Vital Records Lesson

Vital Records

There are four types of vital records:

  • Local and city records
  • County records
  • State records
  • Federal records

These records are divided into the following categories:

  • Birth records
  • Marriage records
  • Death records
  • Divorce and dissolution records
  • Adoption records
  • Delayed birth records

Local and City Records

Your goal is to find birth, marriage, and death dates, plus places of all those events for each person on every family group sheet contained on your pedigree chart. This may sound like a huge task, but if approached systematically using the plan you have set up, you can accomplish it.

If a person knows very little about their family, it is best to search the vital records 'backwards'. By this, I mean, start with the persons death, search for it, then search for the marriage record, and finally the birth record.

If you don't know where they died, consider where their last known residence was. If you haven't a clue, start at the state level. The reason for starting 'backwards' is because a death record will usually give you an age, birthdate, birthplace or parents names which you wouldn't necessarily know in order to start for searching for the birth record. Start with the death and work backwards. You'll have better luck and a more complete record of their lives.

On the east coast of the United States, especially in the original 13 colonies, city clerks kept records as far back as the 1600's. Many have been printed in book form and can be found at local and state genealogical and historical societies. These societies keep lists of their archives and can easily tell you if they have records for the town your family came from.

These records can usually be found at either:

  • City Clerk's Office
  • Local Public Library
  • Local Genealogical and Historical Society
  • State Historical and Genealogical Society

If you are ordering certificates or searches through the mail, limit your search to a ten year period. Give them as much information as you know, parents name, name, date and year of birth and location. Each certificate costs anywhere from $3.00 to $15.00 depending on the county and state. From experience, it is usually faster and cheaper to order them from the county than from the state, although at the state level if they are indexed, they can find it no matter in what county they were born.

To locate the addresses of the county or state record office, go to
State Vital Records Office Addresses

County Records

Marriage Records

County records typically were required to be kept in 1880. Many eastern states and midwestern states started registering marriages as soon as the states were opened up for colonization. Registration of marriages was necessary to ensure land ownership transfer and in the midwest states start anywhere from 1830 - 1840.

In the western states marriages in the latter half of the eighteenth century are more difficult to find. This is because in states such as Texas, ordained ministers were few and far between. Men and women lived together as husband and wife, raised families but usually appear in the census under their own names, signifying they were not legally married. The rule of thumb in Texas was, if they had children, they were married. This is where the concept of 'common law marriage' in America started.

Early marriage records usually give the following information:

  • Name of Bride and Groom
  • Date of Marriage
  • Place of Marriage

Some records include more, such as:

  • Age of bride and groom parents names
  • Birthplaces of bride and groom, and sometimes their parents residence of bride and groom
  • Name of the minister of Justice of the Peace who married them
  • Name of the person or church where they were married.
  • Witnesses to marriage (they sometimes are related to either the bride or groom or may be good friends who came from the same place)

It should be remembered that the record of marriage at the court house us what is returned to the courthouse after a license is issued and the marriage is performed. There are most likely two more places to look for marriage information - the application for a license which gives all sorts of information, including birthdates and birthplaces of bride and groom and sometimes parents and the church where they were married will have a record of the marriage and might include other information. Many Justices of the Peace also kept records. There might be a JP's record at the local genealogical society if it still exists.

Birth Records

Birth records were required to be kept after 1880. However, in some of the eastern states, they were recorded at the local level at the City Clerk's Office. The information includes at least:

  • Name or sex of the baby
  • Father's name
  • Mother's name
  • Place of birth

It sometimes includes the following:

  • Birthplace of father and mother
  • Ages of father and mother
  • Number of births for the mother (such as child #11)
  • Number of live births versus pregnancies for mother
  • Name of doctor who delivered
  • Residence and address of parents (useful for land records)

Again, just because you don't find a birth record, doesn't necessarily mean they weren't born in that county or town. Up until the 1950's there were many home births. Those who lived in the country often didn't register births for quite a while, and sometimes forgot altogether. Births might also be recorded in the churches and not the county courthouse. Look for baptisms as well.

There are several states, such as Iowa, which have peculiarities. For instance, in Iowa, from approximately 1934 to 1943 births were required to be sent to the state level instead of being recorded at the county level. For this reason, there are about 10 years of records missing at the county level. Be aware, that records at the county level were duplicated and sent in to the state on a regular basis. If you don't find it at the county level, check the state vital records office or health department for a duplicate. Many records at the county level have been misplaced, misfiled, and downright stolen, altered, and destroyed. Ask at the local county clerk's office if their records have any peculiarities. They will know and can tell you where to locate alternative records.

Death Records

Death records were required to be kept after 1880 which is why it's important to check cemetery records as well. Death records usually include:

  • Name of deceased
  • Date of death
  • Place of death

Later records also include:

  • Age at death and possibly the birth date of the deceased
  • Name of Spouse or whether they are widowed or a widower
  • Name of deceased parents
  • Place of burial
  • Date of Burial
  • Cause of death (Take notice of an inherited disease. Might indicate early deaths of entire family line)
  • Name of attending physician at death
  • Length of illness
  • Name of hospital they died in
  • Address of the deceased
  • Informant (take notice. It might be a relative who knew the information such as parents name, or it might be a stranger who was just guessing.)

Once you know the death date, look for an obituary, probate record or a newspaper clipping about the reading of the will. I personally have found no death record, no cemetery tombstone, but found a clipping about the reading of the will which listed

Again, while collecting data, use a blank piece of paper for each surname you have in that county. Record the name of the record, the dates they cover, their location and the surnames you searched for. Label the sheets you've put information on and file them in the correct surname files. If you've found any specific information, print it on your pedigree chart and family groups sheet along with the pertinent information for future reference.

Divorce, dissolution and adoption papers

These records usually run from the same time period of the actual marriage and birth records. Divorce records are available to the public in most counties, however adoption records are sealed by law. In order to access them, you must have approval by the Court and a very good reason, such as medical necessity. They are also available at the County Clerk's office.

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