U.S. Vital Records Class Handout

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Courtesy of Jill Shoemaker, Riverton FamilySearch Library.

United States Vital Records for a Valid Pedigree[edit | edit source]

Vital records are birth, marriage, divorce, and death records kept by the government. These records provide names, dates, places, and relationships—information that uniquely identifies a person. Vital records are primary sources (created at the time of an event by a reliable witness) and the information on them is usually correct. Vital records provide a strong foundation for building a true and valid pedigree.


Rather than being a Federal responsibility, the state government is responsible for recording births, marriages, divorces and deaths that occur in their jurisdiction, but it was not until the early 1900’s that most states began recording these events.

  • Birth Certificates: Birth certificates at the state level give the child's name, sex, date, place of birth, and the names of the parents (including the mother’s maiden name). Additional details, such as the name of the hospital, birthplace of parents, occupation of the parents, marital status of the mother, the number of other children born to the mother, and the number this child is in the family may be included. Be sure to note these details and use them to search additional types of records, such as newspapers, land records, city directories, and employee records.
  • Delayed registrations of birth: They were made if no record was filed at the time of an individual’s birth, using Bible, school, census, or church records, or by testimony from a person who witnessed the birth. Delayed registrations generally did not become common in the United States until after 1937 when proof of birth was required in order to apply for Social Security. A corrected or amended birth certificate was filed to change the spelling of a name, to completely change a name, or add a name.
  • Marriage Certificates: Current marriages are registered by the county (or town if New England), and reported to the state office of vital records. Many counties keep duplicates of the records they send to the state.
  • Marriage records (licenses and certificates): They give the name of the bride and the groom and the date and place of marriage. Additional information could include the age/ birth date of the bride and groom; the names and birthplaces of the bride’s and groom’s parents; the residences and occupations of the bride and groom; whether single, widowed or divorced, and number of previous marriages for both the bride and groom; witnesses (may be relatives) and the official who performed the marriage. The additional information on marriage records can lead to researching censuses, land deeds, city directories, church records, and newspaper announcements. A marriage record helps determine which children belong to which mother in the case of multiple marriages.
  • Death Certificates: Death certificates include age and date of death, cause of death, time of death, name of the hospital, date and place of birth (if known), race, current residence, length of residence in the county or state, occupation, parents' names and birth places, spouse's name (including maiden name for wife), whether single, widowed or divorced, place of burial, name of funeral home, name of physician or medical examiner, name of informant & their relationship to the deceased, and officials or witnesses present at the time of death.
  • Information on death records can lead to researching immigration records, land records, city directories, church records, newspaper obituaries and articles, cemetery records, funeral home records, probate records, and Social Security Death Index. It will also lead to research on parents, children, spouses, and informants of the deceased. The cause of death can develop a medical family history.
  • Obtaining State Level Vital Record Certificates: More recent birth, marriage and death certificates will not be available online due to privacy concerns. In some states, birth certificates are confidential for a period of up to 100 years or more. Before spending a lot of money to order birth, marriage, or death certificates, check with close and extended family members to see if they have certificates of family members they would allow you to copy.
  • To order state vital records you will need to know the name of your ancestor, the approximate date of the event, and the approximate location of the event. You will probably need to give your relationship to the individual named on the certificate (you may need to be a direct descendant), the purpose of your request, your name, address, and telephone number. A picture idea, such as a driver's license, may be required.
  • Birth Records: Before states began keeping birth records, they were kept at a county level until each the state took control of recording births. County level birth records gave less information than state birth certificates, but would usually include the child's name, sex, date, place of birth, and the names of the parents (including the mother’s maiden name).
  • The New England states are an exception as they started recording births on the town level starting as early as the 1600s, although there are gaps in some records. Midwestern states began recording births on the county level, some as early as the 1860s. Local health departments of a few large cities began recording births fairly early, such as Boston (from 1639), New Orleans (from 1790), New York (from 1847), Philadelphia (from 1860), and Baltimore (from 1875).
  • Marriage Records: As a legal contract involving property rights between two individuals, marriage records are the earliest vital records to be recorded in a county. However, in New England, early marriages were not kept due to religious customs of the region, and South Carolina did not begin keeping marriage records until the early 1900s. Most often a couple married in the town or county where the bride resided. The couple could be married by a minister of the gospel, justice of the peace or other state official, military officer, or ship officer.
  • There are often several documents produced when a marriage takes place. These may have included some type of intention of marriage, such as a marriage bond, consent papers, contracts or settlements, licenses and applications of marriage, and records of marriage, such as a marriage certificate and a marriage return recorded in a register.

Records of Intention to Marry[edit | edit source]

  • Intentions: Early intentions were written notices presented to local civil authority and posted in a public place for a given period of time to show a couple's intent to marry and to give town members the opportunity to object to the marriage. The clerk recorded announcements in a register or they may be mixed in with other town or church records. Intentions were used in Southern and New England states to the mid-1800s.
  • Marriage bonds: are written guarantees of payment made by the groom or another person (often a relative of the bride) to make sure that the marriage would be legal. The person who posted the bond was known as the surety or bondsman. Bonds were frequently used in the southern and mid-Atlantic states up to the mid-1800s.
  • Consent Papers: Consent papers from a parent or guardian were necessary when the bride or the groom was underage. The term “underage” was different for each state and would need to be researched if it applied to your ancestor. The consent may have been written on the license or bond.
  • Marriage Applications and Licenses: Applications and licenses are the most recent type of records showing intent to marry and gradually replaced the use of intentions and bonds. A bride and groom obtained a license to be married by applying to the proper civil authorities. Licenses and applications include the bride and groom's names, ages, and residence. Later records also provide their race, birth dates, occupations, and usually the names of the parents. The license was presented to the person who performed the marriage and was later returned to the town or county clerk.
  • Marriage records: Marriage records were recorded by the county clerk in a register or bookand included the names of the bride and groom and the date and place of marriage. County marriage records usually contain the full name of the bride, the full name of the groom, and the date and place of marriage.
  • Marriage Certificates: A certificate of marriage with a border was given by the person who preformed the marriage or the civil office where the marriage was recorded. The certificate was often kept by the family as proof that the marriage occurred. The clerk of the court may also have a copy.
  • Returns and Registers: The person performing the marriage, such as a minister or justice of the peace, was required to report to the county or town clerk that the marriage had taken place. This is called a “return” and gave the name of the couple, the date and place of marriage, and the name of the person who performed the marriage. The county or town clerk would then add this information to the marriage record. Many marriage records were printed with a separate section of the document designated as the “return” or there may have been a separate register or book for returns. Some early returns can be found in court or town minutes and deed books.
  • Death Records: County level death records give the name, death date and place of death, cause of death, age at death, and state or country of birth. Most death records kept at the county level began anywhere from the 1850s and 1860s until the late 1890s. New England states (Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire) started recording deaths on the town level starting when a town was formed. Counties began recording deaths as early as the 1850s through the late 1890s.

DIVORCE RECORDS[edit | edit source]

  • Divorces before the 1900s were less common, but still occasionally occurred. More recent divorce records include the names of the husband and wife, the date of marriage, the date of divorce and may also contain the ages and/or birth dates of the husband and wife, the current residence for husband and wife, the names and birth dates of the children, and the reason for the divorce. Earlier divorce records may only include the names of the parties involved, the date the marriage was dissolved, and the reason for the divorce.
  • Some of the earliest divorces were granted by state legislatures and may be listed in legislative records. County officials began keeping divorce records as soon as a court was established in the area. Early county divorce records are found in dockets, minutes, and case files of the county, circuit, district, or probate court. Divorce records are public records and can be obtained by contacting the clerk of the court.
  • Newspapers often carried notices placed by husbands to warn local tradesmen that they would no longer be responsible for the debts incurred by their ex-wives. On occasion wives placed notices of freedom. Other newspaper notices would announce divorce information.


This chart links to vital records instructions for each state:

   How to Find Information about United States Ancestors

1. Birth Information
2. Marriage Information
3. Death Information

These links lead to vital records you can view online: U.S. Online Records by State: Select the state of interest. The first topic listed will be "Births, Marriages, Divorces, and Deaths."

From the Wiki Main Page type in the state you are researching and add the words “Vital Records.” Information on microfilmed vital records will also be available, as well as information on records that can be used in place of vital records.

Ancestry.com and click on “Search” and then scroll down and click on the state on the map at the bottom. When the list comes up, click on the state you are researching, then click on “View all [state] Birth, Marriage, & Death” to see the online vital records for the particular state you are researching. Another way to search for vital records at Ancestry is to start directly with Ancestry.com: “Birth, Marriage & Death”.

MyHeritage, ($): Hover over the “Research Tab” and click on “Birth, Marriage & Death” to search for birth, marriage, divorce, and death records.

Records World Vital Records: ($) Hover over “Search” and then click on “Birth, Marriage and Death” to start your search for vital records.

USGenWeb: Choose a state and a county where you are searching and see what vital records are available. Also at the home page, click on the “Projects” tab and then click on “The USGenWeb Archives Project.” Choose your state and your county to see what is available.

American Ancestors Click on “start searching,” enter in a name and click on “birth,” “death,” or “marriage” under “Record Type” to find vital records in New England states and New York.

Cyndi's List : This site provides comprehensive, categorized and cross-referenced list of links that point you to genealogical research sites online.

German Roots vital records gives lists additional resources and links to databases for birth, marriage, and death records.

Steve Morse One Step Web Pages provides enhanced search tools and links.

  • FamilySearch Catalog In the “Places” box, type in the place where you are searching for vital records (state or county and state) and click “Search.” When the list of records comes up on the next page, click on “Vital Records” to see what is available. When searching for divorce records, click on “Court Records” to see what is available.


If you are searching for birth, marriage, and death information for an ancestor who was born, married, or died before vital records were kept in the United States, use substitute or secondary sources. Substitute birth, marriage, and death records include:

  • The U.S. Federal Census records which give the age and state or country of birth for each household member from 1850 to 1940, and the 1900 census gives the month and year of birth. Marriage information can be found on the 1850 through 1910 censuses (this includes whether a person had been divorced or widowed).
  • Death certificates for birth information, although on a death certificate, birth information is considered a secondary source.
  • More recent marriage records contain age or birth date of the bride and groom and their parents.
  • Church records include birth date, place and parents' names in baptismal records, marriage information, and include the deceased's age in burial records.
  • Military records: World War I and World War II draft records may include the birth date and place depending on the registration cards. Pension records can include the birth, marriage, and death date and place.
  • Family Bible: Birth dates, marriage dates, death dates, and sometimes places for these events may be included in a family Bible.
  • Obituaries usually contain a rich variety of vital and biographical information, including name and place of residence of close family and friends, decedent's death date and place and birth date and place, marriage date, occupation, military service, religion, schools attended, parent’s names, places of residence over time, and place of origin.

Some obituary and newspaper websites.[edit | edit source]

Funeral home or mortuary records may contain a list of surviving immediate relatives; names of grandchildren, in-laws, other relatives; residences for listed relatives; a copy of the obituary or notes used to prepare an obituary; a record of newspapers where the obituary was placed; former residences; education; church affiliation; military service; membership in clubs, lodges, etc.; details of grave location and type of marker; notes regarding funeral services; and life insurance information.

Headstones are easier than ever to find online with many databases of records and images from the world's cemeteries. Cemetery websites include:

  • Findagrave.com
  • Billiongraves.com
  • NamesInStone.com, etc.

Do a Google search for specific cemetery websites.

  • Details in sexton records include the name of deceased and the date of the burial. Other information may include the date of death, the cause of death, the age at death, the full birth and/or death dates, the full name, including maiden name for women, relationship clues (who else is buried in the plot, if they are related, and how related), and the owner of the plot.
  • The Social Security Death Index contains millions of records of deaths reported to the Social Security Administration since 1937. The bulk of the records are from 1962 to the present. The index provides the deceased person's birth date, social security number, state where the social security card was issued, month and year of death, and state of residence at death. Many websites carry the Social Security Death Index including FamilySearch, Ancestry, and MyHeritage.
  • The application for a Social Security card included the applicant's full name, age, date and place of birth, father and mother's full name (including the mother's maiden name), gender, the date signed, and the applicant's signature. To request a copy of the application, go to: http://www.socialsecurity.gov/online/ss-5.pdf and fill out the form. Include a check or money order made payable to SSA, or MC, Visa, or Discover. It may take up to six months to receive the report. You will be charged the fee even if SSA does not find the application.

Summary[edit | edit source]

  • In searching for United States birth, marriage, divorce, and death records there are many websites that have online collections to be searched for vital records. Since vital records did not always exist in the United States, a variety of substitute records will need to be searched to find at least an approximate birth date and death date for an ancestor. Many of these substitute records are also online.