Last article we discussed how to write to a historian and what types of
questions to ask. We also covered Official Vital Records (birth,
death, and marriage records) and what types of information might be found
Now lets learn about alternative vital records. These alternative sources
are the only places you can use to find births, deaths, and marriages if
"official vital records" cannot be found or never existed for the location
and time of your ancestor's event.
Genealogical sources are always classified in one of two ways and this
will hold true whether they be vital records or any other piece of genealogical
information. Primary sources -- those being original records such as the
official vital records we discussed last month, original church records,
deeds, mortgages, miscellaneous court records, wills, original bible records,
and other similar original items. Secondary sources -- those being
transcripts (handwritten or typed copies) of primary records (such as a
published book of Mount Hope Presbyterian Church records or a book containing
abstracts of deeds or wills, etc.) If you are not using the original
records or an actual photocopy of the original records, then you are using
a secondary source. A book written about a family showing specific
information about individuals (known as a printed family genealogy) is
a good example of a secondary source. All secondary sources leave
room for errors and whenever possible, the original source (provided the
author has listed his sources) should always be consulted. Unfortunately,
secondary records are usually all we have access to without extensive travel
to the homes of your ancestors.
Church records are an excellent example and the most widely used of alternative
vital records. These come in various forms but unless you can visit
your ancestor's church or see a microfilm of the original church records,
you will most likely be looking at some one else's interpretation of the
records. Many times in church records you will have to settle for
a baptismal date or funeral date rather than an actual birth or death date.
Knowing the customs of your ancestor's church will help you determine how
old the child might have been when baptized. Also bear in mind that
many people were baptized as adults before they were allowed to join a
church. It is usually assumed that a death occurred a couple days
before a funeral, but like anything else there will be exceptions to the
rule. You might have to settle for a wedding intention date (also known
as banns) instead of an actual marriage date. A word of caution
-- sometimes intended weddings did not become formalized, but if you find
birth or baptismal records of their children, you could assume the wedding
Cemetery records and tombstones are another great example of alternative
vital records. You can come up with an approximate birth date by calculating
the age at death if that is the only information given. You might
have to prove a marriage occurred by citing a tombstone showing that your
ancestor was listed as a husband, wife, widow or relict of someone else.
I recall the shock of receiving a picture of my great great grandfather,
Josiah T. Burrows' tombstone from Steuben County, New York showing
that he had two wives. The family bible seemed to neglect that fact.
Speaking of family bibles, they are an excellent source of alternative
vital records. They turn up in the most unexpected places.
My father-in-law fortunately was handed his family bible one day by his
father's sister's second husband's daughter from a previous marriage.
What a gold mine of information that turned out to be and it almost went
to the dump. Bible records often contain family information not available
anyplace else. They often contain loose obituaries and funeral cards. When
using family bible records, it is important to determine the date the bible
was published. If the bible was published in 1850, but lists the
birth dates of family members from 1818 through 1863, you can be sure the
earlier entries were copied from another source and entered all at once
leaving more room for errors. Note the handwriting and ink that was
used. As a general rule, entries that are made as the events happened
will vary in handwriting and ink.
Speaking of obituaries, many of the previously mentioned alternative vital
records or official vital records can give us a date to search for an obituary
or death notice. These articles in themselves are considered an alternative
vital record. Depending on the period of time, the location of the
event, and the policies of the newspaper, these obituaries can really divulge
some useful and important family information. Sometimes, however,
you will see quite a bit of exaggeration in the details. Newspaper
notices of births (only in recent years) and marriages are very helpful.
Most libraries have microfilms of the old papers and some historical societies
have them glued flat in large books. If you are lucky, some volunteer
has created an index to the genealogical information such as the Port Jervis
Library's card index to the Gazette.
Court papers, wills, deeds, mortgages, depositions and other miscellaneous
items found in the county records offices and town or village halls will
many times list vital records as a proof of identity or verification
of transaction. An old deed might state your great grandfather was
21 when he bought the property and a will can give you his date of death.
A war pension application by his widow will most certainly have a date
of marriage. The possibilities are endless. And don't forget
school, college, military, and employment records. Do you remember
all the information you had to put down on your social security application.
You are leaving a trail for future researchers.
Old family diaries are another source of alternative vital records and
events were most likely entered as they happened. Scrapbooks containing
newspaper obituaries and other miscellaneous family notes can be a source
of these vital records. Old letters often contain tidbits of information.
Families always wrote each other about births, deaths, and marriages.
As mentioned in a previous article, old address books can be a gold mine
for alternative vital records. Dates written on the backs of old
photographs could be another source. I am sure that most of you can
think of more household sources and the habits of your family can open
many genealogical doors. Some families are keepers of old calendars,
notebooks, clippings, and other items in their attics. A good
genealogical detective will piece all these bits of information together
and be able to put together a good time line chart of the ancestor they
As you can see there are many great alternative sources for gathering the
vital record information about your ancestors needed to trace your family.
I certainly did not mention them all. Each bit of gathered information
may lead you back to an earlier generation. Many times it takes a
lot of bits to do the job. If a close estimate of date is all you
can come up with, quote it as such. You could say that Grandpa was
"born about 1888" (also written: born ca 1888 or born circa 1888) and if
you have a will that was probated on January 3rd 1953 and you cannot determine
the exact date of death, you could say that grandpa died "before 3 Jan
1953". If his first child was born in 1903 and you cannot find a
marriage record, you could say Grandpa was married "ca 1902" or "before
Next article we will discuss census records in detail and how to get the
most out of them. Federal census records were taken every ten years
starting in 1790 and are readily available for research up to 1920 at present.
They are not only an alternative for vital records, but the most
revealing source of genealogical information