The other day, I was helping someone with his genealogy research in Indiana. He had what seemed to be a simple question. He was trying to find a birth record of his ancestor who was born there around 1840. Just one problem: Indiana didn’t keep civil birth records back in 1840. So how do you find genealogy information when the record doesn’t even exist?
Stop Focusing on the Record
Looking for a record can be like putting on blinders. We get hyper-focused on finding that birth, marriage, or death record. We do need to make diligent searches and consider various places where the record might be.
For example: the state of Virginia claimed to not have my grandmother’s birth certificate. Imagine my surprise when my dad gave me a copy along with some of Grandma’s papers. (“Oh, you’ve needed that?”) I should have looked through her papers sooner.
(If you’re certain that a death record should exist, but you’re not finding it, consider some of the strategies I’ve outlined here.)
But what do we do when the record truly doesn’t exist? What do we do about an 1840 birth in Indiana, when the state didn’t start keeping birth records until 1882?
That’s when we need to take off the blinders. Stop focusing on that record and look around at other resources that are available.
Start Looking for the Information
Think about why you want that record you’re looking for. There are two main reasons to look for your ancestor’s birth record:
- You want to document his or her date and place of birth
- You want to identify his or her parents
Ask yourself what other records might contain the information you’re looking for. The person I was helping said that he wanted to identify the parents. Here are some of the possibilities:
- Baptism record
- Family Bible
- Probate (looking at the people he was living with in 1850)
- Civil War pension (he was a prime age to have served)
- County histories published during his lifetime
- Death record
Of course, the accuracy of some of those records are are going to be dependent on the knowledge of the informant. (Did the informant on the death certificate really know the names of the parents or was that just his best guess?)
Finding the Information: Let Your Goal Be Your Guide
Instead of being disappointed or frustrated when we can’t find a specific record, let your goal be your guide. Think about what it is you want to use that record for and then consider what other types of records would have that same information.
What “other” records have you used when the record you originally wanted didn’t exist?