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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree - October/November 2005
Locating Vital Records

Vital records consist of birth, marriage, and death records created by a division of government.  The purpose of these records was to maintain some form of documentation of the population under its jurisdiction.  Vital records can be generated at any level of government, depending on the state and local laws governing their compilation.  Some states began recording these events at the town level, while territories and states that came into existence after the Civil War might have recorded them by county. Around 1920 laws began to appear establishing a state office of vital records.  Counties were required to send copies of these records to be sent to the appropriate state office. However, experience has shown that prior to the advent of Social Security, enforcement of this rule appears to vary for a variety of reasons.

Generally, vital records would only appear in federal records under the following circumstances:

1. When an American citizen living overseas gives birth to a child, marries or dies.  The record may have been recorded with the U.S. Consulate in that country.

2. When such an event occurs on a U.S. military base on foreign soil, the event may be recorded in the base military records and/or in the official town of residence of the parties concerned in the states.  To access the military record if it was compiled, you would need to know the specific branch of service whose jurisdiction the base was under.

Locating vital records can be challenging.  This is one reason why genealogical experts will always stress using home sources to crate a timeline of places of residences and important events in the life of our ancestors.  The process begins by researching the state or territory to determine when laws mandating the creation of records began.  Research the type of record you are searching for.  Determine if a countywide or statewide index was created.  These indexes should be utilized to determine who submitted the original record and perform a cursory search of the information listed.  In many cases the state or county record will provide enough information to determine its usefulness to your research, especially when dealing with a common surname.

In some cases you will discover that the vital records were generated by churches.  This is especially true for ancestors who lived in an area prior to the formal establishment of vital records mandates.  In such cases you may also encounter two vital record documents, one compiled by the church, and one compiled by the local jurisdiction.  For example, the local government agency may have the original marriage license, while the church may have the original marriage record or certificate.

Most birth, death, or marriage records issued before the 1920's were submitted to the town or county clerks, or the church by doctors, midwives, or family members.  In most cases the record will not indicate who reported the birth, death, or marriage.  The information is only as good as the person presenting it, but the record is all you have to work with.  Many doctors, midwives, and ministers kept small books or ledgers that they recorded all such events in.  The odds that these original books or ledgers are readily available for inspection are somewhat slim, but they have turned up in various genealogical or manuscript collections.

Bryan L. Mulcahy
Reference Librarian
Fort Myers-Lee County Library
2050 Central Avenue
Fort Myers, FL  33901-3917
Tel: (239) 479-4651
Fax: (239) 479-4634

Return to October/November 2005 Index page


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