By Kimberly

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In genealogy, we have vital records to confirm information about our ancestors. To put it simply, vital records are a genealogist’s fantasy fulfilled. Sometimes we find information about our ancestors that is too good to be true. That’s when vital records come in handy.

Vital records are essential government documents such as birth and death certificates, marriage and divorce certificates, and separation agreements. The government issues and keeps vital records, though individuals should keep certified copies of their family’s genealogical records.

When we gather all the details about our ancestors, vital records will confirm that information. Not only that, but they will add some new facts. We can connect one family member from one generation to another. 

Read on to find out more!

An image of Old family certificates and In Memoriam cards being used to research the family tree.

What Is the Meaning of Vital Records?

Vital records are important documents to determine the essential facts about a person’s life. They include birth, death, and marriage certificates. The government typically issues these documents.

Vital records are an extraordinary resource for finding important information in our family history. They are the first and most logical steps to take when beginning research on the family tree. Most people aren’t aware of vital records’ significance, especially for genealogical searches.

The historical background of vital records is quite interesting. Registering someone’s vital statistics developed slowly in the U.S. Only in the twentieth century did creating certificates become common.

  • Intriguingly, marriage certificates were the first kept in churches. The government began to create vital records in the U.S. when it established a county or a town.
  • The local law of the county or a town required the marriage to be reported, whether the wedding was performed in a church or by a civil authority.
  • In the mid-1800s, the health departments in big cities also started registering births and deaths. Progressively, every state started creating its laws and registration systems.

Different states, countries, and areas still have different rules, and there is no set or international standard for what information is on each type of vital record.

What Are Examples of Vital Information?

A person’s birth and death certificates and marriage certificates are vital information. These records are considered important information for society and public institutions.

Of course, for an individual, there are other records that a person might see as vital, such as a college degree or a social security card. Let’s check out in detail what vital records are.

Birth certificates

Did you know that the history of birth certificates is relatively short? Only recently, we started recording birth. In the past, we didn’t need a birth certificate. At first, births were registered in church records, not government records.

The sad truth is, in the past, childbirth was very complicated. Women usually gave birth in their homes, and many babies didn’t survive. If a child didn’t live long enough to get baptized or was enslaved, their birth probably wasn’t recorded.

In the progressive era, the reformers made some changes, especially during the European immigration to the United States. Millions of immigrants came to America from 1815 to 1915. The cities were so crowded that people lived in tents on the street.

The reformers started characterizing and counting people in the cities to solve this problem. They hoped the statistics would help optimize city life and solve public health issues—and they were right.

Everything was going fine, but they hit a wall in the case of public health. There just wasn’t enough information. So, the reformers started pressuring the U.S. Census Bureau to record all births.

The first birth certificates had minimal information about the child and the parents. The reason why is that most women gave birth at home, not in a hospital.

Also, there was another problem, which might seem ridiculous to us today, but it was a real thing back then. Mothers didn’t want to give birth in hospitals because they didn’t want to risk their babies being switched.

Unfortunately, it was because of World War II that the birth certificate was normalized. Ammunition factories started hiring people, but only Americans. When around forty million Americans couldn’t prove they were U.S. citizens, they had a problem.

At last, in 1946, the Office of Vital Statistics began to record births. Today, when a baby is born in a hospital, the staff helps create the birth certificate. Everyone who is born in the United States must have a birth certificate, it is proof of U.S. citizenship.

Death certificate

Documenting death sounds creepy, but it is as important as recording birth. It is legal proof of someone’s death. Once someone dies, the State stops pensions and social security payments. Death certificates are also required to close accounts held by the deceased person (phone, utilities, etc.) or to get insurance payouts.

Historically, in the United States, local churches kept death records. In 1639, the Massachusetts Bay Colony first started keeping death records in secular courts. In 1910, the standard form of the death certificate was developed. 

A death certificate is full of personal details, which helps a lot if we want to learn more about our family history, such as burial place, marital status, occupation, birthplace, etc. 

Marriage certificate

Marriage certificates were more standardized by the Middle Ages. In the nineteenth century, marriage certificates took a modern form, with more information than just the married couple’s names.

Using marriage certificates isn’t very romantic; it is very practical. They were used for taxation and legal purposes. In the past, it was considered a contract, a business transaction between two families.

Why is a marriage certificate considered a vital record? Well, it plays an important role in genealogical research, matters of the legality of a child, changing a name, and divorce proceedings.

An image of a Historian scientist in gloves reading an antique book with a magnifying glass. Translation of religious literature. Manuscript with ancient writings. Treasures of the past. Museum piece.

Why Is It Important to Protect Vital Records?

Protecting vital records is important because they contain significant information about a person. By protecting vital records, we are protecting our identity. 

There are a couple of ways to protect vital records. First, we must pay a small fee for a certified copy of our vital records.

It’s a good idea to create a couple of certified copies to have a backup if we lose the original. Another great way is to keep the original vital records safe. Please put them in a safe place such as a home safe or a bank’s safe deposit box.

If the vital records are in electronic format, save them in a readable format such as PDF. Again, duplicate all vital electronic records.

This one is a no-brainer, but don’t carry vital records unless it’s essential or you’re required to do so. Some institutions will ask to see vital records. If you’re trying to get a passport, you must show them your birth certificate or naturalization records. Please make sure you get your records back and that they always return them. You are the only person who needs your original vital records, and no one else needs copies of a live person’s vital records for non-genealogical work.

Where Do You Find Vital Records?

Local authorities create and store vital records so people can find them in their local vital records and statistics office.

If someone wants information about their ancestors, vital records are a great way to start. Today, some states even have them online.

Vital records offices usually keep records between eighty and 120 years. We can find older records in the state archives. People might experience a few restrictions if the records are old, like the seventeenth or eighteenth century. But still, it is possible to get them.

The National Center for Health Statistics keeps a catalog of vital record offices. If we don’t have any luck there, we can try church records. They hold records of marriage, death, christenings, and burials.

For example, if we can’t find our ancestor’s death certificate, we can look for a probate document, a will, or an obituary in the newspaper. If we know the place our ancestors lived, we can find the local cemetery, and so on.

An image of Charts at a medical office, record, archive.

Vital Records in Your Family History

For genealogists and family historians, vital records are the pillar of someone’s family tree. They are the most important information that will help us discover the details of our ancestors’ lives.

As we mentioned, the most important events in someone’s life are birth, death, and marriage when researching someone’s past. These events will show us religious, social, and cultural traditions that lasted for generations.

Every State in the U.S. has a department or bureau of vital health statistics that supervises the making of vital records (birth, death, and marriage).

For the last 100 years, the government has made vital records stand. So, if we want to find a family member who lived during that period, we are in luck. Click here for more about finding a lost ancestor.

Today, when a child is born, a medical professional creates a birth record with information such as the name, birthplace, date, name of the parents, parents’ race, and education.

In the past, birth records weren’t regulated, but still, we can find some birth certificates, usually in church records.

Death records also have much personal information, such as the place of birth and death, marital status, occupation, parents’ name, and cause of death. If you are interested in the health conditions of some ancestors, a death certificate is a great way to start.

But, the winner among the vital records is the marriage certificate. They are the most consistent piece of documentation throughout history.

Marriage was almost a business transaction between two families in the past (and even today in some parts of the world) because it had ramifications with legitimacy, inheritance, and property.

Governments and churches first started keeping marriage certificates—then birth and death certificates. From today’s point of view, we might find this strange, but it made a lot of sense. 

Marriage records are a great source of facts. We can find personal details such as the name of the bride and groom, their place and date of birth, the county where the ceremony took place, and the names of their parents and witnesses.

Key Takeaways and Next Steps

Vital records are the perfect way to start family history research. But the first step is to gather some basic information about our ancestors. Talk with relatives, search old basements, closets, family photos, diaries, and letters.

Write down everything—it isn’t possible to memorize that much information and focus on one person. Trust us, research will be less chaotic, and please don’t forget the internet.

We can find out many details and information about an ancestor’s life. Our two favorite websites are FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com

Vital records contain vital information on a person. They are the most significant documents for research because they touch on crucial events in someone’s life. The marriage certificate was the first legally recorded of all three important vital records.

In the nineteenth century, health departments began to record births and deaths. But only after World War II were birth and death certificates standardized. We can find vital records online or in the local vital records office.

Hopefully, this article helped you learn about vital records and how to use them in genealogical research.

Resources

When learning about genealogy, it’s important to learn from various reputable sources. These are the sources used in this article and our research to be more informed as genealogists.

  • Copeland, A., & Copeland, A. (n.d.). Why can’t I find my ancestor? https://blogs.slv.vic.gov.au/family-matters/why-cant-i-find-my-ancestor/
  • D. (2019, May 14). What are vital records? Datafied. https://www.datafied.com/what-are-vital-records/
  • Death Certificates | Ancestry® Family History Learning Hub. (n.d.). https://www.ancestry.com/c/family-history-learning-hub/death-certificates
  • Family Tree Editors. (2022, July 12). 10 Steps to Get Started on Your Family Tree. Family Tree Magazine. https://familytreemagazine.com/general-genealogy/10-steps-to-start/
  • Find ancestors through Vital Records. (n.d.). Family Search. https://www.familysearch.org/en/wiki/Find_ancestors_through_Vital_Records
  • Hershman, S. (2020, February 6). Tips to Protect Your Vital Records – Keep The Original Copies Safe. West Suburban Currency Exchange. https://www.wsce.com/blog/tips-to-protect-your-vital-records/
  • Protect your Vital Records | St. Croix County, WI. (n.d.). https://www.sccwi.gov/713/Protect-your-Vital-Records
  • saymedia.com. (n.d.). https://www.history.com/news/the-history-of-birth-certificates-is-shorter-than-you-might-think
  • Smith, S. (2021, January 30). Unlocking the Past: Marriage License History. Marriage Advice – Expert Marriage Tips & Advice. https://www.marriage.com/advice/license/unlocking-the-past-marriage-license-history/
  • Trilling, D. (2022, May 24). Birth, marriage, and death: How to find vital records. The Journalist’s Resource. https://journalistsresource.org/politics-and-government/birth-marriage-death-vital-records-genealogy/
  • US Birth Certificates. (2021, September 17). The History of Birth Certificates. https://www.usbirthcertificates.com/articles/history-birth-certificates
  • United States Marriage Records. (n.d.). Family Search. https://www.familysearch.org/en/wiki/United_States_Marriage_Records
  • U.S. Vital Records Overview. (n.d.). Family Search. https://www.familysearch.org/en/wiki/U.S._Vital_Records_Overview
  • Vital Records: A Closer Look at Family History Research #2. (2021, December 17). Ancestral Findings. https://ancestralfindings.com/vital-records-a-closer-look-at-family-history-research-2/
  • Vital Records | Ancestry® Family History Learning Hub. (n.d.). https://www.ancestry.com/c/family-history-learning-hub/vital-records
  • Vital Records Fees. (n.d.). https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CHSI/pages/vital-records-fees.aspx
  • Vital Records – US Birth Certificates. (n.d.). https://www.usbirthcertificates.com/glossary/vital-records
  • Wikipedia contributors. (2022, November 28). Death certificate. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_certificate
  • Wikipedia contributors. (2023, February 25). Marriage certificate. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marriage_certificate

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