Baptismal Records – Helping to Scale Your Brick Walls
By: Carolyn L. Barkley
Have you ever looked at an online family tree only to find that the birth dates of the children in the family seem to make no sense? This situation may be caused by someone entering baptismal dates instead of birth dates (in much the same way that a marriage bond date is often confused with the date of an actual marriage). Baptismal records, however, can provide important documentation for an individual and his family, such as the name of the individual and his or her date of birth, parents’ names, and place of baptism. As such, they often assist us as we try to scale a brick wall in our research.
To locate a baptismal record, it is important to establish an approximate place of birth (approximate, as the place of birth and place of baptism may not necessarily be identical). Once the place of birth is known, it will be helpful to determine what form of religion might have been practiced by the family, although, as we shall see, this religious affiliation is not always an indicator of the type of church in which the baptism took place. Thus, it is important to understand the baptismal practices (or lack thereof) of various religions, something about the church history in the geographical area of interest, and various other factors which might have influenced a possible baptism in a specific time and place.
Consider the following illustration: Several years ago I attended a problem-solving course as part of the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG). My problem for that session was to identify the parents of Frederick Dodd (1813-1871) in New Haven, Connecticut, as well as to locate any information about his siblings that would provide context to his early life. I knew from earlier research that Frederick was baptized as an adult in the First Baptist Church in New Haven, but no records in that church provided any information about his childhood. I had developed a detailed spreadsheet listing the names of possible fathers assembled from census and probate records, but it wasn’t leading to any breakthroughs, and I was at a standstill. After I shared my frustration during a class discussion early in the week, Gordon Remington, one of the advisors for the group, commented that Frederick’s adult baptism did not necessarily indicate a life-long membership in the Baptist church. “Could Frederick,” he asked, “have been brought up in a church that was other than Baptist?” I had not considered this possibility previously, and returned to the Family History Library after class to see what I could find. It was, perhaps, serendipity that Trinity Church (Episcopal) in New Haven was one of the few churches whose microfilmed records covered the correct time frame. (Note that these records were found under a place-name search for “Connecticut, New Haven, New Haven;” a search under “Connecticut, New Haven,” does not include church records as a heading.) In any case, my search was unsuccessful in identifying a baptism in 1813. I continued reading through the records of later years and found not only Frederick’s baptismal record, but that of his older brother and his two sisters, all of them baptized on the same day, shortly after the birth of the youngest child (1816). In addition, the record listed the name of their mother (Nancy) and their father (Thomas Dodd). This new information led me to a marriage notice for Thomas Dodd and Nancy Hitchcock in the Episcopal Church in Oxford, Connecticut, and later, additional information on the Hitchcock family in the Oxford and Waterbury areas.
The identification of the correct church is not always so simple. Another example is that of my paternal grandmother, Palmira (Ferreira) Lopes, born in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1889. There is no doubt, in this instance, that she was a Catholic. However, my only information about her in Lisbon is a 1922 address for her father (Jose Ferreira) included on a passenger arrival record during a visit she made back to Portugal that year accompanied by my father (aged one) and his older sister (aged ten or eleven). After a very helpful discussion with a missionary on the international floor at the Family History Library earlier this month, my job is now to use Google Earth in order to plot all of the Catholic churches in the vicinity of this known street address, noting how long it would take to walk to each church, and then use the information to narrow down the list of possible churches the family might have attended. My next step might be to write for further documentation. This strategy is fraught with issues which will require further research because (1) I don’t know how long the family lived at this address and, (2) While I do know my great-grandmother’s first name (thanks to my grandmother’s Social Security Application), I do not know the names of any other family members. I have my work cut out for me on the path to acquiring a copy of a baptismal record for my grandmother, my aunt, and possibly other members of their family.
John T. Humphrey’s Understanding and Using Baptismal Records (Humphrey Publications, 1996) provides excellent guidance in the use of this type of record. While it focuses on baptismal records in Pennsylvania, much of the information is applicable in other geographical areas as well. Humphrey’s clear discussion of the history of baptismal records; the issues involved in researching them; specific practices among such groups as the Anabaptists, Baptists, the Religious Society of Friends; evaluation of evidence found in the records; and the use of baptismal registers is essential reading.
Another useful source can be found on the Ancestors site, which outlines some of the additional information that can be found in baptismal records (including parents’ residence; legitimacy; marginal notes concerning marriage or emigration information; notes about the child’s death; and very occasionally, the names of grandparents).
Once you have acquired some background information on baptismal records in general, as well as baptismal practices for specific religions, the Family History Library provides a good starting point to identify church records for a specific time and place that are available on microform or as digitized records. A Google™ search for a specific church may identify a printed history of the church or an abstracted compilation of its records, or may provide useful contact information for further research. A card catalog search for “baptism” at Ancestry.com provides access to numerous vital record databases, some of which contain baptismal records. One such is London, England, Births and Baptisms, 1813-1906, boasting of data extracted from 10,000 Church of England parish registers. Searching for Barclays in this database, I found 644 entries including one for a David Barclay, the son of David and Eliza Barclay, who was baptized on 17 January 1813 in the parish of Queen Square St. George the Martyr, in the borough of Camden. Another British Isles site is found at Find My Past (search for free; pay to view) where a search in the Life Events Record category’sParish Baptisms, 1538-2005 database identified 375 Barclays. Cyndi’s List includes links to baptismal information under the category “Births and Baptisms,” such as Baptisms at Niagara, 1792-1832 [Ontario] and Baptisms in Pictou County [Nova Scotia].
Genealogical.com offers several titles containing baptismal information including:
Early Lutheran Baptisms and Marriages in Southeastern Pennsylvania (1896, Clearfield, reprinted 2008).
Pennsylvania German Church Records (1983, reprinted 2009).
Boston Births, Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths, 1630-1699 and Boston Births, 1700-1800, by William S. Appleton (1883, 1894, Clearfield, reprinted 2005).
Barbados Baptisms, 1637-1800, by Joanne McRee Sanders (Clearfield, 1984).
St. Louis Catholic Parish, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin: Repertoire of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1850-1920, updated edition, by Kateri Dupuis, et. al. (Clearfield, 2011).
Baptisms and Burials from the Records of Christ Church, Philadelphia, 1709-1760, by Charles R. Hildeburn (1877-1883, Clearfield, reprinted 2007).
Baptismal records can help you scale that brick wall in your research. In conjunction with birth records and other vital records, they can place individuals in the context of their religious beliefs. As such, they are an essential element in our vital and religious records research. And remember – when entering baptismal information into your ancestral tree software, be sure to identify it clearly as baptismal information!