If we’re going to talk about vital records, let’s start at the very beginning with birth certificates. This piece of paper is literally the first documentation of you, your ancestor, or whoever else you’re looking for. (There is the exception of delayed birth certificates, but I’ll talk about those in a bit.) In a perfect genealogy world, birth certificates would be where you start.
A birth certificate is considered a primary source of genealogy information. This means that the information contained in the document was given by someone at the event or an eye witness to the event. Primary sources are the best documents to use in research. There usually isn’t that question of who gave the information whether they are just relaying secondhand information.
What Information is Included?
Let’s look at an example. The birth certificate below belongs to my great grandmother, Vera Martin. On this certificate we see she was born in Kentucky, county of Harlan, on November 17, 1912. Her father is Frank Martin. He lives in Harlan, turned 38 years old on his last birthday, was born in Baily’s Switch and works as a miner. Her mother is Stelley (actually Stella) Baker. She lives in Harlan, is white, turned 18 on her last birthday, was born in Kevy, Laurel County, and is a housewife. We also learn that Stella has given birth to two children, but only one is living.
Also noted on the certificate is that this is a legitimate birth. Don’t get too hung up on this “fact” if it is on the birth certificate. I’ve found numerous births that were marked as legitimate which in fact were not. This is one of those facts that sometimes take a little more investigation.
In this one document, we are starting to get a clearer picture of who Vera’s parents are. If we are working our ancestor line back, we now know a significant amount to go back another generation. When we start digging into her parents, we have an approximate year that they were born and where they were born. Keep in mind, though, that county names changed over the years, so the county listed on the certificate (for the parents) may not be the name of the county when they were born.
Delayed Birth Certificates
Delayed birth certificates are birth records that were recorded usually years after the birth event. These certificates were generated for various reasons. Two of the main reasons for obtaining a delayed certificate include enlisting in the armed services and applying for Social Security benefits.
Below is an example of a delayed birth certificate. This belongs to another of my great grandmothers, Hattie Elizabeth Hopkins. While a delayed certificate may not give as much information as a regular birth certificate, it does give you some things to go on. This certificate shows that Hattie was born on January 15, 1891 in Raymond City, Putnam County, West Virginia. Her father is Fred M. Hopkins who was born in Kanawha County, West Virginia. Her mother is Nancy Dickerson who was born in Putnam County, West Virginia.
What makes a delayed birth certificate a primary source is the fact that supporting evidence has to be submitted to verify that the information is correct. On this certificate, we see that a family friend, Cecil Britton, made a affidavit stating when Hattie was born and the names of her parents. Hattie’s insurance policy from 1930 verified her age at that time. Lastly, we get even more genealogical information with the fact that Hattie’s marriage record is used. While it doesn’t give the name of her husband, it tells us exactly where the marriage was recorded and the date it was recorded.
When looking at birth certificates, it is best practice to write down all the information that could possibly be used in research. Even if you think it doesn’t matter, it just might when you are trying to pinpoint an ancestor. Like any record, keep in mind that names may be misspelled or a nickname may have been used. Birth records are a great place to start, especially with more recent generations. We tend to remember birth dates over death dates.
In the next Genealogy 101 post, I’ll be taking a look at marriage records and how to use them to further your research!
If you’re looking how to get started on your genealogy journey, check out my previous post “Taking It Way Back”!