The Top 3 Reasons to Check Vital Records

When researching the history of our homes we are anxious to learn who the previous home owners were. We are also curious about the stories of the lives of those who lived there. Census records provide a rich resource to learn about the families who shared our homes. Therefore, you might be tempted to skip research on vital records. After all, you can’t learn as much from those as census records, right? Think again! Vital records are key to ensuring you are uncovering the correct stories about former residents.

Charles Diggs / Sarah Grandison Marriage Record
Marriage record of Charles Diggs and Sarah Grandison, Norwood, MA, 1897

Here are the Top 3 Reasons to Check Vital Records:

#1 Missing Family Members

While it’s true that census records can provide occupations, location of birth, marital status, naturalization status and much more, they are only recorded every ten years. That leaves a very large gap between each census. Prior to the 20th century there was a much higher child mortality rate. That means children could have been born and died between census years. A census record showing a family with two children may have actually been a family of eight children originally. In order to accurately reconstruct the families that lived in your home you need to know the entire story. Vital records will allow you to appreciate more fully the families who lived in your home and the hardships they endured in life.

Full Marriage listing for Charles Diggs / Sarah Grandison
Full marriage record of Charles Diggs and Sarah Grandison, 1897, Norwood, MA. This image has been altered to show the record below the headers. Source: (click image to enlarge)

#2 Differentiate Between Two Men

Families that are prolific in certain areas, regardless of their ethnic background, tend to produce a lot of children and grandchildren with the same name. Add into the mix common surnames that are found everywhere and you can have a real challenge on your hands with men of the same name in the same time period in your town.

Which John Hill is the one who lived your house? Vital records can start to separate the identities of the two men. It is very unlikely that two men will have exactly the same birth date and death date. Nor will they have the same parents (though their parents very likely could be siblings). Nor will they marry the same woman, though they could marry women with the same first name.

Vital records will provide you will the building blocks to differentiate between men of the same name. Look for birth dates and parents’ names on birth records, spouse’s name, place of birth and parents’ names on marriage records. Likewise check death records for age, birth place, parents’ names, marital status and the surviving spouse’s name. The information available will vary depending on the time period.

#3 Find Probate Records

Probate records are a must for house historians. If you haven’t checked probate records you are missing half the story of your house! Probate documents will include wills that reveal details about the family, guardianship documents for men who left orphaned minors behind and estate inventories that provide a window into the items that former residents had in their homes.

Probate records are indexed alphabetically by surname. Other information provided will be the document type, year of the filing and the location.

Without knowing the date of death from vital records it could be very difficult to determine which William Smith is the correct one. Did your man die when he was 25 or 85? Instead of having to sort through two John Hills as in the example above you may have to sort through ten William Smiths over a 70 year time period within the same town. Also, vital records will reveal the name of the spouse and children of your former homeowner. Locating those names in the probate documents will confirm that you have the right man.

After you have done your deed research, go ahead and check census records! But make sure you stop and research the vital records before moving forward. It will save you time and ensure that you are researching the right families.

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