Other sources for genealogical research are birth, marriage, and death records, as well as records of wills. Obtaining copies of legal documents, such as birth certificates, marriage licenses, and death certificates can confirm any tentative date and location information available from other sources. These documents, or microfilm/microfiche copies, can be held by city/county government records offices or, sometimes, by state records offices. Most local libraries can provide you with addresses for the correct agencies. In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services compiles a document entitled “Where to Write for Vital Records–Births, Deaths, Marriages and Divorces” which lists, state by state, the dates the records began, the types of records kept, the cost of certified copies, and the address of the records custodian in each state. Request uncertified rather than certified copies of these records (birth certificate, marriage license, death certificate) since they are much cheaper; usually the only difference is that the certified copies have an embossed seal on them. Keep in mind that many agencies will not release birth records less than 100 years old and death records less than 20 years old.
Widespread birth and death records did not exist before the first quarter of the 20th century. Ohio has recorded birth and death records beginning with 1867. Only fourteen states required birth and death records before 1880, and only five U.S. cities required registration as of 1875. With respect to birth records, barely literate midwives often had trouble with names, especially when a language barrier existed, so that wide variation in surnames can be expected. Finally, the early years of some birth records recorded only the names of the parents and the sex and birth order of the child, but not its name.
In addition to civil birth records, infant baptismal records can be extremely useful, and can often be found for periods before birth records were kept. Knowledge of the exact church in which the baptism took place, as well as the birth date, are needed to access these records. They can be kept by the local parish or church office, and a written request to the pastor or minister can often obtain the needed information.
If a wedding occurred in a church or synagogue, records kept by the specific parish or congregation can be a tremendous supplement to civil records. Not only do these records stretch further back in time, but they can supply information not usually recorded in marriage licenses, which can be quite skimpy. In some states, church records have been microfilmed or otherwise made available by the state archives. In others, they remain available only at the specific church involved (a written request to the pastor, minister, or rabbi may elicit the information needed) or, for denominations with a hierarchical structure, at a diocesan office.
With respect to death certificates, the information is generally only as good as the “informant’s” knowledge. Thus, if a grandchild rather than a child is the informant, dates of birth and immigration, and maiden names, may be totally wrong or unknown. However, information as to the cause of death and the cemetery of burial is much more likely to be reliable.
With established death dates for specific family members, a death notice or an obituary in the local newspaper’s archives may be located. Some are more helpful than others in the amount of the information they provide, but can be the source of new, previously undiscovered clues to unraveling the past, so this resource should not be overlooked.
Church/synagogue records of burial can be very helpful, particularly if civil records are unavailable. Cemetery records of burials can also be searched, and visits to cemeteries can be very poignant as well as informational. Generally, cemeteries are not equipped to handle genealogical searches, so courtesy and offering to cover search costs are especially important.