Feature Article: Birth Certificates: Essential Genealogy Resource

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega discusses one of the most important documents for genealogy: a birth certificate.

Do you need to find the date when your ancestor was born? No problem – get their birth certificate! Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, and not everyone in your family tree – especially once you get further back in time – will have a birth certificate. It’s time to take a closer look at birth certificates and how to use them in your family history research.


Why Birth Certificates?

Birth certificates are an important resource in linking a child to their parents. Depending on the era, birth certificates include the name of the child (however, that may be only a surname if the child wasn’t yet give a first name), birth date and place, parents’ names including mother’s maiden name, parents’ occupations, how many children the mother had previously – and in some cases, even whether the birth was illegitimate.

So, birth certificates help us answer questions about an ancestor’s parents and their birth family. This original source is typically created at the time of the birth or shortly thereafter, except in the cases of delayed birth certificates. The informant on the birth certificate is often a parent, making it a good source for information.

Who Has a Birth Certificate?

The simple answer to the question “who has a birth certificate?” is: not everyone. Registering of births was not consistent throughout the United States. While some states started in the
1800s, other states didn’t get on the bandwagon until the 20th century – and even then, the compliance may have been spotty at best. It’s important to become familiar with the place where your ancestor was born and what was required, if anything, in regards to registering births in that place at that time.

If your ancestor’s birth wasn’t recorded by the government, don’t despair. Alternatives to birth certificates exist, including records kept by midwives, churches, and of course mentions in the newspaper. Also, consider what other genealogically-relevant documents might list a person’s age or birthdate.

Birth Certificate Availability

1955, 1915, 1911, 1905. Looking at the chart below you might be questioning why states didn’t start recording births at the same time, or why some started so late. First, we need to address why recording births on a government level became important.

Prior to the state government taking over the recording of births, families recorded their births, marriages, and deaths in the family Bible. As the 20th century marched on, the need for official birth records increased: children’s ages had to be verified for entrance into public school, young people needed to be able to prove their age to enter the military, children needed to prove their identity for parental inheritance, and those who were young and in love needed to be able to show they were of legal age to apply for a marriage license. During the 1930s Americans had a new reason for proving their age: the implementation of the Social Security Act.

Those with no proof of their birth date may have applied for a delayed birth certificate. These records often asked for verification of birth that included witness statements. Individuals may have also written to the U.S. Census Bureau, who in turn provided verification of their name, age, and family listed on a previous census.

State Birth Registration Commencement