African American Vital Records
Vital records are the cornerstones of genealogy research. The events of birth, marriage and death function as anchors in the lives of ancestors. Determining the events of a person's life between birth and death helps to tell the story of that person and, in part, the story of the America in which that person lived or traveled during the course of their lifespan. For example, a young person dying in the Civil War tells a tale of that era or a Depression Era marriage in Arizona may illuminate the life of an Illinois farm family who had relocated.
Even though these events are so important to genealogical and historical research, they can often be difficult to track down. For the most part, three different institutions take a vested interest in tracking vital records: religious organizations, governments and families. When these traditional institutions fail to collect or maintain the information, it can be difficult to recover the documents.
Among the three groups, hints to the vital records in question can often be gleaned from at least one of the sources. If a county courthouse burned in Virginia during the Civil War, maybe the local church survived. If there was no church in the area, perhaps a family member recorded events in a journal or Bible.
Between the colonial settlement and the 20th century, one major problem recurred over time between the East Coast and the western states. On a rolling basis, there were no governments or churches to record the information, as people were often settling in advance of those institutions. If there were territorial governments in place, they were often not obligating local authorities to track the births, deaths or marriages of area residents. This being the case, the first step is to determine in what state or territory your ancestors lived. For example, someone living in Virginia in 1780 may have truly been located in what is now Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania or Maryland. Likewise, someone listed as living in the Indiana Territory may have been in Detroit. As these governmental units developed and solidified their boundaries, the county lines were still evolving. County-level histories and Web sites can help to determine the exact boundaries encircling the family being researched.
At times there will be no other option but to look for vital information in unexpected places. Marriage records have been found placed amongst land records. A court case may prove a person living at a given time. The will of a distant relative may provide the information needed or at least prove a relationship. Tax records may indicate the age of an individual.
Use vital records of births, deaths, and marriages to learn about an ancestor's birth, death, or marriage in a given town, county, or state.
Searching Vital Records
Before searching vital records you must know:
- The ancestor's name at the time of birth, marriage, or death
- The state (and possibly the city or county) where the event occurred
- Approximate year of the event
To obtain vital record guidance online, go to www.vitalrec.com. Search for:
- Phone numbers and addresses of state and county archives that keep vital records.
- Places where you can find birth, death, and marriage records for a given year (town, county, or state)
- Fees charged by record offices
Use birth records to learn an ancestor's full birth date and place, and the parents' names.
Birth records may contain:
- Full name of the infant
- Birth date and place (town, county, and state)
- Parents' names (including mother's maiden name)
- Home address
- Father's occupation
Birth records may not be as available as death records as they were not required until the early 1900s.
Use marriage records to learn an ancestor's:
- Full marriage date and place
- Full names of bride, groom, and parents, including maiden names
- Possible county of residence at the time of the marriage
- Whether bride or groom were previously married, widowed, or divorced
Look for a marriage record near the time when and place where the first child was born.
Use death records to learn an ancestor's:
- Full death date and place (town, county, state)
- Birth date and place (town, county, and state)
- Parents' full names (including mother's maiden name) (Note: Check the name of the informant; the information is not always accurate.)
- Home address at time of death
- Age at death
- Marital status (single, married, widowed, or divorced)
- Spouse's full name (if married)
- Name of funeral home or cemetery
- name of the informant and relationship between the informant and the deceased
Look for a death record before a birth or marriage record. It is more likely to be available and can provide clues for locating the other documentation.
Social Security Death Index (SSDI)
The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) can be used to find birth and death information for 63 million U.S. residents who have died since 1936. Most records are for deaths after 1962. The Social Security application lists full birth dates and parents' names.
The SSDI may list an ancestor's:
- Name at the time of application
- Full birth date
- Social Security number
- State of residence when the Social Security number was issued
- Death month and year
- Place (city, county, and state) where the last benefit was sent (This may or may not be the place of death.)
Searching the SSDI
Before searching the SSDI you must know the ancestor's name and an approximate death year (1936 or later).
The SSDI is online by going to: Searching the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) in One Step; or Social Security Death Index (SSDI). The SSDI is online and also available at the Family History Library on CD-ROM No. 9 pt. 110 discs 1 and 2.
Social Security Applications
Use the Social Security application to:
- Find the full name of an ancestor at time of birth and at time of application
- Find an ancestor's birth date and place (city, county, state)
- Learn an ancestor's parents' names, including the mother's maiden name
- Trace where your ancestor lived, i.e., mailing address at time of application
- Employer's name and mailing address
- Find information on people who do not appear in other types of records
The following form is used to order a copy of the Social Security Application. The address of the agency where the request should be mailed is included, along with the cost of the copy.
- Search first for the ancestor's death record, then marriage record, then birth record. Later records are more common, more easily found, and contain more information.
- Because most vital records were kept by the county, search county records first. Then search for town and state records if they exist. For records in New England, search town records first.
- If there are two forms of a record (such as marriage bonds and marriage certificates), search both. Some forms have more information than others.
- When ordering vital records, ask for a photocopy of the original record. This will usually have more information than a certified copy.
- Write down the names of any witnesses or informants on the record. These are usually relatives or friends.
- If you cannot find your African American ancestor in the records on the first try, do one or more of the following:
- Look in separate "colored" registers or in the back of "white" registers.
- Look in "white" registers, where African Americans with light skin may be listed.
- If your ancestor is not in the index to a record, look in the record anyway. African Americans may not be listed in the index.
- If you cannot find a name, ignore the surname because some African Americans changed their surnames. Search again, focusing on given names, ages, and relationships. For example. Ben and Sarah Bishop are listed in the 1870 census as Ben and Sarah mcDaniel and in the 1880 census as Ben and Sarah Hoody.
- Look for other places where your ancestor may have moved. Interview relatives and study maps to see where the family might have gone.
- Be diligent. You may have to search many kinds of records to find your ancestors.
- Cyndi's List: Taxes
- Genealogical Research in the Maine State Archives
- Illinois Statewide Vital Records
- Native Genealogy, People of the Three Fires
- Ohio Historical Society State Archives, Online Death Index, 1913-1937
- U.S. Vital Records By State
- Unraveling the 1850 and 1860 Slave Schedules
- Washington Secretary of State, Digital Archives
- Washtenaw County Clerk/Register's Office. Search and Order Records
- West Virginia Division of Culture and History, Vital Research Records Search Selection
- Wisconsin Historical Society, Pre-1907 Vital Records