How to Research Birth, Marriage, and Death Records?

Birth, marriage, and death records are essential to family history research. These deep and rich sources can reveal names, relationships, locations, dates of events, and other vital information. Finding birth records can be frustrating if you need to learn how to begin your search. To get off to a good start, learn about vital civil record keeping in the period of interest.

Local Records

Birth records are one of the most important records in your family history. They can help you discover names, relationships, dates and places that will allow you to explore your ancestors’ lives. Many ancestry birth records are created at the local level, and you can find them through a variety of sources. For example, you may want to visit or write to the town hall, probate court, orphan’s court, county clerk’s office, parish church, cemetery or commercial and military organizations to see if they still have an original birth record for your ancestor. Then, try to find the records in their archive or on microfilm. Most archives have a significant collection of genealogical records, and they can search for your ancestor’s birth record for you. Another resource you can use is a state or local census, which provides information on the population of a particular area at a specific time. This data is used for various reasons, including determining how much funding a community receives for public services. However, you should be aware that many states did not require local governments to collect birth and death information until 1880, so locating these records isn’t always easy. For example, in New York, births recorded in the early 1800s were not recorded by the state, and you’ll have to look elsewhere if you need an original certificate for an ancestor born before that year.

State Records

When researching your ancestors, the essential records to collect are birth and death certificates. These contain a person’s name, date and place of birth, parent names, and birthplaces. In most states, these certificates are available at the local county or city clerk’s office. You can also request copies from the registrar of vital statistics for that city. New York began statewide registration of births, marriages and deaths in 1880-81 under the supervision of the State and local health boards. However, compliance was incomplete until 1913 or later, so certificates are often missing for many events.

The State Department of Health makes microfiche indexes for birth, death and marriage certificates available for public use. These indexes began in June 1880 for births and in 1881 for marriages and death. Some counties keep their original records at the local town hall, probate, or orphan’s court. You can request these records from these offices or contact the local historical society or the state archives. Depending on the state, the information in these records can give you clues about your ancestor’s past. The details in a birth record can help you follow someone’s family through census records or lead you to other sources of genealogical information.

Some states also have a vast website of county records provided by volunteers. These sites have county histories, biographies, censuses, cemeteries, marriage and birth records.

Federal Records

Federal records are not just important for genealogists; they also serve as vital background material for historians. They may reveal clues to your ancestors’ early lives, provide proof of a veteran’s service, or offer an opportunity to study a specific historical topic. Many federal records are available to researchers via the National Archives, including birth certificates for most cities in the United States. Other valuable sources of historical information include the government’s Official Personnel Folders (OPFs), a collection of files containing details about federal employees from the 1850s to the late 20th century. In the early days of American history, it was common for local clerks to keep brief records of births and marriages. These records often needed to be completed, however. In the mid-1800s, statewide registration laws were enacted, requiring that all localities record such events. A few of the larger cities in the country, such as Baltimore and Boston, began recording births and deaths soon after their establishment. In some places, such as New York City, these early records were kept by the city’s registrar of vital statistics. State-level records vary but are generally available to genealogists by writing directly to the registrar of vital statistics for the state where the event occurred. The National Center for Health Statistics provides contact information for each state’s registrar.

International Records

Once you’ve gathered your family’s American records, it’s time to turn to international sources. The Internet is a great place to search for birth, marriage and death records in foreign countries. Church-administered birth records were kept in many European countries until the early 19th century. However, as the Church lost power or was threatened by invasions or wars, access to records varies; FHL microfilm has microfilmed parish registers in Hungary, Poland and Slovakia (though it’s hit-or-miss for other countries). For example, civil registration began in the latter 19th century in France, but the local government may have maintained a record. The British government largely took over record-keeping in England and Wales in the 19th century.

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