Friday, November 20, 2015

Darned Federal Birth Certificates

We depend upon records to reveal the “truth” about the past. Yet sometimes records have anomalies. Some are amusing or humorous. Some are interesting or weird. Some are peculiar or suspicious. Some are infuriating, or downright laughable.

Records are the darnedest things!

Notification of Birth Registration for David Hankins McCauley

Some time ago I came across an interesting blog post by Linda McCauley: “Did the U. S. Federal Government Register Births?” Linda has in her possession an official certificate from the Bureau of the Census (shown above) that documents the birth of her father. It gives his name, the date and place of birth, and it names his parents. It is signed by official authorities.

How do you feel about using this source as evidence for this birth?

  • Source (original or derivative): Is this an original, government document?
  • Information (primary or secondary): Did the informants have primary (first hand) information?
  • Evidence (direct or indirect): Does it provide direct evidence concerning the birth?

The more we learn and understand the records we use, the better our conclusions will be. As part of her evaluation, Linda took the time to understand this source. What is this darned record? Why was it created? Who created it? Where was it created? When was it created? How did they get their information?

With a little poking, Linda learned about notifications of birth registration. According to the Census Bureau:

The “Notification of Birth Registration” form, issued by the U.S. Census Bureau during the first half of the twentieth century, is not a birth certificate. The U.S. Census Bureau designed this form in 1924, at the request of various state vital statistics offices, to promote the accurate registration of births in the United States. The notification was completed and sent to parents of newborns when the state office of vital records received information on the birth and made up a birth registration record. If parents found errors in the information shown on the form, they were asked to correct them and return the form so the state’s record could be corrected accordingly. The notification was used until the late 1940s and then discontinued once states were keeping satisfactory birth records. The U.S. Census Bureau does not maintain these records.1

Now, how do you feel about using this source as evidence?

Linda pursued acquisition of the original from the state. However, instead of a facsimile of the original, the state sent her a so-called “short form” abstract.

Now, how would you feel about using this source as evidence? How would you compare the strength of these two sources? Are the two independent? Is there any advantage to having both? What can be learned by comparing the two?

Yes, records are the darnedest things!



     1.  “Open Government and FOIA: Birth Records,” United States Census Bureau ( : accessed 14 November 2015), search for “Birth Records.”
     Image credit: Linda McCauley, “Did the U. S. Federal Government Register Births?” Documenting the Details, 27 April 2011 ( : accessed 14 November 2015), digital image of Bureau of the Census, “Notification of Birth Registration,” David Hankins McCauley, 1926, privately held by Linda McCauley, 2011.

Thank you, Linda, for your permission to share your record.

1 comment:

  1. It is another breadcrumb along the path. Does it agree with the birth certificate?


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