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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Gerardot, absent to "take care of baby"
Lopshire children have been very sick with tonsillitis."
children left school to move to Pennsylvania."
Lopshire children: "Death in family."
Lenington: "age 11 Birthday Sept. 17, 1919."
made next to group of children: "Stayed out to work. They are foreigners. I
told them I would report them and they came."
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
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
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
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.