Vital records… records of births, deaths, and marriages… are a basic part of genealogy research. They tell you the important details of your ancestors’ lives, such as names, dates, and places associated with them. The information found in vital records can often be stepping off points for further avenues of research, as well. As a genealogist, you should ideally be collecting as many vital records as possible on your ancestors and reading every line of them. You never know when a hidden but important piece of information will be in an unexpected place on a vital record.
Birth Records: Learning Where it All Started
When it comes to vital records, death records are usually the easiest to obtain. Most states don’t have restrictions (or at least not difficult restrictions) on obtaining death records. Most places allow anyone to get them, even non-family members. Some areas do have a time requirement past the death before you can get the record, but even this is unusual.
Marriage records are usually pretty easy to get, too. There are often more restrictions on getting them than with death records, particularly if either party to the marriage is still alive. However, you can still get them with a minimum of fuss in most states.
It is birth records where things become tricky. Because these are sensitive, personal records, most states have very stringent requirements as to who can get them, and when. Yet obtaining them is important in proving the names of the parents, as well as the exact date and place of birth (even if you already know this information, the birth record will act as proof if you’re writing a family history or joining a lineage society).
Recent Birth Records Typically Play Hard to Get
It is usually birth records within the past 100 to 150 years that will prove the most problematic in obtaining. Most states have a time period of decades after the birth before anyone but the person named in the birth record or their parents can get a copy of it. The length of time you have to wait, as well as any other requirements, depends on the state. As an example, I was able to get a copy of my grandfather’s 1910 birth certificate from Virginia simply by proving he was deceased and that I was, in fact, his grandchild.
On the other hand, when I tried to get a copy of my great-grandmother’s second child who died at the age of two, I was informed by the state of Florida that 100 years must pass before anyone other than the person on the record or their parents can get the record, even if that person and their parents are all dead. This means I must wait until 2024 to get that record (I have birth records of all the other children in the family, but they were given to me by the actual children in their old ages).
Alternative Sources for Birth Information
If you are able to get a more recent birth certificate easily, that’s wonderful. If you can’t get it from the state, you can always try asking the person in question for a copy of their birth certificate for your genealogical records.
If the birth record is older than 100 to 150 years, depending on the state, you should have no problem getting it, if one was generated. Most states had no record keeping requirement for vital records until the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Sometimes, you can find records at the county level. You can also find birth records in old family Bibles, in birth announcements in old newspapers, and in baptismal records at churches (or historical societies, if the church has moved its old records there).
New England was always good at recording births, deaths, and marriages. You can find compiled books of vital record information for most New England states going back to the colonial period. The originals of these records are also frequently kept in local town halls all around the region, and you can get easy access to these simply by going there and asking.
Birth records may be more difficult to obtain than other vital records. They are still worth going after for your genealogical research. If you can’t get access to them through normal methods like writing to the state’s Department of Vital Records, there are lots of other avenues you can explore that may lead to documented proof of a birth. Don’t stop until you find the record you need to add the next layer of research into your family history.
Birth Records (Free Lookups)
Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)