My father, Harold John Cooley, was born on 2/28/1918 in Melville, Stutsman County, ND. The Court House burned down many years ago and I have been unable to find any kind of birth record. My father did not have a copy and neither did his siblings. What can I do?
— D Messer
Burned counties create many challenges for genealogy researchers! There may not be a copy of his birth certificate available from the county, but there are still ways to document his birth.
- Check the Ancestry.com wiki to get a better understanding of where vital records and copies of those records might be kept.
- Check the person’s other historical records to determine how consistent the date was across records.
- If there are inconsistencies, determine which records are most likely to be correct based on who provided the information.
First, check the Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources on the Ancestry.com wiki and see what can be learned about North Dakota’s vital records.
Depending on when the court house burned, the North Dakota Department of Health may have a copy.
But what if the certificate was burned prior to the records being collected by the state? What if it wasn’t sent?
Second, let’s gather records and check for consistency.
His date of birth appears to be consistent across government records.
His SSDI states that he was born on 2/28/1918. He also applied for his social security number before 1951, and the government wasn’t as strict on documentation at that time, so it is doubtful that he had to show his birth certificate to prove that fact.
The entry for Harold on the U.S. Veterans Gravesites also states that his birth date was 2/28/1918. So he was using that birth date in his military records.
Let’s look at the 1920 census record. It was recorded on January 28, 1920 and it states that he was 3 years and 9 months old. The instructions for the age column are “age at last birthday.” Best guess is the enumerator wrote down current age, meaning that Harold was born April 28, 1916.
Third, we need to evaluate the validity of the information.
The SSDI and Military records suggest that Harold believed himself to be born on February 28, 1918. And he was present at his own birth, but I don’t think he was a credible witness!
We have no idea supplied the information for Harold’s birth date on the 1920 census; that person is not identified until 1940. We also know that the enumerator did not follow the instructions exactly here. This may be the correct birth date, but I put a big question mark next to it.
So what should you do?
First, write to the state and try and obtain a copy of the birth certificate. If there isn’t one, then keep collecting records and evaluate each one:
- Who supplied the information?
- Did the person who supplied the information have direct knowledge of the event?
The more records you collect, the more evidence you have to build your case. And when a record doesn’t exist, building a case through other records is your best option.
For more on determining if a vital record exists for your ancestor, you may what to read How Do I Know If a Vital Record Exists?
About Anne Gillespie Mitchell
Anne Gillespie Mitchell is a Senior Product Manager at Ancestry.com. She is an active blogger on Ancestry.com and writes the Ancestry Anne column. She has been chasing her ancestors through Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina for many years. Anne holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Finding Forgotten Stories.