All U.S. states have required the recording of birth certificates since 1919, though most states instituted birth certificates or registers prior to this. Historically, Americans followed 16th century English custom of having ministers document baptisms, marriages and burials, which provide indications of birth, marriage, and death dates. The first American colonial law about such records was in 1632 and required each parish minister or warden to document baptisms, marriages and burials. Within the decade, the Massachusetts Bay Colony required town clerks to record births and deaths. However, the American Colonies and later the United States were slow to develop a vital record registration system. Vermont was the first to form registries in 1770. By 1833, only five U.S. cities -- Baltimore, Boston, New Orleans, New York, and Philadelphia -- regularly recorded vital records whereas ten European countries maintained vital records. Massachusetts was the first to require state-level filing of vital records in 1844. For states with Appalachian counties, birth certificates were required in the following years: Alabama (1908), Georgia (1919), Kentucky (1911), Maryland (1898), Mississippi (1912), North Carolina (1913), Ohio (1909), Pennsylvania (1906), South Carolina (1915), Tennessee (1914), Virginia (1912), and West Virginia (1917).
Birth certificates state:
- Date of birth
- Number of children born [single birth, twins, etc.]
- Name of parents
- Marital status of mother
- Occupation of parents
- Age of parents
- Address of parents
- Name of doctor or midwife
- Total number of children mother has delivered
- Number of mother’s living children
Some factors complicate the use of birth records. Early birth records vary in types of information gathered. Also, many families ignored the requirement to obtain a birth certificate until the 1950s. Delayed birth certificates are issued to individuals whose parents did not register a birth certificate. Also, if a mother is unmarried, the father’s name cannot legally be included on the birth certificate unless he is present at the birth to testify that he is the father. Husbands are not required to be present.
Birth cerificates can be found in the Ancestry Library database to which the Library has a subscription. Birth certificates are maintained by most county courthouses although some counties send them to their respective state archives or the public health department. The Centers for Disease Control maintains a website which publishes Where to Write for Vital Records -- Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Divorces for each state. Facility rules and fees for examining and duplicating birth certificates vary, and genealogists are recommended to contact an employee in advance of a visit. Some researchers also use online services that will provide scanned or transcribed (typed) birth certificates for a fee. The Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources provides detailed information about these primary resources for each state.
Researchers seeking alternative sources for individuals’ birthdates and names of parents may find success in church records, censuses, and wills.
Reading handwriting can be difficult particularly because previous generations used different symbols than are currently used. The library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill maintains a Writing Guide for researchers reading documents dating from the 18th century forward.
For more reading
Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc, 1974. (App Coll CS 45.G73)
Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy. Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2006. (App Coll CS 49.S65)