Knowing an ancestor’s age is a big part of identifying him or her in other records and is a huge help when it comes to crafting searches in online collections. As our research takes us back to years before civil records began being kept (which in some cases was the early 20th century), locating critical birth information can require a little creative thinking.
Unfortunately, our ancestors weren’t always accurate (or in some cases truthful) when it came to giving out their age or birth date. Perhaps it was unintentional and they honestly didn’t remember, or in some cases they may have had their reasons for fudging a little. Whatever the reason, in the absence of a civil birth registration, we need to turn to alternatives and the more the merrier. Here are 13 sources where you might get lucky:
1) Marriage and Death Records
While it’s important to remember that they are not primary sources for birth information, marriage and death records often include birth dates and places.
2) Census Records
U.S. Federal Census records for the years 1850-1930 include ages for everyone in the household helping us to at least close in on a year, but the enumerators were also instructed to record the age of persons who were born within the census year to be stated as fractions (e.g., 1 month = 1/12, 2 months = 2/12, etc.). The 1900 census asked for the month and year of birth, as well as ages. State censuses will often include the year of birth and shouldn’t be overlooked either.
3) Church Records
Religious records often pre-date civil registration and birth registers, baptism, or christening records will typically include a birth date.
Granted, birth announcements didn’t always make it into the newspapers, but you’ll sometimes find mentions in society pages, or hospital lists of babies born.
5) Delayed Birth Registration
Proof of when and where a person was born was required for Social Security or Railroad Retirement and for those who were born prior to civil registration this meant filing a delayed birth registration. Proof was required and although the documents won’t be included with the file, details about the proof provided may include clues as to their location.
6) Social Security Death Index (SSDI)
That birth information that the Social Security Administration collected makes the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) yet another source for birth dates. While 98% of the people listed in the SSDI died after 1962, many of them were born before civil registration began.
Likewise, those applying for passports were asked about their birth dates and places. If your ancestor’s applied for a passport to travel abroad to visit family or just on holiday, check the collection of U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925.
8) Naturalization Records
Naturalization records may contain the birth date and places for immigrants, and even some naturalization indexes include birth dates, like the example below. Ancestry.com has a growing collection of naturalization records and indexes that may include your ancestor.
9) Births at Sea
Births at sea were often noted in passenger lists, often along with deaths at the end of the manifest. Although you might not find a given name, the infant may be listed with the parents and other family members, or at the end of the manifest with a reference to the parents (a good reminder to explore manifests fully).
Traditionally, pages in family Bibles include spaces for the notation of births and other personal landmark events. Check with family members and see if a family Bible was passed down through other lines.
Military records will often include birth information for the person who served and occasionally you’ll also find birth details on family members. The Revolutionary War pension records for Mark Adams included pages from an almanac that listed the birth dates of children and grandchildren.
Don’t overlook draft registration records as well. Even if your ancestor never served in the military, he may have been required to register for the draft at some point in his life. More than 24 million men born between around 1872 and 1900 took part in the World War I Draft Registrations and all three registrations asked for date of birth, and the first two also asked for the place of birth.
The so-called “Old Man’s Draft” for World War II was conducted on 27 April 1942 and registered men who were born on or between 28 April 1877 and 16 February 1897 who were not already in the military. These cards also asked for the date and place of birth.
Obituaries won’t always give a birth date, but there are exceptions like the one below from the Historical Newspaper Collection on Ancestry.com. You will often find an age and that can help you to estimate the birth year, and in cases where the birth place is given, it can lead to other birth-related records like church records in that place.
While we typically associate cemetery records with death information, birth dates and places can sometimes be found on a tombstone, or in the records of the cemetery sexton. Millions of cemetery records have been transcribed and indexed by genealogical societies. Find-a-Grave.com also offers significant help in finding cemeteries and includes photographs of several million graves.
Juliana has been writing and editing Ancestry.com newsletters for more than thirteen years and is hoping to score some time working on her own family tree over the holidays. Santa?
Other articles in the 11 December 2011 Weekly Discovery: