Genealogy Basics: Birth Certificates

Last week we talked a little bit about genealogy basics and how to get started.  In that post I touched on some different records available for genealogical use.  The next few posts are going to discuss what those records are and what information can be extracted from them.

The first records we talked about were vital records.  Vital records consist of birth, marriage, divorce and death records and are referred to as primary sources.  The definition of a primary genealogy source is a document or source that was created at or near the time an event occurred.

Early vital records were mostly recorded in church or civil registers.  As the United States matured as a nation the need for better record keeping developed.  Prior to the 1900s vital records were mostly incomplete.  Once states began developing their own registration processes and laws the majority of life events began to be recorded.

These days everyone most likely has a copy of their birth certificate or can get a copy of their birth certificate so let’s look at those first.  Since different states entered the union at different times their laws and bureaucratic processes developed at different speeds.  This means that some states have very early birth records while other states won’t have birth records until much later.  The ProGenealogist website has a chart here showing when each state put into law the requirement for registering births and deaths and also when that state reached a 90% registration rate which was required for entry into the U.S. Registration. It also contains a great state-by-state synopsis following the chart.

Here’s a list of some of the information you might find on a birth certificate:

  • Child’s full name (very helpful if the child happened to use a nickname)
  • Child’s gender
  • Child’s date of birth
  • Child’s place of birth
  • Child’s race
  • Child’s birth order
  • Names of both parents
  • Maiden name of the mother
  • Parents’ approximately birth date and ages
  • Parents’ places of birth
  • Parents’ occupations
  • Family’s religious affiliation
  • Family’s home address
  • Hospital where the birth occurred or the name of a medical attendant present at the birth:

As you can see birth certificates are a wealth of information.  Typically, they can only be obtained from the state where the birth occurred and all states charge a fee.  The fee covers the search time by state employees and one copy of the certificate.  For more recent birth certificates only direct relations can get copies of the certificate.  States usually are more lenient when it comes to much older certificates and allow for genealogy-based requests.

Things to remember:

  • When states first began registering births anyone who hadn’t already been registered could go and file for a delayed certificate of birth.  To do this, the person filing for the delayed birth certificate had to go to the state office with some type of proof of their birth (a document or person who would swear to the truth of the statements and birth facts) and make their application for a birth certificate.  The certificate was issued and filed with other certificates from that time, it was not filed with the certificates from the person’s actual date of birth.
  • When a birth certificate had or has an error an amended birth record can be filed.  It will show the corrected information and will be filed with the original certificate.

Birth certificates do look different from state to state.  These days the information is pretty standard across the states.  Before standardization occurred the information could vary widely from state to state.  Have you found anything interesting on birth certificates of your ancestors?

Tune in next week for information on marriage certificates!

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