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Finding Birth Dates for Foreign-Born Relatives
By Libby Feil
Finding birth dates for relatives born outside of the United States can be a tricky business. You might immediately think you'll have to travel to your ancestors' birth country, or write to an archive there to get a record. Although that may be a possibility (or may not, depending on the time period in question and the state of the country's recordkeeping system), there are some easier strategies to try first--right here at home!
The first question to ask is whether your relative died in America. If not, did they die in Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, or Wales? Then try looking in Ancestry, because Ancestry has a lot of records from those countries. If your relative died in any other foreign country, try the nearest LDS Family History Center. Here in St. Joseph County the closest one is in Mishawaka. The Mormon Family History Centers have access to microfilms of vital records from all over the world, and you do not have to be Mormon to use them.
If the person you are looking for did die here, then you have several alternatives. The easiest situation is if you know what American state and county your relative died in. In this case, you can try to obtain a death certificate and obituary. "Wait," you may say, "I'm interested in when this person was born, not when they died." But almost all death certificates, and many obituaries, will give the person's birth date or at least an age.
If your relative died here in St. Joseph County, then you can look for the date of your relative's obituary in our Obituary Index (deaths since 1913) or in our set of Eisen's Vital Statistics Index to St. Joseph County, Indiana, Newspapers, 1831-1912. The Library has local newspapers on microfilm, so you can come in and find the obituary once you have the date it was published. To obtain a death certificate, you can simply go to the St. Joseph County Health Department on the 8th floor of the City-County Building at the corner of Lafayette and Jefferson in downtown South Bend.
If your relative died in another county in Indiana, you can most likely still get an obituary and a death certificate. To get an obituary, just find which Indiana public library serves the county your relative died in, and then contact that library to find out if they have an obituary index to their local newspaper. If they don't, you still have the option to get a death certificate. You can order a copy from the State Department of Health or directly from the county health department.
If your ancestor died in another state, find that county's library and contact it to find out about obituaries. To order a death certificate, find out what the procedures are for the state you are interested in.
What if you get the obituary and it doesn't give a birth date or even an age? What if you can't find a death certificate? What if you aren't even sure where your relative died? If the relative died after about 1965, and had worked in the United States for long enough to qualify for Social Security, you can try searching the Social Security Death Index. Another good place to look is Ancestry. Ancestry contains many vital records databases from around the country for a variety of time periods.
Another option is to find your relative in the census. Both Ancestry, which you must use in a Library branch, and HeritageQuest, which you can use from home with a valid SJCPL library card, have all the United States censuses. The census will at least give you an approximate year of birth, though not an actual date. The censuses from 1850 to 1930, with one exception, give a person's age at the time of the census. The 1900 census, though, does give an actual month and year of birth--if the person was alive and in the U.S. at that time. If you can't find a person in the census in one year, try other years. And don't forget to be creative, trying different spellings of first and last names, nicknames, and initials.
If you just can't find your relative in the census, try whatever else you can think of that might give a birth date. If your ancestors were married in St. Joseph County between 1905 and 1920, the microfilmed marriage license applications often include a birthdate. If your relative lived in this county, try SBAGS' St. Joseph County, Indiana, Cemetery Inscriptions (headstones often include a birth year), Eisen's Biographical Index to St. Joseph County, Indiana, Histories (biographies often include a birth date), or the microfilmed Catholic Church Records of the Ft. Wayne/South Bend Diocese of Indiana (burial records included ages of decedents).
Hopefully, one of these things will work for you. And of course, you can always come in to Local & Family History Services and ask for help!
Contact and find out more about Local & Family History Services
Created by: Libby Feil, October 2006
Last updated by June 7, 2011