Vital records are the official documents that mark the landmark moments of human life: birth, marriage, death. If you’re researching family history or trying to find out what happened to a vanished relative, vital records are a valuable tool. While you can learn some information free, getting copies of key records may require you to shell out some cash.
Where to Look
Vital records aren’t usually federal records. With exceptions – military personnel, for instance – the federal government leaves it to local governments to track and record these events. To find birth records, divorce records or other materials, you need a name and a location in which to look for the person’s history.
If all you have is a name, you can scour the online national census records. Plug in the name and search in roughly the time period in which the person lived. If searching turns up the ancestor’s name, you may be able to learn his birth year and location, too. That’s useful information in its own right, and knowing it can help you track down specific records. Some census years include mortality information as well. The National Archives’ website links to the census records and many other information sources, such as a register of freed slaves’ marriages and free online databases of death records.
If you track your quarry to a specific county or town, look for online records on local government websites. To pick one example, Okaloosa County, Florida, allows you to pull up copies of death records, marriage licenses and similar public records on its website. Since they are so valuable for identity theft purposes, birth certificates are not available on local government sites.
If all you know is the state of residence, search online through various state archives and registries. The National Center for Health Statistics provides a page of links to the relevant agencies. Some recent vital records may be classified or off-limits unless you can prove you’re the child or grandchild of the person whose records you’re seeking. You’ll probably have to pay a fee to obtain access and another one to get an actual copy of the record.
In New Jersey, for example, since 1917, the Office of Vital Statistics has kept birth and death records, while older records are stored in the state archives. To do an OVS search, prove your relationship to the subject. Different states have different rules.
Before Facebook and Twitter, newspaper archives were the place to go to announce a death or birth. Scanning local newspaper files for the year of birth, marriage or death can provide useful information about parents, survivors or the deceased. While many newspapers publish stories online, other papers file their old issues in hard copy or on microfilm at the local library.
Some genealogy websites let you search assorted online vital records or newspaper stories, and many sites are free. Find out if any of them can help you or if a pay-for-membership site might offer more information.
If your subject was an American citizen who was born, married or died overseas, and you know the country, the embassy or consulate of that nation may have information, though you’ll probably have to pay for it. If your research requires information from other nations – U.K. vital records or Japanese birth certificates, for instance – contact the country’s U.S. embassy. The staff can explain how to proceed and what it will cost.
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