Cliff Lamere Jan 2004
revised 22 Jun 2004
SOURCES OF REGULAR BIRTH CERTIFICATES
There are two sources of regular birth certificates in New York. They can be obtained from the New York State Department of Health, Vital Records section, or they can be obtained from the local municipality which collected the information and sent it to the state. The local office will have as much information about a birth as the state office, and sometimes they have more. The Health Dept. will send you a photocopy of the original certificate. The local agency may send you a transcription of the original, which I think is a disadvantage. Although it may be easier to read, I would rather make up my own mind as to what the original spellings of names were. [Original marriage certificates almost always have the signatures of the bride and groom. Death certificates sometimes have the signature of the informant. I have seen few birth certificates, so I don't know if any relatives signs them. I tend to think not.]
The NYS Dept. of Health has supplied microfiche indexes of births, marriages and deaths to the NYS Archives in Albany, to libraries in Syracuse and Rochester, and to the National Archives in New York City. Besides the name and place of birth, they at least tell the locality in which the birth occurred and the state certificate number. The place of birth can be very helpful if you should decide to get the certificate at the local level.
YEARS AVAILABLE FOR USE IN GENEALOGY
Vital records are available beginning in 1880 for death records, and in 1881 for birth and marriage records. New York hides birth records for 75 years. Marriages and deaths are kept private for 50 years. At the beginning of each year, new sets of microfiches become available for viewing at the locations mentioned above.
New York City, Albany, Buffalo and Yonkers all had their own collection system set up before the state required it in 1880-81. NYC never submitted their vital records to the state. You must order them directly from NYC. Albany, Buffalo and Yonkers were not required to submit their vital records until 1914, so earlier vital records can only be obtained from the particular city.
COST OF BIRTH CERTIFICATES
As of August 2003, the price per certificate rose from $11 to $22. As a result of 9-11's effect on the economy of this state and a budget deficit of many billions of dollars, the fees for everything rose significantly. The state sets the price, and the local municipalities are required to follow, so there is no bargain to be found anywhere.
In general, however, there is a price advantage at the local level. Although the state charges its fee even for a search that finds no certificate, often that is not done by the local offices, especially in smaller communities. In one case, I walked into a local office and asked if they had the certificates of seven people born in that location. They had none of them and didn't charge to tell me that they didn't have them.
HOW LONG DO YOU HAVE TO WAIT TO RECEIVE A CERTIFICATE?
Currently, the waiting time is about 6-8 months if ordered by mail from the NYS Dept. of Health, and about 1-3 weeks if ordered from the locality in which the birth (or marriage or death) occurred.
WAS EVERYBODY'S BIRTH RECORDED?
Absolutely not. For a long time, birth by midwife was more common than birth by doctor. "In 1900 half of all Americans were born into the hands of a midwife. at home." Not all midwives reported the births. Another problem is that a lot of doctors also did not report the births. A 1909 Syracuse, NY newspaper complained, "At present, we have pretty hard work to get the birth certificates filed at all." Many doctors in the city rarely reported births. (Read the transcribed article .) Deaths were also not being sufficiently reported.
A separate problem is that when the birth was reported by the doctor, all too often no name was listed for the child (perhaps it had not yet been selected by the parents). For the surname that I study, I have a record of all 1881-1892 births contained in the NYS Archive's birth index on microfiche. Of the 73 births, 36 were recorded with a name, 36 had only the sex of the child, and 1 was blank in the name category.
So, when the birth was actually recorded during that time period and then reported to the state, the child was named only about 50% of the time. Since many doctors were not reporting births and since midwives did not all report their deliveries either, this means that you may have only about a 1-in-3 or 1-in-4 chance of getting a birth certificate from the state when you send for one that is pre-1900. Your chances should improve considerably if you know the date and/or place of birth, because it is reasonable that the Dept. of Health would look up a surname and then send you the correct certificate even though the child's given name was unlisted. If the spelling of the surname is too far off, however, they may not find the record (if a surname began with Sa-, but was transcribed from the handwritten record as So-, it might not be found). Local records would show very few entries for S in a given year. They can find things easier even if misspelled. A birth certificate from the state will too often not have the name of the child, but the parents should be listed. A local certificate is more likely to contain the child's name as well, because it may have been submitted to the local office after the information had been submitted to the state.
Beside many doctors not reporting births, midwives were still very common in 1909. Midwives remained common even in 1920 and later,
although the reporting by doctors may have improved by then. You may want to take some of this into consideration when deciding whether or not to spend $22 for a birth certificate.
If you want a birth certificate with your relative's name shown, I would suggest that you try to get it from a local office. Although it is just conjecture, local municipalities may have added the child's name to their records after the information was sent to the state (as previously mentioned). The data must be sent to the state in a timely fashion, but the local office may not have learned the child's name early enough to include it. The reason that I suggest this is that even though I haven't seen many local records, the ones that I have viewed didn't seem to be missing the names of any children. If I am correct, it may be to your benefit to try to get the birth certificates from the local municipality rather than the state. When you ask for the birth certificate of a certain person, at least they will find the name if the person was born there.
The state receives all of its vital record information from the localities. Therefore, it would seem that the localities would always have as much information as the state (at least at the time the data was submitted to the state), and in the case of births I believe they may have more.
Throughout this webpage, I have included facts that will help you make a decision as to where you should order the NY birth certificate you are looking for. My sincere recommendation is to always apply to the local office for a regular birth certificate. They are monumentally faster, they may not charge for a failed search, and they are more likely to have the person's given name on the certificate. Of course, if you don't know the place of birth, you don't have that choice. As long as you know the year of birth within one year, you still have a good chance of receiving the certificate from the state if the birth was ever reported.
For marriage and death certificates, I prefer to apply to the NYS Dept. of Health where I will get an original handwritten copy. If a local office will give you a photocopy of a handwritten certificate, I would try to get them locally to save time.
HIRE A RESEARCHER WHO WORKS AT THE NYS ARCHIVES?
I have compiled a list of genealogists who work for a fee in the Albany area, and the facilities at which each does his/her research. Those who work at the NYS Archives can search the state's birth index on microfiche and order the certificate for you immediately from that office. These applications are hand carried to the NYS Dept. of Health's Vital Records section where they receive a different treatment. The certificates ordered at the NYS Archives will be received by you in 2-3 weeks.
DELAYED BIRTH CERTIFICATES
Because so many births were never recorded, as the entry of our country into World War II approached, many people had no birth certificate. The government required men to prove their birth. I imagine that this was so that aliens were not admitted into the military or allowed to hold sensitive jobs. Women entered the WAACS and WAVES (military) and held jobs in munitions factories, etc. so they no doubt had to prove their birth as well. There were a great many delayed birth certificates issued 1940-1942.
The assistant to the director of Vital Records at the New York State Department of Health told me in mid-2003 that delayed birth certificates are on a separate microfilm. Each time a birth certificate cannot be found in the regular records (on the microfiche mentioned above), the worker will then search the delayed certificate microfilm. If the birth is found in neither location, then the office will report that they have no birth certificate for the person (and keep your money). Because of stories that I had heard, I decided to test what I was told. I applied for a birth certificate for a relative whose delayed birth certificate I already had. I was told that none existed and I thought that they kept my money.
In January 2004, I reported this to the assistant mentioned above. He told me that because of the law hiding birth records for 75 years in this state, they were unable to send me the delayed certificate which was issued in 1942 even though the person was born around 1910. He said that I should have received my money back in this situation. He was right. I had sent for certificates five times over a period of three months. I received a check from the Comptroller with no explanation about why I got it. There were other cases where no certificate was received and my money was kept, so I could not figure out what the check
was for. Conclusion: The way that it seems to work is that if you get your money back, then a delayed certificate must have been issued. Since they have it but cannot give it to you, they do not charge. For failed searches, they charge the full price.
Technically, the law only allows birth certificates issued 1881-1929 to be sent out for genealogical purposes. However, I can see no privacy reason for a person born in 1890 to have their delayed 1940 birth certificate remain hidden. The lawmakers may not have had delayed certificates on their minds when they worded the law that applies. Or, possibly the state's Vital Records section is misinterpreting the law. It may have just been a general privacy law that didn't specifically mention birth certificates, and maybe Vital Records could be persuaded to change their policy.
Delayed birth certificates were issued by the state, so no local office would have a copy of any of them.