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FAMILY TIES: Tracing your ancestry
by Dan Burrows

The use of Alternative Vital Records
         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 in them.

        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 took place.

        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 are researching.

        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 1903".

        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 available.


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