Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Why are Vital Records Vital to Genealogists? Part One -- An Introduction

We live in a world where we are virtually swimming in records. Every time I go to a doctor's office, I am asked to fill out a form that practically tells my life story, at least healthwise. Doctors are just the beginning. I have had to provide almost the same information, minus my health history, to banks, schools, the military, insurance companies, on job applications, and hundreds of other entities. We take it for granted that this information is readily provided and readily available. However, it is interesting that there are two distinct things that happen when most people start investigating their families. They either assume that no one in the past had to provide personal information or at the opposite end of the spectrum, they assume that everyone had to provide such information back into the distant past. The answer is that, to some extent, both approaches are wrong.

The term "Vital Records" has traditionally been arbitrarily limited to birth, marriage and death records. But even this simplistic view of certain types of records as "vital" and other not-so-vital, breaks down when you examine these categories carefully. For example, the Arizona Office of Vital records is part of the Arizona Department of Health Services. In Utah, it is not quite so clear. The Utah Vital Records are categorized under Records and Archives but the Office of Vital Records and Statistics is administered by the Utah Department of Health. The Utah Office of Vital Records supplies marriage records while the Arizona Department of Health Services refers inquiries to the Clerk of the Superior Court in the country where the event occurred. You will find even more variety of inclusion or exclusion of records across the United States and around the world.

You might think that divorce records, the opposite of marriage records, would also be considered "vital." However, in Arizona you need to go to the individual county courts to obtain such records just as with marriage records. Likewise, even though marriage records are available from the Utah State Office of Vital Records, a search for divorce records is deferred to the clerks of the courts in each county. You will find the same inconsistency across the United States and searching for relatively current birth, death and marriage records can become a monumental task.

One thing that is uniform across the United States is that there are charges for obtaining copies of birth, death and marriage records sometimes even when the people involved have long since died. The ostensible reason for restricting access to these records involves privacy concerns, but in reality, the states see the charges for copies of these records as a revenue stream. The cost of obtaining a copy of a vital record can vary from state to state and even, in some cases, from county to county.

At this point, I should begin expanding on the issue of "vital" records. Here are a few other topics that may fall under this umbrella-type term:
  • Paternity records
  • Adoption records
  • Name Change records
  • Still Birth records
  • Burial records
  • Cemetery records
  • Divorce records
  • Formal Marriage Separation records
I might have added more, but that is enough to get things moving. To give an example of the complexity of this subject, let me ask the following question: If a death record is vital, why isn't a burial record vital? Of course I do not have an answer to the question but it does raise some interesting issues.

It is now time to introduce the issue of time of creation of the records. Here is the unfortunate rule for genealogists:

Every single state and every single county in the United States has a different start date for when marriage, birth and death related records were required by law to be maintained and every state and every county has a different date when the records actually began to be maintained. 

Oh, one more level of complication. There is a rather complex industry that has arisen in the United States of private companies that sell a service of providing vital records. For example if you do a search for birth records in Arizona, you will find a long list of companies and other entities that will provide a copy of a birth record for a fee. It is sometimes very difficult to distinguish between the "official" providers of those records from the state and county governments and those who are adding on a "service" fee for ordering the records from the official government agencies. The problem is further confused when some states, like Utah, use an outside contract service to provide copies of some records.

This brings us to the next major rule concerning vital records:

As we go back in time, there is a point when each category of vital records for ordinary people was neither required nor kept.

The obvious limits in the United States involve time periods when the Europeans began settling in America, but there are limits in every country around the world. The rule of thumb for Europe is the mid-14th Century. I like to use around 1500 AD as a good cut off point for almost all records of ordinary people, as opposed to royalty and rich people, but most vital records in the United States are only common beginning in the 1800s. There are exceptions and that is what makes doing genealogical research so interesting.

This particular series has all the hallmarks of going on for a while.


  1. Saw the mention of your webinar on your other page regards why you can't trace back to Adam. Very interesting from a historical records standpoint. I'm lately going over countless such records that I have found are available online. (And not just transcripts of those records, the actual source books themselves. I much prefer the source books.) I have a lot of early New York, Massachusetts, and Reformed Dutch Church ancestry. (Quaker records appear well hidden behind various pay walls.)

    But if all I was going to rely on was proof positive, without a doubt, confirmed, data, I'd never be able to make any "leaps of faith" that in many cases wind up circling around and becoming verified. I wouldn't have set off on verifying the connection through records if I hadn't bothered with it for a lack of proven connection prior. Some wind up being debunked and removed.

    My genealogy software doesn't provide it, but wouldn't it be interesting if that "degree of confidence" could be represented somehow in our databases? (Like having solid and dashed lines in the family trees.)

    And while State mandated record keeping is one thing, add to it all the church records that were taken and maintained that often start prior to the State's efforts.

    Finally (like I said, I enjoyed your webinar) is there an American version of the Phillimore Atlas? (I have a copy of Phillimore's. I enjoy old maps, and this also highlighted parish boundaries, which I found interesting.)

    1. Thanks for your informative comment. I have long been writing about the need for a way to show the confidence level of entries in the details as well as the sources listed in online family trees. This is the first in a long series on vital records. You will see more in the installment I just finished. Usually, the Research Wiki can give the earliest records available for any geographic area of the world and usually, for every county in the United States.