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Overheard on the Message Boards: Birth Certificates
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

June 06, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Approximately in what decade did they start issuing birth certificates? -- Tabatha

A: Vital records (also known as civil registration in other countries) are a rather contemporary record. Many of the states in the United States did not begin recording birth and death records until the 20th century.

This does not mean that the records you need don't exist, simply that you may need to alter your research plan. It is possible that the county or town was recording these records. Another alternative might be church records.

Vital records are relatively young

Vital Records

The recording of vital records at the state level generally did not begin until the 1900s. Until this time, the states did not see a need to know who was being born and who was dying. However as health statistics became more important (for example, when they wanted to track major illnesses), such records became necessary.

Many states, though, have records that predate these statewide vital records. In fact, when researching your ancestry prior to the early 1900s, be sure to check the county courthouse for vital records. You will probably find that marriage records pre-date the recording of births and deaths. Marriage records were important when it came to proving right of dower or heirship upon the decease of one or the other of the spouses.

Birth and death records at the county level often began in the late 1800s. Many of these records begin in the 1870s on up. The good news is that many of these same records have been microfilmed by the Family History Library, making them available to researchers through their local Family History Centers.

Those researching their New England ancestry will find that birth and death records have been recorded since the 1600s in most cases. These records, though, are usually found at the town level, unlike other states where the county level holds the majority of record types.

Civil Registration

When working in many of the European countries and the United Kingdom, you will want to look for civil registration. Like the United States, the recording of this information varies from country to country. Many began recording civil registrations in the mid to late 1800s.

Those researching in the United Kingdom will find that an index through 1980 is available on microfilm and microfiche through the Family History Library. Some Family History Centers have put their budgets towards the purchasing of the index on fiche so that it is always available for the patrons. This is true when an FHC knows that their patrons are heavy into British Isles research.

Remember when working in any non-English speaking countries that the records will be in the native tongue for that country. While this seems like it should go without saying, I have seen many individuals surprised when the films they ordered were in Italian or German.

Before Vital Records

Because vital records are such a recent record type, we soon find that we need to research beyond them in order to learn more information. It is natural to wonder what might be a likely substitute. There are many substitute records, among the most useful being certain religious records, some census records, and cemetery records.

While the substitute records are not always recorded at the time of the event, they are often the only record we have in our research. Those religions that practice infant baptism are often useful avenues for substitute birth records. Such baptisms often include the names of the parents and are done soon after the child is born, sometimes even listening the date and place of birth.

In Conclusion

Vital records and civil registration vary from state to state and from country to country. In most cases they have been recorded just since the late 1800s. Researchers who are beyond this period must seek alternative records.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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