Birth, Marriage & Death Records

25 June 2012

Marriage certificate for my great grandparents – 1871

As you proceed with your research, you will probably want to obtain copies of certain key documents that prove your findings. These would most certainly include birth, death and marriage certificates. All of these records validate a person’s identity and can give you clues to preceding generations. These types of records were kept at the county level of government. That means you have to look for them through county court houses or county departments of health.

Unfortunately, laws governing the maintenance of public records did not come into existence until the twentieth century. People born before 1900 were likely born at home, brought into the world by a midwife. There is no official record of their birth. When the Social Security system came into being, many people used a census record to prove their birth date. The State of Virginia is unique in that it has birth and death records from as far back as 1853. Marriage records have been kept pretty much from the very beginning of the United States. I have found these back into the 1600s.

The situation for African Americans is that, in slavery, we were not officially allowed to marry. When it became legal to do so after Emancipation, our records were generally kept in separate record books, particularly in the South.

In general, death records are the most readily available documents, although different states have different laws regarding their release. Many states provide an index of deaths online, which will lead you to the paper certificate — which you have to pay for.

There are various places where you will find these documents. GOOGLE “vital records” for the state you are researching to find out exactly where to place your order. The average price per document is about $10, which means copies can become expensive if you order many of them. In most cases, you will have to provide a copy of your identification in order to obtain non-certified, genealogical copies of documents.

If you are lucky, you may find records kept by slaveholders. I found a diary where all the births and deaths on the plantation were dutifully recorded. But that is very rare. I also hit a gold mine with my great grandfather’s death certificate. It is the only place I ever found a name for his mother. Once I found it, I had the key to discern papers for an estate sale where she and her son were listed.


This post first appeared as part of a 12 part series for


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