| United States > Vital Records
The practice of recording vital statistics developed slowly in the United States. Early birth, marriage and death information was sometimes recorded in brief entries in register books until the twentieth century, when it became more common to create certificates. Some town clerks in colonial America (especially New England) recorded vital information, but these records are incomplete. The federal government has not registered vital records, except for Americans born outside the country who were recorded in embassy or consulate records.
Records of marriages were generally the first vital records kept in a locality. In most states, the counties or towns began recording marriages as soon as they were established. Whether the marriage ceremony was performed by a civil or a church authority, local laws required the marriage to be recorded in civil records.
The local health departments of a few large cities began recording births and deaths by the mid-1800s. For example, records exist for Baltimore (from 1875), Boston (from 1639), New Orleans (from 1790), New York (from 1847), and Philadelphia (from 1860). The early records are usually incomplete. Many counties in the East and Midwest were recording births and deaths by the late 1800's.
Each state eventually developed its own laws and created a statewide registration system. Unfortunately, these records do not exist until the early 1900's in most states. Local offices did not always comply immediately with the registration laws. Within 20 years after registration laws were enacted, most states were recording at least 90 percent of the births and deaths. To learn more about the creation of civil records and the regional differences go to the United States Civil Records page.
Vital Records of Each State
Vital Records in U.S. Territories
Why might it be better to look for the death record of an ancestor first?
- Your ancestor's death is more recent than his birth or marriage. It is usually best to work from recent events backward, from the known to the unknown.
- The death record usually tells you where your ancestor last lived. Then you can look for other records for that place.
- The death record may lead you to other documents created in connection with the death, such as the burial and probate of your ancestor. Those records may give new family information.
- Death records may contain birth, marriage, and burial information as well as death information.
- Death records exist for many persons born before birth and marriage records began. Death records may contain birth and marriage information not available anywhere else.
Analyze the record
Ask yourself these questions to use the record effectively:
- What dates does this record provide?
- What ages are given?
- What places are mentioned in this record?
- Are parents or a spouse named?
- Are witnesses to the event related to the family?
- Who provided the information? Was that person someone who knew the family well?
- Does the death record give the name of the cemetery or funeral home? You may be able to search those records for more information.
- Does the information from the record fit with what you know about the family from other records? If it does not agree, it may have been miscopied by a clerk. Check your sources.
Why can't I find a vital record?
Some possible reasons are:
- Your ancestor might have lived in a different place from where you were looking for the birth, marriage, or death.
- Your ancestor may have used a nickname or a different surname, or the registrar spelled the name wrong. See Name Variations in United States Indexes and Records.
- Your ancestor might have lived at a slightly different time from the years you were looking.
- Not every birth, marriage, or death was registered.
You can check:
- The information you have for possible errors.
- If your ancestor might have lived in a different place.
- If your ancestor might have lived at a slightly different time.
- If your ancestor's name might be recorded under:
- A different spelling.
- A nickname.
- An Americanization of a foreign surname.
Sometimes vital records were not recorded for various reasons, even when required.
For other ideas see:
Key Reference Sources
- Kemp Thomas Jay. International Vital Records Handbook. 5th ed. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc.,2009. ISBM 9780806317939: 0806317930 Worldcat. FHL book 973 V24k 1994. This includes samples of application forms that can be sent to state offices to request copies of vital records. It also provides telephone ordering numbers for most offices. Payment by bank card is generally accepted.
- Leonard, Barry. Where to Write for Vital Records: Births, Deaths, Marriages, and DivorcesPublished by DIANE Publishing, 2007. ISBN 1422314820: 9781422314821. 47 pages. Full text available at Google Books. Worldcat.
- Szucs, Loretto Dennis, Luebking, Sandra Hargreaves. The source: a guidebook of American genealogy. Edition: 3, illustrated. Published by Ancestry Publishing, 2005. ISBN 1593312776: 9781593312770. 965 pages. Worldcat
- Stemmons, Jack and Diane Stemmons. The Vital Records Compendium:Comprising a Directory of Vital Records and Where They May be Located. Logan, Utah: Everton Publishers, 1979.
- Where to Write for Vital Records: Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Divorces. Hyattsville, Maryland: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, March 1993. Some addresses and fees are outdated. This booklet can be purchased from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office Washington, DC 20402-9328.
Records at the Family History Library
The Family History Library has copies of many vital records, primarily those before 1920. However, if a record was never kept, was not available in the courthouse at the time of microfilming, was not microfilmed, or is restricted from public access by the laws of the state, the Family History Library does not have a copy. You may use the records at the library for your family research, but the library does not issue or certify certificates for living or deceased individuals.
Vital records can be found in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under each of the following approaches:
- [STATE] - VITAL RECORDS
- [STATE], [COUNTY] - VITAL RECORDS
- [STATE], [COUNTY], [TOWN] - VITAL RECORDS
You can find further information about vital records in research pages available for each state.
The Family History Library has statewide collections and special indexes of vital records for most states. The library has good collections of county vital records for several states.
Things you can do
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