Just because a vital record (birth, marriage, or death certificate) may not exist for an ancestor, that doesn’t mean you can’t find alternatives to finding that information. Here is a list of alternatives to vital records for finding that basic BMD information:
Bible records – Not every family kept bibles with vital information, but when you get lucky these can be really awesome finds.
Church records – If your ancestors were religious and attended a church, there may be church records that can help with finding vital records. Each denomination was a little different in terms of what rites and records they performed, and their levels of preservation of those records varies widely.
Military records – If your ancestor served in the military, you may be able to find vital information of many kinds in things like enrollment papers, pension applications, burial request records, and more.
Cemetery records – Most cemeteries kept some kind of log or ledger recording the burials in their cemetery. Depending on the level of care, who managed the cemetery, and other factors, those records may or may not exist today.
Funeral Home records – Similar to cemetery records, depending on who handled the burial, if that company is still in business today, if they have a preservation plan in place for their records, and so on, finding funeral home records can be very useful in filling in some vital information.
Newspapers – Often, you can find news tidbits regarding the birth of a child, the death of a community member, or a marriage. This is especially true in smaller town newspapers where they shared every little detail with the community.
This list could go on, honestly, but that is my top list for finding vital record information when the state or county weren’t keeping those records yet.
How do you find the above mentioned records? Well, in the past several posts I’ve shared many ways to find records. Those same techniques will work for this as well. Use WorldCat, Archive Grid, Google, Cindy’s List, newspaper websites, Ancestry, Fold3, etc…
I think you get the idea of where this series was going by this point. Don’t give up. Keep searching. Try new websites. Don’t just Google for the specific record or person, think in terms of where those records might be and Google for that. Think in terms of “Pre-Research.” That’s a concept I’ve talked about in lectures and probably in this blog. You have to research where and how to do the research. Basically, you have to get past the mentality of going to a database website like Ancestry or FamilySearch and putting in a name in the general search box and then quitting if you don’t find what you are looking for. You have to keep looking, digging, and searching.
Generally speaking, in the United States, the requirement to record vital records (I’m primarily referring to birth and death certificates here, marriages are a bit different and we will discuss them in a later post) did not begin until the early part of the 1900s. This requirement was done on a state-by-state basis, so each state’s law started at a different time. Each state will have different privacy protections in place based on the state law at the time. This means some states are very difficult to get a vital record from and others are easier. For example, a birth certificate may not be available to the public for 100 years, but a close family member (you will most likely have to prove your relationship) may be able to get a copy of the record. These requirements differ from state-to-state, and the laws change over time. So, it is best to examine the state’s vital records office for the most recent information.
When I am looking for vital records, I usually have a few things I do to locate them. The order in which I do these may depend on how old the birth or death certificate is. If it is more recent, I might start at the state vital records office. If it is an older record, I might start at the FamilySearch catalog. My steps:
Read up at the state vital records office website.
Look at some of the larger genealogy websites for vital records databases, such as Ancestry.
Examine the state-level archives, historical society, genealogical society, or whatever repository the state sends its historical materials to (if they do).
Examine the state and county of interest at the FamilySearch catalog to see if they’ve been microfilmed. Some counties may have done a local registration for births and deaths years before the state requirement was in place. This is true for Wood County, Ohio and Audrain County, Missouri, two locations I have successfully found county level vital records.
Look at online, user-contributed sources such as Find a Grave or public online trees in case anyone has posted a birth or death certificate for the person in question. (This can be surprisingly successful.)
The most important thing when trying to get a vital record is understanding when each state began requiring them. And understanding that it took a while for the counties to comply with new state laws. If a death certificate was required in 1909 and you cannot find a death certificate for 1909 or even for several years after, realize that things did not happen instantly in the early 1900s. I have looked for vital records in some states and sometimes cannot find them for 10 or more years after registration was required. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t recorded at the county level (though it may). More likely, the systems weren’t in place yet to comply with the laws.
Next time, we will look at some vital records substitutes and places to look for alternatives to the traditional birth or death certificate.
In Wyoming, statewide vital registration was required starting in July 1909. Depending on the age of the records your are looking for, there are a couple of locations you might look for records.
For birth records under 100 years old and death records under 50 years old, they can be obtained at the Wyoming Department of Health. Their website indicates that birth records may be obtained by the “registrant if 18 years of age, either parent named on the certificate, lawyer representing the registrant or parent(s), or legal guardian with Court Ordered Guardianship papers.” As for death records, you must be an immediate family member, named on the certificate, a bank, a lawyer, or otherwise need to show proof of your relationship to the decedent. Marriage and Divorce records are also on file since May 1941. Prior to that, you will need to check at the county level.
For births older than 100 years and deaths older than 50 years you will find the records at the Wyoming State Archives. Of course, this is only back to July 1909. Prior to that, if a record was kept you might find it at the county level.
And even though we didn’t request it, the Wyoming State Archives also sent his obituary! And all of it was completely free!
Of course, you will want to examine the FamilySearch catalog for the county in Wyoming that is of interest to you. Here is the catalog for Albany County marriage records:
And here is the marriage certificate for Philena Bailey, one of the sisters of Susan Bailey, our homesteader from Centennial, Wyoming from the previous blog post:
Be sure to check the county websites as well. You never know what you might find. This is the website for Laramie County (the county where Cheyenne is located, not Laramie, which is in Albany County). They have digitized their handwritten marriage index for the years prior to 1985.
There are some other useful sites when looking for vital records in Wyoming beyond those listed above: