Introduction to Vital Records

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"Heiratsurkunde Dollhopf-Haan" by Mediatus - Genealogy of our family, Original im Familienbesitz.

“Heiratsurkunde Dollhopf-Haan” by Mediatus – Genealogy of our family, Original im Familienbesitz.

Vital records – records of births, marriages and deaths – are kept in some form by the majority of countries around the world. Maintained by civil authorities, they are one of the best resources for helping you to build your family tree due to their:

  • Completeness – Vital records usually cover a large percentage of the population and include a wide variety of information for linking families.
  • Reliability – Because they are usually created close to the time of the event by someone with personal knowledge of the facts and because most governments have measures in place to try and ensure their accuracy, vital records are a fairly reliable form of genealogical information.
  • Availability – Because they are official documents, governments have made an effort to preserve vital records with newer records being found in local government offices and older records residing in a variety of record repositories and archives.

Many British and European countries began keeping birth, death and marriage records at the national level in the nineteenth century. Prior to that time these events can be found recorded in the registers of christenings, marriages and burials maintained by parish churches. Vital records in the United States are a little more complicated because the responsibility for registering vital events is left to the individual states. Some U.S. cities were requiring registration as early as 1790 (New Orleans, LA) while some states did not begin until well into the 1900s (S.C. – 1915). The scenario is much the same in Canada, where the responsibility of civil registration falls to the individual provinces and territories.

As you begin your research in vital records it is important to realize that in the early days of registration, not all births, marriages and deaths were reported. The compliance rate may have been as low as 50-60% in earlier years, depending upon the time and place. People living in rural areas often found it a real inconvenience to take a day from work to travel many miles to the local registrar. Some people were suspicious of the government’s reasons for wanting such information and simply refused to register. Others may have registered the birth of one child, but not others. Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths is much more accepted today, however, with current rates of registration closer to 90-95%.

What information will a vital statistics record of a birth, death, or marriage provide? This will vary widely by location and time period. In general, vital records forms usually allow space for the following information but are not consistently filled in by the users.

Birth records usually contain:

  • name of child
  • race of child
  • gender of child
  • date and place of birth
  • mother’s name (sometimes including maiden name)
  • father’s name

and may contain:

  • mother’s age, race, occupation and place of birth
  • father’s age, race, occupation and place of birth
  • number of children in family
  • number this child is in family
  • witnesses to the birth

Marriage records usually contain:

  • full name of bride
  • full name of groom
  • date and place of marriage

and may contain:

  • age and birth date of bride
  • age and birth date of groom
  • names and place of birth for bride’s and groom’s parents
  • residences of bride and groom
  • occupations of bride and groom
  • whether single, widowed or divorces
  • number of previous marriages for both the bride and groom
  • witnesses and officials present at the marriage

Death records usually contain:

  • name
  • date of death
  • place of death

and may contain:

  • age at death
  • cause of death
  • exact time of death
  • date and place of birth (if known)
  • current residence
  • occupation
  • parents’ names and birth places (rarely, but sometimes)
  • spouse’s name, including maiden name for wife (if applicable)
  • whether single, widowed or divorced
  • place of burial
  • name of funeral home
  • name of physician or medical examiner
  • name of informant & their relationship to the deceased
  • officials or witnesses present at death

Divorce records usually contain:

  • names of husband and wife
  • date of marriage
  • date of divorce

and may contain:

  • ages and/or birth dates of husband and wife
  • current residence for husband and wife
  • names and birth dates of children
  • reasons for divorce

Adoption records usually run from the same time period of birth records, but are usually sealed by law. The access rights to adoption records vary by country, region, province, state, etc. In order to access them you will, in most cases, have to petition the court for approval.

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