By Janet Meydam
We all have those ancestors who make us want to pull our hair out. You know, the ones we just can’t find key pieces of information about – like a birth or death date? Locating a date of birth can be especially difficult because oftentimes only ages are listed on old records. And even on records that usually do list a birth date this detail is sometimes left blank because the informant didn’t have the needed information (this is common on death certificates).
But finding an actual date of birth (rather than an estimated year) is important to your research. This article will go over a few common places to find birth dates and then jump into several sources that are often overlooked by researchers.
Some Typical Sources for Birth Records
Of course, an estimated birth date can be gathered from many sources – and ages can be found on a wide variety of documents – not least of which in the U.S. census (which even lists birth month in some cases.) Gather this information when you can because it will help you find more detailed dates down the road.
The best and most accurate place to find an ancestor’s actual birth date is in the record closest to the event – the birth certificate. You will, however, generally need to know your ancestor’s parents’ names to find this document – especially since you do not have a birth date. If you know your ancestor’s birth location and general age (such as from a census) you may be able to discover a certificate without parental information but be sure you have the correct record.
Dates when vital records were first recorded vary from place to place, as do their availability online and in general. If you are researching in the U.S. this list of state resources will help you find out who holds the record you need and this article will help you find it offline if it is not yet digitized.
Next to a birth certificate, a baptismal record, or record of a birth with a local church, is your best bet. You will need to do some research to determine who might hold such a record for your ancestor – if one exists at all.
If you cannot find a birth record, or if you do not have enough information to begin a search for one, you will need to look for this information in other vital records, such as marriage or death certificates. Again, use the sites in the list above for U.S. searches. Information about finding records in the UK can be found here and Canada here.
Gravestones are another good place to find a birth date – although you will need some information about a person’s death to locate this. Gravestones are also notoriously unreliable so take the information you find as a clue to help you locate a more reliable source. Read this article for help with cemetery research.
If you have exhausted these common sources and still haven’t found your ancestor’s actual date of birth, you will want to check the alternate sources shown below.
People with African-American or Native American ancestors may have especial difficulty locating birth dates at different points in history. Please review our African-American research guide here for help, and find some information on researching your Native American ancestors here.
1. Old Town Histories, Family Pedigree Books and Compiled Genealogies
Old books are a wonderful source of genealogical information and family pedigree and surname books can be a goldmine, especially when researching ancestors before vital records were kept. Use the resources in this article to look for books covering the surnames and locations of your ancestors. Complied genealogies for specific events also exist – such as this meticulously researched one for Mayflower descendants. Birth dates are often present in such collections.
Many towns have had books written about them as well, recording the founding, the early settlers and the development of the area. These books were popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries and were often written for milestone dates, such as centennials of the founding of these towns. Included in many of these books are the names and birth dates of the early settlers.
A good example is the book Woodbridge and Vicinity by Rev. Joseph W. Dally. This book, first published in 1873, records a detailed history of Woodbridge Township, New Jersey. Included in the back are appendices that list birth, marriage and death records from the 1670s through the 1750s. Since records from this period are very hard to find, a listing like this is extremely valuable. The picture below shows a sample of the birth records listed in Woodbridge and Vicinity. The birth record for my ancestor, Jonathan Dilly, is at the top.
To find old town histories, go to the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) website and use the keywords “town history” along with the name and state of your town.
2. Confirmation Records
We all know to look in church baptism records for birth dates, but if the baptism record isn’t there, the confirmation record might be a good alternative. These were records for children who were baptized as infants and completed their religious education by confirming their baptisms as teenagers.
Confirmation was (and still is) an important event in both Catholic and Protestant churches, so detailed records still exist. These records usually include a birth date along with the confirmation date. Here is the confirmation record of my husband’s great-great grandmother, Amalia Fuchs.
Even though this record is from West Prussia and is written in German, you can clearly see her birth listed along with her confirmation date. Old church records usually include listings of confirmations along with the other records, so if you can’t find the confirmation certificate, check the church records if they are available.
Many online repositories, such as FamilySearch and Ancestry, offer church records – as do local historical and genealogical societies. Contact these organizations for help locating records. If the church still exists your best bet many be to contact them directly to find out how to access records (many may be offline).
3. Funeral Home Records
If your ancestor died in the late 19th century or later, you might be able to find the birth date through a funeral home record. As funerals became more elaborate in the late 1800s, funeral homes were established to take care of the details.
Funeral homes were usually family run businesses, but the morticians who owned them kept detailed records. If you know that your ancestor’s funeral was arranged by a funeral home, you can contact them in writing to ask if a record exists and what you need to do to obtain a copy.
If the home is out of business, their records may still exist in a library or as part of an archive. The picture below shows sample records from the Baum-Carlock-Bumgardner Funeral Home of Mineral Wells, Texas, which is now part of the collection entitled Rescuing Texas History, 2013. The collection is housed in the Boyce Ditto Public Library and accessible through the website Portal to Texas History at texashistory.unt.edu.
These records, from 1937, include both the birth and death dates of the individuals who died.
4. Poorhouse, Hospital, Asylum and Criminal Records
People who were admitted to hospitals, poorhouses, workhouses, or asylums were usually recorded in some type of ledger. Ages, and sometimes birth dates, were included in these records. In addition, children who were born in these institutions were also recorded.
Here is a sample of an intake record page from the Tewksbury Almshouse in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. This record, from 1883, shows only the ages of the people admitted to the almshouse but on the bottom of the page is the birth record for Mary Lee, born in the almshouse July 7, 1883. The child mother and the mother’s admission number are listed as well.
These records from the Tewksbury Almshouse were accessed through the DPLA. Learn more about using hospital and asylum records for genealogy here.
Like poorhouse records, old criminal records may list the ages or even birth dates of individuals being charged. Read this article for help finding and using criminal records.
5. Military Records
Certain types of military records are excellent sources for birth dates. Draft registration cards and pension records usually list the birth date of the individual – such as this World War I draft registration record for Melvin M. Borchardt of Tampa, Florida.
Large collections of these records can be accessed through FamilySearch at www.familysearch.org. Others can only be found on Ancestry, Fold3 or other paid sites.
Information about Civil War records that can be found for free online can be found here and those for the American Revolution here.
6. Personal Papers, Letters and Diaries
Sometimes the best place to find a missing birth record is in that old box of letters in the attic (or in a digital attic, as the case may be).
People often referenced the birth of a new member of the family in diary entries or letters to other family members. Sometimes, lacking a family bible, families just recorded the births of family members on whatever they had lying around. My great-grandfather wrote down the names and birth dates of all his children on a plain piece of paper. If you are fortunate enough to have one of those relatives who saves everything, you may be able to contact that person and ask to look through their collection of old family papers.
Not all of us have this advantage, of course, but many collections of family papers have been donated to libraries, museums, and historical societies and some of these have been digitized. It is worth completing an online search to see if your ancestors are mentioned in a collection of personal papers. While you might not be able to view every scrap of paper online, you may be able to locate the library or archive where the collection is stored so that you can search it in person.
Look for such collections via ArchiveGrid or in online libraries like Internet Archive, the DPLA and Hathitrust. Type “family papers” or “personal papers” and a surname of interest in the searches on these sites.
The following pictures show the title page and table of contents of the Family Papers of the Day and Hartsinck families, edited by Samuel H. Day in 1911. As you can see in the table of contents, the work includes pedigrees for both families, so birth dates would be included here.
There are many other possible records where you may be lucky enough to find a birth date. Study the region and time period you are researching to better understand what documents are available to you and sooner or later you are bound to discover the information you need.
Janet Meydam is a freelance writer who has over 40 years of experience in genealogy as a hobby. Her knowledge includes researching many different records from the United States, Germany, and Poland. She is also a co-author of her parents’ family history book “I Come from a Long Line of Dilleys.” Janet works as an occupational therapist. She and her husband Tim have three adult children and live in Wisconsin.
Image: Untitled Photo. 1941. Library of Congress