Family History Certificates

The Next Steps

This article follows on from Researching_your_Family_History. Please read that article first before going on to read this one.

The next step is to start to look at, and for, birth, marriage and death certificates. At this point I am referring to the legal certificates issued by the government of your ancestors country of residence. Depending on where you live in the world these certificates will vary tremendously in the amount of information they hold. I write mainly from a British perspective, as that is where the majority of my family and my husbands family are from, But I am sure the main principles will apply no matter the country of origin. Even with in Britain there are differences in the information on the certificates. If you are lucky enough to have Scottish ancestors who have BMDs (Births, Deaths, Marriages) on or after 1855 then you are on to a winner. The legal requirement to register a BMD in Scotland took effect in 1855 and any certificates issued in that year hold even more information than subsequent years. It was much earlier in England in 1837. This allows you to get a little further back, perhaps even another generation. I am English, but my husband is Scottish and his family certificates are a gold mine of information but mine go further back. Swings and roundabouts!

Stern ladyCredit: Mary E Park

Contact all your relatives and ask them, very politely, if they have any family certificates that they would be willing to share with you. Make sure you contact the people that you interviewed in your first steps, you may have already been given certificates by them. You may find that some people do not want to part with these certificates for many and varied reasons, respect these decisions. My uncle never wanted to participate in my research due to family skeletons he hoped I would not unearth. You could ask them, or offer, to have the certificates photocopied (copyrights normally permit - this see here) or simply ask to visit and to see the certificates so that you can copy down the information on them. If you do this make sure that you write down every single bit of information they contain and not just names and dates. If all the information you can get is a name and a date then there are other ways of getting hold of these certificates, more about that in another article I hope.

Take all the certificates you have gathered and enter the information on them into your software or whatever system you are using. Then store them safely. You may already be beginning to acquire a number of documents and or photos from relatives and I would suggest that you start some sort of filing system so you can keep track of all these documents. A simple box type folder may suffice at first. You can make dividers and sort by family or by type. What ever you find works best for you. I sort by family name, then by type.

Now let us look at the sort of information you can expect to find on each certificate and how that information can be of use in your research.

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Birth Certificates

English Birth CertificateCredit: Mary E Park

The minimum information you can expect to find would be a name and date and place of birth. You can expect to find the mother’s name and,  if a married woman, her maiden name. The father’s name should also be included but, if the child was illegitimate, and that happened far more than you will have ever imagined, then the father’s name will be blank. If the father’s name is blank then look again at the name of the child. The mother sometimes added the surname of the father as a middle name for the child, but if you do find such a name do not assume that this is the case, unless you have other supporting information as there was also a tradition, in some communities,  of adding in surnames of other relatives or patrons. Helpfully on Scottish certificates you will often find the date and place of the parents marriage – assuming there was one of course.  Hopefully you will now have the information you need to start looking for a marriage certificate for the parents if you don’t already have one.

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Marriage Certificates

Scottish Marriage CertificateCredit: Mary E Park

Such a wealth of information is held on marriage certificates. Names, dates and places as usual but also their marital status. If they are recorded as a widow or widower then you have another spouse and/or family to look for. Be careful though that if a woman was a widow there may be some confusion on the certificate over what her previous or maiden name might be. The wrong name may be recorded.  The age and occupation of the bride and groom are to be expected and the names of both fathers should be there, along with their occupations. You may be lucky enough to find the name of a father ,here, that was missing from a birth certificate, but be aware it may be a step fathers name. It may also be a fictitious name if the person did not want to admit to being illegitimate. It is up to you to decide if you wish to record that person as a father.  It all depends on if you wish to pursue only your biological lines. I look at each case on merit and then make the decision.  

On Scottish certificates the names and maiden names of the both mothers are provided. In many cases this is a gift to be treasured. The marriage certificate may also indicate the religious persuasion of your relative, either in the place of the marriage or the name and occupation of the informant or the celebrant. You may be surprised. Witnesses are another useful source of information. Relatives were frequently witnesses and you may find the name of a previously unknown one.

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Death Certificates

English Death CertificateCredit: Mary E Park

Death certificates are the ones I have least of. Not that they don’t  hold any information it is just that sometimes you learn very little more than you knew before, again Scottish ones being the exception to the rule. I made the mistake once of thinking I would start with someone’s death and work backwards. I had hoped to confirm her maiden name but that was not even included.  Unfortunately the information on the certificate did not get me anywhere at all. I do look at death certificates as a piece of history that is nice to have, and a long shot to be looked at if stuck when researching an individual. Finding out how and why someone died can be enlightening and in my husbands case confirmed a family story about a fire. It may give an age or date of birth which can be helpful in locating their birth. The occupation if listed may include the word “Wife” or “Widow”, for a woman, which may confirm a marriage and maybe hint if the spouse is still alive. The informant’s name may be a relative that can be tracked down. Scottish certificates will not only give you the deceased person’s spouse and parents names but, if known, their mother’s maiden name so you get the surname of their grandmother.  Like on the marriage certificate this is just wonderful information to find.

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All Certificates

Now look at the other bits of information that you may have ignored, and this will apply to all certificates.  Where was the event registered? This may be important as it is not always where the event took place. This information may be extremely useful when, and if, you start to look for your ancestors in census records. Occupations are also useful for the same reasons. Certain  occupations may also mean further information may be held by other organisations, Guild organisations, church or work records perhaps. You should also take note of the number and date of the registration as there is a small chance that the certificate either side may be related in some way. A twin may have been registered at the same time, or a sibling married at the same time. It was not unusual for more than one death in a family at a time, maybe due to illness, or a family tragedy. Who registered the event and where did they live. This may be a relative you did not know about. For family history purposes it is interesting to note whether the certificate was signed or just marked with an X. It is part of your family history, finding out who was literate and who wasn’t.

I hope this all helps you to look at your certificates in more depth and perhaps you will notice some information you missed before. Keep digging!