B is for Birth Records

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This is the second post in a year-long “A to Z Genealogy” series. Follow the entire series here.

Birth records are just one part of the Vital Record Triad: the ever popular and sometimes overly desired “BMD” (Birth, Marriage Death) records. While “Vital” in this case likely means something akin to “concerned with life”, an alternate meaning of “vital” — “of the utmost importance” can also be attributed to the term, at least from the perspective of a genealogist (1).

Birth records tend to trip people up — even experienced genealogists at times. Contrary to what you may think, finding a “birth certificate” for someone born in the US during the 19th century is problematical. Finding a “birth record” — be that a birth registration, a christening record or baptismal record, or a listing in a town clerk’s book — is much more likely.

My research is mostly done in the US, with one branch in the UK, so most of my examples will be from those two countries. Although I have lines back to Germany and Switzerland, I’m not as fluent in those records… yet.

United Kingdom

In the UK, general registration of births began in 1837. The records aren’t fully complete as there was some confusion around the regulation at first. By 1875, things were more or less sorted out and you should be able to find registrations fairly easily (2).

For me, I always start with FreeBMD.org.uk. This gives me a lot of options to search, sort, review indexes, etc. When I’ve narrowed it down to a good possibility, I then go to the GRO (General Register Office) website, and order the record. Since I’m in the US, I usually opt for the PDF version (it’s a bit cheaper and you get it faster), and within a week I had the elusive maiden name of my 3x great-grandmother.

However, I’m still hunting for a 2x great-grandfather’s birth registration. The main issue seems to be his name: James William Armstrong. Apparently both his father and his son share that name with him. And census records for his birthplace are a bit diverse, so still working on narrowing that down enough to identify a good candidate in the indexes.

United States

Here in the US, each state has different rules and regulations when it comes to birth registrations/certificates/what-have-you. I’ll use Pennsylvania as an example since I’m most familiar with their process. My maternal line immigrated to the US and settled in Allegheny County, PA. The State of Pennsylvania began issuing birth certificates in 1906. Their records are kept sealed for 105 years, and each January first, a new year is released (3). This year my grandmother’s certificate was released and my request form is in the mail to receive it!

Ancestry.com has digitized several years of Pennsylvania birth certificates. Currently, they have 1906 – 1911, with 1912-1914 only available from the state archives. I do expect this to change over time, as they are able to slowly digitize the collection. There will likely always be a year or two gap, however, but a very nominal fee of $5 will net you the certificate you’re looking for!

But what about people born before 1906? Well, it depends. For my family, many were born and died in either Pittsburgh or Allegheny City. These jurisdictions did register births for about 30 years or so before the state mandated it (4). Prior to that, however, the researcher is reliant on church records, family Bibles, or bits of indirect evidence to determine birth information.

Other States

If you’re not descended from Pennsylvanians, then my recommendation is to explore your state of interest and determine birth records are available for that area. The #1 way to do this, is to check out the FamilySearch Wiki. For Birth records, you can start here and work your way through the various recommended collections to locate your ancestor. If you want to find out more about a county in particular, you can drill down from the main page to your county of interest. Most, if not all, counties in the US have a table similar to the below that shows what you can expect to find by way of vital records.

In summary, there are two major roadblocks to locating Birth records for your family: Existence and Availability. Not only do you have to determine if the record actually exists somewhere, it may be held as private information and not released publicly for a long time — if ever.

Although birth records are “vital” to our research, we have to learn ways around them so that the two roadblocks do not form a brick wall.

~R


  1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vital
  2. https://familytreewebinars.com/download.php?webinar_id=1129
  3. https://www.gripitt.org/2020-another-new-year-another-set-of-pa-vital-records/
  4. For Pittsburgh, see https://www.familysearch.org/search/catalog/137583. For Allegheny, see https://www.familysearch.org/search/catalog/956331.

4 Comments

  1. Nice post – I never thought of checking the BMD records in Britain, nor the FamilySearch Wiki. Guess I’ll have to wander over to those sites and play around a bit with some of my ancestors’ names. I have, however, had a fair amount of luck with baptism records, many of which are on FamilySearch. Thank you so much for these tips!

    • Thanks Linda! Yes, I’ve found the FamilySearch Wiki to be super valuable. It’s always one of my first stops when researching an area.

  2. I never realized US birth records were rare even 100 years ago when in Europe record-keeping was so well done until I started on my paternal line in the US. Now 20 years later I’m learning to use other records to substitute for the missing birth records.

    • Cathy, yes I had no idea either! I’m super thankful for all the other records we can use as indirect evidence for birth information.

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