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  • Writer's pictureJulie Wilmot

When Vital Records Aren’t Available

When Vital Records Aren’t Available

Genealogists love vital records. They’re often seen as the Holy Grail of research. Although we’d like to think that vital records exist for every time period and geographical location, they don’t. In some cases, they simply weren’t recorded as early as we’d like. In others, they were lost or destroyed.

What happens when vital records aren’t available? We are forced to turn to other sources to try locating our ancestors. These resources include church records, town records (many of these have been indexed, and vital records extracted from them), historical newspapers, probate records, deeds, and court records, among others.

These records can be just as useful as vital records. In many cases, they can provide information about an ancestor’s parentage and/or other relationships. If you think that you’re dead in the water because you can’t find a birth, marriage, or death record for your ancestor, think again.

Although many of these resources require more time to examine, they do often contain useful information. I’ve seen newspaper articles detailing the settlement of an estate by the guardian of minor heirs, probate records naming the spouse and children of the deceased, and deeds in which a father gave land to his son out of love and affection. In all of these cases, no vital records that explicitly stated these relationships existed. Had I not explored other resources, I never would have been able to continue tracing these lineages. My research would have stalled.

Many church records, town records, historical newspapers, probate records, deeds, and court records have been digitized and are available online at websites like,,,,, and

Unfortunately, there are also cases in which other resources were also destroyed. The county in which I grew up is one such example. The courthouse burned in the late 1800s, taking many probate records and deeds with it. Vital records are sparse as well. For me, identifying my ancestors took a very long time, and required the use of census records, local histories, and other sources.

When we come to an obstacle in our research, we need to keep pushing and be creative. Don’t be afraid to search for other sources when vital records and other common resources aren’t available. You may be surprised at what you find.


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