Civil vital recordsbirths, marriages, and deathsin America began to be recorded at different time periods in different localities. New England town clerks recorded vital events as early as the 1600s, while in other localities in the United States, such as in the southern and western states, vital records were first kept in the late 1800s or early 1900s.
Knowing the time period, regional differences, and location of records is an important aspect of your ancestral quest. And if recorded vital statistics don't exist in traditional sources, or if the records aren't available, you may be able to use substitute records to document events.
Vital Records Online
Several Internet sites are available that can assist you in learning more about vital records, the dates civil vital records began, where to obtain the records, and how much it will cost to obtain a copy. Three example Web sites are:
In addition, Cyndi's List includes a useful section with links to many online vital records in the United States. It also identifies links for marriages, cemeteries and funeral homes, and obituaries.
Once you locate a record in an index, you'll want to send for a copy of the original. Before sending for a copy of a birth, marriage, or death record, I always check the Family History Library Catalog (FHLC) to determine if the records are available on microfilm. Many vital records or indexes to vital records are being made available through the Internet. For example, Ohio has an online statewide death certificate index for the years 1913-37, and Ohio death certificates are available on microfilm at the Family History Library. (For more on this, see my previous article "Ohio Research on the Internet.") And of course, Ancestry.com has indexed thousands of vital records databases that are all searchable online, many even for free (although access to the entire site is free through July 31). Ancestry's Advanced Search page can help you locate a specific record for your ancestor.
Civil birth records in early America have not been recorded as readily as marriage and death records. If found, however, they are a primary source of information and show the name of the child, gender, date and place born, parents' names, and sometimes other data, such as parents' birthplaces.
For many counties in America, marriages were recorded in county records before births and deaths. For example, civil marriages in Michigan and Ohio began to be recorded on a county basis with the organization of each county (whereas births and deaths began in 1867). Marriage records show names of bride and groom, date and place married, and sometimes other information, such as ages. In some localities in the United States, banns or intentions were made a few weeks before the couple married.
In addition to the name of the person, death records usually provide marital status (single, married, widowed, or divorced), cause of death, date and place of death and burial, and sometimes the occupation, date and place of birth, age, parents' names and their birthplaces (usually state or country), and other useful information. Before statewide registration, death records may have been kept by city and county clerks. Most death records are indexed, and many have been microfilmed. In fact, Ancestry posts new obituary information online every day (see the list of Recent Databases). Information in death records is also more complete in recent years.
Causes of death were recorded on death certificates and are of interest to those wishing to make a record of diseases inherent in their family. Sometimes a lighter side on the cause of death may be found:
"Died suddenly. Nothing serious."
"Don't know the cause. Died without the aid of a physician."
"Don't know cause. Had never been fatally ill before."
"Lack of ambition."
I found a death record in London (Chorlton Registration District) for a Samuel Wood, age 71, where the cause of death is shown as "Visitation of God."
Locating Vital Records
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has published a booklet entitled Where to Write for Vital Records, which is available in some bookstores or from the Superintendent of Documents, Washington, DC 20402-9328. It gives the time periods for which vital records are available in various locations, the addresses of where to write for them, and the cost for certificates. Recent vital records may be protected by rights of privacy, however.
Another useful reference is Thomas Kemp's International Vital Records Handbook (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co.), which includes forms for sending for vital records, addresses, and fees for copies of certificates. The Internet sites listed above contain updated information regarding vital records.
One of the best approaches for locating U.S. births, marriages, deaths, and vital records indexes on the Internet is to first search the U.S. GenWeb Project home page. For foreign countries, see the World GenWeb Project.
Many vital records, especially marriages and deaths, have been microfilmed and are available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Many records are also available on compact disc from Ancestry and other publishers. Marriages and deaths, and sometimes births, have been published in book form.
Substitutes for Vital Records
If you are unable to locate civil vital records, look for birth, marriage, and death information in family and home sources, family Bibles, church records, military records, newspapers, gravestones, federal census records after 1850 (especially the 1900 census, which shows the month and year of birth), passport applications, school records, and other similar sources. In church records you may find baptisms, marriages, and deaths or burials.
Tips for Finding Vital Records
- Check the Family History Library Catalog or another library catalog under your locality of interest and then under the heading "Vital Records." (For more information on using the Family History Library Catalog, see my previous article "Using the Family History Library Catalog.")
- Always search indexes and printed sources before searching for original records.
- Search the International Genealogical Index (IGI) for each ancestor. (However, as in other compiled computer databases, verify the information in the IGI by searching other sources.)
- Search the Internet, particularly Ancestry's databases or the U.S. GenWeb Project, for vital records under your state and county of interest.
Kip Sperry is an associate professor of family history at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.