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Birth Records are among the most popular of all record types used by family historians early in the process of gathering information about their ancestors.
When used in conjunction with marriage records, and death records (often referred to as vital records or simply BMD), birth records can provide or confirm many clues for a single individual, but only if reviewed carefully and with a trained eye. In recent years, concearns for personal privacy and national security have resulted in restrictions being placed on some birth records in the United States and elsewhere, but these public records are still generally accessible to descendants for legitimate purposes.
Getting the Most From Birth Records
While the Internet is and exceptional tool for family historians, every effort should always be made to obtain a copy of the original birth records being used to document your family history. Where possible, a copy should be precisely that - a photostat copy or scanned digital image of the original birth certificate or birth record as it was originally recorded shortly after the birth of the individual in question. Transcribed records always introduce the chance for additional errors or ommissions which may complicate your research further down the line.
You will find that availability of birth records will vary from place to place and also for different time periods. The following will describe, in a general sense, the types of birth records you may find and also the differences between each and how to use them to your best advantage.
Early U.S. birth records (meaning prior to the mid-1800s) were often recorded in ledgers or journals in the township where the birth occurred. For larger cities, you may find separate birth ledgers, but smaller towns may have just one book recording births, land transactions, minutes from town meetings, deaths, marriages, and other local happenings.
Towards the latter part of the 19th century, many parts of the United States were recording births in ledgers, but also issuing separate certificates. You may, therefore, find two records for the birth of your ancestors — often times with slightly different information or spelling from one to the other. When using ledgers to research birth records, you will often find an index in the front or rear of the book listing the names in alphabetical order by surname. While this can certainly help save time, don't give up on a ledger just because the index doesn't contain the name you are searching for.
If you are reasonably certain that the ledger covers the time period when your ancestor was born, consider alternate spellings for the surname or other means which may have caused the name to be mis-indexed. Irish names like O'Rourke and O'Hanley may appear in the 'R' or 'H' sections respectively. Italian names starting with 'di' or 'de' (as in di Tota, di Giovanni, or de Cesare) may have been mistakenly indexed along with 'T', 'G', and 'C', respectively.
Belated Registration of Birth Records
Althrough there were requirements in place for the recording of all births — live births or still births — it was not uncommon for immigrant families to fail to meet this reporting requirement. In many towns, there are separate Delayed Registration of Birth Certificates, also called Belated Registration of Birth Certificates. These are certificates issued after the fact — in the example above, 69 years later — using personal sworn statements and other supporting documentation to prove when and where the birth occurred. While young immigrant families may have neglected to report the birth to government officials, many would still have the child christened or baptised and those documents are often used as a near substitute to prove a date and place of birth.
Even though the birth record shown above is for an 1887 birth, some information has been removed to ensure privacy. You can see, however, that this Connecticut birth record was filed in June 1957, seven decades after the birth occurred. The reverse side of this certificate (not shown) lists a variety of sources as further proof of the birth — including the names and dates of younger siblings also born in the same city.
Stated Information vs. Inferred Information
If you have one or more birth records in your collection, go back and take a close look at each. You will find that most are a combination of stated facts (which may or may not be true). From what is stated, you can then infer a great deal more. Some examples appear below:
- Year of birth can, in most cases, help narrow or approximate a year of marriage for parents (helpful if you do not yet have this information)
- If the birth record states the number of children as 3, you can then search earlier years for children of the same mother
- Birth records for multiple children from the same family can help establish a timeline using their address and occupation information as provided
- Simple though this may seem, you can use the information for parents to approximate date of death when one is not yet known (if the father was listed on a 1908 birth record, then you can assume his date of death is 'AFTER 1907'. This will help save you time later when you begin looking for death records.