Genealogy 101: Birth Records

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If you’ve discovered a potential ancestor and are looking to verify his/her name, parentage, or date of birth, locating a birth record is a great first step toward confirming the information you have. While census records are some of the most readily available sources on platforms like, the records rely on the truthfulness and attention of both the census taker and the answering relative, and can include many spelling errors, omissions, and mistakes. Vital records such as birth and death records can be a bit more challenging to track down, but they often provide more reliable information (though everything has the potential for mistakes).

What are Birth Index Records?

Some original birth certificates are available online, but many records you find on Ancestry and other genealogy sites are index records. An index is a list that includes abstracted information about whatever records are being cataloged. A birth index, for instance, might include a child’s name, date of birth, and parents’ names, but probably leave out information such as specific location, physician’s name, etc. A birth index is a great place to start to find information, but it shouldn’t be your end game. Index records are transcribed, so they can include an extra layer of typos, misprints, and other errors that keep you from getting at the truth.

If you’re interested in ordering a copy of a birth certificate, an index record is a great place to start, especially if it contains a record number. This number makes it very easy for the archive to pull the document without having to search for it using vague time frames or dates. Even without the record number, you have a good chance of finding a record if you know the state where the birth occurred and an approximate date of birth.

How Can I Order a Birth Certificate?

To order a certificate, fill out the form required by the administration, often the state’s department of health, send it in with the required fees (usually 10-20 dollars per record), and get ready to wait. Records can take between a couple weeks and six months to make their way to your door. Being an East Coast transplant with family history in the Northeast, I most frequently request records from the NYC Vital Records Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS) for early records, especially those in the 19th century) and the NYC Department of Health for births after 1910.

What If I Can't Find a Traditional Birth Certificate?

Be flexible in knowing that some birth records are more useful than others. The reliability and even existence of a birth record will vary greatly among locations and time periods. Birth certificates didn’t become standard practice until the 1900s. Prior to the 20th century, churches were the most common source of birth records, as the majority of births occurred at home and governments hadn’t developed the systems and administrations to manage birth registrations.

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Church records can be a little more challenging to navigate, but they will contain important information such as parentage, date of birth, and sometimes baptismal dates and witness names, giving you clues to extended family members. Like many older birth certificates, church records are often handwritten and can be difficult to read. If your ancestor lived in a foreign country, the messy handwriting can be even more difficult to decipher because your brain doesn’t know what language clues to look for. Don’t be discouraged, though, I’ve had a lot of success navigating German and Swedish records using Google translate and a lot of patience!

Birth records can be a fantastic way to boost your knowledge of a relative, to verify information you already have, and to connect with a piece of history—but don’t sweat it if you can’t find one. There are plenty of other records that you can use to document your family’s history.

What was the most exciting piece of information you’ve discovered on a birth certificate? Let me know in comments!