Birth records for genealogy are important documents, however, they were not always created. Learn what steps you can take to confirm or support birth information when a birth record can’t be found.
I often hear the new genealogist lament the fact they can’t find a birth “certificate” for their ancestor. Sometimes, they are surprised to learn that birth certificates are relatively new in the U.S. In other words, most states did not require a birth certificate to be filed until the 1900s. Before that time, birth ledgers were kept by some counties, but even that is quite spotty.
Places to Find a Substitute Birth Record for Genealogy
What happens when the genealogist cannot find a birth certificate or birth record of any kind? There are other options! Here are 12 suggestions for using other records as substitutes for a birth date and place.
1. An Obituary – An obituary, usually found published in a newspaper may give you the deceased person’s date of birth. Because you do not know who is giving the information and because they may only have second-hand knowledge at best, take the information with a grain of salt. Be sure to back up the birth information with other sources.
2. A Death Record – A death record created in the 1900s or after may include the birth date and place of the deceased. However, early death ledgers may not. Instead, it may say the person died at such-and-such years old. In this way, you are able to “calculate” an approximate birth date. Again, when using a death record as the source of your birth information, consider the source! Would the informant have first-hand knowledge of the birth of the deceased?
3. A Tombstone – Like the above mentioned records, a tombstone can include a date of birth, but we must be careful assuming it is correct. Consider the source and find other records to back up the proposed date of birth. [Cemetery, burial, or sexton records can also include a birth date for the deceased.]
4. SSDI – The abbreviation of SSDI stands for Social Security Death Index. The Social Security Death Index can be viewed for free on FamilySearch.org. Typically, this type of record includes the full name of the individual, the birth date, and a death date and place.
5. Church Records & the Family Bible – Baptismal and christening records are a great substitute for a civil birth record. They are usually created at or near the time of birth by persons with first-hand knowledge.
A family Bible may also provide first-hand knowledge, however be sure to check the likelihood of the Bible page being transcribed to a new Bible, or the person doing the recording having only a second-hand knowledge of the dates and recording them at a much later date.
6. School Records – Did your ancestor attend school? School records are not always easy to find, but if you are lucky enough to locate them, you may find their date of birth! I have been successful in finding local school records at the county archives and libraries in my ancestor’s home place.
7. Census Records – Federal censuses often asked the age of each individual in the home. You can use the age to calculate a year of birth. If you have an ancestor who was still living in 1900, you will also get the month of birth. The 1900 US census asked the question of what month and year each person was born.
With censuses, the information is only as good as the person giving it. Who answered the questions that day? Did they give accurate information? Did they have any reason to lie? Consider these things when using a census to verify birth information. [NOTE: There were some special circumstances in which persons were named and their exact age was recorded, even in the early censuses. The 1840 US census asked the name and age of every veteran. Learn more about the secrets hiding in each of our US censuses by watching the webinars below at Legacy Family Tree. Click the titles to be redirected to Legacy Family Tree Webinars.
8. Marriage Records – Especially in more recent times, a bride and groom may have their birth dates and locations of birth recorded on their marriage record. Sadly, the same may be the case in divorce records. Check them both if applicable.
9. WWI/WWII Draft Cards – These birth record substitutes for men applying for the draft are a real blessing. The person giving the birth information should have at least a good idea when and where they were born. Because they are not able to remember their day of birth themselves, this is still a secondary source to the birth information. You may still ask yourself, did they have a reason to lie about their date or place of birth?
10. Pension Records – I was delighted to find a War of 1812 pension application for my 4th great-grandfather. Though he did not give an exact date of birth (maybe because he didn’t know it!), he did record his age at the time of application. With this information, I was able to determine a calculated year of birth of 1790 and I don’t think I would ever find a birth record that early!
11. Native American Enrollment Applications – Bet you hadn’t thought of this one! In the late 1890s and early 1900s, many citizens of the US (especially in the South) applied for enrollment into the 5 civilized tribes. These applications required a great deal of information and birth information was one of the things it sometimes recorded. Unfortunately, land and money were on the line and for that reason, there may have been a reason to lie. Use the birth information found in these records very carefully and always back it up with additional sources.
12. Naturalization Records – Many people are familiar with the questions included in the naturalization paperwork after 1906. Not only did it include the birth date and place, but more recent records even included a photograph! You may be surprised however to learn that even a naturalization record as early as the 1830s could hold a birth date and place clues. Case in point: Michael Knoop of Miami County, Ohio filed for naturalization in 1833. The document includes the following pieces of information about Michael:
- Name: Michael Knoop
- Born: Nova Scotia
- Birthdate: Aged 25 years, December next
In conclusion, I am sure you know of a few other ways to track down a birth date and place with substitute records. If you do, please leave a comment below and let us know!
Happy hunting, my genealogy friends!
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