Ancestry is the sum of all the ancestors whose DNA has been passed down through an individual. The word ancestry is often associated with honoring past generations, both living and dead, a practice commonly known as ancestral veneration.
Ancestor is also used to describe any person or animal with a genetic relationship to another person, animal, or plant. This genetic relationship is established through natural selection or inheritance, in which genetic variants that occur randomly are inherited by succeeding generations.
Researching the vital records of your ancestry, including births, marriages, and deaths, is critical to a thorough family history. However, these official documents can take time to track down.
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While obituaries are often the first source genealogists turn to, they don’t tell all. You’ll need to search for other sources, especially if your ancestor was born before states began keeping official vital records or died before statewide death certificates became commonplace.
Birth records may tell you your ancestor’s full name, date of birth, and place of birth, plus his parents’ names. You can also learn a lot from city or town records.
However, many states have put births behind a privacy “curtain” after 75 or 100 years, restricting access to only the person born or his family members. You can find substitutes for such documents in newspapers, clan Bibles, compiled old colonial records, and other sources. State archives and vital records offices often keep birth records from earlier periods.
As early as the 1700s, families shared news of births, deaths, and marriages in newspaper articles. Older newspapers could place these notices anywhere in the publication, often near the end of a column or page. With careful reading, you might catch them.
Many towns, villages, and cities in the United States began requiring city or town clerks to keep records of vital events. Those records became official documents known as vital records.
Official birth, marriage, and death records (often called vital records) are deep family-history sources. They can provide names, relationships, locations, and dates of events. They’re usually available in state-level collections, although some states didn’t require local governments to keep such records until 1880.
Many genealogy societies publish indexes to these records, and some are online. Other helpful sources of such information include family letters and papers, clan or church documents, newspaper birth announcements and obituaries, and cemeteries and probate files.
The city’s registrars or municipal clerks usually have official copies of vital records, but these can take a while to process; if you request one through the state, your request may be denied due to privacy restrictions. Libraries have several reference books to help you find the correct office to contact and know what to ask.
Most genealogists use newspapers to extend or substitute for vital records searches. But research on births, marriages, and deaths often leads elsewhere, notably church and cemetery records.
Before state-level record-keeping mandates, towns, and churches began keeping baptismal and burial lists. These often form a good alternative source to birth certificates, mainly if your ancestor’s town had privacy restrictions or a late start on official record-keeping.
For many ancestors, birth is the first significant life event that genealogists document. Whether or not an ancestor’s state required vital records, you can often find substitute sources for these events in local newspapers and obituaries, church records of baptism, marriage, and death, family Bibles, insurance papers and naturalization files, voter registration books and censuses, school records, family letters and diaries and family histories.
To start, research when your ancestor’s hometown began keeping records and how long it took for the state to require recording. You can consult known books or similar guides. You can also use a place search in the FamilySearch catalog for the state and then the name of the county.
As with birth and death records, the timing and availability of marriage items vary over time and between different newspapers. Some items are brief announcements or lists of licenses, while others include detailed accounts of the ceremony and even a list of wedding gifts.
Newspapers may also contain information about the cause of death of a deceased person. This may help to establish a date of death, which is not always apparent from other records. Check newspaper society columns, obituaries, and genealogy periodicals for this information.
Vital records are kept separately from those of the rest of the state, and coverage varies by municipality.
It’s important to remember that vital records (birth, marriage, and death) come from informants. Learning their relationship to the subject(s) of the record can help you determine how accurate the information is.
Many state governments have centralized collections of their local vital records.
Family bibles, in particular, can help fill the gaps between official recorded documents. For example, a family bible was the source of answers to a marriage mystery for one researcher.