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Overheard in GenForum: Ordering Certificates from the Government
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.

September 27, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I'm at the point now where I have to start ordering some birth certificates from the government. My target is my dad's mother's side, which is a complete mystery to the entire family for some reason. What I'm going to do is order my grandmother's full birth certificate, which will give me the names of her parents. While I have a lot of information on grandma (such as birth date, death date, marriage, etc.), once I get the certificate, the only information I'll have on her parents are their names. Is that enough to continue? If I submit a form with nothing but two names (no dates or other info at all) will that be enough for the vital statistics branch to continue the line back? Anyone have any first hand experience with this? -- Marc

A: Vital records are one of the staples in genealogical research. When we get birth, marriage, and death records for those individuals on whom we have some information, the results are two fold. First, we verify the information we already had on the ancestor. Second, we get some clues as to next generation.

When combined with other records and research, we can begin to take a lineage back one generation at a time, at least until the vital records run out. Vital records, after all, are a fairly modern record in most states.

Get vital records to verify what is known.

Finding Vital Records

Vital records, the term used when referring the birth records, marriage records, and death records en masse, are civil records maintained usually by the county or state government. In some states, mostly the New England states, these records may be recorded on the town level.

Since the early 1900s, vital records have been recorded at the state level. These are usually copies of the same records maintained at the county courthouse. Many states have privacy laws that directly affect the availability of vital records. Often times, however, counties are not hindered by the same laws and it may be easier to order a record from a county office than a state office.

It is important that when contacting either the state or the county, that you supply them with as much information as possible. If contacting a state, or another country for that matter, you will want to make copies of the appropriate forms as found in Thomas Kemp's International Vital Records Handbook published by Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc.

If you are going to contact the county courthouse, you will want to first check record availability. One useful resource is Elizabeth Petty Bentley's The County Courthouse Book. This volume supplies information as to the records available through the county courthouses in the United States. Inclusive dates and the office responsible for the records are just a couple of the items included for each entry. You will also find the mailing address and the phone number. Because the information is a little dated, you will want to call the courthouse before sending off for some of the records, such as probate or naturalization, as the costs for such have probably changed.

An Alternative

When we think of vital records, we think of original records. When we think of original records, then we immediately think of county courthouses or the state vital statistics offices. There are alternatives, though, that may prove more fruitful and less expensive in the end.

The Family History Library has gone around the world microfilming records. Vital records are high on their list of priorities. They have gone to town halls, county courthouses, archives, genealogical and historical societies to microfilm records. In many cases vital records to the late 1800s and even into the early 1900s have been microfilmed. Ordering a microfilm to your local Family History Center is often cheaper then contacting the appropriate repository to get a certified copy of the record.

Using the Family History Library

When searching the Family History Library Catalog, you will want to look on all levels of government. Just because the locality in question usually houses its records on the county level does not mean that you won't find useful records on the state or town level. You will also want to do keyword searches, especially if you are researching vital records in New York City. The five boroughs make searching the catalog for vital records an adventure.

You will also want to look under both "Vital Records" and "Vital Records - Indexes" for each locality. Sometimes the indexes are catalogued separately. You may also find an index at the state level and the actual birth records, for instance, at the county level.

Using the microfilmed vital records offers a couple of benefits. Often the years covered by a given microfilm will supply you with more than just your direct ancestor. If, for example, you're able to find siblings in the same volume you'll save time and money. For one roll of microfilm you pay about $3.75 for a month's use of the film. For one certificate request from a county you are likely to pay a minimum of about $7.00. Second, it allows you some certainty that you have exhausted all spelling variations or searched all possible dates for a given vital record.

In Conclusion

You may find that you have better luck if you turn first to the Family History Library and its microfilm collection. When you have little to go on, such as just names, it is not very helpful to contact a county courthouse or state office in search of vital records. You may find that using microfilmed indexes or other records would be more helpful. Once you have learned additional information about your ancestors from these records, you'll soon find that you have enough information to seek out vital records from county or state offices.

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 rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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