Statewide Civil Vital Records in the United States

by Elizabeth L. Nichols

Every genealogist knows of the frustration that arises from searching for a birth or death record in an area and for a time period in which such events were recorded, but not finding the desired record. There are some surprising statistics to help you learn that you're not alone!

A 1979 study showed that there was an average of 21.9 years after laws were enacted requiring state registration of births, before 90 percent or more of the population began to be included in the records. This article reports the findings of that survey. It focuses upon statewide registration of births and deaths. In almost all states, county records were kept of these events before the record keeping became a state function; in the case of New England, registration was on a town basis. In some cases, references have been made to these earlier records and to when registration of marriages began on a state basis. But these facts fall outside the purpose of this article.

In this survey, the bureau of vital statistics in each state, the District of Columbia, and each Canadian province and territory was contacted by phone. Each was asked when its area passed laws requiring registration of births and deaths and when these laws became effective. A summary of the essential facts conveyed in the conversation was mailed to the bureau of vital statistics to be signed and returned for a resource file. The states’ cooperation was excellent. All but three states – or 94.2 percent – returned their written summaries within a month. With a follow-up phone call, the three remaining states returned theirs – making 100 percent written response (see reference 2).

The United State Registration Area includes statistics only for those states registering 90 percent or more of their births and deaths (see reference 3). Therefore, the date each state was admitted into the National Registration Area is the year it began to include 90 percent or more of its population in its civil registration of births and deaths.

The survey also asked for information on any known collections of church or cemetery records. Additional information (from various sources) is included in the state-by-state synopsis that follows the table, which is part of this article, below. Some of these references have been studied further, but most of them have not. The information presented here suggests the great wealth of material being collected, compiled, and made more useable. A lack of information on collections of church or cemetery records does not necessarily indicate that no information exits, but only that the author does not know of any.

The date when the law requiring registration of births and deaths was passed is sometimes subject to question. Often a law was passed without any penalty for noncompliance. Many times the law was not effective until it was amended to include penalties. Pertinent information on these various dates is included in the below synopsis.

The vital records study also indicated that the booklet Where to Write to Birth and Death Records in the United States and Outlying Areas (1976 edition), published by the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, had some errors. For example, this publication indicates that New Mexico began recording civil registration in 1880, but they actually began in 1920. It says that Washington D. C. began keeping death records in 1885, but they state they began in 1854. Michigan is listed as beginning birth registration in 1867. But a closer study indicates that the only form of registration from 1867 to 1897 was “surveyors” who went around once a year and asked about the people who had died or been born. The data was taken as a type of census (see reference 4).

Following is a chart showing the dates when the law for registering births and deaths was passed in each state and when the state reached the 90 percent registration required for entering the National Registration Area (see reference 5). A state-by-state synopsis follows the chart.

 

State

Date Birth & Death Registration Required by Law

 90% Completeness Admitted to U.S. Registration

Birth                          Death

Alabama

1908

1927

1925

Alaska

1960 (1913)

1950

1950

Arizona

1909

1926

1926

Arkansas

1914

1927

1927

California

1905

1919

1906

Colorado

1907

1928

1906

Connecticut

1897

1915

1890

Delaware

1861-63, 1881, 1913

1921

1890

District of Columbia

Births: 1873. Deaths: 1854, except 1861-65

1915

1880

Florida

1899

1924

1919

Georgia

1919

1928

1922

Hawaii

Births: 1847    Deaths: 1841

1929

1917

Idaho

Jul 1911

1926

1922

Illinois

1916

1922

1918

Indiana

Oct 1907

1917

1900

Iowa

1 Jul 1880

1924

1923

Kansas

Jul 1911

1917

1914

Kentucky

1911

1917

1911

Louisiana

1918

1927

1918

Maine

1892

1915

1900

Maryland

1898

1916

1906

Massachusetts

1841

1915

1880

Michigan

Births: 1906    Deaths: 1898

1915

1900

Minnesota

1908

1915

1910

Mississippi

1912

1921

1919

Missouri

1910

1927

1911

Montana

1907

1922

1910

Nebraska

1904

1920

1920

Nevada

1 Jul 1911

1929

1929

New Hampshire

1883

1915

1890

New Jersey

Jul 1878

1921

1980

New Mexico

Jan 1920

1929

1929

New York (except New York City)

1915

1915

1890

North Carolina

1 Oct 1913

1917

1910

North Dakota

1907

1924

1924

Ohio

10 Dec 1908

1917

1909

Oklahoma

1917

1928

1928

Oregon

1903

1919

1918

Pennsylvania

1906

1915

1906

Rhode Island

1896

1915

1890

South Carolina

1915

1919

1916

South Dakota

1920

1932

1906

Tennessee

1914

1927

1917

Texas

1903

1933

1933

Utah

1905

1917

1910

Vermont

1919 (1777)

1915

1890

Virginia

1912

1917

1913

Washington

1907

1917

1908

West Virginia

1925

1925

1925

Wisconsin

1 Oct 1907

1917

1908

Wyoming

1909

1922

1922

[Many states have now posted indexes and images of their vital records online. For a set of links to such collections, and more, see the ProGenealogists's Genealogy SleuthTM.]

Alabama

Early death registration was more complete than birth registration for the same period.

Alaska

Registration of births was so poor prior to World War II that in April 1979 the governor initiated an ongoing campaign to have delayed registration. There were only five hundred births registered in 1913, when they officially (not by law) began to register births, deaths, and marriages. Their present law became effective in 1960; they were admitted to the union in 1959.

Records of small villages were handled by the churches in the early days. Prominent churches were Russian Orthodox, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic. A few of these records have been collected by the State Vital Records Bureau.

Arizona

Arizona was still a territory when the law requiring registration of births, marriages, and deaths was passed in 1909. They do have a few records that go back into the 1800s recorded on the county level. All of these are on file at the state office. Some are originals, while others are abstracts supplied by the counties. There are an additional forty thousand delayed birth records on file.

Arkansas

The State Bureau of Vital Statistics was created in 1914 and began registering births and deaths. They began to register marriages in 1917. Requests for delayed birth certificates indicate that registration was not complete in the earlier years.

California

California has some early vital records that were created by the Spanish mission and are housed at the California State Archives. They include baptisms, marriages, and deaths for the years 1772-1906.

Colorado

There was a law on the books prior to 1907, but it was not effective for birth registration. Death registration apparently was effective however, since Colorado passed its 90 percent death registration in 1906. Generally, death registration began in 1900 and birth registration in 1910.

Marriage records, recorded on a county basis, have been indexed by the state. One index covers the 1800s to 1939 and another one is being created for 1976-78. They have marriage records for 1968-75, but these are not indexed. They do not have marriage records at the state level for 1940-67.

Connecticut

Town records were kept earlier than state registration. The Barbour Index of Vital Records covers the years 1638-1850. It is known to be incomplete and to contain some errors. [The births and marriages were extracted into the International Genealogical Index.]

Relatively few records were kept from 1850 to 1897, but those that do exist are still with the town clerks. There has been no effort to centralize these records. There is a card index created from Protestant church records which were gathered and abstracted in the 1920s and 1930s. This is quite complete for the Congregationalist church but not as complete for other Protestant churches and included very few Catholic records. The Connecticut State Library has a good-sized collection of church records.

The Hale Cemetery Survey, a WPA project of the 1930s, identified 3,400 cemeteries and recorded and indexed the vital information. Births, marriages, and deaths from ninety newspapers published from 1765 to 1860 have been abstracted and indexed. Both of these are part of the Hale Collection.

Delaware

The first law for registering births, marriages, and deaths was passed in 1861. This was not very effective and was repealed after two years. The next law was enacted in 1881 and was effective in registering probably 50 percent of the population.

In 1913 the Bureau of Vital Statistics was created, with the corresponding law effective 1 July 1913. By the 1920s, they estimate that births were 80 percent, deaths 95 percent, and marriages 75 percent registered. Deaths have always been well reported because a burial permit was required and was issued as part of the death certificate. With marriages, the minister must send in the records. He sometimes holds them for a long time, or in some cases, never turns them in.

The original certificates for the 1881-1913 period, which are open to the public, are housed at the state archives. The State Bureau of Vital Statistics has a bound copy of these.

The Delaware State Archives has conducted a family Bible program since 1905, primarily seeking family Bible records prior to 1913. Individuals bring in their Bibles to have the family data photographed and indexed by archive personnel. The Bibles are then returned to the owners.

The state archives also has thirty-four volumes of indexed and transcribed church records, compiled as a WPA project. Their collection includes some originals, some photocopies, and some typeset copies which were turned in by various churches. They have more records for New Castle and Sussex counties than for Kent County. They “guessimate” that about 40 percent of Delaware church records have been compiled.

Delaware has two cemetery collations housed at the state archives. One collection, known as the Walter G. Tatnall Tombstone Collection, was compiled by the state archivist from about 1918 to 1924 and was continued into the late 1920s.  This covers all cemeteries in the three counties in the state. It is arranged by county and then alphabetically by name, giving the burial location, name, and other data. There are two large volumes. The Hudson Tombstone Collection covers only Sussex County. It was compiled in the late 1920s by two sisters, Mrs. Short and Miss Welch. There is one large volume, indexed only by surname.

Note: Delaware was dropped from the National Registration Area for Deaths in 1900 and readmitted in 1919.

District of Columbia

The Bureau of Vital Statistics is responsible only for births and death records. Marriage records are kept by the Marriage Bureau, under the jurisdiction of the U. S. Superior Court. Registration of deaths began in 1854 and of births in 1874. Except for the Civil War period (1861-65), these have been kept continuously and are presently being computerized.

Marriage records began in 1811. However, from 1811 to June 1874 they have only one entry – two names and one date. From June 1874 to June 1896, certificates were filed that include the name of the bride and groom, the date, and the name of the person performing the marriage. From June 1896 to the present, an application, including more information, plus the certificate has been filed.

Florida

The first law in Florida was passed in 1899 but had no penalty. Some records were created then, however. Beginning about 1901, a fair amount of birth and death records were kept for the entire state. There were very few for 1910-12, but they become more complete about 1913. Some of the cities registered births and deaths under a city ordinance prior to state registration. The state has collected some of these, including those for Pensacola, Orlando, Ocala, Key West, Jacksonville, Tampa, and St. Augustine.

Access to birth records is restricted to the person, parent, or legal guardian. Death certificates are available to anyone, though cause of death is deleted except for family members. Marriage records began to be recorded on a state basis in June 1927. There is a WPA survey of church vital records compiled in the 1930’s which consists of four volumes.

Georgia

The history of the Georgia Bureau of Vital Statistics states that all counties cooperated in the early registration, but in the mid-1920s they did not. From about 1927 on, they all cooperated again. Marriages were not recorded on a state level until 1952.

By law, anyone can obtain a death certificate from Georgia. Certificates usually include names and birth dates of parents. Birth records, by law, can be issued only to the person or parents. Even if the person is deceased, one must have a court order to obtain the birth record of an ancestor.

Note: Georgia was dropped from the National Registration Area for Deaths in 1926 and readmitted in 1928.

Hawaii

Although Hawaii’s earliest birth record dates from 1843, their law governing civil registration did not become effective until 1847. Marriages and deaths have been recorded by law since 1841. In 1863, it became law (by royal proclamation) that a child born to a married couple bear the surname of the father and that, when a couple married, they take the surname of the husband.

Idaho

Registration of vital events began in Idaho on a county basis in 1907 and in 1911 on a state basis. On a county level, the quarterly reports which the midwives sent to the county clerk are often better than the records made by the county clerk. Marriage records, which are on a county basis, are more complete than birth and death records.

Early Idaho was almost like two separate states. Southeast Idaho was settled primarily by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other farmers. Miners settled from Mountain Home west and the pan handle area.

Illinois

The central registry of births and deaths began in Illinois 1 January 1916. The original records are at the state Office of Vital Records. Copies are on file in the office of the county clerk of the county were the event occurred. Birth records from 1877 to 1915 are on file only in the office of the county clerk of the county where the birth occurred. Numerous delayed birth certificates help make the earlier records more complete.

The central registry of marriages began in Illinois 1 January 1962; the state Office of Vital records cannot issue certified copies of marriages certificates. All counties have quite complete records of marriages dating back to the formation of the county.

The State Historical Library has many cemetery records prepared by individuals and deposited for public use. The secretary of state’s office has copies of census, land, and other genealogical records. The State Archives Division has a basic collection of early records covering the years 1790-1900, which has been indexed. The index will include such things as the names of people who have held civic positions, such as sheriff.

Indiana

Death records are more complete than birth records. Marriage records are not kept on a state basis but are kept in the county where the marriage license was issued. An 1882 state law required all counties to keep birth and death records. There are no death indexes prior to 1917. To locate a record, one must know where in the state the death occurred. Birth certificates are issued only to immediate family members – husband, wife, brother, sister, mother, father, or grandparent.

Iowa

The first law requiring the registration of births, marriages, and deaths became effective 1 Jan 1880. However, less than 50 percent of the population was registered until about 1921. Iowa has some statewide indexes; of births beginning in 1880; of deaths beginning in 1891; and marriages, beginning in 1916. The state has copies of some marriage records created by the counties prior to their statewide index.

Kansas

Registration of births and deaths began in 1911; marriages, in 1913. Delayed birth certificates were first issued in 1940.

Most of the counties in Kansas have county genealogical societies and about thirty of these are working on cemetery projects. In most cases, results are being published in periodicals. The Topeka Genealogical Society, (Shawnee County) explains that they compare the tombstone inscriptions against any original records. When discrepancies exist, they check mortuary records, obituaries, and sometimes family records to correct the data. All cards for Shawnee County are being interfiled alphabetically into a county finding aid. The cemetery files for each county are kept in the library of the local genealogical society.

Kentucky

Kentucky passed its first law regarding vital registration in 1832, but it was generally ignored or not implemented. In 1850 another law was passed requiring each county to keep records of birth and death and to make an annual report to the state. Many of these early records were destroyed during and following the Civil War. There was no real program for statewide registration until 1911. The first marriage registration law for central reporting was passed in 1958.

Kentucky has two organizations collecting early records – the historical society and the state archives. The historical society is working on a project to put the data from all cemeteries into a computer. The Department of Banking and Securities in Kentucky is responsible for all perpetual-care and “for-profit” cemeteries. The handling of these types of cemeteries is regulated by law. There is a list of such cemeteries.

Louisiana

The parishes (counties) of Orleans and Caddo have parish and church records which predate civil registration. The prominent church in southern Louisiana is the Catholic Church, which keeps good records. The northern part of the state was not Catholic, and their records were not as good.

Maine

The state Bureau of Vital Statistics has records since 1892. In 1920 some local registrars filed with the state office copies of vital records prior to 1892. Theses old records are housed in the state archives.

Town records were kept much earlier than central registration. The state archives has prepared a “microfilm list” of town vital records. It lists 548 towns, including 140 (or 25 percent) whose records have never been microfilmed. A number of municipalities in Maine are not included in the books, and information regarding their records has not been discovered.

Maine has a large cemetery collection compiled by the Maine Old Cemetery Association (MOCA). It is presently housed at the state library but available only when a MOCA representative is there. There is a large cemetery collection that is privately owned which contains 21,955 entries collected form 114 cemeteries in 23 towns or townships (as of 1977) It was compiled by Norman Elliott of Freedom, Maine, who is now deceased. He extracted information and arranged the names alphabetically within the cemetery and within the town or townships. Mr. Elliot added references from census, town, and other records to the card created by the cemetery tombstone extraction, and cross-referenced his material. He also studied obituaries and kept his cemetery records current with new burials.

Maryland

The state passed a law in 1898 for counties to keep records of births and deaths. The city of Baltimore, which is not in any county, began keeping records in 1875. About 1922, the state passed a law that the counties had to send to the state the records created by the 1898 law. Since that date, the records are kept on a state basis. The records for the entire state since 1898 (and Baltimore since 1875) are housed at the state Bureau of Vital Records. Marriage records were not centralized on a state basis until June 1951.

Massachusetts

The state estimates that registration of births, deaths, and marriages for the years 1841-1865/70 includes about 80 percent of the population. These records are indexed in five-year alphabetical indexes. The state will search for ten years forward from the date submitted on a request if they cannot find the record under the date give. In making a request for a search, give the name, date, place, and parents’ name if these facts are known.

There are many town records for the pre-1850 years. About ninety of these have been published and are found in the major libraries and state archives. The town clerk is the official custodian for these early records.

Michigan

The first Vital Statistics Registration Law was passed in 1867. From 1867 to 1897 there were canvassers (township, village, and city clerks) who went around once a year and asked who had died, been born, or married. The data were taken as a type of census.

In 1897 a law was passed (which became effective in 1898) requiring the registration of deaths. During 1897, 19,150 deaths were registered. During the following year, 28,248 deaths were registered.

In 1905 a law was passed (which became effective in 1906) requiring registration of births. In 1906, 58,599 births were registered.

Marriages were reported more accurately than births and deaths. Reporting began in 1867, but from 1867 to 1870 it was quite incomplete. In 1887 a law was passed requiring a civil license in order to be married, and the records became more complete after that. The annual report of 1892 stated “Not over 1 percent were unreported.”  This would mean that about one hundred marriages were not reported in 1892.

The Cemetery Commission of the Commerce Department in Lansing has compiled a list of commercial cemeteries in the state (excluding church-owned cemeteries).

Minnesota

The state has some records earlier than 1908. The first law was passed in 1872, but was not very effective. The state has sketchy information on three-by-five inch cards for 1900-1907, but more complete information can be obtained from the clerk of the district court in the county, or from the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The rural areas have very incomplete records for the earlier years. Registration of births and deaths became effective about 1910.

Mississippi

Registration of marriages began 1 January 1926. Reporting for all vital registrations was not really effective until about the 1920s. Most Mississippi courthouses have been burned at one time or another, so many of the earlier records have been destroyed.

The Division of Archives and History has some printed cemetery records, Bible records, and a few church records. Baptists were the most prominent religious group, but there were also many other Protestants churches as well as the Roman Catholic Church. The Baptist College at Clinton has collected many Baptist church records.

Missouri

Registration of births and deaths began on a state basis in 1910. There were no teeth in the law until 1947, when the enactment of the Standard Act for Social Security gave the bureau some authority. Prior to that time it was up to the physicians to report births, and many did not. Many births took place without any physician.

Death records are more complete than birth records, probably because burial permits were required. The recording of marriages is still a county function. Since 1948, the state has received information on the marriage licenses issued. They index these by year and then alphabetically by name. This enables them to provide the name of the county where the license was issued, so a patron may obtain a copy of the record from the county.

Over three thousand cemeteries have been identified by manually examining the death certificates for several months in the Department of Vital Statistics of Missouri.

The state of Missouri had early laws for registration of births, marriages, and deaths. However, in 1893 these laws were repealed and orders were given that all existing records were to be destroyed. Most of the counties south of the Missouri River transferred the information into ledgers before destroying the certificates, and these registers still exist back to 1883. Records in other counties were destroyed.

Montana

It was probably 1915 before registration of births and deaths became reasonably complete in Montana. Delayed birth records extend birth registration in some cases back to the 1860s. Births were originally reported on penny postcards and mailed in. The cities of Butte and Helena kept birth and death records before state registration began. Marriage began to be recorded on a state basis in 1944.

Nebraska

Birth records from 1904 to 1911 were one-line entries and usually did not include the given name of the child but listed the sex, date and place of birth, name of father, and sometimes the given name of the mother. Delayed birth certificates have added the full name of the child on some records. In 1912, individual birth certificates began to be used. Marriage records began to be kept on a state basis in 1909.

Nevada

Nevada has a surname index of some of the early church records of the 1880s, so they can tell people where to find certificates on early residents. Probably 30 percent of the population, mostly from the cities, were included in these church records. The prominent churches were Mormon and Catholic, and the Catholics centered especially in Reno and Las Vegas.

County recorders have some records going back to the 1880s. The Nevada Historical Society in Reno maintains an archive of old records.

New Hampshire

The earliest records in New Hampshire go back to approximately 1640, shortly after the colony at New Hampshire was founded in the Dover-Portsmouth area. As early as 1714, the province of New Hampshire passed a registration law, but it was not well enforced. In 1880 the various towns and cities were instructed by legislation to send copies of records to Concord for a state record. A letter written in 1880 stated that comparisons at the time indicated that less than 50 percent of the population was included but that the reporting was better than it had been in previous years. Some towns did not report at all, while others sent in incomplete returns.

Subsequent to a law passed in 1883, a registration report was prepared for all births, marriages, and deaths that occurred in New Hampshire covering the period 1 April 1882 to 31 December 1883. State officials consider the legislation of 1883 as the prime factor in obtaining more complete registration.

The records were centralized in 1905. At that time the local records were sent to Concord, and a central file was organized. From 1901 on, the records were quite complete, giving the principal’s name, date of birth, place of birth, color, number of other children, name and birthplace of father and mother, etc. The state library, the state historical society, and Dartmouth College Library all have cemetery and church records in their collections, while individual towns still have many of these records.

New Jersey

In 1876 the state empowered the county officials to register births, marriages, and deaths. In 1878 state registration began. In the 1880s a law was passed that compelled such registration on a state basis. Earlier records, from 1847 to 1878, are housed in the state archives. The New Jersey Cemetery Board in the Department of Banking regulates new cemeteries and is responsible for making such cemeteries keep records.

New Mexico

Counties in New Mexico recorded vital events on a voluntary basis before state registration began. Copies of these records are filed with the state. Studies have shown these to be incomplete. Marriages were recorded by the county clerk in the county where license was issued. There is no central registry for marriages.

New York

Civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths began on a state basis in 1880. From 1880 to 1915 the law had no penalties, and only about 50 percent of these events were registered. In 1915 the law was amended with penalties, and registration has been good since that time.

There are some exceptions to state registration:

  1. State records do not include births, deaths and marriages which occurred in any of the five boroughs of New York City. (Births and death records are filed with the New York City Department of Health; marriage records are filed with the city clerk in the appropriate borough.)
  2. State records do not include birth, death or marriage records for events which occurred in the cities of Albany, Buffalo, or Yonkers prior to 1914. (Birth and death records are filed with registrar of the appropriate city; marriage licenses for Albany are filed with the city clerk; for Buffalo, with the Erie County Clerk’s office; and for Yonkers, with the Registrar of Vital Statistics for Yonkers.)
  3. A number of old church, cemetery, and marriage records are on file with the New York State library.

North Carolina

Registration of births and deaths began on a state basis in 1913; of marriages in 1962. In the 1930s and 1940s, there was an effort made by the Civilian Conservation Corps to chart all cemeteries. These records are housed with the Department of Archives and History in the Cultural Resources Division.

All death records over fifty years old will be transferred to the State Department of Archives and History sometime during 1979. Birth records will remain with the Bureau of Vital Records.

Note:  North Carolina is listed as achieving its 90 percent for the National Registration Area for deaths before the state officially began to register them. This 90 percent included only municipalities that had populations of 1,000 or more in 1900. The remainder of the state was added in 1916.

North Dakota

The first law requiring registration of births, marriages, and deaths predated statehood and was passed in 1885. The first state law was passed in 1893. Records were kept in ledger books by the superintendent of health, who was a practicing physician. These ledgers were kept wherever the superintended of health maintained his practice. In 1907 the legislature passed the Model Vital Statistics Act, requiring individual certificates for each birth and death. Registration of births was not really total until the 1930s. Delayed birth certificates began to be filed in 1941.

Beginning 1 July 1925, marriage information was required to be sent to the state. Original licenses and certificates of marriage are filed in the office of the county judge where the license was issued. The county judge forwards copies to the state office so that a statewide index can be maintained. The original license and certificate remain in the county.

Ohio

Some individual cites registered births and death earlier than state registration. For example, Cleveland has some records dating back to the 1800s.  Some county records were also kept earlier than state registration and are maintained by county probate courts.

Abstracts of marriage licenses have been filed with the state since 20 September 1949. The abstracts are used for statistical purposes and provide a statewide index of marriages. The actual marriage records are maintained by the county probate courts that issued the marriage licenses.

Oklahoma

Registration of births and deaths in Oklahoma began in September 1908, but early records are very incomplete. It was not until 1917 that Oklahoma passed its first legislation making it mandatory to file births and death records. Although legislation was passed at the time, for many years registration was very sparse.

Before the State Bureau of Vital Statistics will search for a certificate of birth, they must have the signature of the registrant, his next-of-kin, or a statement by an authorized agent stating that he is representing the interest of the registrant. If one of these signatures is not available, then it is necessary to have a court order before they search the records and release any information concerning a certificate of birth that may be on file.

Oklahoma statue makes all birth and death records confidential information; therefore, they are available only to the employees of the bureau. No one else is allowed to access to the records. Oklahoma does not have a central registry for marriage records. The Oklahoma Historical Society has some cemetery records compiled by local chapters of the DAR.

Oregon

Registration of births and deaths began by law in 1903; of marriages, in 1906. The original marriage records are on file in the counties. The state maintains an alphabetical index by year. A Cemetery Survey for the State of Oregon, published by the Oregon Department of Transportation in 1978, provides an excellent listing of the cemeteries in the state, giving their location, date of formation, etc.

Pennsylvania

The city of Philadelphia has a vital records office with records dating back to the 1800s. Marriages are still handled by the county. The state receives a transcript of the marriage record but issues no certificates. The Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia is asking that all churches in the Delaware Valley bring their records to have them filmed.

Rhode Island

In colonial times, the first law for registering births, deaths, and marriages was enacted in May 1647 and was in force for the colony and province of Providence. The basis of the current law regarding registration of births, deaths, and marriages in Rhode Island, was mandated in 1896. It has been amended several times since then.

The Division of Vital statistics maintains records of births, marriages, and deaths dating from 1853 to the present. For records prior to that year, the city or town clerk’s office where the event occurred must be contacted. Some cities and town have records earlier than 1853.

The original manuscript of the Arnold Vital Records Collection, covering the years 1636-1850, is located at the Knight Memorial Library in Providence. It is only partially published. This collection included records of the entire state of Rhode Island.

Note:  Rhode Island was dropped from the National Registration Area for Births in 1919 and readmitted in 1921.

South Carolina

Registration of births and deaths began in 1915. Charleston city has earlier records, which were recently moved from the health department in Charleston to the library there. The completeness of reporting greatly improved about 1940. Marriage records began on a state basis in 1950. They were kept by the probate judge in the county from 1911 to 1949.

Note: South Carolina was dropped from the National Registration Area for births in 1925 and readmitted in 1928.

South Dakota

The first law requiring registration of births, marriages, and deaths was passed in 1905, and was under the direction of the state historian. It had no penalties for noncompliance. In 1920, a revision of the law moved the Bureau of State Registration to the State Department of Health and assessed penalties for noncompliance. The state historian collected some church records during the early period (1905-20). A few of these are housed at the Bureau of State Registration.

Note: South Dakota was dropped from the National Registration Area for deaths in 1910 and readmitted in 1930.

Tennessee

Civil registration of births and deaths began in Tennessee in 1914; of marriages, in 1945. Previous to 1945, marriage records were kept only in the county where the license was issued. A few earlier records for the years 1908-12 were kept by the district school superintendent and were housed at the Division of Vital Statistics.

Some cities have records earlier than state registration. These records may be only one-line entries. Original records for the cities of Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Nashville from 1881-1913 are on file at the Memphis – Shelby County Health Department. These include birth records for 1874-86 and 1898-1913, and death records for 1840-1913. The Department of Insurance has records of cemeteries that have perpetual care funds or trust funds. Private or church cemeteries are not included in their records.

Texas

Registration of births and deaths became law in 1903. Registration the first few years was quite incomplete. Marriage records began to be kept on a state basis in 1966. A copy of the application for marriage license is filed with the state. Requests for information on marriage must be made to the county where the license was issued, not where the marriage took place.

Utah

Death records began in late 1904 and birth records in 1905. Some community records were kept in ledgers earlier than state registration. These included Salt Lake City (death records from 1847 and birth records from the 1890s), Logan, (from 1867), and Ogden (from 1890).

A major collection of cemetery records was compiled in the 1930s by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is found in the Genealogical Society Library in Salt Lake City.

Vermont

Statewide records of the registration of births, marriages, and deaths are held in the secretary of state’s office in Montpelier. They are fairly complete from about 1800. There are some earlier records, dating from 1760, from towns that were chartered during the period when Vermont was considered part of New Hampshire. However, these are few and scattered. In 1777, Vermont declared its independence from New Hampshire and New York, and in 1791 it was admitted to the Union as the fourteenth state.

Records in Vermont originate on a town basis. They are sent to the Division of Vital Statistics (Department of Health) in Burlington, which records the statistical information and forwards them to the secretary of state in Montpelier, where they are arranged alphabetically in time blocks.

From 1860 to 1919, records were sent annually on sheets of paper which were bound at intervals. In 1919, a law was passed requiring town clerks to copy all pre-1860 vital records in their possession, including cemetery records, onto cards and forward them to the secretary of state. At the same time, the staff at the secretary of state’s office copied the 1860-1919 records from books onto cards. In this way, a complete vital records card catalog was created, with cards arranged alphabetically with the following time blocks: 1760-1870; 1871-1908; 1909-41; 1942-54; and 1955-79. Future cards will be arranged in ten-year blocks.

Note: Some discrepancies were found between the state and town records when records for the same individual were compared.

The first block of cards has been microfilmed and is at the Division of Public Records in Montpelier, where readers and printers are available. The division has a large collection of microfilm records which are frequently used by researchers. The second block is being prepared for refilming since the first filming contained omissions and inaccuracies.

Cemetery records are included in the state collection from their beginning to 1860.

There is little information about church records. The WPA did some work on these records in the late 1930s, and their worksheets are available at the Public Records Division in Montpelier. The Baptists have deposited many of their records with the special collections section of Bailey Library at the University of Vermont in Burlington. Some of their records are also located at the Vermont Historical Society in Montpelier, which also has other scattered church records.

An act was passed during the 1979 legislative session which will transfer the responsibility for vital records to the Vital Statistics Division of the Health Department in the Burlington and the Division of Public Records in Montpelier, effective 1 July 1979.

The most recent block of records, covering the years 1955-79, will be transferred to Burlington. The older records will be transferred to the Public Records Division at 6 Baldwin Street, Montpelier, Certification of records is given to both divisions, and the law states that the Division of Public Records shall keep the vital records or photographic copies on file for use by the public.

Virginia

Registration of births and deaths in Virginia began early and then lapsed for a period of years. From 1853 to 1896, the law required birth and death registration to be done through the local commissioner of revenue (tax assessor). This program resulted in incomplete reporting. Many of the records that were created were destroyed during the Civil War. Studies have shown these records to be about two-thirds complete. These records are on microfilm and are available at various libraries in Virginia. The birth records are indexed, but death records are arranged only by year and by county. Marriage records, which are more complete, cover 1853 to the present and are indexed. They are still kept on a county basis only.

This early law ended in 1896, and for sixteen years there was no state law or statewide registration. A few areas did keep some fairly good records, which are still in the local area. These include Newport News, which includes the defunct county of Warwick; Hampton, which includes the defunct county of Elizabeth City County; Norfolk City, which has records since 1900 (excluding 1906; the records for 1906 were destroyed); Portsmouth, with records since 1900; and Richmond City, with records since 1900. The state does not have copies of these records. The current law passed in 1912, but registration was slow in starting. Some rural areas were incomplete until the 1960s.

Washington

Registration of births and deaths began on a state basis in 1907; of marriages, in 1968. Some of the larger cities, such as Seattle, Spokane, Bellingham, and Tacoma, have some records created earlier than state registration, but these are incomplete. Many of the home births were never recorded even after state registration began, as evidenced by the requests for delayed birth certificates now being received. The Parks Department is usually custodian for records in municipality – or county-owned cemeteries. The Washington State Historical Society has a large biographical file of early Washington State pioneers, made from county histories, newspapers, etc., mostly for the pre-1920 years.           

West Virginia

State registration of births and deaths began in 1917 but did not become compulsory until 1925. The number of delayed birth certificates that are requested indicate that registration was not complete in the earlier years. The state has only marriage indexes for 1921-63; they have more complete records since 1963. The county clerks have some records created prior to 1921. There is a West Virginia Cemetery Association, which is an organization for perpetual-care cemeteries.

Wisconsin

Registration of births, marriages, and deaths became effective in October 1907 when the state Bureau of Vital Records was created. Registration was mandatory previous to this but was not enforced. The state estimates that about 50 percent of the residents were included prior to 1907. The earliest date recorded is 1814, which could be one birth for one person in that county.

Wisconsin has a cemetery association, called SURCH. It is a statewide organization with nine districts and coordinators in every county. Their goal is to have an index to everyone buried in Wisconsin. Where other records are available, the tombstone inscriptions are matched with sexton’s records, church records, etc. SURCH is an affiliate of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. 

Wyoming

Compulsory registration of births and deaths began in Wyoming in 1909. There are a few earlier records. The records are confidential, and copies of or information from them can be issued only to those named on the certificate, their respective legal representatives, or those proving a direct and tangible interest in the record. Centralized registration of marriages began in May 1941. Earlier records are filed in the county clerk’s office where the license was issued.        

 


Employed in the Acquisitions and Field Operations area of the Genealogical Society of Utah, Elizabeth L. Nichols is an Accredited Genealogist (New England states) and the author of two books, The Genesis of Your Genealogy and Help is Available, nos. 1 and 2 in the series Simplified “Step-by-Step” Instruction Books for the Beginner in Genealogy (Logan, Utah: Everton Publishers).

Note: This survey was made by the compiler as an employee of the Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was originally published with their permission. The article originally appeared in the September 1979 issue of the Genealogical Journal. It was then reprinted in the May-June 1980 issue of The Genealogical Helper with permission given by George Fudge of the Genealogical Department of the Church; Val Greenwood, President of the Utah Genealogical Association, and Kip Sperry, editor of the Genealogical Journal.

This 2009 electronic reprint of this article, with minor edits, is reprinted here by permission of both previous publishers. We thank editor Leland Meitzler of Everton’s Genealogical Helper and Luana Darby, President of the Utah Genealogical Association for their permission and encourage visits to their websites. Please note that comments about state laws and regulations regarding access to records may have changed since this was written.

©1979 Intellectual Reserve, ©2009 edits copyright ProGenealogists, Inc. Do not copy or re-distribute. Links to this article are freely welcome.


 

[2] There were fifty-two letters – one for each state and two for the District of Columbia. The details for Canada will be given in a separate article.

[3] The United States Registration Area for deaths first began in 1880 with a few cities and two states qualifying at that time: for births, in 1915. Only those states registering 90 percent or more of their births and deaths are included in the registration. The last state qualified in 1933.

[4] Later editions of this booklet corrected these errors. The booklet is no longer printed on paper, but is available online as Where to Write for Vital Records.

[5]The dates each state entered the National Registration Area for births and for deaths were taken from U. S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Public Health Service, Vital Statistics of the United States: 1959, 1:1-8. Online access to this information is available in U.S. Vital Statistics System: Major Activities and Developments, 1950-95; see pages 57-61 of the booklet.

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