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 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 Vital Records
Vital records 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!
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.
For census years indicating the number of years a couple has been married, a marriage date can be inferred.
The mortality schedules for the 1850 – 1880 census years provide an alternative for finding the death date of you ancestors. If their age at time of death is provided you can infer a birth year as well.
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 .
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 records 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. If your ancestor was prominent in the community, even better! They were more likely to have an obituary or write up of their lives.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Other Posts of Interest:
- How to Use City Directories In Your Genealogy Research
- What Is The 1910 Census Telling You About Your Ancestor?
- Is Your Ancestor In The Often Overlooked Non-Population Schedules of 1850-1880?