Birth, marriage, and death records, collectively known as vital records, can provide details about important milestones in your ancestors’ lives. They include information like the event date and place, parents’ names, occupation and residence. Vital records are a cornerstone of family history research because they were typically created at or near the time of the event, making the record more likely to be accurate.
Because the start of civil registration in the U.S. registration varied from place to place, it’s important to become familiar with what records are available for the places where your ancestor lived—both online and off.
Start by surveying online collections at Ancestry.com, where you’ll find statewide indexes for many states. In some select cases you’ll even be able to access images of vital records online. Start by browsing to the Place page for the state where your ancestor lived. Click on the Search tab in the top navigation bar, and then select your ancestor’s state from the map in the lower left corner of the page.
Once you’ve selected a state, you’ll be taken to the Place page for that state where you’ll see lists of the top databases Ancestry.com has for each category. If you select the “View all…” link from the bottom of each list, you’ll be taken to a page with a full list of the collections for that state. To view collections that are available on the county level, select a county from the box on the right.
When you find that Ancestry.com only has indexes for the place where your ancestor lived, once you’ve located your ancestor in that index, your next step will be to go after a copy of the full record. Check the source description to learn more about where the records are held.
The source description will tell you where Ancestry.com got the index, and further down the description will tell you where the records are held, often including a link to that agency.
If you’re going to need to go to the county level, “Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources,” edited by Alice Eichholz, Ph.D., CG, is a good resource. If you don’t have a print copy, it is available on the Ancestry.com wiki. Select "Red Book," then scroll down and select the state you’re looking for, and then click through to the state "County Resources."
There you’ll find useful information about vital records for that state, and a link to a table that includes county addresses and the dates when vital records began being kept.
If we don’t have the records from your ancestor’s state yet, from our Place pages, you can also find helpful information for locating the records you need. Just click on the Resources tab in the green bar.
Once you locate your ancestor’s vital record, make sure you read it carefully and grab every clue you can from the record. The officiant on a marriage record can lead you to a church affiliation, and witnesses and informants listed on vital records are often family members. Like other records we use in family history, these records include a piece of our family story, and the clues they contain will lead us to more records. Good luck!