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Births, Marriages & Deaths in the Family Tree

Introduction to Vital Records


Vital records - records of births, marriages and deaths - are kept in some form by the majority of countries around the world. Maintained by civil authorities, they are one of the best resources for helping you to build your family tree due to their:
  • Completeness - Vital records usually cover a large percentage of the population and include a wide variety of information for linking families.

  • Reliability - Because they are usually created close to the time of the event by someone with personal knowledge of the facts and because most governments have measures in place to try and ensure their accuracy, vital records are a fairly reliable form of genealogical information.

  • Availability - Because they are official documents, governments have made an effort to preserve vital records with newer records being found in local government offices and older records residing in a variety of record repositories and archives.
Many British and European countries began keeping birth, death and marriage records at the national level in the nineteenth century. Prior to that time these events can be found recorded in the registers of christenings, marriages and burials maintained by parish churches. Vital records in the United States are a little more complicated because the responsibility for registering vital events is left to the individual states. Some U.S. cities were requiring registration as early as 1790 (New Orleans, LA) while some states did not begin until well into the 1900s (S.C. - 1915). The scenario is much the same in Canada, where the responsibility of civil registration falls to the individual provinces and territories.

As you begin your research in vital records it is important to realize that in the early days of registration, not all births, marriages and deaths were reported. The compliance rate may have been as low as 50-60% in earlier years, depending upon the time and place. People living in rural areas often found it a real inconvenience to take a day from work to travel many miles to the local registrar. Some people were suspicious of the government's reasons for wanting such information and simply refused to register. Others may have registered the birth of one child, but not others. Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths is much more accepted today, however, with current rates of registration closer to 90-95%.

Next page > What You Can Learn from Vital Records

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