How to Read Vital Genealogical Records

Vital records are among the first sets of primary sources typically used by genealogists. These records contain key and usually reliable information because they were produced near the time that the event occurred, and a witness to the event provided the information. (Outside the United States, vital records are often called civil registrations.)

Birth records

Birth records are good primary sources for verifying the date of birth, birthplace, and names of an individual's parents. Depending on the information requirements for a particular birth certificate, you may also discover the birthplace of the parents, their ages, occupations, addresses at the time of the birth, whether the mother had given birth previously, date of marriage of the parents, and the names and ages of any previous children.

Sometimes, instead of a birth certificate, you may find another record in the family's possession that verifies the existence of the birth record.

For example, instead of having a certified copy of a birth certificate, you might have a Certificate of Record of Birth. This certificate attests to the fact that the county has a certificate of birth and notes its location. These certificates were used primarily before photocopiers became commonplace, and it became easier to get a certified copy of the original record.

Birth records were less formal in earlier times. Before modern record-keeping, a simple handwritten entry in a book sufficed as an official record of an individual's birth.

So be very specific when citing a birth record in your genealogical notes. Include any numbers you find in the record and where the record is located (including not only the physical location of the building, but also the book number and page number of the information, and even the record number if one is present).

Marriage records

Marriage records come in several forms. Early marriage records may include the following:

  • Marriage bonds: Financial guarantees that a marriage was going to take place

  • Marriage banns: Proclamations of the intent to marry someone in front of a church congregation

  • Marriage licenses: Documents granting permission to marry

  • Marriage records or certificates: Documents certifying the union of two people

These records usually contain the groom's name, the bride's name, and the location of the ceremony. They may also contain occupation information, birthplaces of the bride and groom, parents’ names and birthplaces, names of witnesses, and information on previous marriages.

When using marriage records, don't confuse the date of the marriage with the date of the marriage bond, bann, or license. The latter records were often filed anywhere from a few days to several weeks before the actual marriage date.

Also, don't assume that because you found a bond, bann, or license, a marriage took place. Some people got cold feet then (as they do today) and backed out of the marriage at the last minute.

If you have trouble finding a marriage record in the area where your ancestors lived, try looking in surrounding counties or parishes or possibly even states. Like today, destination weddings did occur! Lucky for those researching in the twenty-first century — most of your ancestors’ destinations were nearby towns instead of exotic, far-off places.

Typically, the reason some ancestors traveled to another location was to have the wedding at a particular relative's house or church. So if the record isn't in the location you expect, be sure to look in the areas where the parents of the ancestors lived.

Divorce records

One type of vital record that may be easy to overlook is a divorce decree. Later generations may not be aware that an early ancestor was divorced, and the records recounting the event can be difficult to find. However, divorce records can be valuable. They contain many important facts, including the age of the petitioners, birthplace, address, occupations, names and ages of children, property, and the grounds for the divorce.

Death records

Death records are excellent resources for verifying the date of death but are less reliable for other data elements such as birth date and birthplace because people who were not witnesses to the birth often supply that information. However, information on the death record can point you in the right direction for records to verify other events.

More recent death records include the name of the individual, place of death, residence, parents’ names, spouse's name, occupation, and cause of death. Early death records may contain only the date of death, cause, and residence.

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