Basics of Vital Records

vital records in genealogyVital records are the absolute cornerstone to any genealogy research so you really need to have a good understanding of these documents and what you can learn from them. The term refers to any files that pertain to a vital event in someones life, such as birth, death or marriage. Divorce records are sometimes grouped in here too.

These will create the basic framework when putting someone’s life together. And each of these types of documents can provide a lot more information than just a name and an event date. Some vital records can give you loads of data, but the specifics will vary from area to area since these are not standard documents in any way.


Birth Records
These will give you someone’s full name, their birth date and where they were born. It should also have both parent’s names as well. You might also find the parent’s places of birth (usually just the country), and sometimes their occupations. A current residence address may also be in the form. In the USA, some very old birth records actually do not have the child’s name, only the date of birth and the parents. This makes them a little useless, so be prepared for that.

Marriage Records
When it comes to genealogy vital records, these are my favorites for finding a lot of information in one place. You’ll get the full names of both bride and groom, and usually their ages as well. There will also be the date and location of the marriage, and then the names of both sets of parents. Some records may only have the fathers of bride and groom. Nationalities of the main parties and even their parents are also included, and you might get occupations too. Marriage records may also identify the married parties as being single (bachelor or spinster), widowed or divorced. That may lead you to find previously unknown spouses.

Death Records
You probably won’t get quite as much detail in a death record, though they surely can’t be ignored. Obviously you’ll get names and date of death, and you’ll likely get birth dates too. If not an actual birth date, at least an age at the time of death. You might get the cause of death, which isn’t that genealogical but interesting nonetheless. Just remember that many details are filled in by surviving family members since the person on the record can’t talk for themselves, and that can lead to inaccurate reporting.

In any case, the originals of these forms will usually be handwritten, and aren’t always that easy to read. Online databases might have transcribed versions which may contain errors, so see if you can see the original images or documents if you can.

So when you are looking for new ancestors for your family tree, your first stop will almost always be their vital records. Oh, and newspaper announcements of births, marriages or deaths are also great sources of information but they are not considered to be actual vital records.