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The Triumvirate of Sources

Whether you've been tracking your family's genealogy for a while or are just starting, you'll soon find three sources that will give you a wealth of information. Birth, marriage, and death certificates are the primary sources for all genealogists–the primary colors of genealogy. It's the information contained in them that will enable you to begin your genealogical quest.


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Prepared by: Bob Brooke
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Whether you've been tracking your family's genealogy for a while or are just starting, you'll soon find three sources that will give you a wealth of information. Birth, marriage, and death certificates are the primary sources for all genealogists–the primary colors of genealogy. It's the information contained in them that will enable you to begin your genealogical quest.

The beginning of a person's life gets recorded in the birth certificate. In it, you'll find the person's name, date and place of birth, father's name, age, and occupation, mother's maiden name and age, family's home address, the number of children born to the mother, and the number of children now living. In almost all cases, the mother provides this information.

The spelling of the child's name on his or her birth certificate was often an immigrant family's first attempt to Americanize their family name. Even though the family name may have been Blat, the birth certificate may record Black.

The location where the birth occurred may indicate the religion which the family followed. For instance, if the birth occurred in a Catholic hospital it may indicate that the family was Catholic. However, all Catholic hospitals accept other patients. If the birth location and the home address are in different towns, this may indicate that the birth occurred unexpectedly away from home. The father's name on a birth certificate, if the same as the mother's, indicates the couple was

was married. If not, it may indicate that the couple wasn't living together at the time of the birth.

However, in recent years this no longer applies as many couples give birth while living together but not married.

Locating a birth certificate is relatively easy, but may require some sleuthing. To locate the birth certificate of the mother or father, subtract their ages from the date on the child's birth certificate and search the birth index five years on each side of that year. You can also check old city directories around the year of this birth against the address given on the birth certificate. Then check for parents or brothers who may have lived nearby. A city directory can help you verify the father's occupation and might even supply the name of a business he worked for or owned.

Don't overlook the mother's ancestry. Knowing the birth date of the first child should make it easy to locate a marriage license. If you don't know the first child's birth date and the family seemed to have had three children, go back five years and begin searching the marriage index. If the number of children born exceeds the number still living, look up the death certificates for the deceased children. These might lead you to a family burial plot. Also, request copies of birth certificates of other siblings. Look for patterns in the naming of the children which might help you establish the first names of the other children. In some immigrant families in which a child died, the mother often named her next child by the same name. Often, she named her first male child after the father and the first female child after her mother.

The next most important document in the genealogical triumvirate is the marriage license or marriage certificate, which lists the groom's name, age, birthplace, home address, and occupation, the bride's name, age, birthplace, and address, the groom's father's name, the groom's mother's maiden name, the bride's father's name, the bride's mother's maiden name, the address of the ceremony, the name and address of the person performing the ceremony, the names and addresses of witnesses, and the signatures of the bride, groom, and witnesses.

The marriage license provides the most genealogical information that you'll find in one place.

Your parent's license, for example, will take you back to the third generation of your genealogical chart. If you can locate the marriage license of either set of your grandparents, then you've hit the motherlode.

Because a child of immigrant parents automatically became an American citizen by birth, the

marriage license provides proof of the years that the family lived in the U.S. While early immigrant couples only had ceremonies in a church, later ones also followed civil protocols.

The ages of the bride and groom in a marriage license will also help you find their birth certificates. Some licenses also contain their birth dates, making them easy to obtain, especially if either were born in the U.S.

The names of both the bride's and groom's parents can lead to their marriage licenses. If either the bride or the groom was at least 21, it's possible that their respective parents may have been married in the U.S. Check the marriage index starting with the groom's birth year. Also check city directories for families with the mother's maiden name. You may even find the bride listed , as living at home with her parents. The address of the ceremony may be a church which will tell you the religion of the couple.

If the marriage license offers the most accurate genealogical information, then the death certificate offers the least. The information it contains was often supplied by a person not close to the deceased–usually the calmest close relative available. That person may have only been guessing about the most important details. Often, they guessed at the deceased age and how long they had been in the U.S. The doctor filling out the form wanted to complete it as soon as possible and get on with his work.

A person's death certificate contains the date and location of death, the deceased's age in years, months and days, date and location of birth, home address, marital status, name of spouse, occupation, years in the U.S., father's name and birthplace, mother's maiden name and birthplace, informant's name and relationship to the deceased, burial location, undertaker's name and address, physician's name and address, cause of death, and length of illness.

You'll find the death certificate the easiest of the primary documents to obtain. In some states death certificates are on public record with no restrictions. Always say you need the death certificate for genealogical research.

Remember that celebrating birthdays is a relatively new American custom. For many immigrants, it was just another day and many didn't know their date of birth, so birth information may not be entirely true. Also, many immigrant teens falsely stated their birth dates to get jobs to help support their families.

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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