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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 researchers 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 and that Johnnie died young. 

Quite simply, according to his son (my grandfather) 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.

1920's baby

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!

Keep Learning:

Other Posts of Interest:

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      • Kathy

        I would love to learn how to find a marriage record when you only know the groom’s name, don’t know the bride’s maiden, and don’t know what state they were married in. Both parties are gone now, as is everyone else who would have known the info. One of my biggest roadblocks!!

        • LisaL

          That is a roadblock. You can do a search of marriage records just using the groom’s name. If you can add in estimated birth date and/or marriage date that will help. You will need to try and narrow down the state(s) to search in. (There are only 50!) It’s a tedious task, to say the least.

        • Bev

          Im looking for records for clarence besaw born in April 20 1919 in new york to Bertha besaw need information from 2919 to 1929 Bertha mother was Josephine tallman father john tallman sh was in almshouse in 2919

  • 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.

    • Joanne

      If the parent was in WWII, look for the compensation form filed in 1950 on Ancestry. Tap the right arrow to go to the 2nd page and look for kids. Check obituaries for the previous generation to find the names of surviving children and sometimes grandchildren. I enter birth date of children as after the year of marriage of parent, if known. I also add residence for the year of death of parent if one is given in the obit. Then go to a site like truepeoplesearch or Familytreenow and key in this information for the child. You should find the person’s deceased relative and other family members under the family members section.

  • 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.

  • Petrina McNeill

    I’d like to know if there are any tips to identifying birth records when a search only brings up the volume records – you know those ones that list births aphabetically by surname – so for Williams there will be pages of births by that surname in one quarter – and the only identifying information is first name, location, vol# and page#. I am talking about 20th century UK records. Meanwhile, searches for earlier ancestors are so much easier as there are baptism and other records already scanned online, where you get more than a name and a date – you get relationships, the parents are listed so you can be sure you have the right record. I just don’t know what to do with these later 20th centry volume-type records, without any cross-reference to be sure I have the right person (especially with common names) – other than the expense of ordering birth certificates – is there any secret to this that I am missing?

    • LisaL

      I haven’t worked with UK birth certificates before, but here’s what I would do. Depending on the time period, they may or may not be digitized. I would reach out to the government office in charge and ask if those volumes of records are available to search online/in person. You can also reach out to an archivist in the area you are researching and ask them as well.

  • Tammy Driver

    What about those born in foreign countries, such as the Ukraine or Russia, where the birth year is either 1909 or 1912, due to information found on different records found in the US, after the person immigrated?

    • LisaL

      Great question! It is not unusual to get a variation in birth dates on the records. Until the 1940 census, we do not know who in the household gave the info to the census taker. That alone will account for variations. Consider also, that an ancestor did not know their actual birth date or only knew they were “about 50 years old”. They could have also had a reason to lie about their age!

  • Haley

    I would like to know more about what kind of professional/paid for services exist… and how to know when you need them, which type you need, and how to find them.
    I have a reasonabley close relative that did tons of in person research on a line… so maybe there is no more info to be found.. I have several brick walls surrounding my direct line paternal great grandfather. Primary places of interest are western NC and surrounding states. I’m trying to find any info on his mother’s family. Lost the family during the 1880-1900 census gap. Do not have info on a wife’s family from prior to 1880. They were all uneducated farmers that seemed to move around a bit. They only rented.
    My aunt who did most of the research on this line through both Mormon genealogy centers and by dna testing says she had found all the records there are to be found…
    should I just accept it? As far as info online and through dna, I have never come up with anything new, all these years. – not sure if it would be a waste for me to throw money at a lost cause.

    • LisaL

      Should you accept her statement or not is a difficult question to answer. If she only performed online research, she may have missed out on non-digitized records such as court records, directories, local histories, newspapers, etc. There is no guarantee more info can be found, but you would likely need someone who do on-site research at an state archives or local courthouse. I no longer take individual client projects, but I can refer you to NC researchers who do, if you like.

  • Cara

    How can I find the birth certificate and death certificate for a baby born in the 1950s when I don’t have the baby’s name? I know the name of the parents, but the county clerk told me I’d need the child’s first name. Is there some way to locate this information?

    • LisaL

      You might run into privacy laws for the 1950’s, but if they allow, try to see if they will search for a male (or female) infant plus the surname born in particular year. If they insist on a first name, you may be out of luck.

  • Sheila Wolfer

    My parents had a baby (in Cincinnati, Ohio) who only lived for a few hours in 1955. She was named and buried (I’m able to find a cemetery location), but I’m unable to find either a birth or death record of her. Was it a common practice not to have that if the baby only lived for a short time?

  • Kay Berryman

    Articles like this should address the birth records of enslaved people. I assumed that birth records were not kept until I remembered to remember that slaves were considered property and thus their births would be recorded. I found birth records for enslaved people in Mason Co., KY — the records began in 1853 onward. I hoped to find my great-grandfather, who was born in 1854 but he wasn’t there. The records are now stored in Frankfurt, KY at the state historical society. The babies were not identified by name. The mothers were identified by first name. Surprisingly, the fathers were not identified. The enslavers were identified by full names and included the wives, I’m assuming as co-owners of the slaves. It would help to add to this list by telling researchers that they don’t have to assume that there are no birth records for enslaved people and where to look to find out if they are. I just happened to stumble on these records. I mentioned them in a seminar on slave genealogy and the speaker wasn’t even aware they existed.

  • Delores Martin

    I have two ancestors on my husbands side that I don’t have a married record for them. I also don’t have a death certificate for her. I have been to two courthouses looking for the information. This is pre 1860. The William Martin that got married in Giles County, Virginia was married to a woman with a different name. I have found him in the 1850 census living in Giles County, Virginia. There isn’t marriage information on them in Giles County, Virginia. They also don’t show up in the 1860 Giles County, Virginia census or the Montgomery County, Census. I haven’t looked in the Monroe County, Virginia census but that would be a possibility even though it is further west and not between Giles and Franklin County. I have spreadsheet that i put the census information in and I put every person that I find with the last names that are in my tree. They had a bunch of kids. He died in 1877 and she gave the information but she didn’t know his parents names. She said that he was born in Franklin County, Virginia. There is a Margaret Via that got married in FRanklin County but the ancestor’s last name is Janney (Janey). Interesting note both William Martin’s died within a year or two of each other. I don’t find land records for him before his death. The other William Martin on all of the documents that I have found on him he always has the middle initial H. even in the 1860 census where he is living with his wife Adaline and their children. Now for Margaret Elizabeth Janney (Janey) Martin. I have determined her death date through the census records and WWI document. She also died without a will but it doesn’t give a death date and it is dated 1936. That document was over a land dispute and it listed her children so I know that i the correct person. She shows up in the 1910 census living in Giles County, Virginia next to her son Jacob aged 73 years old. She doesn’t appear in the 1920 census. Her son Harless Greeley Martin on September 12, 1918 on the WWI Draft Registration listed his mother Margaret E. Martin as his nearest relative. I have listed that she died in 1919. This couple is also my brick wall. I will either eventually solve it or someone else will.

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