When You Can't Find the Vital Record...

Looking for a birth, marriage, or death record but coming up short? Here are some places – and techniques – you can turn to for answers when the usual sources don’t pan out.

Birth Dates

  • While it’s important to remember that these are not primary sources for birth information, both marriage and death records often include birth dates and places.
  • U.S. federal censuses records for the years 1850–1930 include ages for everyone in the household. With a little math, this will help you close in on a birth year. Enumerators used fractions to record ages for people born within the census year (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.
  • Military records will often include birth information for the person who served, and occasionally you’ll also find birth details for family members. World War I Draft Records and the World War II “Old Man’s Draft” are two good examples of military records that include birth dates.

Marriage Dates

  • Since churches began recording marriages before counties and states did, they are an obvious choice as an alternative to a civil marriage record. Determine what churches were around at the time you think your ancestors married; then search those closest to where your ancestor lived or that shared an ethnic affiliation with your relatives. (You may find reference to church affiliations in death and other records.) Once you have determined what church your ancestor attended, a call to the church may be all it takes to find where the records are located, but if the church no longer exists, it may take a little digging. Many denominations have their own archives, while records for others may be held at a local or state historical society. And don’t overlook the possibility that a local group has made the records available online. Plugging the church name into a search engine could bring you an unexpected surprise. Don’t forget to search collections like the new Pennsylvania, Church and Town Records, 1708–1985, which include records from many Pennsylvania congregations.
  • Local newspapers may have run notices of your ancestor’s engagement or marriage. Look for tidbits in social columns, as well as in sections that regularly listed marriage announcements and engagements. You can search historical newspapers on Ancestry.com. Also look for notices of anniversaries, especially memorable ones like 25th and 50th, in local newspapers. You may find details about the original marriage, including the date and names of witnesses, or a guest list of anniversary party attendees that will likely include other family members.
  • When marriage records can’t be found, estimate the marriage date based on the age of the first child (subtract a year, just to be safe). As with any estimation you include in your research, be sure to note it as such. And bear in mind that there are a number of factors capable of throwing this estimate off.

Death Records

  • New York, Death Newspaper Extracts, 1801–1890 (Barber Collection), is just one example of a collection that can be invaluable for finding information about New Yorkers, people who died in New York while visiting, or even individuals who did not live in New York but whose relatives did.
  • An obvious alternative to a death certificate can be found at the cemetery, whether 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 includes photographs of several million graves with death and other information.
  • If your ancestor lived in a city, city directories can be especially useful. When someone who has been listed in a directory for several consecutive years suddenly disappears, it might be that he or she has passed away. When a man died, his wife may be listed in subsequent years as “widow” or “widow of…” Ancestry.com has directories for many cities and years.