Vital Statistics

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Copyright (C) 2000 Jean Suplick Matuson.


bibles    headstones 
census    wills 
church registers    obituaries 
naturalizations    social security 
military    mortuary 

Note: A good and much more in-depth reference is George K. Schweitzer's Pennsylvania Genealogical Research (Knoxville, Tennessee: By the author,407 Regent Court, 1986).

Birth Records

For the period 1682-1893, virtually no records of birth were kept by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania or Washington County. For births before 1893, you should look at grave headstone inscriptions, bible records, church registers, census, military and veterans records, wills, mortuary or naturalization records, published genealogies, Social Security Death Indexes, or obituaries.

bullet Birth Certificates

In 1893 a law was passed requiring births to be reported. The Clerk of the Orphan's Court in each county was charged with maintaining the birth records. In Washington County, these original records can be found at the Washington County courthouse. To obtain copies, address your correspondence to the County Clerk. The original records were also microfilmed by the LDS church and the films may be rented through the LDS Family History Centers.

On 1 January 1906, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania started registering births. Births were to be reported to the county, and county officials were to report them to the state. While the law took effect in 1906, 90% registration compliance was not obtained until 1915. For births from 1906 on, you can get information on how to obtain certificates from United States Vital Records

bullet Bible Records

Bible records are considered a valuable, credible genealogical resource. There are two reasons for this. First, the records are usually recorded at the time of the event. That means that the accuracy of the recording, whether it is a date or name or a place, is not faded by memory. Second, the person doing the recording is usually someone to whom the event is important and therefore is more apt to be accurate, as in the case of a mother recording the birth or death of her child.

The information kept in bible records varies according to the custom of the family keeping them, but often includes birth, death, and marriage dates.

Most bible records are found in the hands of the families to whom they belong, so you should always check within your family for bibles. Also, many bible records have been submitted to local libraries and many have been published by local genealogical societies

bullet Census Records

Starting in 1850, the Federal Census recorded the name and gender of each family member, as well as the year and place (state or country) of their birth. Starting in 1880, the birthplace of each individual's parents was recorded. For more information on where to find microfilm and indexes of the Federal Census, click here.

From 1850 to the present, the marital status of each person enumerated is given. This helps to narrow down dates of marriage. Beginning in 1900, the census notes, for the present marriage, the number of years married.

Note that the information in census records, including spellings of names, often fails to match the same sort of information obtained from other sources. This may be because the later information is erroneous or because the census information is.

For instance, your great grandfather's death may be recorded in the census as 1872, but on his headstone it may be 1874. If it was his mother or father who reported the date to the census taker, then the 1872 date is probably more accurate since the date on the headstone may be derived from what a grandchild thought was his birth date at the time the stone was carved. You must be the ultimate judge and you must use all the evidence at your disposal to make an intelligent decision. 

bullet Church Registers

Church records are an excellent resource for determining dates of birth, death and marriage. Dates of birth can be estimated based on dates of baptism, and death dates can be estimated from burial records.

Early church records, if they survived through through the ages, are generally found at the local church or at the denominational archives. Frequently, photocopies, transcriptions or microfilms of these records may be available at local or regional libraries. And, as with vital records, many original church records have been microfilmed by the LDS church and the films may be rented through the LDS Family History Centers

bullet Naturalization Records

Naturalization records frequently contain the petitioner's exact date of birth, sometimes just the year, but at least their age. An immigrant could apply for naturalization at any state supreme, superior, district, or circuit court, or at any federal circuit or district court. For more information, see the immigration and naturalization page

bullet Military and Veteran Records

Among the many military and veteran records that may yield vital statistic information, are:
  • Pension records which may include, among other things, age, birth and death information, name of wife and marriage information, names and ages of children.
  • Bounty land records which may include similar information as found in pension records.
  • County veteran's grave registers starting in 1775 and continuing to the present, available in a card file at the Pennsylvania State Archives.
Some resources for military records may be found on the worldwide web. Don't forget to also check the National Archives genealogy page.

Marriage Records

Marriage records are important to genealogists because marriage is what connects two families. We rely upon marriage records to tell us the date of a marriage, but often the crucial bit of information is name of the spouse.

In addition to marriage records kept with the county, marriage dates and/or spouse's names can be obtained from grave headstone inscriptions, bible records, church registers, census, military and veterans records, wills, mortuary or naturalization records, published genealogies, or obituaries.

Marriage records are not a matter of vital statistics which covers births and deaths. Therefore you cannot obtain copies of marriage certificates from the state.

bullet Marriage Certificates

The Clerk of the Orphans' Court in Washington County was required to keep marriage records beginning 1 October 1885. You should always write to the county, not the state, for marriage certificates. There are two types of marriage records: applications for marriage licenses and returned marriage licenses. Be aware a small minority of people who apply for marriage licenses do not actually get married, so you should always look for the returned license.

Applications contain the name of the bride and groom, their parents' names, and their age. They sometimes contain other information depending on what part of the century the marriage took place.

Death Records

For the period 1682-1893, virtually no official state or county records of death were kept. For deaths before 1893, you should look at grave headstone inscriptions, bible records, census mortality schedules, military records, mortuary records or naturalization records, published genealogies, or obituaries.

Note that for the period before 1893, some cities did register deaths, and among those close to Washington County are Pittsburgh and Allegheny City. Pittsburgh has death records for 1870-1905 and Allegheny City kept records 1882-1905. Microfilm of the Pittsburgh records are housed at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Both records groups are housed at the Pittsburgh Health Dept.

bullet Death Certificates

In 1893, Pennsylvania passed a law requiring the registration of deaths. Deaths were reported to the Clerk of the Orphans Court in each county. The original records were also microfilmed by the LDS church and the films may be rented through the LDS Family History Centers.

On 1 January 1906, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania started registering deaths. Deaths were to be reported to the county, and county officials reported them to the state. While the law took effect in 1906, 90% registration compliance was not obtained until 1915.

For deaths prior to 1906, write to the County Clerk at the Washington County courthouse. Provide either the name of the deceased and an approximate year of death. The information recorded may be incomplete. For deaths from 1906 on, you can get information on how to obtain certificates from United States Vital Records.

Modern death certificates contain:

  • Name and last residence of the deceased.
  • Date, place, and cause of death.
  • Marital status and spouse's name.
  • Parents names, including mother's maiden name.
  • Burial place and funeral director.
  • Informant - the person, most often a spouse or family member, who provided the personal information.
Be aware that the much of the information on a death certificate is given by a third party, usually the spouse or a child who may not know it accurately to begin with. And the information is reported long after the event, as with the birth date.

bullet Grave Headstones

If you know the location where your ancestor died, try to locate the cemetery where they were buried. Once located, there are several ways to get the date of death:
  • Visit the cemetery, or have someone do so for you, and try to locate a grave marker for your ancestor. Most often, the date of death is noted on the stone.
  • Write to the cemetery, if it is still maintained, and request they search their records for your ancestor. Often the records will contain the name of the funeral home that had been used and the names of other family members in the same lot.
  • Check the local libraries to see if a census of the cemetery had been made at any time in the past. Very frequently the local genealogical society has launched a project in to record information from stones in older cemeteries.
Other good information on headstones often includes birth dates and maiden names. In Washington County, among the Presbyterians, it is common for a married woman's maiden name to be on her headstone.

Finally, keep in mind that in older cemeteries, the stones may be broken or worn away from weather. 

bullet Wills and Intestate Records

Obviously, wills and the many records generated during disposition of an estate, often point to a date of death. But you will also find key information within wills such as family relationships, birth order, which children are minors at the time, and the married names of daughters.

Wills are filed with the County Orphans' Court. Washington County started recording wills in the late 1700's and the local genealogical society published three volumes of indexes to early wills. The indexes include the names of the executors, witnesses, and beneficiaries. Many large libraries with genealogical collections have copies of these indexes, and they are available at Citizens Library.

If you resort to collecting original records from the County Court, there are some key concepts you must understand. When a person dies leaving an estate, the county government is responsible for seeing that it is distributed according to law. How that is done depends on whether or not the deceased left a will.

If the deceased leaves a will, it must be filed with the county Register of Wills and must subsequently be authenticated to the Orphans' Court. This process is called probate. The executor named in the will is charged with carrying out the distribution of the estate under the supervision of the Orphans' Court and the Register of Wills.

If, on the other hand, the deceased dies without leaving a will, then he or she has died intestate, and the government must appoint an administrator to distribute the estate according the law. In either case, several types of records are generated through the court and may be of interest to the genealogist. 

bullet Obituaries

Obituaries are good places to find vital statistic information and to uncover family relationships. Modern day obituaries are usually submitted to local newspapers, or newspapers covering the general area where a person spent a significant part of their life, by the funeral director handling the funeral and burial. The information is collected by them from the family member arranging the funeral.

Of course, the key information in an obituary are the name of the deceased, their death date and place, often their spouse's name, frequently their birth date and place, and commonly their place of burial.

A second bit of key data obtained from obituaries is the place of residence of surviving family members, and, in the case of women, their married names. Third, you can find the name of the cemetery a person is buried in from his or her obituary. This can often lead to the discovery of unknown family members who were buried in the same lot.

Because much of the information in obituaries is reported second-hand, you should always try corroborate it with other sources.

See our Observer-Reporter Obituary Archive or the GenConnect Obits for Washington Co. 

bullet Social Security Death Indexes

The Social Security death index can be used to determine a month/year of death and a probable location. The indexes have very few entries for anyone who died before the [1980's???]. They are available on CD-ROM for use at the LDS Family History Centers and they are also available for searching on-line at

These indexes contain the following:

  • The name of the person as it appears in the Social Security records. This is the name they gave when applying for their social security card and often corresponds to the name as it appeared on their birth certificate which was frequently used in obtaining a card. Note that most women have the name on their Social Security records changed when they marry.
  • The individual's Social Security number.
  • The date of birth as it appeared on the documents used when registering for Social Security.
  • City, county, and state (there can be several entries) to which Social Security benefits were mailed. This location frequently corresponds to the last residence. However, in many cases it corresponds to the address of the relative to which a final death benefit was mailed.
  • The date of death. This is most often the date as appeared on the death certificate of the person in question.
Once you have located an entry for which you'd like more information, you can write to the Social Security Administration for more info. Be aware that SSA did not begin keeping records until November 1936, therefore they have no records for people who died before then. 

bullet Mortuary Records

Funeral home and mortuary records often contain at least the date of burial, but often the date of death, age at death, and family relationships. These records are kept at the funeral home, and frequently pass to the descendants when a funeral home ceases business. If the business is sold to another owner, the records are frequently passed on to the new owners. Click here for a list of Washington County funeral homes. Don't forget that obituaries frequently mention the name of the funeral home handling the burial.