Thursday, June 2, 2011

I See Leaves of Green…

This week, I’m going to talk to you about church and civil records. They can be the most important resources in the genealogist’s arsenal simply because they are most often recorded when the event in question occurs and are therefore more likely to be accurate.

Church and civil records contain officially documentation of births/baptisms, marriages and deaths/burials. Church records vary in detail, with older records generally being the most scant. The more modern the record, the more detailed the information. For instance, you shouldn’t expect to find birth and death dates in baptismal and burial records from more than 200 years ago. You will, however, have better luck finding such details as parents’ names (in all record types) and cause of death (in burial records).

Marriage records from top portion of church register
Civil records tend to be more detailed overall and, under proper archival management, will be indexed by surname for greater ease of searching. Church records, by contrast, usually have to be searched by date. There are exceptions, of course, such as Prince Edward Island Public Archives and Records Office in Charlottetown, Canada. Their indexing system covers the bulk of their collection and is a boon to genealogists.

Detailed civil marriage record
Regardless of the extent of the indexing, government-run archives have the most comprehensive collections of church and civil records, although there will be exceptions here, too. In Nova Scotia, for instance, many individual Catholic churches do not participate in the microfilming and archiving process, preferring to keep their original registers out of public hands. Church officials will, at their discretion, look up specific records, but you will not be permitted to browse the registers--an option that might otherwise uncover previously unknown information.

It’s also worth noting that not all church records are created equal. In the Baptist Church, for instance, actual baptisms occur when an individual so chooses, rather than in infancy. Adult baptism may or may not include an accurate birth date.

Civil records are especially good as an alternative resource when no church record exists or to serve as confirmation when one does. Unfortunately, they also sometimes contradict church records. When in doubt, remember that the most reliable record is generally the one closest to the event. Compare the baptismal date in the church record with the registration date in the civil record and use your best judgment.

Regardless of where you live, your nearest archives should be able to provide a detailed account of their holdings, including record types and dates covered by each. Finding a listing might be as simple as visiting the archive’s website. If that doesn’t work, phone them or send them a letter requesting an information package. Odds are, they’ll be more than happy to help.

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