Vital Record Articles

Vital Records

Vital Records
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Vital Record Articles

1. Vital Information Without Vital Registration - Birth Records - Patricia Law Hatcher, CG, FASG
2. Vital Records in the United States - Kip Sperry
3. Beyond Vital Records - Curt B. Witcher
4. Vital Information without Vital Registration - Marriage & Death Records - Patricia Law Hatcher, CG, FASG
5. State Vital Records Links

Beyond Vital Records - Curt B. Witcher

Among the records that come to mind when researching family history are vital records. These documents are the ones to which we most often look to pull together our family groups. But often, family historians are so focused on actual civil vital records that they miss the multitude of other records that are available to help document births, marriages, deaths, and other life events of our ancestors.

Don't become greatly sidetracked by a burned courthouse or a jurisdiction that did not mandate civil vital record registration until very late. There are a host of other sources that can provide important data to assist us in discovering the lives of our ancestors.

Church Records
When searching for vital information, always look in both civil records and church records. In many areas, there is the strong possibility that when civil records cannot be located, church records will be available to fill the void. Used as complements to each other, church and vital records can provide wonderful detail.

Church baptismal records, depending on the time period and denomination, can provide parents' names, the date of the event and date of birth, and the sponsors or godparents. Initiation records of other denominations can also provide birth information. While church marriage records typically provide the date of the marriage along with naming the bride and groom, they can also list sponsors or witnesses that may be family members. For some denominations during particular time periods, marriage banns had to be published a number of times before the wedding could actually take place. These notifications can be used to help fill a record void. And the burial registers of many churches provide death dates and important cemetery information. Further, if the church had its own burial ground, explore an ancestor's burial plot along with the plots around it for potential information.

If you widen the definition of church records to include programs, bulletins, financial records, vestry and other congregational minutes, and published monographs, the possibilities of finding additional data greatly increases. Churches that have existed for a substantial number of years may have had books published about their histories. In the process of researching these publications, documents that detail the lives of church members and the clergy are often reconstituted from various archives and private collections. Well-researched and properly documented church histories can provide rich veins of additional data about congregation members and their families.

Numerous places can be explored when searching for church records. The obvious place to contact for original records is the church where the event took place, if it is still extant. For published histories, the local public library and state library are the best places to contact first. Virtually all of these libraries have useful Web sites and online catalogs. Local historical societies and museum libraries should also be consulted for both published and manuscript materials of a particular church or denomination.

Township Records
The records of township trustees, county commissioners, and other significant officials of smaller jurisdictions should also be sought as a source. As an example, among the records kept by township trustee George William Hanes of Wilmington Township, DeKalb County, Indiana (1882-1903) are dozens of Records of Transfers. These documents detail official approvals given for students in one township to attend school in a neighboring township.

Pay careful attention to data written above and below the lines or in the margins; this information can net some very significant finds. For example, in a 1900 transfer, L. E. McClellan is petitioning that his son Floyd be allowed to attend the Butler School in Butler Township. While providing information on exactly where the family lives and why the petition is being heard (the family is closer to the Butler School and the road to that school is better than the road to the school in Wilmington Township), the petition also provides a useful surprise. Half in the margin and half scribbled in between two lines on the form is the birthdate of Floyd McClellan, 4 March 1886. Most of the transfers don't list the ages of the children involved, but this one and a few others do.

School Records
There are numerous types of school records. Payment ledgers, enrollment records, class rosters, grade lists, yearbooks, and special event programs are a few of the records that can help family historians. Early- to mid-twentieth century enrollment records frequently provide the name of the student, the school the student is attending, the name of a parent (usually the father), and the date of birth. These school documents can be especially important when vital records have been lost, destroyed by natural disaster, or closed due to the implementation of some law or code. School enrollment records used over a period of years in a particular location can be one of the more important sources in putting together family groups.

Depending on the teacher, the attendance sheets and grade books can provide more than grades and checkmarks. Written on the early twentieth century attendance sheets for a Jackson township, Allen County, Indiana, school are the rather significant (and sometimes fun) comments.

  • Marcia Gerardot, absent to "take care of baby"

  • "The Lopshire children have been very sick with tonsillitis."

  • "Toth's children left school to move to Pennsylvania."

  • Two Lopshire children: "Death in family."

  • Zelpha Lenington: "age 11 Birthday Sept. 17, 1919."

  • Comment made next to group of children: "Stayed out to work. They are foreigners. I told them I would report them and they came."

  • Some students had the desired "promoted" next to their names, while others received additional comments such as "dull and lazy" and "rather simple."

    The same strategy used to find the widest range of church records should be employed when seeking township records and school records. Check with the particular school or government office if it still exists. Then consult the collections of the local public library, the local historical societies and museums, as well as the state library. 

    Local Government Documents
    Potential sources for a marriage, birth, or death information should also be sought in local government documents. For a number of towns, typically New England towns and smaller villages in the Midwest, the annual reports can be a rewarding source. If you look in the appendixes of those reports, you may find complete listings of individuals who were born, married, and died in those towns.

    The Annual Report of the Selectmen and Other Town Officers of Charlestown, New Hampshire for the Year Ending February 15, 1915 has a robust listing of vital data. There are three separate sections detailing all those who were born, married, and died during 1914. If you are interested in marriage records, the exact date of the marriage is given as well as the place of marriage. Following that data are the names of each party (maiden name of the female), his or her residence at the time of marriage, age, color, birthplace, names and birthplaces of both sets of parents, the number of the current marriage, and the name and address with official station of the person by whom the couple was married. 

    While not all town annual reports contain this much individual data, and certainly not all towns even have annual reports, it is worth it to seek them out. Researchers can find town and village annual reports in the history collections of local public libraries as well as in the local history collections of state libraries. As most state libraries have significant Web sites and online catalogs, finding them may be easier than you would expect. 

    When you search for official town records and reports, remember that local newspapers have historically been the publications that chronicle the lives of local citizens and detail the activities of organizations and institutions in a community. Much vital data can be found in local papers.

    Frequently when looking at newspapers older than the mid-twentieth century, you can find much more than obituaries. A 1926 edition of the Auburn, Indiana Chatterbox reports that Eva Myers is a patient at the Sanders hospital and that she had an operation for appendicitis. It also states that Kenneth Warstler, a cousin of Edith Warstler, visited her school, and that L. P. Blue and his family moved from Main Street in Auburn to a farm four miles north of the city. 

    Remember that older obituaries can provide more than death-related data; they are often the story of an individual's life. Some obituaries contain important information about when the wedding bells rang for the individual, and data about the spouse. A 1955 Jasper Herald obituary for my paternal grandfather, Valentine Witcher, not only details his untimely illness and death, but it lists his parents (including his mother's maiden name), his exact date and place of birth, where he worked, and his wife with her maiden name and the exact date of their marriage. Together with the name of the church where the funeral took place, the funeral home, the cemetery, and the names of surviving family members, you will have significant data to reconstruct this family group.

    Local public libraries and state libraries are the best sources to check for older newspapers. Since the early 1980s, the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities have collaborated in funding the United States Newspaper Program. This program has ensured that tens of millions of pages of newspapers from across the county have been microfilmed and made available to the public. Many of these newspapers are available through interlibrary loan. There is simply no reason not to tap this tremendous source of information.

    In our quest for civil vital records, whether those records evidence wedding bells, new life, or the end of life, it is important to remember all the other records that should be considered for the vast quantities of data they can provide. 

    Curt B. Witcher, MLS, FUGA, is the president of the National Genealogical Society and the manager of the historical genealogy department for the Allen County Public Library. He is also a popular genealogical lecturer.

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