Birth and death records are an important part of genealogical research but Missouri did not keep vital records for much of its early history. To document an ancestor’s life and death, family historians can often get around the lack of official records through creative use of alternate sources such as newspapers, census records, probate records, and cemetery transcriptions.
Compulsory registration of births and deaths in each county was first required July 1, 1883, but was repealed in 1893 due to non-compliance. The Missouri birth and death records that were created, during this period and since, have been microfilmed and are available at the Missouri State Archives. The records can also be accessed online. The Vital Records division within Missouri's Department of Health & Senior Services has been recording births and deaths since 1910.
Missouri State Archives
The cities of St. Louis and Kansas City kept records of births and deaths before the 1883 law was enacted. In St. Louis, by ordinance, deaths were registered from 1850 through 1910 and births from 1863 through 1910. Roughly 60 percent of births and deaths occurring within St. Louis were recorded during this time frame. Copies of these records are available at the Missouri State Archives.
A non-compulsory birth registration law adopted in 1863 provided that county Recorders of Deeds could record births upon request. These births were recorded in the regular deed books and not indexed. This law is still in effect and is the only way a birth outside the state of Missouri can be recorded in this state.
Although County Clerks were generally responsible for keeping birth and death records from 1883-93, in some counties the Recorder of Deeds performed this task. In these counties, birth records are intermingled with land records in deed books.
Compliance with the birth and death registration law during 1883-93 was poor in many places. Some counties have birth and death records for only a fraction of the time that the law was in effect. Other counties have records which extend up to or past the date of repeal. A very few counties have records dating before 1883.
In most cases birth records provide each parent’s name, age, and place of birth. Death certificates made in 1910, and after, include blanks for the same information. A death record from 1883-93 does not have the name of the spouse or parents, but does give the date of death, cause of death, and place of burial.
Birth notices seldom appear in newspapers prior to 1900 and when the papers began printing these announcements they most often took a form such as: “Born, to Mr. and Mrs. Thornton Smith, a girl.” The child's name was seldom given.
Though death notices occasionally consist of only one sentence, longer obituaries can give birth and death dates of the deceased, occupation, residence, place of burial, names of surviving family members, mention of family members who preceded him or her in death, and more. To search for obituaries, the patron needs to know the date and place of death as no comprehensive Missouri newspaper index exists. If the exact date of death is not known, indexed cemetery inscription lists and newspaper indexes can be helpful. Be sure to look at the Newspaper Indexes for more information on the Society’s indexes.
The Society has federal census records for Missouri, 1830-1880, and 1900-1920. Some of the records are indexed. Also, the SHSMO has census records for some additional states. All census records are available at several branches of the National Archives located around the country or at the main National Archives facility in Washington, D.C. Census records do not give exact birth dates, but starting in 1850, the age of each person is given, together with the state or country of his birth. Beginning with the 1900 census, the month and year of birth are given. Genealogists may also view census records by accessing the paid subscription service Ancestry.com for free on computers at the Society’s Columbia Research Center.
Headstones usually give the year of birth and death or the full birth and death dates which may assist genealogists in locating newspaper obituaries. The Society has a large collection of indexed cemetery inscriptions from all over the state but not all Missouri burials will be found in the transcriptions. Small family plots in remote places such as farmers’ fields are easily missed even by the most dedicated cemetery book compilers. Of the cemeteries that were surveyed, some included headstones that could no longer be read as they had disintegrated into rubble. Also, individuals often chose to mark their graves in unconventional ways or financial hardships necessitated such practices. We have one account of an old woman whose grave was marked by her cast iron kettle. Nevertheless, most Society patrons can make progress by using our cemetery inscription book collection.
Wills, estate settlements, and guardianship records can be helpful in establishing family relationships as well as determining approximate birth and death dates. The Society has indexes to early wills of some counties that were transcribed by genealogists, but does not have probate court records. Copies of original probate documents must be obtained from the Clerk of Probate Court where the will was filed, or from the Missouri State Archives.
The SHSMO does not have a strong collection of hospital or physician's records, undertaker records, baptismal or church records, records of fraternal organizations, school records, 20th century military records, family Bible records, employment records, or applications for insurance policies, but all of these materials can be helpful to the genealogist. Dates of birth and death can sometimes be found in biographies from county histories or in compiled family genealogies, some of which are in the Society’s collection.