Posted by Pam Velazquez on October 11, 2013 in Family History Month, Research, Website

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

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 or For more information on finding historical newspapers you can check out Ancestry Anne’s Guide to
  • 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.


Happy searching!




  1. Edward & Beverly Lumm

    I have been looking for my grandparents for ver 12 yrs. Name Augustus M. Smith b.1828 MS.and Rebecca Gill b.1835 S.C. I have their kids names and dates buy would like to find their parents death and burial place. They married in 1852 in Panola Co. TX. and last lived there. The youngest child was born in 1871. They had to be there at that time. If you have any records on this matter please let me know , I want accept just anything. I’m beginning to think I bought into something that is a fake. You suppose to have records for everything. There must be records out there somewhere. Or give me a website to where I can find them.
    Edward & Beverly Lumm

  2. Crista Cowan

    Lumm Family, Per the information provided in the article above, I checked the Family History Wiki to determine what records exist for the state of Texas. Mandatory recording of deaths did not begin until 1903. So, if Augustus and Rebecca died after 1903 you should be able to find them in the Texas Death Index here: If they are in that index you can then contact the state department of vital statistics to order a copy of the death certificate.

    You state that their youngest child was born in 1871. Have you located the family in the 1880 census? Where are they living at that time? What about the 1900 census? What is the latest record you have for them? That will help you narrow down the time frame and location for your death record search. If they died before 1903, you can:
    -search Texas burials through FindAGrave
    -search for a local/county newspaper of the time to find an obituary
    -search City Directories ( to see when they stop appearing or if there is a notation of death

    Good luck in your search!

  3. FHC Librarian


    Also check Family Search online: Check to see if there is a genealogy society in your home area and also for a local Family History Center (Mormon). Both places may have people who can help you. FHC is free to the public and has some databases you might otherwise have to pay to use.

    Both and will have some records that are the same BUT both sites will have records the other doesn’t. Check cemeteries in the last known places your grandparents lived. They may have a burial record that is not online.

    Talk to any family members or realtives still living if possible. Learn more about your grandparent lifestyles. Also research their children because maybe when your grandparents were old, they may have lived with one or more of their children, and that may not be where they last lived as a couple.

  4. Vera McHale

    The USA made a big impact on all the Earth. We all have last names now. And we all have to be counted by law. My father use to say you get your name int he paper 2 times in your life for sure: when you are born, when you die. Today it is includes everything in between. But the law only states birth, death, marriage and parenthood as something that is without a choice of being made of record. Infant baptism in catholicism served this purpose in Europe before the US Constitution was written to allow this evolve for all in our land. Judaism as a religion and a genetic people is the oldest written genealogy records in history that I know exists. To them it is a God given duty. History books for school kids to learn of their own history is 5000 years of who made them who they are now. So know that few ever escaped the radar for the past 150 to 200 years of everybody counts record keeping. Unless the records were destroyed by war, fire to kill disease or water the universal dissolver. Or just plain locked up for the eyes of few. Ohio just refused to make a man declared dead (certificate of death) alive at his request so the news claims. I lived in Ohio all my life since WWII and unfortunately it is probably true. So even it the legal records say he is dead it might not be the truth. the best source of the truth is common sense. Does that make sense? I have doing this all my life and never cease to get amazed by what I find about my ancestors and deceased loved ones. (My grown kids too!) Enjoy.

  5. Mary Starr

    My problem searching for in my mother’s family is that they named the children/grandchildren after relatives. My 4th (or was it 5th) Great Grandfather had about 14 children, 9 of them sons. Those sons named their sons after grandfather, uncles, etc. And they had lots of children amongst them. So there are 4-5 in each generation with the exact name born within the same 2-3 years. A lot of them married ladies named Mary. And they all lived in the same town their whole lives. So which one is my relative, I have no idea. All my grandmothers except my great great grandmother was named Mary (no surnames). I am in the process of looking elsewhere for information, at the historical society in the county they resided.

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