December 10, 2021
My grandfathers, John Dawson and Victor Fernelius, had birthdates only about six months apart. Victor was born in December of 1874, and John was born in May of 1875. In spite of the closeness of their birthdays, only Victor has any type of civil birth record. Why the difference?
No birth certificate exists for John because he was born in Utah – a state that began issuing birth certificates in 1905. Victor was born in Michigan a few months earlier but does have a birth record because Michigan began county birth registration records in 1867.
Until 1902, when the federal government set up a standardized birth certificate form, states made up their own rules when it came to keeping track of births. Some began to keep birth records by the middle of the 19th century. These records, which contained information such as date of birth, parents’ names, etc., were kept at the county level. Other states did nothing until the federal government forced them. Even then, compliance was slow. Colorado, for example, began issuing birth certificates in 1907, but it was not until around 1920 that most folks were issued them.
Genealogists need to consider these facts when they search for an ancestor’s birth information. In most families, those records may exist for grandparents and even great grandparents, but not earlier generations. So what’s a genealogist to do?
In earlier times, church records sometimes substitute for civil birth records. Keep in mind that churches often only recorded baptismal dates, not birth dates. Since baptism in many sects happened soon after birth, that date can at least give a rough idea of when a child was born. Sects that practiced adult baptism rarely asked for a birth date but did usually include an age in years.
Some families kept a record of family births and deaths at the front of their family bible. Other were more creative when it came to keeping track of their family’s vital statistics. One of my ancestors kept track of his family’s birth and death dates among the town records. He was the recorder for his town and squeezed his family information in those records wherever he could find a space. Another kept a notebook where he listed all of the births and deaths in his family. Although not all of these types of family records survive, they’re worth looking for.
The censuses starting in 1850 gave the names and ages of everyone so they can give at least a rough idea of a person’s age. Be aware that censuses have a poor reputation for accuracy when it comes to ages. The information could be supplied by almost anyone in the area, and oftentimes they didn’t actually know how old someone was. Generally, the younger a person was when the census was taken, the more accurate his/her age will be. Parents usually knew how old their young children were and seldom felt a need to lie about it. That was not always the case with older folks who might either add or subtract years from their age.
Some people rely on death certificates or tombstone dates to give birth dates. This can be risky if the person giving the information on the death certificate or tombstone was younger than the deceased. They would not have known from first hand knowledge how old he was. In addition, death is an emotional time in a family, and surviving family members may have inadvertently given an incorrect age.
Birth certificates are one of the first records that beginning genealogists try to find. It’s important to remember that, as in my grandfathers’ case, even quite recent ancestors may never have had one. Be sure to check the date at which a state began keeping certificates before you spend time looking.
Researcher/Director at Large