If you could find a birth, death and marriage record for everyone in your tree, you might be the world’s luckiest genealogist! Unfortunately most of us aren’t that lucky. Finding vital records can be a tad difficult at times but don’t throw in the towel quite yet. Below you will find some pointers for dealing with pesky vital records.
What are vital records and why are they important?
Vital records, for those that might be new to genealogy, are records that document a vital life event such as a birth, marriage or death. Finding vital records for those in your tree helps you nail down important dates, places and people. This information often leads to more discoveries, answers tough questions and helps you tell your ancestors’ stories.
How do I know if a vital record exists?
The idea of birth, marriage and death certificates is fairly novel. Many places in the U.S. didn’t start keeping these records at a state level until the early 1900s. Even then it sometimes took years before all regions of a given state were compliant with the law. That means that the first question you need to answer with regards to vital records is, “Does the record actually exist?”
The best tool for finding out which records are out there is the Ancestry Family History Wiki. There you will find the Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources, which covers, in detail, what records exist where. It is organized geographically. This means that if you know your ancestor was born around 1892 somewhere in the state of Oregon, you can look at the Red Book table of contents, scroll to the Oregon Family History Research link (which will give you a summary of the history of the state), and click on the sidebar link labeled Oregon Vital Records to find that, in fact, birth records were not recorded by the state until July 1903.
Now, don’t feel discouraged right away, there may still be hope for your Oregonian ancestor. Although there aren’t official state records for a birth pre-1903, many of these records were kept at a county or city level far before they were required by the state. That means that if you have an idea what city or county your ancestor was born, married or died in, a vital record might still exist.
For example, say you have an inkling that your ancestor’s parents were living in McMinnville in Yamhill County just prior to his birth. You can go to the Oregon County Resources page and find a handy chart which shows what year each county started recording various types of records. In this case, you’ve struck gold! Yamhill County started keeping vital records in 1871, prior to your ancestor’s birth.
Now that you know your ancestor’s birth record could exist you just have to find it. Unfortunately, although we live in the era of technology, not everything is available online. Even if you know that birth record might exist it might not yet be digitized or accessible on Ancestry.com.
Your next step is going to the Ancestry Card Catalog to find the database which would contain that record. In the Card Catalog, similar to a library’s card catalog, use the filters on the left-hand side of the screen to help narrow down the record sets you are looking for to get to the one that might be a winner. In this case, click “Birth, Marriage & Death” then filter by location clicking “USA > Oregon.” You now have a list of all databases that contain birth, marriage or death information for people associated with Oregon.
Another way to determine what is online is by using the place pages. Go to the Oregon place page by scrolling to the bottom of the search page, click on the state of Oregon from the map, and see what “Oregon Birth, Marriage & Death” records are available.
Now, I’ll save you some time and tell you that, unfortunately, we don’t have a database of birth records for the state of Oregon (yet). So what are your options? Well, you can contact the County of Yamhill and ask for your ancestor’s record. If it exists, they will send you a copy of the record, usually for a nominal fee.
What are some alternatives if I can’t find a record or one doesn’t exist?
So what happens if your ancestor wasn’t living in Yamhill County? What if he was in Washington County instead, where births weren’t documented until 1907? Well, then it’s time to look at some alternatives. Below are some alternatives to traditional birth, marriage and death records – other places where you can find the information about those vital events in your ancestors’ lives:
- Birth Dates
- Although they may not be primary sources for birth information, both marriage and death records often include birth dates and places
- For the years between 1850-1930, the U.S. federal censuses include ages for everyone in the household – this means with some basic math you can pin down a birth year and go from there.
- The 1900 U.S. Federal Census asked for the month and year of birth as well as ages.
- If your ancestor served, military service records and pension files often include birth dates and, sometimes, include birth details for family members as well. Even if your ancestor was not in the military, World War I Draft Records and World War II “Old Man’s Draft” Records also contain birth date and place.
- Marriage Dates
- Churches kept records of marriages far before counties or states did. Determine what church your ancestor belonged to by either narrowing it down geographically or using clues such as church affiliations found in some death records. Many churches have their own archives. A Google search using the church name and location will give you contact information to get you closer to that record.
- Local newspapers can be a great resource. Many people ran engagement or marriage notices in the local paper’s social column. Search through historical newspapers on Ancestry.com or Newspapers.com. For more information on finding historical newspapers you can check out Ancestry Anne’s Guide to Newspapers.com.
- Death Records
- Cemetery records are the go-to alternative to death records. Whether looking at a tombstone or records kept at the cemetery office, these records can provide the death information you’re looking for. Find-A-Grave is a great resource for finding millions of cemetery records, all generated by other users, free of cost.
- If you are trying to pin down a death year, City Directories are a great tool. If your ancestor appears year after year then suddenly disappears, this might be because they passed away. Also, after a husband has passed, the wife might appear in the directory as “widow” or “widow of…”
I’m sure by now you’ve read the words “vital record” too many times to count but I hope this has helped answer some of your questions about what kinds of records are out there, how exactly to figure out if you’re looking for a record that actually exists, and what to do if it doesn’t.