Beginning Research in United States Vital Records

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What are vital records?[edit | edit source]

Vital records are birth, marriage, divorce, and death records kept by the government.

What time periods do they cover?[edit | edit source]

What can I find in them?[edit | edit source]

  • 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.
  • Marriage Certificates and/or Licenses: 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.
  • 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.
  • Divorce Records: 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.

How do I access them?[edit | edit source]

U.S. Online Records by State: Select the state of interest. The first topic listed will be "Births, Marriages, Divorces, and Deaths."

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

Search strategies[edit | edit source]

  • Use the ages listed in census records to find the approximate birth year to narrow down your search.
  • Even though you already know the death date, remember that the actual death certificate can give the names and birth places of parents, including the mother's maiden name.
  • When setting up a computerized search, try entering the parents' names and leaving the child's name blank, in hopes of finding other siblings.
  • Fertility patterns, before birth control was common, usually meant children were born about every two years. If you have long gaps between births, hunt for additional children.
  • Search marriage records for other couples with the same surnames. They might prove to be siblings.