Posted by Anne Gillespie Mitchell on June 3, 2013 in Ask Ancestry Anne


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.

  1. Check the wiki to get a better understanding of where vital records and copies of those records might be kept.
  2. Check the person’s other historical records to determine how consistent the date was across records.
  3. 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 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?


Happy Searching!



Anne Gillespie Mitchell

Anne Gillespie Mitchell is a Senior Product Manager at She is an active blogger on 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. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Finding Forgotten Stories.


  1. FHC Librarian

    The age on the 1920 census looks like 3 years and 4/12 to me. Check line 39 and that shows an age of 3 years 9/12 for a girl named Georgia Foreman.

    Lots of people went through life not having the correct birthday. Real problems arise when you get different birth dates on difference documents.

  2. Monika

    In European records I found that the confusion about the correct birth day occurs at times when the baptismal day is used as a birth date. Most of the time, in the olden days, babies were baptized on the same day that they were born (because of the infant mortality and the concept of inherited sin) which is why mothers were not present in church for the baptism, but on many occasions the baptism took place at another time than the day of birth. Again, in the old days, they did not yet have “county recorder’s offices” so the baptismal records of the church were the only records of the birth.

  3. Beth Homan

    Another source could be employment. My grandfather didn’t have a birth certificate and there isn’t one at the court house or the state. He was required to supply his verification of birth when he went to work for the railroad so he had it certified by a Justice of the Peace with one of his cousins signing the document.

  4. Martin L. Hammond

    Is there any help for finding a Marrage License or Divorce record for John Stanley Wesley-1880 born San Jose, CA or Detroit MI. I think his marrage would be around 1900-1910. I see on the 1920 census he was Divorced living in Michigan.

  5. Jean E Smith

    In researching Daniel M Smith, I have found some errors on His Death Certificate gives a different DOB in Argyle, WI, not Argyle, Illinois. It also includes his mother and Fathers’ names which you do not have. How do I get these things corrected and updated for future searchers. I have noticed some of my husbands relatives logging on to and getting stuck at their Grandfather who was Daniels son. Please email your response.

  6. Lisa

    Newspapers. I’ve transcribed and posted thousands of newspaper articles. Weeklies from small towns are the best, depending on the location and publisher, and today many newspapers have a website and include a Births or Vital Statistics section. See if the local paper had a birth announcement section or Neighborhood News, which might contain mention of the father with a smile on his face and handing out cigars. The Library of Congress is posting hundreds of newspapers from all over the country from previous centuries. If you do find an article, be kind and share with others by posting it on your county’s genealogical website. Join the mailing list of your ancestor’s county and ask if anyone else already has this information.

  7. gjohns

    check for “delayed birth certificates”.
    -many people at the time did not have a document/certificate for many
    reasons. Please check – it may differ to different counties/states – they could “register” as later adults – years later for one. eg if joining the military. And check local churches religious baptism records that may also be available.
    good luck GJ

  8. Debbie Boyd

    Look for a listing of his birth in a family Bible. It also might have been recorded in an address/birthday book kept by his mother, aunt, or grandmother. There may be school records available. As was suggested in another comment, you might find baptismal or christening records. Look also for Sunday School attendance records. I have the Sunday School promotion certificate for my great-grandmother that includes a date and her age. These can help corroborate his stated birthdate.

  9. clara

    Do not forget to check for delayed birth certificates issued much later.

    Delayed certificates may contain other documents to substantiate the facts by the mother or other relatives The delayed certificates may appear in a special area for delayed birth certificates, or filed when submitted. Lots of people filed them once social securty was started in 1937 because even though they were required, many biths were never reported.

  10. Eva

    Was he adopted? I was told by a county records official that my mother’s birth certificate didn’t exist because of a fire at the courthouse. Years later, in speaking with another official in the same office, I was informed that there had been no fire, but that the certificate was probably filed under her adopted name, rather than her birth name. Sure enough, it was!

  11. Oma

    I certainly hope that the social security number that you provided for this gentleman was not his true number. Even when a person has passed, giving out a social security number still gives folks who want to use social security number fraudulently easy access to someone’s information. If this is a true record, it should be pulled immediately and your access policies to such information should be reviewed. Same goes for military records. Thank you.

  12. Rebekah Mendoza

    I don’t have a birth certificate registered because I was born at home and the doctor didn’t file the paperwork. I didn’t bother to get a delayed certificate because I was able to use other documents to file for social security benefits. That is a big reason for people getting delayed certificates issued.

  13. Grace A Quails

    Hi Ann I am looking for results of Joseph E Quails 1981-1942 I can get to his father Joseph R Quails but his a wall please help me

  14. Debra Larrabee

    The date of birth is also normally found on a death certificate. It will also list the name of the person who provided the funeral home with the information.

  15. Elly Johnson

    Thank you for this. I have a similar problem and yes in North Dakato. I’m looking for my parents marriage licence. Now I know where to look

  16. Lea

    Oma: The SSDI records and military records are public records, you can get access to these through a number of websites, not just

  17. Jody Stepnowski

    Clara, comment 10 above, thank-you for pointing out that many folks didn’t get a certificate until 1937..that explains why I have an original affidavit of birth done in 1937 for my grandpa born in 1909!!! Eureka!!!

  18. Marcia Erickson

    I tried and either received no response or was sent to where I found the same information as I had previously, namely that I had to contact the county seat for the county where the marriage took place. As I have previously contacted both Bottineau county and Rolette county by phone and by letter about my husband’s grandmother’s two marriages and been informed that there was no information on either, this was no help. One marriage was in Bottineau in 1902 and the other in Rolette county about 1905.

  19. Mary McNulty

    All we know about my husband’s grandfather is that he was born in New York, no idea what city, and some time between 1860 (birth) and 1896 (marriage) he moved to Philadelphia. We have no idea what his parents names are or if he had siblings. Any idea where to turn to find his parents and city of birth? I have only been doing this since Sept 2013 so I have a lot to learn. Thank you.

  20. Brooks F Nelson

    I was wondering I am seeking a Birth Record for my G-Grandfather who was born in 1896 Flora, Madison County, MS. And I am having a difficult time finding information on Him or his family(Parents Names). I have his Obit but no information on his parentage. I also have his Death Certificate for 1938 The only information on his parents are

    ?Frasier Father unknown date and place of Birth
    ?Kimbrew-Born in MS.

    I am at a loss on where to look. I didn’t find his family in the 1900,1910,1920 Federal Census’s But found him in the 1930 Federal Census in Coahoma County, MS. I also have looked for Draft Registration for WWl. Anyone have suggestions or are willing to help.

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