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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in April 2013. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian: Vital Statistic Records - Part 1  by Sharon L. Murphy. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Types of Early Vital Records

Births - Baptisms

There were no government regulations regarding the registration of births prior to civil registration. Baptism records created by the church may be the only source of information. They are evidence that a birth occurred, although a precise date of birth may not be recorded.

The baptism register does provide some valuable information. It included the name of the child and the date baptized. Sometimes, the date born, parents’ names and birthplace as well as the names of the sponsors or godparents were given. One should never confuse a baptismal date with a date of birth.

Often the visiting preacher would perform the baptism of an entire family when he arrived in the area. He may have only passed through this particular area once every few years. When he did arrive, it was very common to include all those that were not baptized on his previous trip. This resulted in a list of entire families being entered at one time, often with all their birthdates included.

In some denominations, the members were not baptized until they were young adults or older. Remember this when you are determining the religious beliefs of your ancestors. One example of a later baptism would be that of a person of the Baptist faith.

Marriage Banns

Marriage banns were the announcement of the intention of marriage between two individuals. They were read in church for three consecutive Sundays which allowed the marriage to take place without a license. Not all churches kept a separate record of marriage banns.

Marriage Bonds

Marriage bonds were issued as security indicating that there was no legal impediment to the marriage. The bond gave the names of the groom and bride, the groom’s address and often his occupation. Sometimes the witnesses’ names or bondsman information is shown on the bond. A three week waiting period was not necessary. This did not guarantee that the marriage ever took place but it could be used as a clue to help further the search.

Marriage Licenses

Marriage licenses were issued/applied for in order to allow a marriage to take place without having banns read or without going to a church. In order to have the license issued a bond had to be posted by two of the friends of the couple wishing to be married. See marriage bonds. This did not mean that the couple actually married, just that the intent was there.

Marriage Records

Marriages were recorded by the person officiating at the ceremony. This could be a member of the clergy or another individual that had been given the authority to do so such as a justice of the peace or a military commander. When you are looking at a marriage registration, look at all the details. The witnesses’ names can provide you with very valuable clues regarding certain relationships that you may come across in the future. Always record this information when it is available.

Deaths - Burials

Deaths were recorded by the clergy in the form of burial or funeral records. The date and place of death would be primary information. The information entered on the burial record was normally given by the next-of-kin or the doctor or the minister officiating at the funeral. Remember that the source of the information determines how accurate it is. Any extra information like place of birth, birthdate, parents’ names, etc., of the deceased are provided by a third party and are considered secondary information when found on a burial record. However, the data will certainly be very useful as you continue in your search.

Cemetery Tombstones

Cemetery tombstones can also indicate the death date. They sometimes give the actual number of days, months and years the person lived as well as where he/she was originally from; i.e.: “Native of Belfast, Ireland”. This is an invaluable clue about the origin of the person and in many cases will be the only clue you will ever find. As most people are trying to search for their origins, this becomes a vital piece of information.

A cautionary note about tombstones. Their information is not always correct. Even though the inscription on the tombstone is “written in stone”, it really isn’t. Sometimes families did not have enough money to have a stone put in place at the time of the death. It could be years before they could afford to do so and by then their memories could be faulty.

Another reason to keep an open mind is the chance of human error by the stonemason himself. He could have simply put the incorrect date on the stone or made an error when he was carving the date. If you have different pieces of documentation indicating the death date and they do not agree, try to find a third instance that would agree with at least one of the previous choices.

Genealogy societies across the country have been working on transcribing and indexing the cemeteries. Contact the society in your research area to inquire about their particular collection, availability and access, or check for online cemetery sources.


Newspapers are a good source of information regarding a birth, marriage or death. Particularly fruitful are the obituaries, as they can include “ordinary” people as well as the famous. Obituaries can give you the background of the deceased and names of other relatives and often those attending the funeral.

Most small town papers were weeklies and spread their news throughout the paper. The announcements section may not be there or it may not contain all the notices. You may need to scan all the paper to find what you are looking for. After you have read through a few you will see a pattern as to how the paper is generally put together and this should help. Also, many local genealogy societies and libraries have indexed their own papers. If indexed, this could save you hours of reading.

  • Sandra Burrows and Franceen Gaudet compiled, Checklist of Indexes to Canadian Newspapers (Ottawa: National Library of Canada). This index will help you determine if there are existing newspapers. The checklist is online at the Library and Archives Canada .  Contacting the local library or existing newspaper office would also be of value.

Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Vital Statistic Records - Part 1 offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.