Genealogy Research,  How To Trace Your Family Tree

How To Find Vital Record Info When Birth Records (& Others) Cannot Be Found

Alternatives to vital records are crucial for genealogy research. Learn how to find birth, marriage and death record substitutes for your ancestors.

Vital records are well, ….vital to genealogy research. Finding a formal birth record such as a birth certificate is one of the first things a genealogy research searches for. Marriage and death records are next in line.

What happens when your family research pre – dates the use of vital records?

What alternatives to vital records should a genealogy researcher search to find the birth, marriage and death information on an ancestor?

8 Alternatives to Birth, Marriage and Death Records for Genealogy

Birth, marriage and death certificates are relatively modern records when searching for your ancestors.  Your research does not have to go far back in time to pre-date the use of these formal records, but you DO have options!

Alternatives to vital records exist and you may be surprised by the number of sources you can search for the information. Let’s take a look!

Sepia toned photo of 2 young boys in early 1920's. Brown background with white lettering reading Vital Records Substitutes

1.Census Records

I love census records, and when I started researching I failed to get all of the information on my ancestors they held. Don’t make my mistake – okay, mistakes!

Census records are good sources for determining birth dates for your ancestors. That birth date or year is not a primary source and not always completely accurate, sometimes the best you can do is narrow down the range. 

For census years where only an age is listed or an age group category [1790 – 1840], you can estimate an birth year or range. Yes, math is involved!

1880 census  with red box aournd the family of Mary A Harward
1880 Census (Source:

For census years indicating the number of years a couple has been married, a marriage date can be inferred.

1910 census with # of years in present marriage pointed to with red arrow
1910 Census (Source:

The mortality schedules  for the 1850 – 1880 census years provide an alternative for finding the death date of you ancestors.  The year and the month are provided. If their age at time of death is provided you can infer a birth year as well.

Sample of the 1880 mortality census for Halifax County, VA
1880 Mortality Schedule (Source:

2. Military Service Records

Military  records are also good alternative sources for birth and death dates and even marriage dates at times.  Service records, pension files and draft cards all have birth date information .

WWII Draft Card for Boss Henry Talbott giving birth date of Dec 15, 1893
WWII Draft Card (Source:

The pension records can be rich in information on a death or marriage date. 

Important Tip: Read EVERY PAGE of your ancestor’s pension file. Marriage information can be buried deep in the record’s pages of testimonies.

3. Local Newspapers

Read all about it…in the newspaper, of course!

Find wedding and birth announcements in newspapers. Find obituaries and/or death notices in newspapers, too. If your ancestor was prominent in the community, even better! They were more likely to have an obituary or write up of their lives.

Obituaries 1872 Boston Globe
1887 Boston Daily Globe (Source:

4. Church Records

Was your ancestor part of a faith based community? Pursue the records for that church.  Catholic records are fabulous resources birth, marriage and death information. Records from other denominations and faiths are worth exploring, too. Be sure and research what records your ancestor’s denomination or faith kept first to save research time. 

1846 Catholic baptism record for Catherine Talbott
1846 Catholic Baptism Record (Source: FindMyPast)

5. City Directories

City directories can help to narrow down a death year for an ancestor.  As you track an ancestor through a city directory, at some point you may notice his wife – or widow – starts to be listed. This is an indication he died in the previous year.

Sample entry from the Rochester, NY 1917 directory pointing to Mary Little
1917 Rochester City Directory (Source:

6. Cemeteries

Gravestones are another alternative source for birth and death dates.  With sites such as FindAGrave and Cemetery Census, finding photographs of your ancestors’ gravestones has gotten easier for researchers. One thing to keep in mind is that gravestones are not primary sources and mistakes did happen when they were created.  Stones were created after the person died and sometimes even years later making the possibility of mistakes happening very real.

7. Wills and Probate Records

Wills and probate records are good places to find an ancestor’s death date. You may not find the specific date, but you can find the year and often the month. At the very least, you will be able to infer the death date.  For example, if an ancestor wrote his will on 15 January 1848 and that will was entered into probate 11 Nov 1848, you can infer the death occurred between 15 Jan 1848 – 11 Nov 1848. 

Estate sales will often have a death date/year documented within them.

Sample from the 1848 Chatham County NC Estate Sale of Calvin Maddox
1848 Chatham County, NC Estate Sale for Calvin Maddox

8. Tax Lists

Now let’s think outside of the box! Tax lists can be used to infer a birth date or a birth year range. The key to inferring a birth date from a tax list is to understand the tax law for that location and time

For early poll taxes, taxes were paid on individuals in a certain age range.  When tracking ancestors through the tax records, you can determine when they first appeared in the tax records indicating they were of an age to begin having the tax paid.

An individual could age out of paying the poll tax as well. Tracking an ancestor who consistently shows up in the tax records and then disappears may indicate he had reached a certain age and is no longer required to pay that tax. A birth year can be inferred from that information.

I know….tax research is tedious, but I find it fascinating!

If you are struggling to find a birth, marriage or death date for your ancestor, include these alternatives to vital records in your search.  You may be surprised at what else you find along the way.

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  • sherri simpson

    I have the biggest brick wall and noone I mean noone is able to help me.
    I was adopted in 1956 and my birth mother died in 1975 in Colombourg Abitibi Quebec Canada. That’s about it…I don’t know where she lived at the time nor any funeral homes. I can’t find any obituaries about her death anywhere. I want to know who she was as much as possible but I can’t find anything except her headstone…I have tried every possible venue out there. She died young so this isn’t something that’s public but she died long enough ago that the obituary sites are too new……Help would be appreciated.
    Thank you

    • LisaL

      I’m not sure of the Canadian laws for obtaining vital records, but with a death date of 1975, I would expect you will run into privacy issues. You could try finding an obituary by contacting the local library where she lived. Ask what newspapers were in publication in 1975 and how to access them. Likely, access will be by microfilm and need to be researched on-site. If you are not able to travel, you may need someone to do that for you.

  • Barbara Ryan

    Hi Sherri,
    If you have located the headstone, contact the cemetery for the name of the person listed on their records for her burial. You will then know who was responsible for paying for the headstone and you can track down that person’s records. You might find a sibling, child, spouse, etc. and if that person is still alive, they may have a wealth of information ! Good luck!

  • Linda

    This is very helpful information. However, my great grandfather was white, and great grandmother was black. Finding information on the white side of my family opens the door of many, many, many family members. The other side is much harder. This is in South Carolina. Do you have any suggestions for African Americans? There often weren’t death notices, wills, or church notices. Any help is appreciated.

    • LisaL

      Linda, I have a Facebook Live scheduled on Oct. 3, 2019 with Cheri Passey, a SC researcher. We’ll be talking about African American research. The replay will be available if you can’t watch live.

  • A Ronald Algate

    Looking for my stepbrother John Weldon Perry who was born in Montreal Quebec Canada in midMarch 1942. He was the first child of my mother Charlotte Anne Smith and Weldon Bray Perry when they lived with his parents Walker Weldon Perry and Sarah Elizabeth (Betty) Copp in Cartierville Quebec. His father was killed in action at Monte Cassino, Italy January 11, 1944. He moved to Bowmanville Ontario with his grandparents until he graduated from Bowmanville High school In early 1960s. Cannot find anything after that date
    Can you help please!

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