Introduction to Red Book: Vital Records

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This entry was originally written by Alice Eichholz, Ph.D., CG for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
USA sil.png
the Introduction to Red Book.
Vital Records
Census Records
Background Sources
Land Records
Probate Records
Court Records
Tax Records
Cemetery Records
Church Records
Military Records
Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
Archives, Libraries, and Societies
African American
Native American
Internet Resources
County Resources

Far too often family historians neglect to procure vital records for those family members and relatives within recent or living memory. Collecting all vital records available for every generation is essential because small details on any one of the records may provide important clues. The process of gathering all available vital records for each generation of an entire family encourages consideration of collateral lines in problem solving.

Every state government has a department charged with the responsibility of maintaining and dispersing information from its vital record holdings. The vital records section for each state in Red Book indicates the availability of birth, death, marriage, and divorce records, and the agencies responsible for maintaining them, including ways of obtaining records through the Internet. Information about obtaining vital records from those agencies in all states and, in many cases, ordering those records, can be found at the following two important websites:

Another option for locating updated information about vital records and where to obtain them is the Center for Disease Control, National Center for Health Statistics, which offers information links or a downloadable file of Where to Write for Vital Records from its website at

A collection of vital records application forms for all states can be found in Thomas J. Kemp, International Vital Records Handbook, 4th ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2000). One major index to birth and marriage records in all states, although far from comprehensive, is the International Genealogical Index (IGI), amended regularly by the Genealogical Society of Utah and accessible through its Family History Library (FHL) and branch centers (see Archives, Libraries, and Societies). The IGI, arranged alphabetically by state and therein by surname, includes some, but not all, primary and secondary sources for birth and marriage records. It provides a reference for each entry, making it possible to verify the information with the original source. Since the material in the IGI comes from either a program of extracting primary source material in state vital records, or from information submitted by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, or Mormon church), it is essential to verify the source of the information and its accuracy. The “extracted” records are considerably more accurate than the “submitted” ones.

The searchable, constantly updated Social Security Death Index is available on the Internet (see,, or Included in the index are deaths of those U.S. citizens who filed claims with the Social Security Administration (except minors and some government workers) and died from 1962 through the present.

Many sources for information about birth, death, and marriage events are not found in a state’s vital records office. Cemeteries, church records, newspapers, military records, immigration and naturalization records, as well as family records in letters and Bibles are all places where evidence of vital events might be found. Suggestions for locating these alternate sources are described in later sections of each chapter.

Divorce records are handled differently depending on states. Some have centralized indexes. Some are considered court records instead of vital records. The discussion on each state will clarify this distinction as well as the location of these records.

Once vital records have been researched—and especially if none are available for the location and time period required—a good procedure would be to try to locate ancestors using census records.