|Vital Records: Birth, Death, Marriage
by Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.
Chief Genealogist & Historian, C.S.A.
In the last article, I explained about census records, a significant type of record in genealogical research. Overall, they help locate where the family was living in a specific year, and every ten years the family can be followed. They also provide a wealth of information, both direct and implied, such as who the children or parents were, dates and places of births, marriages and deaths, occupation, year of immigration, naturalization, and much more.
Another type of record is the records that track births, marriages and deaths; better known as vital records. As some of the core foundational records for genealogy, vital records are the most obvious for genealogical research.
They provide a wealth of individual and family data, specifically with the detailed facts often sought. However, these records can be complicated with regard to existence, availability, accessibility, and content; sometimes the information can be not entirely accurate.
If city, county, state or country is unknown, then the census records are your first best source to locate where the family was living, and thus determine where to begin your research for vital records. Also, with ages, places of birth, and/or number of years married provided in the census, it will be easier to narrow down the time frame to search for these vital records; this will be most helpful in cases where there are no indexes, or the indexes are created annually.
While vital records are clearly the most substantial type of record in genealogical research, the problem is that birth, marriage and death certificates are primarily unique to the 20th (and 21st) century. Vital records may have been kept at earlier times in varying formats, dependent upon differing state requirements, but they often can be rare or few and far between before 1900. Some cities, counties and states may have required births, marriages and deaths to be kept long before 1900. This will vary greatly. For example, the townships in New England began keeping such records in the early 1600s. Virginia has some scattered records in the 1700s, but began to require registration in 1853. However, many Virginia counties lost these records to destruction in the Civil War. The Carolinas have no form of vital records before 1912, while some of the Midwestern states began to keep vital records in the 1850s. Most states did not initiate required registration of births, deaths and marriages until about 1912; and it took a while for society to become accustomed to this new requirement. However, these 20th century records can still provide you with information of an individual back to the mid-1800s.
In America, vital records can be obtained from City Hall, the County Courthouse, or the State’s Department of Health, Vital Records Department. However, “The Right to Privacy Act” of 1974 can limit what records are available; the usual limit is within the last 50 years for death certificates and 75 years for birth certificates. This will vary from city to city, county to county, and state to state. With research, you can determine the specifics for the city, county or state of interest.
Meanwhile, many of the historic vital records from the 1600s and 1700s are available in books at genealogy libraries, or in some cases these historic records can be found at the State’s Library or Archives. Many records from the 1800s are on microfilm and available from the Family History Library (now FamilySearch Library) in Salt Lake City through your local Family History Center. Some may be available online directly from official state government websites, or free or subscription sites such as FamilySearch (familysearch.org), MyHeritage (myheritage.com), FindMyPast (findmypast.com), and more.
Books like, The Handy Book for Genealogists, by the Everton Publishers, or Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources, by Ancestry (now available digitally on the Ancestry Wiki), provides a state by state and county by county overview of existing vital records, as well as other state and county information. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, through the CDC, now has a website (www.cdc.gov/nchs/w2w) of Where to Write for Vital Records, which is a state by state list with dates the records began, the types of records kept, the cost of certified or uncertified copies, and the address of where to write. Another website known as USGenWeb (usgenweb.com) has state by state and county by county pages of existing and available resources.
There are unofficial indexes for United States vital records, but they are inconsistent, and possibly incomplete. They usually can be found, separated by state, on websites such as Ancestry and FamilySearch.
Meanwhile, many British and European countries officially began keeping vital records nationally in the 19th century. England officially began to register births, deaths and marriages in 1836. Soon other nations of the British Empire began to follow suit. Ireland began in 1845 for Protestants, and 1864 for Catholics. Civil birth, marriage and death registrations began in Scotland on January 1, 1855 and are known as the Statutory Registers. Registrars were appointed for every parish in Scotland. A copy of the register was kept in the Parish, and another copy was sent to the General Register Office (GRO) in Edinburgh.
Prior to 2002, Scotland’s vital records were only available on microfilm for 1855 to 1875, all of which is still currently available through the FamilySearch Library. However in 2002, the website Scotland’s People (www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk) went online and forever changed the method of locating and obtaining these records.
Just like the census records, access to Scotland’s vital records are limited, worldwide, to the one online site known as Scotland’s People, an official Scottish Government website, by the GRO, for searching a wide variety of Scotland’s government records and archives. It is managed, uniquely, as a Pay-per-View site. [The following information is not recently verified and subject to change: The minimum fee of £7 GBP (about $11 US) gives you access to the database for 90 days and gives you 30 page credits with which you view search results and documents (1 credit per page of search results viewed and 5 credits per document viewed).]
Images and indexes are as follows on Scotland’s People: birth, 1855-1910; marriages, 1855-1935; deaths, 1855-1960. Indexes for Scotland’s vital records might also be found on a variety of other websites such as FamilySearch, MyHeritage, FindMyPast, and more. However, these sites may not be complete, being limited with specific parishes.
As well as varying in existence from city to county to state and to country, the kind and amount of information recorded in vital records will also vary. Regardless, they will always provide more, and helpful information and clues for further research. Because of this varying existence and the amount of information, other records are required in the family history research process. These include church records, cemetery records, wills and probate records, deeds and other land and property records, court records, newspapers, military records, ships passenger lists, and immigration records, just to name a few.
This is the fifth of a series of articles in which I show you the basics of searching for your family history, discussing the use of family records, public records, and online resources nationally and internationally, etc. The previous articles are now available on the new Genealogy Section of this website. See “Genealogy” in the menu options at the top of the web page.