all of the individuals in a household
and their ages, you cannot assume that the man and woman were married and the
parents of the children. Unless you have other evidence, you'd better use a
weasel word. "Probably" is getting pretty overworked (everything in genealogy
seems to be "probably"), so for the census I often use "apparently." This saves
face when you find that Susan was John's spinster sister, who had graciously
moved in to take care of his motherless children.
Calculating birth year from a stated age in a census or a deposition gets riskier
the further away you get from the event. I knew my age without a doubt when
I was seventeen, but as the decades roll by, I seem to have to do the math in
my head more and more when someone asks my age. I can do math in my head; I
suspect most of my ancestors couldn't.
Parentage and specific place of birth are the elements we may have most difficulty
establishing. This first is usually the primaryand often the most elusivegoal
of genealogical research.
Other than a state given in a census or a locality from a county history (both
of which have high rates of inaccuracy), we may never find a document stating
the place of an individual's birth. We may need to solve the parentage in order
to say "probably" for a locality, citing the place where the parents resided
in the time period. Thus, we may say "born probably in Louisa County, where
his father was paying taxes at the time."
For any time and place, we must stop and consider what types of records would
reasonably have been created by family, church, and state. Beyond that, we must
consider where that same information might have been mentioned, even if it was
not the primary focus of the document.
Patricia Law Hatcher, CG, FASG, is a technical writer, instructor, and professional
genealogist. She has written, edited, and produced numerous publications and
has written articles for The American Genealogist, The Maine Genealogist,
the New Hampshire Genealogical Record, The Virginia Genealogist,
and Ancestry Magazine. She is the author of Producing
a Quality Family History.