The time period before the official registration of births and deaths spans from colonial times to the early nineteenth century, and in some places up to the mid-1930s. Church records are perhaps the best source for birth and death (and marriage) information from colonial times up to the mid-eighteenth century, although you may find civil records, especially in New England states. Death registers maintained by various local authorities, churches and other institutions are another important resource that can pre-date civiil registration and may be the only record of death for some people.
Many of these early records have been gathered into collections and made available online such as Pennsylvania Vital Records, Vol. I, and others. Church records might also be found by denomination. Similar types of records are available for many states (and faiths) for various time periods; many such records held at state archives and historical societies, some have been transcribed and published by local genealogical societies and others .
In the mid-1800s states more and more states passed laws requiring birth and death registration, although response varied and records are not consistent for this time period, compounded by the tragedy of a court house fire. The courthouse in Madison County, Texas, for example, burned three times. However, records do exist and many are available online. These in addition to church records for the time period.
The U.S. Federal Census is another good source and can provide leads as to date and place of birth; census Mortality Schedules provide information on deaths in the 12 months proceeding the census year.
In some cases, a Family Bible may be the only record available, especially for children who died early. And while the discovery of Family Bibles may require networking within families, some have been microfilmed and digitized. Many more can be found through the LDS Family History Library, Card Catalog.
Finally, even if your ancestor was born before the time of birth registration, many people applied for a Delayed Birth Certificate, requiring the submission of several documents as verification. Delayed Birth Certificates are accessed in the same way as original birth and death records, typically through State Vital Records (or its equivalent).
For additional information on the subject of birth and death records, see Where do I go to find birth, marriage and death records?.
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