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Types of Vital Records

Not all records are created equal. Understanding what distinguishes a vital record from other types of legal documents is beneficial to new researchers.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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Word Count: 999 (approx.)
Labels: Vital Record 
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For most people, a record, legal document, or even evidence have few remarkable differences. For a researcher, the differences are not only vital they are standards of truth and the framework of stable data on which an entire family tree hangs. The fact is, people die and no longer orally inform us of what transpired in the years past, and the only thing that remains for the living is documentation, of which vital records are key. Normally, I don't like to nitpick and, in most endeavors, whether you wear red or blue to the dance is not going to matter a hill of beans. However, in genealogical research the Internet is filled with blunders, assumptions, falsifications, and downright fairy tales. These lie in wait for unsuspecting and trusting genealogy newbies who may scoop up an on-line tree full of undocumented information, and then compound the problem by duplicating and re-posting the same untruths.

If you make an assumption, please note it as such. Live long enough and you will discover how an untruth can be told over and over again until everybody believes it to be true. It doesn't matter if you tell it to yourself or another, the liability is in not having some kind of suspicion about the source and documentation of any piece of data, and such an omission of skill will eventually cause you to have egg on your face or spend hours on a wild goose chase.

What is a "vital" record

A definition from Wikipedia: "Vital records are records of life events kept under governmental authority, including birth certificates, marriage certificates, and death certificates. In some jurisdictions, vital records may also include records of civil unions or domestic partnerships." It is easy to confuse the term "vital" with a record concerning an important document for the purpose of legal proof or argument. The term has also been used in Management as something crucial to the operation of a business. Vital records in the United Kingdom are in the civil registry.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Records are divided between primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are sources which recorded a historical event from the first and actual account of the event. Courthouse recorded documents, U. S. census records, original deeds, various declarations by the U. S., state, county, and city governments are considered by genealogists as first-hand and reliable primary sources. But, remember, even primary sources can slip into the secondary status if re-recorded, gleaned of information or other methods of copying a document, which is not a perfect duplication. Once altered by a second observer, the primary status is rendered as a secondary source. A report which has journeyed through a second observer and has been changed or colored in some way by the second observer's viewpoint can always be suspect.

In many examples, historical integrity is patterned after a court of law, excluding hear-say and reports from secondary accounts. Just like a judge would throw out someone's account of another telling the story of someone else saying that Joe did the dirty deed, historians must reframe from using data that has been orally expressed through a chain of people about how Uncle Fred got to be a member of a infamous group.

Direct vs. Indirect Evidence

In genealogy, direct evidence is the presenting of evidence from observation or documentation that directly shows claim or proof of a family connection. An example would be sibling or parent report of a subject.

Indirect evidence would be observation or documentation which is removed from a direct relationship causing a break in descending order, or places doubt concerning the direct association to the family information. An example of indirect would be a casual researcher's report, especially one that does not show any primary sources.

The professional attitude of the researcher

Records are only as accurate as the author, clerk or writer was careful in recording the right data. It is perhaps ironic that a lack of responsibility or an insufficient level of language skills can place much doubt in the authenticity of the most regarded primary and direct evidence found. Ironic, because the researcher will find himself or herself the next author on a chain of data, and once it is yours, it is up to you as to how you are going to use that data. Because of the alteration that can exist, I don't think I can ever stress the importance enough to find a second source or record of comparable magnitude to gauge a single source or record's authenticity. Do not accept at face value any verbal account about someone who is no longer living. Of course, sometimes it is unavoidable, and there will be times when you will never find any collaborative evidence to support or disclaim such accounts. It is up to the gatherer of such accounts to note how and when such information was gathered, and the reliability of the source. At least state the dubious nature of a source connected with such information so that the next researcher has been warned. I am quite aware that family researchers will approach the task of finding information about their ancestors in many varying ways. For the newbie, it is thrilling to hear that Uncle Jack was thought to be the last royal descendant of King Uptum Boo. For the seasoned researcher, the chances are slim to none that such an account is true, but do not allow such obscured claims to prevent you from checking into the merits.

What researchers need and want is reliable sources and accounts of historical events so that they can be followed back along in their family tree. Just keep in mind that only truth will set the researcher free to pursue the next mystery in his quest for his own family history. An alteration or lie will stick him right there where it was made and often cause many a fruitless hour following down family branches which will not end well.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

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

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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