When building your family tree it is common to rely heavily on official vital records, such as government certificates for marriages, births, and deaths. However, prior to the 20th century, registration of such events was rarely mandatory on a state level and was only haphazardly enforced from one county to the next. As a result, if you are searching for relatives whose birth, death, and/or marriage may not have been officially registered, then you are going to have to get a little creative in how you conduct your inquiries. In such instances, you will need to rely on substitute records, which can provide the information you are looking for when official records don't exist.
The federal census provides a wealth of information when vital records may be otherwise missing. Census data from the federal census includes information such as the state and county where each person of a household was born, their year and month of birth, their marital status (including if it is a first or second marriage), and how long they have been married for. Additionally, some states also conducted their own censuses between federal censuses, and these state censuses may provide even more detailed information, including specific towns or cities where individuals were born.
Churches often acted as the vital records keepers for counties across the country prior to government registration. Births, baptisms, deaths, and marriages can all be found in church records, some of which have been digitized. Many records, however, remain in archives in churches scattered across the country. Contacting a representative of a particular church will reveal whether that church has the records you are after.
The National Archives, as well as its local branches and libraries across the country, keeps detailed service records for Americans who have enlisted in wars dating right back to colonial times and up to the Spanish-American War. Service records for wars that occurred after the Spanish-American War are kept by the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. While the ones held by the National Personnel Records Center are protected by a number of privacy regulations, you can search the records held by the National Archives. Those records will often include information such as the state where the person enlisted and his age at the time of enlistment.
If you are looking for a particular tombstone, which will reveal the birth and death dates of a particular ancestor, then you no longer have to pace endlessly through cemeteries looking for one particular grave. The internet has led to the founding of a number of databases where the inscriptions of graves from all over the world are being made freely available online thanks to volunteers. The most famous database is FindaGrave.com, which allows you to look up graves by name and location. Some entries even include photographs of the individual grave.
If you are looking to fill out your family tree then relying on government vital records is not going to be enough. Substitute records, including but not limited to the ones mentioned above, can provide an excellent way of ensuring you uncover as much knowledge as possible in your search for your lost relatives.