Has this happened to you?
You are diligently researching your ancestor. You know he exists. In fact you know quite a bit about his later life. But you are stuck. ( You are unable to find a birth record or birth date for him.
Raise your hand if this has happened to you. I’m raising my mine!
It’s frustrating, but determining the birth date of your ancestor does not have to be unsolvable. We just have to approach our research from a different angle.
We are familiar with the traditional birth certificate research. We use those for documenting the birth date of an ancestor, their parents’ names, and their location in time. But you do not have to go too far back in your research timeline to a point when formal birth records were not required.
In North Carolina birth certificates were not required until 1913. Even then, compliance was not consistent until the beginning of the first world war.
The question in your research very quickly becomes…
How do you determine a birth date for your ancestor in the absence of a birth certificate?
Fortunately, there are other documents to use when determining an ancestor’s birth date. Before you head off to the archives or start your online research though, set yourself up for success by knowing the background of the area where your ancestor was born (or possibly born if you are not sure).
Don’t search for records that do not exist!
You will save yourself a lot of time and frustration if you do preliminary research on the location of your ancestors.
When did birth records began being recorded in the location your ancestor was born? If your ancestor was born in North Carolina in 1910, do not look for a birth certificate. This will save you time from searching for a record that does not exist.
Were there any record losses in research location? Unfortunately, fires and natural disasters have destroyed many of our ancestors’ records. Before you begin your research into your ancestor’s birth record (or any record), check to see if the county or state has had any major record loss. If so, make a note for which years. If the record loss corresponds with your time frame, you will know what does and does not exist.
“Other resources” to find your ancestor’s birth date
A formal birth record may not be found for your ancestor, but you can deduce the birth year/date or at least narrow down the date by using other records.
Let’s take a look:
The Family Bible
When searching for your own family’s Bible, ASK!
Ask your close relatives.
Ask your distant relatives.
Query Facebook genealogy groups/pages for the area or family you are researching.
No cousin is too distant in relationship or physical distance to have information on your family’s ancestors. (I’m stepping off of my soap box now!)
Another possible source to find family Bibles is your state archives and/or state library. For example, if you have North Carolina ancestors, check the North Carolina Family Records Online.
Church and Baptismal Records
Your ancestors often recorded births and baptisms in church records. Seek out the possible churches you ancestor may have attended and determine where (or if) their records exists.
The post 1850 census records are a source for your ancestor’s birth. Some census years provide more month and year and some simply the year or just the age of the individual. From there you can narrow down your ancestor’s birth year. The pre-1850 census records require more in-depth analysis to narrow down a range for the birth date, but are an important source when used with other records. Check out two previous posts for more on analyzing census records:
- How to Make Genealogy Sense of Census Records – Census Records Part 1
- How to Make Sense of Those Tick Marks on Pre-1850 Census Records – Census Records Part 2
Death certificates usually provide the birth date (if it is known by the informant). Be careful here, though. Who was the informant for the information on the death certificate? Consider if it was someone who knew the deceased well. Or did the informant have a more distant connection.
Is your ancestor named in their parent’s will? If the deceased left minor children, you may find them listed as such in the will. Information here can help you narrow down the birth date.
These may be found in the parent’s estate records and/or in court records. (These are some of my favorite records!) First, you must know the laws surrounding guardianship in the state you are researching. (Your state archive librarians are great resources for this.) Under what age was a child considered a minor? Most commonly for males, it was 21 years of age. Females could be 16 or 18. Guardianship papers may state the age of the child or simply imply the age. If you find a guardian named for your ancestor, your next step is to search out the guardian account records. Each year the guardian was required to make an account of what spent to take care to the minor child. There should also be a record for when the guardianship ended indicating the child was then of legal age. If 21 was the age of legality, then you can simply subtract 21 from the year guardianship ended and determine the birth year.
Do you know where your ancestor(s) was buried? Is there a gravestone or is the stone no longer readable? Worse, does the stone only list the name and no dates? Check the cemetery records/sexton records. If the cemetery is large enough to have its own office, call and inquire. I have encountered some of the most helpful people doing this. If the cemetery is small, you may need to contact the local town management to determine if other information is available.
Yes, you can narrow down an individual’s birth year using tax records. [We’ll be talking about this in more detail in a future post, so don’t worry if this seems a bit intimidating now.] The key here is to know the tax laws for the time period your ancestor lived. Learn who was taxed and what they were taxed on. For example, in 1784 in North Carolina, freeman and male servants over 21 years were taxed. Under 21 they were not taxed. Tax laws came and went, so be sure you understand why he is (or is not) appearing in the record. Follow your ancestor through the tax records and determine when he appears and disappears in the tax records.
Just because your ancestor did not have a birth certificate, doesn’t mean you can not determine their date of birth. Sometimes you may only be able to determine a date range by a preponderance of evidence.
In the process you will have gained new skills and insights for future research projects.
Leave a comment and share your success is finding an ancestor’s birth date.
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