Births and Deaths in Public Records
| Vital Records
This article is part of a series.
|Overview of Vital Records|
|Births and Deaths in Public Records|
|List of Useful Vital Record References|
Many British and European countries began keeping birth and death records nationally in the nineteenth century. Before then, churches maintained registers of christenings and burials, and colonial settlers in America brought British laws and customs with them. Thus, churches were initially the sole keepers of vital records; ministers in many colonies were required by law to report christenings and burials to civil authorities. In some areas, consequently, these events are recorded in both civil and church records. Eventually, some colonies, primarily those in New England, passed laws requiring local town or county clerks to maintain records of births and deaths. Massachusetts had the most comprehensive laws pertaining to birth and death registration, and many of its early records have been published.
During the nineteenth century, England and other European countries instituted national registration systems, primarily to compile medical statistics as information on epidemic diseases. The United States did not implement the practice until much later. The majority of the states did not require registration until the first quarter of the twentieth century, and then the responsibility for registering births and deaths was left to the individual states rather than the federal government, accounting for different starting dates and differences in the data called for. The earliest cities to require civil registration were New Orleans (1790), Boston (1848), Philadelphia (1860), Pittsburgh (1870), and Baltimore (1875). Fourteen states also initiated registration before 1880:
|New Hampshire:||1840||Washington, D.C.:||1871|
The National Center for Health Statistics publishes Where to Write for Vital Records—Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Divorces online at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/w2w.htm. It lists, for each state, the dates on which the records began, the types of records kept, the cost of certified copies, and the address of the records custodian in each state. The fees listed in it are subject to frequent increase. It takes six to eight weeks on average for state offices to respond to requests; however, some states may take up to six months. Many states will expedite orders and have contracted with VitalChek to offer that service. Expect to pay extra fees and express postage costs for this service.
Even in areas with early registration laws, enforcement was haphazard, particularly in rural and frontier areas. West Virginia is a good example of the incompleteness of early vital records. The initial law requiring registration was passed by the Virginia legislature to become effective in 1853, when West Virginia was still part of Virginia. The exact extent of citizen compliance is difficult to estimate, but professional genealogists know that many births and deaths were not registered. Property owners were more likely to register the birth of a slave than the birth of their own children because registering a slave was a protection of personal property rights. Sometimes a couple registered one or more children but not all. Undoubtedly the difficulty of traveling long distances over rough terrain contributed to the lack of compliance.
Even when early vital records are incomplete, you should examine them. Of course, you are not limited to vital records alone for birth and death information. A natural beginning for research is a survey of available family records. Family Bibles, family record books, journals, diaries, and letters often note births and deaths of family members.
During the period when civil authorities did not require vital records, births and deaths were regularly recorded in the family Bible among literate, religious families. These entries often supply the only complete birth and death dates for individuals who were born or died before the twentieth century, although other forms of family records sometimes contain mention of births and deaths as they occurred. Various groups of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) have compiled many volumes of family Bible records, frequently including evaluations of the accuracy and authenticity of the records. The DAR collections are available at the DAR Library in Washington, D.C., and in libraries of state and local DAR groups throughout the United States. The Genealogical Society of Utah has microfilmed the DAR main collection and many state publications; they are available through the Family History Centers of the Family History Library.
Other government and legal documents also contain birth and death information: New England town records, coroners’ reports, probate records, land records, mortality schedules, and military records, among others. These sources, including family records, are discussed in other chapters, so mention of them in this chapter will be limited.
A coroner’s report is issued when an inquest is held to investigate unusual or unknown circumstances related to a death. When the inquest is complete, the report includes the causes of death, the autopsy findings, where held, testimony about the circumstances existing at the time of the death, and the findings of the coroner’s jury. Coroner’s reports are public records available for use by researchers, and they may be requested from the state, county, or city coroner’s office. Not all deaths of unknown or suspicious nature result in a coroner’s inquest; but when there is evidence that an ancestor died in an unusual manner or was murdered, coroners’ records should be examined. There are medical examiners (as coroners are more frequently called today) at city, county, and state levels, and their records may be found at all three levels. (See chapter 4, “Business, Institution, and Employment Records.”)
Probate records can also contain birth and death information. In them, the exact date of death may be listed for the individual whose estate is in probate; the names and dates of birth of his or her minor heirs may also be found in the record. These records are usually found in the probate court or the court having probate jurisdiction in a town or county. They are also public records and are available to the genealogist upon request to the probate clerk. (See chapter 7, “Court Records.”)
Court minutes seem to be a “catch-all” for miscellaneous items recorded to give them public credibility. For example, John Wills, clerk of the Council for West Jersey, an administrative court, entered a complete list of his brothers and sisters followed by his own children at the end of his minute book, vol. 3 (18 April 1712 to 6 February 1721/22), just before the index. Thus, the clerk made his family vital records a matter of public record.
Occasionally, land and property records contain birth and death information. Sometimes the death date of a person leaving property to heirs appears in a deed executed after his or her death. Birth information is sometimes included in applications for public lands or homesteads filed with the federal government. (See chapter 10, “Land and Tax Records.”)
Mortality schedules were included as part of the decennial (every ten years) census enumerations between 1850 and 1900. These schedules give the name, age, sex, color, occupation, birthplace, month and year of death, cause of death, number of days ill, the attending physician, and other details for persons who died within the year prior to the taking of the census. The 1890 and 1900 mortality schedules were destroyed. To locate those still in existence, see chapter 5, “Census Records.” The Genealogical Society of Utah has microfilmed a large number of mortality schedules. They are available at the Family History Library and through its Family History Centers. Use an online search engine to find searchable databases of these mortality schedules.
Military pension files also contain valuable birth and death records. The date and place of birth of the veteran, the dates of birth of his children, and the date and place of birth of the veteran’s widow (if she received a pension) are included in the file in some cases. (See chapter 11, “Military Records.”)
Birth and death records are also found in church records, such as parish registers, which list christenings, burials, births, and deaths. Some churches took special church census enumerations that are of use to the researcher. Some ministers and evangelists kept vital records for their members in personal journals and diaries, and some churches have established historical societies or departments to collect and maintain official church membership records. The headquarters of the affiliate churches ordinarily maintain the records, but some may be found in local church offices. Inquire at a local church about the existence and location of the records of interest. (See chapter 6, “Church Records.”) Personal records of ministers and other church officials can be found by consulting the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC). (See chapter 3, “General References and Guides,” for more information on indexes.)
As the twenty-first century progresses, insurance and business records will play an increasingly important role in establishing genealogical facts. An excellent example of such records is Connie Bell’s and Vernell Walker’s Union Pacific Railroad Life Insurance Claims Data. These alphabetically arranged records contain vital records and other documents supporting insurance claims. The compilers attempted to abstract all information of genealogical importance. Some of the details include name of the deceased, Social Security number, sex, race, occupation, date and place of birth, address, date of marriage, date and cause of death, place of burial, parents’ names, and spouse’s name. This collection is available on microfilm through the Family History Library.
Other insurance companies and businesses have compiled similar records, but researchers are just beginning to locate and abstract them. Check repository catalogs periodically and inquire at national and local genealogical societies about “works in progress” to determine if a source of interest is in the making. (See also chapter 4, “Research in Business, Institution, and Organization Records”.)
Military records are discussed at length in chapter 11, but note particularly that vital records information appears in such filings as World War I Selective Service Registration, benefits applications, such as those for pensions of admittance to veteran’s home.
Fewer vital records exist for the period prior to 1900, so researchers must search more obscure records on the chance of finding the details needed to identify people and document relationships. An example that is an excellent source for pre-1900 vital information is the Gentleman’s Magazine, a periodical published in Great Britain that contained information about people from the United States, Jamaica, Antigua, Barbados, and the West Indies. The periodical published columns listing births, marriages, and deaths of British citizens at home and abroad. See David Dobson’s American Vital Records from the Gentleman’s Magazine, 1731–1868.
Private sources, such as newspapers, morticians’ records, hospital and doctors’ records, business and employment records, and local published histories also contain birth and death information. Some of these records are also discussed in detail in other chapters.
Contents of Birth Records
Early birth records gave little information beyond the name of the child, date and place of birth, and parents’ names. Some localities listed only the name of the father—particularly in early New England town and church records, as the following example from the town records of Simsbury, Connecticut, shows (an ‘s’ appears where appropriate).
- Simsbury Records. 119
- James the first Son of James Tullar was Born the firft Day of January A : D : 1737/8
- Eli Tullar Son of James Tullar was Born the: 14th Day of february A : D 1740/41:
-  Jerusha the Daughter of Return Holcomb was Born aprill the : 3 : anno : Dom : 1734 :
- Stephen the Sone of Return Holcomb was born September the : 23 : A : D : 1736 :
- Timothy Case the Son of Richard Case was born the 2nd Day of February A : D 1759.
- Lucy the Daughter of Gillet Adams was born feb : 14th A : D : 1731/2 :
- Anne Granger the Daughter of George Granger was born July the : 19th : 1732 :
- Rhoda the Daughter of George Grainger was born Aprill : 26th A : D : 1735 :
- Simsbury Connecticut Birth, Marriage and Deaths (Hartford: Albert C. Bates, 1898), 119.
Early birth records are distressingly sparse, with a heavy concentration found in New England only. In the colonial period, church records that can serve as birth records were kept in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Virginia, with Virginia trailing far behind the others. Quaker records for all of the states mentioned previously are far superior to most others, providing the exact dates of birth and death for members of that faith. They have been well preserved; many are included in William Wade Hinshaw’s Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy, available in most genealogical libraries in the United States. These volumes cover the monthly meeting records of the Carolinas, Tennessee, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Willard Heiss has expanded coverage with a seventh volume for Indiana, but it is not on the CD-ROM. Heiss’ printed volume was published by the Indiana Historical Society in 1972.
By the mid-nineteenth century, birth records in the United States began to include more detailed information. For example, beginning in 1853, some Virginia and West Virginia county birth registers included the mother’s maiden name instead of her married name—obviously helpful information in identifying the maternal ancestry of a child.
Early birth records can be obtained from town or county clerks in the area in which an ancestor was born. These records, too early to fall under the jurisdiction of recent privacy laws, are public records. However, when writing for a birth or death record, state your relationship to the ancestor of interest in case the clerk requires it. Your inquiry should indicate the specific record desired; give the ancestor’s full name and as much identifying information as possible (especially if the ancestor has a common surname). Providing the exact date of birth, if known, or an estimated five-year birth period, will help clerks find the right record. The average fee for birth or death records at the county level is seven dollars; send that amount with your request. If additional funds are required, the clerk will either request the balance in advance or send the material and ask you to forward the balance. Most jurisdictions will search their records for a five-year period, but few will search further unless specifically requested to do so.
The Genealogical Society of Utah has microfilmed birth records of thousands of towns and counties throughout the United States, concentrating heavily upon the states east of the Mississippi River. These microfilms are available at the Family History Library and upon request through its Family History Centers.
The printed vital records of New England towns are also available at the Family History Library; those that have been microfilmed can be borrowed through the Family History Centers. Many state and local historical society libraries have copies, and many of the larger metropolitan city libraries with genealogical collections, such as the New York Public Library and the Los Angeles Public Library, also have copies of the printed records. The town records of Massachusetts have been published on CD-ROM as well by the Genealogical Publishing Company. The Holbrook Research Institute has microfiche copies for the vital records in Massachusetts towns that were never printed; a price list is available on request (see Archive Publishing).
Even though births were not widely recorded during the early years of America’s existence, those records that do exist may provide the only source of exact birth data for your ancestors. They should always be searched.
Modern birth records (post-1910) are maintained by the states. They are extremely valuable, but many researchers, learning birth information from home sources, fail to obtain birth certificates. This reluctance is most unfortunate and can result in an inaccurate or incomplete family genealogy. Modern birth records contain much more information than earlier records. Although birth certificates vary from state to state, most of them share much information in common.
The attached image is a birth certificate that is fairly representative of those compiled in most states. It contains the following information about the child and its parents:
|Date of birth||Birthplace|
|Time of birth||Residence|
|none||Term of residence in the|
|Name||Term of pregnancy|
|Birthplace||Number of other living children|
|Age||Number of other deceased children|
|Occupation||Number of children born dead|
Most modern birth records are protected by the privacy laws passed by the federal government during recent years. However, some states have allowed microfilming of births after masking entries for illegitimate and stillborn births.
Despite such gaps, these records are obviously useful. Most states require a request form to be completed before they will issue a copy or abstract of a birth certificate. Such a form will often request more information than you have, but you should fill it out as completely as possible, estimating dates and places as accurately as you can. Some states will search more than a five-year period, while others limit the search to a single, approximate year of birth. If the record cannot be found in the year listed, a few states refund the fee; most do not. Each request should state your relationship to the individual and the purpose for which you will use the data. Family history and genealogical research purposes are acceptable reasons in most states.
A rarely used form of birth record is the delayed birth certificate. When Social Security benefits were instituted in 1937, individuals claiming benefits had to document their births even if their states of residence had not required birth registration at the time of their births. The 1880 and 1900 U.S. Federal Census enumerations were partially or fully indexed to help provide this documentation. Another method was to file evidence as part of an application for a delayed birth certificate.
The individual applying had to submit a petition to the county court stating his or her name, address, date and place of birth; father’s name, race, and place of birth; and evidence to support the facts presented. The evidence could be in the form of a baptismal certificate, Bible record, school record, affidavit from the attending physician or midwife, application for an insurance policy, birth certificate of a child, copy of an application for a Social Security account number, or an affidavit from a person having definite knowledge of the facts.
Delayed birth certificates list vital information abstracted from the supporting evidence. Most states have delayed birth records, some of which are indexed and easily usable. Some delayed birth records have been filed for individuals born as early as 1840. These records are usually filed in the county where the individual applied—not in the county of birth. Though relatively uncommon, these records provide information about individuals and their parents for periods when vital records were not widely kept. The records and testimony used as supporting evidence for the document can lead you to other information sources and also show which relatives were living at the time the certificate was applied for.
Families in transition when children were born present a research problem. Often, families moving when a child was born waited just long enough for the mother to recover and then moved to an adjoining town or state, where the infant’s birth was recorded. In such cases, if you move back in time from the known to the unknown, you will know where the birth was recorded when you may know nothing of where the birth occurred—so check the obvious; find out if the birth was recorded after the fact. The resulting document will give you the actual place of birth, and you can then make searches there also.
Contents of Death Records
Early death records in the United States provide little more than the name of the deceased, the date of death, and the place of death. Burial records contain basically the same information. Occasionally the record will list the name of the deceased’s spouse. These early records appear in town, county, and church records, most extensively in New England, where they were kept as late as 1900.
Death records of the nineteenth century are more detailed in many jurisdictions. They often include the name of the deceased, date, place, and cause of death, age at the time of death, place of birth, parents’ names, occupation, name of spouse, name of the person giving the information, and the informant’s relationship to the deceased. Race is listed in some records. Some southern states also note if the deceased was a slave.
Modern death records (post-1910), though comparatively recent, are steadily increasing in value. People are living longer, and death records often provide information about birth as well as death.
Modern death certificates have not been standardized throughout the United States, but, like birth certificates, most of them contain the same types of information. The attached image, a death certificate from Oklahoma, is representative of most contemporary death certificates. It includes the deceased’s name, sex, race, date of death, age at the time of death, place of death, date of birth, place of birth, marital status, name of spouse, Social Security number, occupation, residence, father’s name, mother’s name, cause of death, and place of burial. Records from other states generally provide the birthplace of the deceased’s parents. The Social Security number is not always included, but, when it is, it can be invaluable because other records (subject to right-of-privacy laws) may be accessible if you have the Social Security number.
As any experienced researcher knows, death records are only as accurate as the knowledge of the person who provided the information. Many informants are unaware of the name of parents or are unsure about dates and places of birth. Always try to find additional information about parents and dates and places of birth whenever possible.
In response to a request, some states will supply a photocopy of the certificate filed at the time of death, while some make a transcript of the basic information on a preprinted form, certifying it as a true copy. A photocopy is preferable. Not only does it eliminate the danger of errors in transcription; it will also include more data. The clues of cemetery, undertaker, informant, residence at time of death, and other details that take you from the death certificate to other records are found only on the original.
The following is an example. When genealogist Harry L. Carle first requested the death certificate of his grandfather Harry Chester Lee, he requested a certification of death abstracted from the death register.
Harry received this certification with a request for payment. He sent a check and a request for the original certificate, explaining what information he was looking for. Note that it did not need to be certified (“sealed”). The court clerk’s reply provided the name of the physician, L.E. Hedgecock, and the undertaker, Ray A. Fox. The clerk also suggested writing the Department of Vital Statistics in Des Moines and provided the address.
When Harry pursued his request to the Des Moines office, he received a photocopy of the original certificate filed with the state. It was obviously worth the extra correspondence to get this certificate. From it, Harry discovered that Harry Lee had lived in Hampton only six years before his death; that his wife, Sylvia Smith Lee, the informant, was fifty-six years old; that Harry had been born in Chicago; and that he had been a stage worker. It also gave his parents’ names and places of birth, the date and place of burial, the attending physicians’ names, and the fact that Harry Lee had suffered from heart disease for about five years before it proved fatal.
Death records are valuable corroborating evidence for family traditions handed down generation after generation without verification. They also help distinguish between two or more people with the same name. For example, one prominent Texas family gave me its personal files and family sources to produce a family history. Their records included a maternal ancestor named Nettie Green, who was married to Robert Michael. Public records produced a Nettie Green who was also married to a Robert Michael. Thinking they were the same Nettie Green, I extended that family line back two hundred years to the immigrant ancestor. The paternal ancestors were less accommodating; in the process of identifying them, I requested the death certificate of Nettie’s husband. It clearly stated that he had married Nettie Bunting. Furthermore, Albert Robert Michael had always used his middle name. His descendants did not even know that he had a different given name. The marriage records supported the death record; Nettie Bunting was indeed the ancestor, and we bade farewell to two hundred years of the Green family.
Death records, both early and modern, can help you identify others related to the decedent. The information provided in the records is usually given to the authorities by a close relative. If the relative is a married daughter, the record will state her married name. Aunts, uncles, in-laws, cousins, and other relatives are listed as informants on death records. Each new name is a clue to the identity of other ancestors that should be pursued.
The death record informant may not have been the person who provided vital statistics to the funeral director or to the cemetery sexton. The death certificate names both the funeral home and the place of burial, so check both the mortician’s records and the sexton’s records to confirm the information on the death record and to look for additional information not included in the death certificate. Once you know the exact date of death, you can more easily look for an obituary notice in a local newspaper. Obituaries usually at least summarize the deceased’s life, sometimes including other towns of residence. They may also list all of the living heirs, as well as the names of parents, brothers, and sisters. Tracking backward with these clues, you can look for other members of the family and additional historical information.
In short, you should routinely request birth and death records for ancestors who were born or who died during the period for which records are available in a particular locale. They are rich in genealogical information and may serve to clarify discrepancies in family records.
Problems with Birth and Death Records
The use of vital records is not without its difficulties. The problem of an informant not knowing dates and places of birth when providing death information has already been mentioned. Many record collections are incomplete, necessitating additional searches in other records to fill the gaps.
Legibility is also a problem in many handwritten records. It is sometimes worthwhile to ask for help from someone skilled in reading various types of handwriting when a certificate or register entry is not easily decipherable.
A third problem is that early records may contain a variety of surname spellings—none of them spellings currently used by branches of the family. Early record clerks, like early census enumerators, often spelled people’s names as they heard them pronounced. When looking for birth or death records from earlier periods, consider all possible spelling variations, especially phonetic spellings, before concluding that no record exists. This is especially important for urban areas, where more than one person having the same name is the rule rather than the exception.
A related problem is that records were often indexed many years after they were compiled. The person doing the indexing had to interpret the handwriting in the record just as the researcher must, and his or her skills may not have been well developed. The obvious errors in indexes are a T read as an F, a P as an R, and an L as an S. Take these possibilities into consideration, too, as you try to determine all the possible spellings of a surname.
Some researchers stop searching if they cannot find an ancestor’s name in an index. But some indexes have an error rate in excess of twenty-five percent, meaning that more than twenty-five percent of the individuals in the indexed records were not included in the index. If you know the approximate date of a birth or death, settle down to a page-by-page search before concluding that your ancestor is not in the records.
Legally restricted access represents an important limitation of modern vital records. Different states regulate who can access vital records and under what circumstances. Some new laws attempt to reduce the assumption of a false identity for fraudulent purposes (for example, assuming the identity of a deceased person to obtain credit cards to be used for defrauding merchants). Other laws protect the privacy of people still living. Regardless of the reasons behind such laws, you should research the access-restriction laws that exist in the states where you will be conducting research. (See the discussion of right-of-privacy laws in chapter 1, “The Foundations of Family History Research.”)
Finding Aids for Birth and Death Records
There are numerous aids for locating vital records. Most towns and counties have indexes to birth and death records. Even if the indexes are not complete, they can often facilitate research. Many local historical and genealogical societies have published birth and death records in their periodicals, newsletters, and journals; they should be examined whenever available. A few collections of birth and death records have been published in CD-ROM format. These appear in Birth, Marriage, and Death Records on CD-ROM along with many marriage records collections. Finally, family members may be able to send photocopies of birth and death records in their possession. It is worth a letter, telephone call, or e-mail to inquire.
Always check for duplicate copies at county, city, town, and state levels. Many counties kept vital records before the states did. After state registration began, counties and cities continued to maintain registers of vital events. If one set of records is lost or incomplete, you can check the other.
The Family History Library has a significant collection of microfilmed birth and death records and indexes. Table 13-4 is a state-by-state list of available birth indexes and records. Statewide Birth Indexes and Records lists death indexes and records. This collection is expanded regularly, so consult the Family History Library Catalog for the most current entries. The number of searchable online databases of statewide birth and death indexes keeps growing. Statewide Death Indexes and Records provides a list of databases and where to access them. Use your search engine to check regularly for newly published databases.
The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) provides birth date, death date, last known residence, and where the last payment was sent for persons who received benefits from the Social Security Administration. Approximately 98 percent of the people listed died after 1962; the earliest died in 1937. Those who held Social Security numbers but did not receive benefits or whose death was not reported to the administration, will not be listed. This index will help you pinpoint the date an ancestor died or at least narrow it to a month and year, making it easier to obtain the right death certificate from a county or state record office. The SSDI can be searched online at Ancestry.com for a fee and at other websites for free; however, the search engine on Ancestry.com produces the best results when you have very limited information.
The Social Security Administration has a microfilmed copy of every individual’s Social Security application (Form SS-5), as well as claim files. These documents contain information not given in the index, including: Full name at birth, mailing address, age at last birthday, date of birth, place of birth, father’s full name, mother’s full name, sex, race, employer’s name and address, and date signed. Copies of Form SS-5 can be obtained from the Social Security Administration at a cost of $27.00 each (in 2004). If you find an entry using the Ancestry.com SSDI search, click on “Get Copy of Original Application” to generate a letter to the Social Security Administration.
- Connie Bell and Vernell Walker, comps., Union Pacific Railroad Life Insurance Claims Data (Salt Lake City: microfilmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1990).
- David Dobson, comp., American Vital Records from the Gentleman's Magazine, 1731-1868 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1987).
- William Wade Hinshaw, Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy, 6 vols. (1969; reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1991-94); also on CD-ROM with full index, same title and publisher.
- Willard Heiss, Abstracts of the Records of the Society of Friends in Indiana, Part One through Six (1962-1975) with Index (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1972).