Genealogy Today, by Betty Lou Malesky, CG
Finding Vital Records
Before searching for vital records it's important to know when recording started in a particular area. There is no sense trying to find a marriage record in 1765 if the area wasn't settled until 1788 and marriages were not recorded until 1808.
Marriage records are normally found much earlier than births and deaths. Many areas issued marriage licenses in the 1700s and 1800s. The officiating clergyman or justice of the peace was often required to report the date and location where the marriage was performed back to the political entity.
New England States generally registered births, deaths and marriages as early as the 1600s with some Mid-Atlantic States following suit in the 1700s. When settlement began spreading west, land and probate records were necessary for economic reasons with vital records usually the last to be considered.
In the United States, a law was passed requiring all births and deaths within each state be reported annually to Washington beginning in 1906, not for the convenience of future genealogists, but to satisfy government's need for disease control, infant mortality statistics, and to project future population growth. The law also standardized information collected by individual states.
Prior to 1906, birth and death records were reported to a local entity such as town, city or county and sometimes also accumulated by the state, but often the registration was not mandatory and depended on the diligence of next of kin to the deceased person or the newborn child.
So, how can we determine the applicable date of recording in an area prior to conducting research? The best place to start is USGenWeb, www.usgenweb.com, a volunteer-run site with information about every state and county in the country. As a rule, the information published here is fairly current.
Normally, a link from each county's site to that county's courthouse will provide information pertinent to family research including a brief history of the county and dates that records began. Often USGenWeb has a courthouse link for genealogy that is nearly impossible to find on the courthouse's main Website.
Many USGenWeb sites have transcribed early vital records. When using a transcription always try to locate the original text to avoid transcriber errors. It's very easy to mistype or transpose dates and misspell names. The LDS's Family Search project now underway has two persons transcribe each record with a third person comparing the transcription to the original and making any necessary corrections.
Three not-so-current publications are available to help also. The first and the one I prefer is The Handy Book for Genealogists, now in the 11th edition (Everton Publishing, 2006, $52.00). The others are Ancestry's Redbook, 3rd edition (Ancestry.Inc., 1998, $49.98) and The Family Tree Resource Book for Genealogists, (Family Tree Books, 2004, $29.99). All are now outdated but used copies are easily found on the Web via sites such as www.bookfinder.com.
None of these books is 100% error free. You are wise to explore further to be sure the records you need exist and to know where they are located today. Many early records are being relocated to archives, libraries and/or historical societies due to space constraints in the courthouse.
In the absence of vital records, numerous other sources may be available including public records such as newspaper notices, church, cemetery, court, guardianship and probate records, even land records selling a deceased's property in absence of a will. Within the family, a Bible, journal, correspondence, or photographs may provide clues to lifespan or marriage dates. This list is far from complete but shows all is not lost when there is no vital record.
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23 July 2010