Vital Events and Records
Right from the beginning of your genealogical journey, you’re going to want to start collecting documents surrounding vital events. These are typically birth, marriage, death, and divorce records.
As mentioned before, start backwards. Look for an ancestor’s death certificate (or information) before seeking marriage and birth certificates. Obviously, in some cases the person may still be living, so you can go directly to them for copies of their marriage and birth records.
Working backwards, information found on a death certificate, might provide enough clues to locate the marriage certificates and or birth certificates.
To find vital records, you’ll need to know the county in which the event occurred. Many records are still held at the county level, but some have been moved to the state archives.
Additional information could be found in church records kept for all of the major life events and cemetery or burial records. For now, will focus on birth, marriage, death and divorce records, most commonly known as Vital Records.
For most U.S. States, vital records were often initiated at the county level.
While some part of the United States recorded births or registrations, Birth Certificates weren’t mandated by law until the early 1900s, and then depending on the state and county, depends on which year exactly they began. Usually around 1908—1920 is when you’ll find the beginning of most birth certificates and registrations. However, after the law was changed, compliance took time and people did not always make it to the courthouse in a timely manner, after giving birth, if at all.
For some born before birth certificates were mandatory, people had to go back and prove they’re birth date as seen in this delayed birth certificate.
Of all the vital records, Civil Marriage Records are some of the older records found and were usually on record in the County Clerk’s office or the clerk of the town where the bride was living at the time of the marriage. However, be sure to check the grooms home county as well for marriage records.
For marriage records earlier than the mid-1800s, information can be found in some church records. Marriages were often recorded in churches for hundreds of years, prior to Civil Marriage Records.
Marriage Banns and Marriage Bonds are also another form of marriage records and were common until the mid-1800s when Marriage Certificates became the standard.
Marriage Banns were used to show the community the couples intent to marry and often were filed with the church and or county clerk. Marriage Banns did not guarantee the marriage took place, only the intent to marry.
Marriage Bonds were promises guaranteed with payment by the family, that the marriage would be legal.
Marriage Applications/Licenses and Returns. The “Marriage Application” or “License” was filled out by the wedding couple prior to marriage and the “Return” is what the official performing the ceremony completed after the wedding took place.
These are sometimes found on the same document. One should note all the dates and details on both the Application/License and the Return for all clues.
The term “Return” came from the person officiating the ceremony, signing it as official, and “returning” the documents to the courthouse after he/she performed the ceremony.
Keep in mind that traveling ministers did not always “return” their documents until weeks or months later. This may have been because of distance to travel, harsh weather or just the convenience of the minister or official.
Marriage Records may also be found in some Marriage Registration Books. This is typically a book of all the marriages that took place in a given place (a courthouse or church).
Marriage Certificates were the document given to the wedding couple at the time of the wedding and are often held with the family. Again, start with the county where the marriage occurred for marriage records.
Divorce records are also evidence of a marriage. If you have divorce record evidence, that may be the only evidence of a marriage if marriage records can’t be found. Keep in mind that divorces were obtained in the courts, so you’ll first seek divorce records in the courts of the county where the divorce took place. Depending on the location will depend on the type of court. For some locals it may be civil court, superior court, court of chancery or maybe circuit courts.
An excellent resource on where to write or find these records are in “The Source Book, A Guide of American Genealogy,” by Arlene Eakle and Johni Cerny. I’ve not seen a recent printing of this book, but I still my copy for all kinds of things.
A much more recent guide is “Where to Write for Vital Records” published by the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services. This is a state by state guide. Click on the “Look inside” link and you might get the information you need. You can see Alabama – Kansas online for free on the link above.
Death Certificates beginnings range greatly depending on the place of the death. Check the FamilySearch Wiki for your location and specific information.
Additionally, evidence of a death can be found in the Social Security Death Index which began in 1962 and continues today. The Social Security Death Index can be found on both FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com.
Other places to look for death records are, obituaries found in newspapers, church records, mortality schedules, probates, wills, and cemeteries.
Sometimes you can estimate a death date range by looking at the census schedules. For example, if a man is found in the 1870 census and by the 1880 census his wife is listed as a widow, then you’ve narrowed the death date range to within those ten years.
Privacy Laws vary. Depending on whether the person is living or dead, and the type of vital record, will depend on your access to it. If a person is living, they’ll need to give you permission to seek their records. Deceased individuals may be easier but recent changes in the laws both on the federal level and with some states will determine if you can retrieve the vital record you seek. For some states, vital records are not available for a minimum of 72 years and others are now up to 100 years.
Consider the Source
When reviewing any records be mindful of who provided the source of information. For example, the birth record contains information provided by the parents who participated in the birth. Thus, the vital information on a birth record is likely quality firsthand knowledge from the informant, assuming the clerk who filled out the birth certificate didn’t make a mistake.
On a marriage record, the informants were the couple to marry. Thus, this information, in most cases, is quality evidence since it was the wedding couple providing the information. However, be mindful that even the wedding couple can even make mistakes when stating information about their own parents, if the parents are listed on their documents.
A death record was typically provided by a close family member, who may or may not have a clear understanding of the information they provided. Additionally, if it was a close family member, they may have been distraught at the time they provided information and were not thinking clearly.
As with all records, look for witnesses, other family members, take note of dates, places, even who signed the documents.
Keep in mind the county you’re looking in may have changed borders. Make sure you’re looking in the correct county for the time in which the event occurred. There are a couple of great resources to find the changing county borders. Go to The Atlas of Historical County Boundaries for a timeline of border changes.
Vital records can be a wealth of information. Ask family and parents grandparents and others for copies of the vital records held within the family. Sometimes they may be the only copies available. Also, when looking for birth marriage death and divorce records look in family Bibles.
Know that not all vital records are online. You may need to go to or write to the county or state where the records reside.
Check FamilySearch thoroughly before ordering certificates. Many are there for free.
Where to find Vital Records:
Before paying for a copy of a vital record, check out FamilySearch.org. They have many birth, marriage and death certificates available for free.
Also go to the National Center for Health Statistics. They have an online state by state guide as to where to write.
International Vital Records Handbook, now in it’s 7th Edition as of this writing.
Where to look for vital records online?
Check the FamilySearch Wiki for vital records for the state in which you’re researching.
Also, go to Ancestry.com, click search, then card catalog (or just go here) and in the keyword field, search Vital Records. Then, on the left side, filter by the location you’re researching worldwide. Depending on your Ancestry subscription, record type, and the laws, will determine if you have access to the record.
Search online family trees. Many members of Ancestry, FamilySearch and other online trees upload copies of vital records to share with the general public. These are free for you, so check there first before ordering copies. These will not be certified copies, but for genealogy, typically a photo copy will do.
I hope this was helpful. If so, please let me know in the comment section below.
What is your favorite find in vital records? Tell us in the comment section below.
Following this blog at the link above.
Subscribe to the NCAncestry YouTube Channel.
Subscribe to my Learn Genealogy YouTube Channel.