Using Vital Records to Build Your Family Tree

Sunny Morton

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Using vital records to build your family tree is a key strategy for successful DNA research. Here’s what vital records are and what you should know to find them.

For the best experience with your DNA matches, you need a strong family tree. It should have as many grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins as you can document. One of the best building blocks for reconstructing those relationships is using vital records, official records about births, marriages and deaths (BMDs), to build your family tree.

Vital Records—Births, Marriages, Deaths

In the United States, BMD records are called vital records because they report vital events in a person’s life. In other nations, you may find BMDs in civil registration records. BMD records may have been created by a government or church. You’ll have to do a little research to know which may exist for your relatives who lived in different times and places.

Just to keep your eye on the prize: Your ultimate goal here as a DNA tester is to populate the family tree attached to your results with data from BMDs: dates and places of birth, marriage(s) and death, and names of parents, spouses, and children. This information, taken altogether, identifies people from the past uniquely. When you compare your tree to the trees of your matches, all this rich data will help you identify your connections to each other.

Birth records

Records about birth usually name the child’s parents. Church records mentioning birth are often specifically about an infant or child baptism. Government birth registrations or records are meant to establish identity and the relationship to the parents for future reasons such as inheritance or proving identity.

Below is an 1861 birth registration for my ancestor, Washington McClelland. He was born in England, where BMD registration started in 1837. It’s not difficult to look up English civil registration records in online indexes and order digital copies of originals from the government. Earlier than 1837 in England, I’d have to look for church parish records. (Learn more about finding England BMDs from the FamilySearch wiki.)

Washington McClelland civil birth registration DNA family tree.jpg

I’ve marked up his record to make it easier to read. The purple areas show what the form is asking for. The yellow text is the golden information about Washington: his birth date and place and his parents’ names.

(Are you finding it difficult to read the old handwriting? This set of free tutorials from FamilySearch and this quick get-started lesson are super helpful.)

Marriage records

Marriage records or registrations document that a legal wedding took place. Government agencies and churches have recorded marriages for centuries, in some places, because marriage is a legal contract.

Washington migrated to the western United States, where he married in Idaho in 1886. This record is entirely handwritten. The key components—names, dates and places—are highlighted:

Washington McClelland marriage record to Sarah Quigley 1886 highlighted.png

(How did you do reading it? Check yourself: His bride’s name was Sarah M. Quigley; they were both residents of Swan Lake, Idaho; they married in Oxford. The “Q” is weird in “Quigley” but hopefully you could read the rest.)

Other marriage records might include the couples’ birth data and parents’ names. Learn more about finding US vital records here.

Death records

Records of someone’s death often include a lot of welcome information about their earlier life. In fact, it’s often the first record you may find about them, and then you work your way backward.

Here’s Washington’s death certificate in 1917:

Washington McClelland death certificate highlighted.jpg

Timely, firsthand information you find in a death record is likely to be accurate; I’ve marked it in yellow above. But older data, highlighted in pink, could be inaccurate. In Washington’s case, his wife reported his death. She never met her in-laws, who died in another country before their marriage. It’s possible she wouldn’t have reported their names or birthplaces accurately. So keep that in mind if you find a birth record, for example, that doesn’t jive exactly with the death record.

Let’s return to your overarching goal as a DNA tester: to build an accurate, detailed family tree that will help you recognize how you and your DNA matches are related.

As you look for your ancestor’s marriage and death records, you may find evidence of additional marriages and children that you didn’t know about already. These are important! You may be related to some of your matches via these relationships! Document them all on your family tree.

What’s next for YOUR family tree?

Vital records are one great source for more information about your family tree. DNA is another great source! And when you have both you have the perfect power couple of genealogical evidence. Jump into your genetic genealogy with our free tips on getting started with DNA.

Show me how to get started!

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1 Comment

  1. Sharon Nissen

    This page included a great deal of important tips. I hope the rest of the class members went to the trouble of reading it. Thanks for much for the information.


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