When you explore your genealogy, one of the first things you need to know about a person is the birth date. The birthplace helps too, of course. There are many places to find this information, and most of them have additional useful data. We’ll look at some of the possibilities here.
In the modern world the official birth record is the birth certificate or “certificate of live birth.” As such, it is a “primary source,” usually created near the time of the birth, by someone who was present. It may come in a different forms, such as a short form for public information and a long form with more details. Its availability and the information it contains vary widely from place to place and in different times, but it’s common to find much more than the name, date, and place. Here’s a partial list of what else you might see:
- the baby’s gender
- parents’ names, including the mother’s maiden name
- parents’ ages or birth dates (or approximate years of birth)
- parents’ birthplaces
- parents’ address (which can lead you to census records)
- information about the baby’s siblings
- parents’ occupations
- grandparents’ names
- the baby’s race
- the family’s religious affiliation
In some cases, birth certificates may be corrected or amended years later to show legal name changes or even, in some jurisdictions, gender changes. Sooner or later, you’ll also encounter “delayed registrations,” which are birth certificates created long after the birth and on the basis of other evidence.
Obtaining a birth certificate is complicated. Every nation or other jurisdiction has its own rules, practices, fees, and timelines. As if that weren’t enough, the names of the offices and departments where one inquires vary widely, too. However, among the English-speaking nations I’ve checked, all this is just many variations on the same themes.
Here are three examples from the United States, where birth certificates are obtained from state governments. I’ll give you enough details to give you the flavor of the experience, but don’t worry if your head spins a little. There’s no quiz at the end of this blog post.
Hawaii’s Department of Health has been inundated in recent years by requests for US President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, to the point that they have a whole page at their web site devoted to him. Otherwise, things are typical. Many birth certificates can be ordered online, but some must be ordered by mail or fax or in person. Certified copies (useful for official identification) are available only for yourself and immediate family members. Non-certified or “genealogical” copies (for information, not identification) are available on similar terms, unless the birth was at least 75 years ago, in which case anyone can request a copy — but only by mail.
In Colorado, where I was born, birth certificates are available from the Center for Health and Environmental Information and Statistics. Records become public 100 years after the birth, unless the person is known to be still alive. Before then, proof is required of a close relationship. A spouse must provide a marriage certificate. A parent must be listed on the birth certificate requested. Grandparents and great-grandparents must provide other birth certificates showing the relationship. Siblings must provide a birth certificate showing at least one of the same parents. In-laws, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, and cousins can only obtain birth certificates that are 50 years old or more, and then only if they produce the individual’s death certificate. Unrelated genealogists must provide a signed, notarized release from an immediate family member, as well as proof of the family member’s relationship, and then the issued certificate will be stamped “for genealogical use only.”
In New York, where two of my children were born, only the child or a parent named on the certificate can obtain a certified copy without a court order. Genealogical copies are available after 75 years, if the person is known to be deceased, but this time period is waived for direct-line descendants of the person whose record is requested — given proof, of course.
Some jurisdictions will search for a birth certificate, if the precise date is unknown. For example, as of the time of this publication, New York Department of Health will search up to a three-year span for no extra charge. A larger search requires an additional fee. Requests must be made by mail, and processing may take up to eight months.
These are just three examples, of course. The easiest way to find out what’s available, from where, and on what terms is to do an Internet search to find the responsible office’s web site. (Use a search term like “Colorado birth certificates”; don’t try to guess the office’s name.) There you should find a wealth of detail, including what information you’ll be required to provide, as well as the applicable fees.
OTHER PLACES TO LOOK FOR BIRTH RECORDS
Did I mention that getting birth certificates from government offices is complicated? Privacy laws, growing concern for identity theft, and bureaucracy itself pretty much guarantee it won’t ever be easy. The good news is, there are many other places to get a person’s birth information. In fact, you might need at least one other source before you have enough data to request a birth certificate, if that’s what you want.
Some of these sources are more reliable than others. In general, the closer the record-keeper’s relationship is to the individual, and the sooner the record is made after the birth, the more likely it is to be accurate.
Siblings or other close relatives might remember a person’s birth date.
Church and municipal records often record births. A christening date in church records can be a useful substitute for a missing birth date.
Newspapers often run birth announcements.
Family Bibles and family histories may contain birth information.
Personal journals, diaries, histories and scrapbooks may record births, among many other things.
Official marriage records often list birth dates, or at least current ages or ages at next birthdays.
Death certificates, obituaries, newspaper articles and death announcements, mortuary records, cemetery records, funeral programs, and tombstones often give birth dates.
Census records commonly list either age or year of birth.
Many military, pension, probate, land, property, immigration, and emigration records have at least a birth year or age, and may have a complete birth date.
Somewhere in a box, a folder, or a drawer — perhaps in an attic — you may find an assortment of other personal documents, including forms of identification, such as driver licenses and passports, and other government documents containing a birth date, such as my Selective Service letter, as in the image.
That’s 27 different record types in addition to birth certificates, by my count. At WorldVitalRecords you can search most of these. For your siblings, the family Bible, that scrapbook Aunt Tillie kept, and whatever you may find in the attic, you’re on your own. Enjoy the adventure!