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Genealogy Basics Research Guide: Vital Records


Birth, marriage, and death certificates can reveal significant information for family history research. Basic data provided may include the date and location of the event; the individual’s name, address, country and date of birth; as well as spouses’ and parents’ names, addresses, birthplaces, and occupations.

The reliability of the information contained on the forms may vary, depending on who supplied the information and whether the informant had accurate knowledge of the individual(s) described on the document. For instance, it is highly likely that on a marriage certificate the bride and groom supplied the correct information. However, the informant on a death certificate might have been a friend or acquaintance who may not have had accurate information. Therefore, vital records should be used in conjunction with other documents before reaching solid conclusions.

How to Find U.S. Naturalization Records

The most useful naturalization records for genealogists are the applications filed by our ancestors to obtain U.S. citizenship. These are the Declaration of Intention (“First Papers”), which could be filed two years after the immigrant’s arrival in the U.S., and the Petition for Naturalization (“Final Papers”), which could be filed after a waiting period of another three years. The citizenship certificate given to the immigrant contained relatively little information useful to genealogists, while the declaration and petition often included town and/or country of origin, occupation, date and port of arrival in the U.S., names of family members, and addresses. Some immigrants also changed their names at the time of naturalization,so name changes may also be recorded.

If you possess your ancestor’s naturalization certificate, that document states the court where the naturalization took place, and the volume and number of the petition, making the location of the naturalization declaration and petition easier to identify. If he or she was naturalized in a federal court, seek the documents at NARA. If in a state or local court, determine where the records for the court are housed, such as the County Clerk’s office.

It is possible to find naturalization records, however, without possessing a naturalization certificate. For information about where to find Federal, State, and local naturalization records, see Christine Schaefer, Guide to Naturalization Records of the United States (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1997). For New York City naturalizations, see Estelle Guzik, “Finding Naturalization Records in New York City,” Dorot: the Journal of the Jewish Genealogical Society, Volume 21, Number 2, 1999.

Fold3's Collection of Online Naturalization Records presently includes some online digitized naturalization records (indexed) for Maryland (1906-1930), Massachusetts (1906-1929), Pennsylvania (1795-1930), and Southern California (1887-1940); plus some indexes for New York City and State (searches are free; downloading copies of the documents requires payment).

Where to Find Vital Records

Birth, marriage, and death certificates are usually found in a city or county’s Bureau of Vital Records or the City/County Clerk’s Office (localities may have various names for these agencies).  Older records may be found in city, county, or state archives, libraries or historical societies. Often, you can visit these repositories and conduct the research yourself. However, some repositories only accept written requests and may charge a small fee. Additionally, it is often possible to obtain records online (typically for a fee). For more information on how to locate and use vital records, click here.

National Archives and Records Administration

National Archives Building
700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20408
(866) 272-6272

NARA New York Regional Branch
201 Varick Street, 12th Floor
New York, NY 10014
(212) 401-1620 or (866) 840-1752

Gathering Information about a Death

Social Security Death Index

The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) is a database of death records created from the United States Social Security Administration’s Death Master File Extract.  Most persons who have died since 1962, who had a Social Security Number, and whose death was reported to the Social Security Administration are listed in the SSDI (Note: A few death dates in the SSDI go as far back as 1935, but 98% are after 1962). The Index listing usually contains the name, dates of birth and death, and last known residence, which is helpful in locating a death certificate or obituary. The SSDI may be searched for free at FamilySearch or Family Tree Legends.

Once a deceased person is found in the database, the person’s application for a Social Security card (Form SS-5) can be ordered from the Social Security Administration.  Form SS-5 may contain additional genealogical data, such as birthplace, father’s name, and mother’s maiden name – or that information may be blacked out. For more information, click here.

City Directories and Census Records

There are other strategies for determining a person’s approximate date of death. City directories list city residents and their addresses and occupations. If a person has appeared in a city directory regularly until a certain year, he/she may have passed away sometime during the first year or two that he/she no longer appears. Similarly, a person’s disappearance from census records after a certain point also suggests that he/she may have died sometime between the last census in which they appear and the next one. 


Original source for this page: Center for Jewish History - Courtesy of the Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogy Institute
LibGuide - Genealogy Guide: United States -

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