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Genealogy Research

5 Reasons You Are NOT Finding Your Ancestor’s Birth Record

Trouble finding your ancestor’s birth record? 5 Reasons why not and how to search smarter. Genealogy tips for finding that ancestor’s birth record.

One of the most sought after genealogy records is your ancestor’s birth record. 

One of the most common questions Are You My Cousin? readers ask is, “Why can I not find my ancestor’s birth record?”

Every ancestor has a birth date, after all. Finding a record of that date is not always an easy task.

When traditional research methods fail, increase your chances of finding that birth record by adjusting how you perform your genealogy searches. To understand how to adjust your search, first let’s understand why you are not finding your ancestor’s birth record.

Why You Are NOT Finding Your Ancestor’s Birth Record

Reason #1: Birth records were not required for that location and/or time period when your ancestor was born.

When genealogy researcher think about finding a birth record, birth certificates are one of the first records they seek.  However, state wide birth registrations and birth certificates are a fairly modern record in the scheme of genealogy research. Many states did not require birth certificates to be issued until the 1900’s.

Here is a sampling for a few states and when they begin requiring state wide birth registrations:

As you can see, state registration for births varied by date quite a bit. 

If you are searching for an ancestor’s birth certificate in a time when they were being issued, but still cannot find it, what’s with that?  While states begin mandating state-wide registrations of birth in a particular year, frequently full compliance was not achieved for several years. 

My grandmother was born in 1917 in Surry County, North Carolina, four years after the issuance of birth certificates began. However, her birth was never registered. It was not until the 1970’s when she applied for a delayed birth certificate, her birth certificate was created.

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Reason #2:  Your Ancestor Had a Name Change.

Ancestors could and did change their names. Sometimes a change was done through a formal process at the county court, and well, sometimes it wasn’t. 

If your ancestor did change his name in a formal way, check the court records. 

If your ancestors were like mine, they just started using the name they wanted to. [Sigh….] If that is the case, your research just shifted focus.

Take Johnnie Talbott, for example. Very few people know that Johnnie Hodias Talbott and Boss Henry Talbott of Halifax County, Virginia were the same person.  Talbott researchers without personal family knowledge of the oral history typically, think Johnnie and Boss Henry were brothers.  Quite simply, supposedly Johnnie did not like his name and decided to go by Boss Henry or Boss for short.  No one has any idea why he chose that name. It’s unusual for sure.

[Even without the family knowledge, clues were evident they were the same men, but that’s another topic. 🙂 ] 

Reason #3: Transcription Errors Cause You To Miss Your Ancestor

Bad handwriting.

Poor quality scans/microfilm.

Poor spelling or inconsistent name spellings.

These all occurred in the process of record keeping, and when they did transcription errors and indexing errors occurred.  It’s frustrating to be sure.

When you cannot find your ancestor using a name search, get creative with your search parameters.

For example:

  • Try searching using only the surname [or first name depending on which is changing] + the birth date + ancestor’s gender
  • Try searching all males [or females] born on a particular date in a certain location. 
  • Try searching using the one or both of the parents’ names and the birth date/year.
  • Try using wildcard searches.  Learn how to use wildcard searches in this post.

It is possible to overcome those transcription errors with a little patience.

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Reason #4: You Are Searching In The Wrong Location

You know where your ancestors lived. You know where your ancestors were born. At least you think you do.

If you are not finding your ancestor’s birth record, consider you are looking in the wrong county or state. Consider your female ancestor stayed with other family members such as her mother or her sister to actually give birth. She may have wanted and needed the support of other female family members during birth and afterwards. 

Seek out where those other family  members lived. Were they in the neighboring state or over the state line? Include those locations in your search.

Reason #5: You Assumed A Family Bible Does Not Exist

The Family Bible is perhaps one of the most treasured and sought after genealogy finds. Full of births, marriages and deaths, that Family Bible is sometimes the only record for specific vital dates. 

The question I have you as a researcher is, “Are you SURE a Family Bible does not exist?”.

Consider the possibility that even if a family Bible is not found within your family line, one might well exist on a collateral family line. 

I have a copy of the Harward family Bible that documents family members in the Orange, Wake and Chatham Counties of North Carolina.  The Bible documents birth dates back to 1760. I was able to have my ancestor James Harward approved by the DAR.  Once he was listed in the database, I began to receive inquiries on how I proved certain relationships. The information was in the family Bible, of course. 

Harward Family Bible

But here’s the thing. The inquiries into the Harward family were coming from collateral lines where no family Bible existed. The information they sought was in the family Bible in my line. And yes, I did happily share the information I had.

Even when a family Bible does not exist on your side of the family, start your search on other sides! 

Now What?

A lot of reasons exist for why we are not finding that ancestor’s birth record, but don’t give up the search too soon. 

Be persistent. 

hands on laptop

Stretch your research muscles and try wildcard searches. Research in new areas.

Stretch out of your comfort zone and reach out to collateral family members. You know the ones – those cousins your aunt said you are related to, but you are not sure? Reach out!

You can do this!

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  • Cathy Holcombe


    Alabama began keeping vital records in 1908. My GG-GF died in 1932 and his funeral was handled by a funeral home (now defunct). AL Vital Records did not have his death certificate. I included every known surname variation, marriages, etc, I could find on the certificate request form. I was wondering if you had any ideas as to why they wouldn’t have it? Luckily, I found his obituary.

    Best Regards,


    • LisaL

      Cathy, It’s possible that it is missing due to poor record keeping for that county. I would be curious if there is any known record loss for that county.

  • Delores Martin

    Sometimes it was a long way to the courthouse and it didn’t get recorded till later. There is one ancestor that has a delayed birth certificate early in the year 1860 and yet they don’t show up in the census for that county and the census was taken in the summer.

  • Monkee

    Lisa. I have been following your wedsite for a while now. My BIG problem is I live in England and it appears that you only deal with the USA. No problem with that, it is just that I wish there was a site like yours for the UK. Any ideas.

  • Agnes Salisbury-Nilsen

    What is hard, is when someone is 84 years old, in very bad health, was adopted and even with a Court Order, cannot get Birth Records. Just to know where he was born, have some information as to what was on intake forms, (names of family that was on it etc.). Mississippi is the most difficult state in the United States to try and learn anything if you are an old adoptee. Many babies were stolen by a woman named Georgia Tann who worked for Mississippi Children’s Home (now Canopy Children’s Services) back then. It is a known fact, they are still doing it. All Attorneys are afraid of them, and no Attorney will take it on Pro Bono. How and what can one do to learn anything when you deal with that kind of thing?

  • Kat

    ♥️the article! I SEEM to have found 1871 birth recordS in NY. My mom always told the story of how he was a TWIN born on the ship coming to America! (The other infant died). The birth record states place of birth -NY.
    ❓How are births/deaths recorded on passenger manifests? I don’t know the ship name only the clue of1871 and his parents name (kinda thinking dad might not have been there)
    PS the name of child is listed as last name, not even as twin #1/twin #2, or last name 1/last name 2.

    • LisaL

      That’s a great question, and one I need to look into a bit more. I’m not sure who they would have recorded the birth unless it was on the manifest when the ship landed.

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