RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees No. 6

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RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees
Guide No. 6:  Birth Records

One of the most important issues to genealogists is proving the parentage of any of our ancestors. Often, we assume that the birth record will provide this information and therefore attempt to start by searching for this record first. You are more likely to be successful with your research if you do the search for vital records (birth, marriage and death) in the reverse order of life's events.

Start with death records, then seek the marriage records and finally hunt for birth records. Keep in mind that in many localities, particularly the United States, birth records are a modern record and outside of New England often do not exist prior to about 1900.

Death and marriage records should be located first because they are necessary to help determine enough information about your ancestor to be sure that when you do find a birth record, you have the right one. By the time you are looking for the birth record, you should already know a few pertinent pieces of information about your ancestor, most notably:

In addition, it is certainly helpful to have the name of one of the parents. Of course, you are probably saying, well if I already know all this, then why do I need to get the birth record? Just as you searched for the death and marriage records first to help find needed clues to the birth of your ancestor, the birth record will supply you with clues needed for pursuing the parents of your ancestor.

The fun part of genealogy is that for every person you can prove you create two new slots on the pedigree chart to fill. And it is always through the records on those you know about that you discover tidbits and hints to those you didn't know about.

Birth records vary from place to place in their:

Like other vital records, Canadian and American birth records were usually begun in the late 1800s or early 1900s. In fact, you are more likely to discover a marriage record from the early 1800s than you are a birth record. For British research, births, marriages and deaths exist in civil records from about July 1, 1837.

The dates of availability of civil and church records pertaining to births in other countries varies greatly. Consult International Vital Records Handbook, by Thomas Jay Kemp, available from Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., for information regarding civil registration of births around the world.

Unlike other vital records, you are more likely to experience availability restrictions with birth records. This is to protect the privacy of living individuals and is especially true when requesting birth records from the state level in the United States. Whenever possible start at the county level. However, when it comes to most of the New England states, then the birth records will be found on the town level. Tips for adoptees.

Births may be recorded on certificates or in registers. The older the record, the less information you are likely to find. For the more recent births you are likely to find included:

Where and how to order Vital Records Information   
(U.S. States and territories)

As you go further back in the records, you find that you are eventually only seeing the name of the child, the date of birth and the name of the father (and possibly the mother's first name). In American records, if the birth information is found in town records then no place is usually listed. When found in county records, the town may or may not be included.

Most of us are used to birth certificates. If we had children we had to fill out forms and obtain birth certificates. However, vital records were also often recorded in registers. These were large volumes that included columns for the various important details such as have been listed above.


Frakturs are another type of birth document Americans with Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry might discover. Frakturs are hand-crafted documents and letters that were created by religious groups from southern Germany who came to America in the late 17th century.

Among these are the Geburts-Schein (birth certificate); Tauf-Schein (baptismal certificate); Trau-Schein (wedding certificate); and Familien Register (family record). Not only are Geburts-Schein valuable as birth documentation, but they are treasured as folk art.

How to obtain birth records

Obtaining birth records depends largely on the laws of the area your ancestor was born in. For those that are available, it is probable that they have been microfilmed by the Family History Library. At the very least, you will want to check to see if an index was microfilmed by visiting your local Family History Center. You also will want to check at the Family History Library online.

To find out the addresses and phone numbers for ordering birth records, be sure to check out the Vital Records Information Web page. In addition to offering the addresses and phone numbers, they have also set up links to websites, including the various county US GenWeb pages.

Search user-contributed databases of birth records

Use RootsWeb's Searchable Indexes

FreeBMD — Free BMD stands for Free Births, Marriages, and Deaths. The FreeBMD Project's objective is to provide free Internet access to Civil Registration index information for England and Wales. Civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths in the U.K. began in 1837. The FreeBMD Project will be allowed to publish online indexes from those records that are at least 100 years old.

WorldGenWeb Archives
Caribbean GenWeb
(Islands of the West Indies)

Suggested Reading & References

Additional Resources

Links in this Guide
(in order they appeared)

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