Opinion

Vital record resources

A common problem for genealogists is locating vital records — births, marriages and deaths — especially if we don’t know where a family member was born, married or died.  

There can also be barriers in some states with strict privacy laws which make it impossible to learn what you need to know. But there are some substitute records that can help you with this dilemma. Let’s take a look at a few of the most common. One caveat: most of these apply only to the 20th century and later. 

Missing birthdates and places can be a thick brick wall. When researching in the U.S., the Social Security Act can be a blessing. Look for the Social Security Applications and Claims Index. For a male, check draft registrations for World War I and II or enlistment records. All will give a birthdate, residence, sometimes birthplace, and names of parents or a close relative. 

If applicable, some naturalization records can help. These can be found online at places such as Ancestry.com, free at most libraries. 

Multiple marriages can be tricky. Again, check the Social Security Applications and Death Index. If a woman married more than once, you’ll most likely find her listed first under her maiden name.  If her name changed, you’ll find the change and the year.  For example, Mary Smith who registered for Social Security in Bangor in 1952, may be Mary Brown, 1954, Mary Wilson, 1965, and Mary Jenkins, 1985. This list reveals when her name changes were reported to Social Security and the year, likely when she married. You’ll then know the husband’s surname and you can search conventional records such as the U.S. censuses. A divorce can be suspected if the record shows she returned to her maiden name. 

For a deceased man there may be minor children eligible for Social Security, and you may find a record listing an ex-wife or widow and children. 

Marriage indexes are located on websites such as Ancestry.com. Some states only give you one of the couple’s names and year of marriage. Maine lists both parties and the date of the marriage. Also, try Newspapers.com to see if a marriage was covered. 

Death dates are easier. Again, the Social Security Death Index is helpful. Some state death records are indexed online, though there may be gaps in years. Newspapers.com may have an obit which will fill in many gaps, including birthdates, survivors and death date. In the case of multiple marriages, you’ll likely find the surviving spouse, though children’s surnames may offer a clue to former marriages.  Online newspaper articles usually are for major papers. Check out the hometown newspaper for a possible obit. 

Find-a-grave yields information and often a gravestone photo which will likely show years of birth and death. The cemetery can be a clue for searching other records in that area. If the spouse is buried there, you’ll have another clue.

For missing records in your tree, try some of these suggestions to help fill the gaps.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com. 

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