Friday, September 5, 2008

Vital Records vs. Census Records

Vital records are vital to genealogical research, as all of us are aware. However, since vital records were not uniformly kept among states and counties in the early centuries of American history, they may not always be available for every single person in a family. If that is the case, and we rely solely on vital records to find all members of an immediate family, we may be leaving someone out.

Census records, on the other side of the coin, can be fun and helpful, but we don't usually think much about those being crucial to our family history efforts because they aren't considered primary source records by most professionals. In fact, they are known for being full of errors -- misspellings in names, wrong birth dates, and illegible information due to poor handwriting by the census taker or faded or blurred originals.

In linking children into families, it makes sense to do our due diligence in locating birth, marriage and death records as our primary sources of correct information. However, we can save ourselves a lot of time, money, and fuel in traveling to courthouses, by taking advantage of the information offered us in census records freely available online. Taken together, vital records and census records can help us put together a more complete picture of a family over time than either source by itself.

Let me give a couple of examples from my recent family history work. My last blog post titled "The Lost Boys" chronicled my efforts to finish an immediate family's information from my husband's line. Using census records, I was able to find the parents and six children over a few census years. I verified those eight individuals using vital records where available. However, when I did some further digging for vital records on this particular surname, I found two children who died young. The oldest child died at 6 years old. He never appeared on a census because he was born in 1881 and died in 1888, between census years. Using only the census sheets and without the vital records, this child would have been forever forgotten.

In contrast, I have worked on families in my line who have lots of descendants working on the genealogy. As happens on the internet and in family history research in general, many of these genealogists copy information from someone else's gedcom file without ever taking the time to double check or even ask for sources. There have been several families where, from incomplete family bibles or other family records passed down, not all of the children have been linked in. I will look up all of the census records for a family that I can find, and inevitably, in one of those census years, there will be a child listed in the household that was not listed in any of the information the rest of the family has posted. The census records in these cases made sure that family members were not misplaced permanently.

There are so many resources available on the internet for finding our ancestors, and by being thorough and attempting to use as many types of sources as are available to us, we can make sure that the genealogy work we pass on to our children is not only fun and interesting, but as accurate and complete as possible.

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