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Friday, January 29, 2016

Why are Vital Records Vital to Genealogists? Part Two -- A Matter of Time

Almost all the people alive today, at least in the United States, probably have or will have birth, marriage and death records prepared by a government agency. Those who are beginning to investigate their family history often expect to find copies of birth, marriage and death certificates. It is the case that these documents may be available but there are always exceptions. The reality of vital records is that they are a relatively recent innovation. Genealogists refer to some of the early efforts to record information about the general population of a country "civil registration." We can get an idea of when governments around the world began keeping records of births, deaths and marriages by looking at each category of such records in the Catalog. and its predecessor organization the Genealogical Society of Utah have been amassing a microfilmed collection of the world's records since 1938. Presently there are over 2.4 million rolls of microfilm stored in a huge tunnel in the mountains called the Granite Vault near Salt Lake City, Utah. The Catalog provides a listing of substantially all of the records. Because of the advances in technology, the microfilm cameras used by FamilySearch to acquire additional records around the world were replaced by digital cameras and millions of additional records are still being added each year. All of the older microfilm copies of the world's records are now being digitized and made freely available on the Internet in the Historical Record Collections section of

The Catalog contains entries for both the digitized records that are available online and the microfilmed records that are still in the process of being digitized. The records that are still in microfilm format can be rented directly from for viewing in a local Family History Center. In addition, the Catalog contains entries for all of the other items kept in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah and many other Family History Centers maintained by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints around the world. As a side note, FamilySearch is also in the process of digitizing a huge family history book collection from a number of participating libraries around the United States. This free digitized collection presently has more than 250,000 digitized books.

With that introduction, I am now back to vital records. Since the Catalog contains entries for many types of records from around the world, if we examine the listings, we can see what kinds of records are generally available and the time periods when those records may have been kept. It is obvious that does not have copies of all the world's records since there are many countries of the world that have yet to allow the FamilySearch representatives to make copies of their records, but what is there contains billions of records and is a representative sample of what is available around the world. is certainly not the only place to look at the types of records available and the time periods when those records might have been kept. There are other very large online collections of the world's genealogically significant records such as, and and their associated companies. But is a free online service and has the Catalog which shows all the records grouped by type and location.

To get an idea of the availability of any one type of record, it is necessary to do a number of searches in the Catalog. The easiest and most efficient way to do this is to search by Place. I will give several examples to illustrate the time depth and availability of vital records from different parts of the world.

I included a screenshot of the search page of the Catalog above. The first search field asks the user to enter a place. The idea of searching for records by location introduces the user to the reality of the way records are maintained around the world. Records have been kept by both public and private entities from nations to individuals. In the Unites States, for example, records are kept at a national, regional, state, county, municipality and local level. A thorough search for records about an individual or family must include a search of records at all the possible levels at which such records could have been kept. National records in the United States might include census records, tax records, military records and so forth. State records could include birth and death records. County records might include land and property records and marriage records and so forth. The Catalog is organized to reflect the different levels or jurisdictions that may have maintained certain kinds of records.

I will start by entering the name of a U.S. state. In this case, Utah. The Catalog will suggest "United States, Utah" for the search term.

This level of search brings up all of the Catalog entries that have been assigned to the category for the State of Utah.

If I scroll through the long list of categories of records available from and likely in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, I will find a category for Vital Records.

When I click and open this category, I can see the collections of records that are available.

There are 33 separate items or collections is this list (Scroll down to see the entire list). By looking at the dates included, I can readily see that the earliest records available in Utah date from the 1850s. This is not surprising since the first settlers of European origin began arriving only in 1847. The Indian Census Rolls began in about 1885. By carefully examining both the types of records available and the dates, the researcher can get an accurate idea of when the earliest records might be available. If I were to click on any single record, I would see more detail about the contents. For example, the entry for Utah and pioneer marriages includes the following statement:
Contents: v. 1. A compilation of marriages from Pioneer women of faith and fortitude, 1787-1935 -- v. 2. A compilation of marriages from Conquerors of the West: stalwart mormon pioneers, 1790-1989.
If I continue my search to Places within Utah at the top of the catalog page, I will see a list of the Utah counties.

By clicking on a county, such as Utah county where I live, I can see if there are any further entries for vital records.

There are 11 collections at the county level.

Remember, at this point, all I am doing is determining when and where the records are available. I have yet to search for any one individual. In fact, for most of the records, such as microfilms and books, I will actually have order the items or go to the library to see the contents. The advantage of the current effort to digitize both the microfilm and the books makes these records available to be viewed online rather than incurring the time and expense of renting copies or going to Salt Lake City to see the contents. I am using the Catalog as a finding aid to learn about the availability of the records.

I can see from the entries in the Catalog that the earliest dates that vital records were kept in Utah County date from 1850. The Utah, Utah County Records 1850-1905 have been digitized and are available to search online. There is a notice in red on the description page notifying the user that these records are online.

There is also a list of the individual collections included in the online collection of digital records. Remember that there will be no vital records for Utah before the arrival of the first pioneers in 1847. This is an important fact. You have to explore the history of any given area to determine when the earliest records could have been kept.

Here is another example from England. Vital records maintained by the government in England began with the first efforts at civil registration. To find this information, we can return to the website and look at the Research Wiki. The Research Wiki is a user maintained compilation of information about the nature and availability of genealogical records around the world. It is a vast encyclopedia of genealogical information with more than 80,000 articles.

If I search for England Civil Registration, I will find that there is a specific article on the subject.

By the way, I could have looked to the Research Wiki for information about the earliest records in Utah also, but it is important to know that the same information can be discovered from looking at the catalogs of the large online genealogical database companies.

We can see by this statement the availability of vital records in the Civil Registration records of England.
Before 1837 only churches recorded birth, marriage, and death information in England (see England Church Records). In the early 1800s, Parliament recognized the need for accurate records for voting, planning, taxation, and defense purposes. Legislation was passed to create a civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths for England and Wales and, for registering the same for British subjects abroad. England and Wales registration began on 1 July 1837 and later on, for British subjects living abroad, some records returned to England begin as early as 1790. For a brief list of all those registers of births, marriages and deaths affecting British subjects overseas, see Civil Registration of Overseas British Citizens and Military Personnel (below).
This statement brings up another important fact. Vital records were not always maintained by governments. In England, churches kept the records of births, deaths and marriages long before the government became involved. This is the case generally around the world. In America, some vital records were kept by government entities such as towns and counties from the earliest times of settlement, but churches also kept such records. There is not one convenient source for birth, marriage and death records. They may appear in a variety of places and types of records.

In England we will have to go further to the parish church records to find information earlier than about 1837. In England, the term "parish" can refer to both civil and church geographical divisions. If we go back to the Research Wiki or other references cited by the Reference Wiki, we can see when the earliest English church parish registers were kept. Here is the article:

The article points out the following:
Church records are the main source for identifying people prior to 1837 when civil registration began. It is also a main source after 1837 in conjunction with civil registration. The Church of England was formed in 1536, after King Henry VIII severed all ties to the church in Rome. Each local parish was responsible to register all marriages, baptisms and burials starting in 1538.
Consequentially we cannot expect to find vital records in England prior to 1538. We may find some records, but we will have to do a more intensive search and learn about different records to find birth, death and marriage information.

To summarize, in every geographical area of the world there may be records of births, marriages and deaths. But in each case, there is very likely a time limit of when when those records were kept; further, we may have to search carefully to find them. Inevitably as you go back into the past, there are fewer records available about individuals. There are, of course, pedigrees such as those in China that record family lines back sometimes one or two thousand years, but these are the exception rather than the rule.

Here are the previous installments of this series.

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