Updated 19 April 2021
One of the first facts you want to find in genealogy is an ancestor's date of birth. It would seem logical to look up a birth certificate to obtain the date of arrival to this world. Unfortunately, in genealogy research, such a path to your answer is not always straightforward.
Strategies to Find Your Ancestor's Birth Date
While you may have discovered where your ancestor lived and died and the names of his/her spouse(s) and children, perhaps you're stuck. Your well-documented family tree lacks a birth record or a birth date.
What does a genealogist do then?
1. Start with an Educated Guess
Genealogy educator and researcher Miles Meyer recommends that we "provide the best estimate of a birth date to start with. This will help us discover records in the future when new records become available."
Further, he recommends looking at your ancestor's siblings' birth dates or their parent's marriage date.
"Children are generally about 2 years apart," says Meyer. "If you find gaps, your ancestor with an unknown birth date could fit there."
Additional consult any documents that you have previously found which may state a birth year. Use that as your starting point.
2. Change Your Online Search Terms
Sometimes you aren't finding a birth record because you're using the wrong search terms. Thomas MacEntee, of Genealogy Bargains, suggests we "check our search parameters. Most genealogy platforms default our searches to EXACT. Try different search settings, and also, don't forget wildcards! "
Ellen Thompson-Jennings, of the Family History Hound site, suggests that we "try different spelling variations. Don't make assumptions."
She also suggests a less is more strategy when we're doing an online search. As such, we could try no name or no surname searches.
Additionally, you might be looking in the wrong place. Review a map or a county boundary change resource to discover if you need to search for records in a neighboring county or region. Additionally, country boundaries changed, and that may alter where you conduct your research.
Perhaps the birth certificate is available, but it's hidden deeper in the databases.
Andy and I discussed these strategies with a live audience. There is more information in the show. Watch the video for more.
3. Recognize Birth Certificates are Modern Documents
Genealogy research always depends on time and location.
Not every nation or city provided citizens with formal birth certificates. Even fewer supplemented the lack of infant arrivals with delayed birth certificates.
"Generally speaking, and there are states which provide exceptions, laws, and compliance to the law for state-level birth registrations did not occur until between 1910 and 1920. Some cities or counties, however, recorded vital registration much earlier than that time period, but may not have mandated every birth be registered," Cyndi Harlin, Cyndi Harlin, Cathy Hong, and Ericka Grizzard of Trace.com jointly stated.
It's possible that the area your wish to research did not begin creating vital records when your ancestor was born. Know when your location began maintaining data about children born in their area. It might be more recent than you think.
4. Don't Search for Records That Do Not Exist
While some locations did maintain birth registers, other locations had different record-keeping practices. Some nations did not record resident births through government entities. In other countries, no vital records exist because they rely on oral tradition to maintain their people's history.
With these practices in mind, we need to know the location your ancestor might have arrived into the world and the documentation practices of that area.
You may discover that organizations created the documents you need, but the vital records no longer exist. Flood, fire, wars, and caretaker negligence have destroyed many genealogically important records. Utilize the research wiki and locality reference guides to discover the extent of any resource loss.
Save yourself the headache of searching for records that do not exist.
5. Use Alternative Sources
If you discover the area did not create civil birth registers, become a genealogy detective. Use alternative sources to vital records to find your answers. The next sections will discuss these alternatives.
Before we discuss the alternatives, pay attention to the time frame your investigating. Amie Bowser Tennant, The Genealogy Reporter, shared her alternative birth record research strategy. "If it is recent, I would use birth announcements in the newspapers or the whitepages.com. If it is the early 1900s, maybe try censuses, WW Draft cards, SS Death Index, Marriage license, or record. 1700 and 1800s, baptisms, derivative sources such as land or naturalization records."
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Alternative Sources to Find A Birth Date
Check out these 21 alternative sources for finding your ancestor's date of birth. Admittedly, some documents and information are easier to access than others. Leave no stone unturned.
Marriage Records: These vital records are great because your ancestor self-reported their own birthdate. However, sometimes your ancestors lied to get around laws and social taboos.
Death Records: The person providing a birth date generally wasn't a witness to the birth. Corroborate the dates on these historical documents with additional records.
Census Records - Some US, Canadian, and British census records provide a birth month and year, while others provide your ancestor's age. Even if you have early US census records, you can find clues to determine when your ancestor was born.
Gravestone - Sometimes, your ancestor's birth is etched in stone. Further, some grave markers may be the only record of an ancestor's existence.
Newspapers - Birth announcements, wedding announcements, and obituaries may provide a birth date for your ancestor. While the informant is often not specified, use the clues in print to determine a birth date.
School Records - Melissa Barker, a.k.a The Archive Lady, suggest we "search for school records for your ancestor, they could provide a birth date." States, such as Oklahoma, have records where parents often reported the birth dates to the school officials to place their children in the correct school grade. To learn more about archives, check out her lecture, The ABCs and 123s of Researching Your Ancestor's School Records.
Family Bible - If you can find them, bible records are awesome. Contact your close and extended family members and ask if they know of the bibles' existence and location. You can also search for Bibles in state and local archives and other resources. Sometimes pages were torn out and submitted to the US War Department as evidence for a Civil War Pension.
Church Records - Church records aren't often online, but more become available every year. Findmypast has a Catholic Baptismal collection. Ancestry has a German Lutheran Church record collection. Seek out online church records, or find the archives for a church to track down baptismal records.
Family Letters - If your family has an archive containing letters detailing birth dates, you are fortunate. Correspondence sometimes provides the only evidence that some individuals existed. Ask your family members and ask who has letters in their attic.
Midwives and Physician records - Many medical professionals kept logs about the babies they delivered. Search archives and family files of midwives and physicians in your region for such records. While the chances of finding them are rare, you never know if you'll find them.
Adoption Records - If your suspect or know that your ancestor was adopted, perhaps adoption records exist in courthouses. Not every adoption has a paper trail. However, most court records have a birth date, even the best guess, for the child being adopted into a family.
Orphanage Records - Many children died without kin to care for them. Such children were often admitted into orphanages. For instance, the British Home Children organizations recorded the birth dates, or a close approximation, when a new orphan entered their care.
Military Records - Draft records, enlistment papers, pension files, application for veteran headstones, and service records may list the veteran's birth date. "For men born between about 1885 through the 1920s in the US, search World War I and II draft registration cards as alternate records which may provide a specific date of birth." - Harlin, Hong, and Grizzard, of Trace.com.
Passports - Some passport documents include not only your ancestor's birth date but their birthplace. If you have an immigrant or traveling ancestor, you definitely want to explore this collection.
Naturalization records - In many countries, future citizens had to provide their age or birth information to complete their naturalization process.
Wills - While wills don't often provide birth dates, you may uncover the birth order for your ancestor's siblings or children. Using descendancy research, you may be able to develop an educated guess for your ancestor's birth year. Additionally, if the child is mentioned as a minor child, then you can consult state laws to determine the upper age limit for a minor and then use that as a clue to give your ancestor an age range.
Guardianship Records - Now these records are awesome. If a parent dies leaving minor children, then you may find records either state your ancestor's age directly or when they reached their age of majority to claim their inheritance. Follow the paper trail to collect clues for your investigation. For more information about how wills and guardianship papers help find a birth date, read "How to determine your ancestor's birth date even if no birth record is found," by Lisa Lisson, of Are you, my cousin?
Head tax records - if your ancestor lived in an area that utilized head taxes, the state laws outline the age at which individuals can begin to pay taxes. Perhaps you have a male ancestor who was born in the same county in which he reached adulthood. You also discovered that the state taxed males over 21 years old. Then, you can infer his age based on when he starts paying taxes.
Published Family Histories - Many family histories are published and on shelves in libraries and archives. Others are online!!! We must scrutinize the reliability of every authored family history, as not everything in print is accurate. Yet, these histories can be used as evidence in conjunction with additional records.
County Histories - If your ancestor was a first settler, a prominent individual in an area, or related to them, then a county history book might include their birth date.
Seek out these alternative sources, not only to determine when your ancestor was born but also to learn a wealth of information about them throughout their lives. Don't let the lack of birth certificates stop you from finding evidence for the date of an ancestor's birth.
Finding and exploring these sources may require the assistance of a professional genealogist. Trace.com works with talented researchers worldwide to help you find birth records or any other record you need. Use this link to get a $50 discount off your initial deposit when you set up a project with one of our professional researchers!
Research an Illegitimate Birth
For a number of reasons, a child could be born to unmarried parents. When an unmarried woman gave birth outside of marriage, the offspring were labeled illegitimate, bastards, or base-born. Other adjectives regarding such births include: spurious, imputed, reputed, and misbegotten.
While these terms might offend our modern sensibilities, some locations created separate birth records for such cases. That means researchers won't necessarily find a birth record but documents specific to illegitimate children.
One such record includes Bastardy Bonds. According to the FamilySearch Wiki, a father of an illegitimate child would sign a bastardy bond and agree to pay a form of child support so that no public money would be spent to raise the child.
Unfortunately, with the exception of North Carolina, most of the bastardy bonds are mixed in with other county court documents in the United States. As such you'll want to search the FamilySearch Card Catalog or State and County Archives under the titles of court papers, miscellaneous loose papers, legitimations, or bonds.
You Might Not Find A Birth Date
Eric Wells, of Legacy Left Right, said it best. "Be ok with not having the exact date. Often just the year is available."
If we still can not determine an exact birth date for our ancestors after all of our investigations, that's okay. We conducted a reasonably exhaustive search. As such, we should accept the research reality and move on to other questions.
Additionally, in some areas, we may never know a birth date, but a baptismal date can suffice.
Do your best and pray you're one of the lucky few who have ancestors' who live in areas that maintained records that documented your relative's life.
Continue Your Genealogy Education Journey
Once you find a genealogy record, you need to evaluate them with care. Check out this video to learn how to do just that.