Beginning Genealogy

How do I track down a birth date for an ancestor?

Question: What is your methodology for tracking down a birth date for an ancestor? – Newbie in Crawford, Nebraska

Answer: Great question. Additionally, you don’t have to be a newbie to wonder about the best procedure for tracing down a fact like this.

Before I answer the question, ask yourself, how deep do you want to research?

Will one record suffice in your quest?

Now many experienced genealogists will scream, “NO!!!! One record is not enough!!!”

But the question I’m asking you is essential, are you a professional, hobbyist or a casual name seeker?

If you’re a casual name seeker, then use whatever hints show up on FamilySearch,, or MyHeritage. And if you’re really casual, you’re using FamilySearch and you should likely rely on the information other researchers have gathered an compiled on the family tree. Don’t change anything unless you have truly discovered new information.

If you’re a hobbyist, then dig a little deeper into online sources by consulting the FamilySearch Wiki for the possible collections for your particular area. It’s the backbone for a quest that’s a little more than casual.

If you’re seeking professional certification or hoping to do client work (or want to research at that level), then it pays to know the likely records that can answer the question, “What is John Charles’s birth date?”

The first thing you need to know is the time period. The further back in time you search, the fewer records that you have available for your ancestor. And, the increased likelihood (in the US), that your ancestor is from another location that you might think.

There are categories of records to search based on their reliability (not infallibility) but when you’re searching, some records are more readily available than others. Meaning, many of these records are online.

Easily Accessible

  • Birth Records (more reliable because it’s created close to the time of the event by witnesses to the event)
  • Marriage Records (moderate reliability, self-reporting of own birthdate)
  • Death Records (less reliable, informant generally wasn’t a witness to the birth)

The vital records are great when they were kept and when they recorded additional information than the barest of facts for the event.

If these vital records are unavailable online, were burned, or never existed, you’ll have to search for alternative sources to build a case.

  • Census Records – Most US state and federal census are available online, you just need to know where to look for the state records. The reliability of the information decreased as it’s not often complete and the informant is not specified. However, the records provide clues as to the consistency of birth date, even if you have to calculate it from the age reported.
  • Grave Markers – BillionGraves and Find A Grave have made searching for headstones a cinch, in most cases. The reliability of the stones are suspect because of how far removed the death date can be from the birth date and errors can creep in; however, the grave markers can help add additional evidence to a case without the birth certificate that relies on indirect evidence. And in some cases, it might be the only record of an ancestor’s existence.

Accessible Additional Records Requiring More Effort:

  • Newspapers – Birth Announcements, Wedding Announcements, and Obituaries are among the news features that may provide a birth date for your ancestor. If the newspaper is online and searchable, the difficulty in obtaining the information substantially decreases. If you have to browse newspapers, the difficulty skyrockets. The reliability of the information depends on the unidentified source providing the information.
  • School Records – not every state or county kept school records. However, for states that did, such as Oklahoma, these records provide details about the birth dates of children listed. The reliability is significant because the parents often reported the birth dates to the school officials in order to place their children in the correct school grade. Parents, presumably, were witnesses to the birth dates of their children.
  • Published Family Histories – Many family histories are published and on shelves in libraries and archives. Others are online!!! The reliability of every authored family history should be scrutinized but can be used as evidence in conjunction with additional records.
  • County Histories – If your ancestor was a first settler or a prominent individual in an area, or related to them, then their birth date might be included in such books. Mistakes happen regularly in these books, but again, the information can support a collection of additional records.

More Challenging Records to Obtain:

  • Bible records – If you can find them, bible records are awesome. Generally, you’ll have to ask the person for whom you are working or in your extended family’s homes (or your attic) if this resource is available. There are website transcriptions, archives, and repositories that may have bible records. You just have to hunt for these resources. You might also fiBibleble records in pension files or lineage applications.
  • Church Records – Compared to Canada, it’s more difficult to determine the religious affiliation of Americans. The Canadians placed that information on their census records. So, you’ll have to look for clues before you seek out church records. Some clues include newspapers, on gravestones, from the cemetery in which they are buried. Sometimes it’s the only church in a 60-mile radius. Urban dwellers with multiple church options because very difficult to search. Church records that are online and searchable may be worth the effort. Otherwise, the quest comes down to how deep are you willing to go?
  • Family Letters – If your family has an archive that contains letters detailing birth dates, you are very, very lucky. Those letters have questionable reliability but are worth reviewing. Letters sometimes contain the only evidence that some individuals existed.

Additional Records that Depend on Other Clues:

  • Military Draft records – the more modern the better
  • Military Service records
  • Application for Veteran Headstones
  • Widow Pension Files
  • Passenger documents – the more modern the more complete
  • Naturalization records – the more modern the more complete
  • Lineage Applications

Does this guide help you know which records to use to answer the question, “What is your methodology for finding an ancestor’s birth date?”


  • Are there any US records that I have overlooked?
  • For foreign countries, what records do you consult to find a birth date?

Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.

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