United States Civil Records
Creation of Civil Records
Civil governments have created records of births, marriages, and deaths. Records containing this information are commonly called “vital records,” because they refer to critical events in a person's life. These are the most important documents for genealogical research, but the births, marriages, and deaths of many people have never been recorded by civil authorities.
This section describes the vital records kept by civil governments. (Other sources of vital information are described in Church records and Town records pages.) The Family History Library has microfilm copies of the civil vital records of thousands of towns, counties, and states in the United States.
To find a Civil Vital Record
- You will need at least the approximate year and place in which the birth, marriage, divorce, or death occurred.
- You may need to search other records first to find clues about these events, such as family Bibles, genealogies, local histories, biographies, cemetery records, censuses, court records, land records, citizenship applications, pension files, newspaper notices, and probate files.
- For the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries these sources must often be used as substitutes for civil vital records. These other records may not be as accurate, however, as the vital records kept by church authorities and civil governments.
The content of the records will vary with the locality and time period. Records may have been recreated when they were damaged or lost.
New England. These states have kept good vital records. The town clerks kept register books as early as the 1600's (see the “Town Records” pages for details). Most of these states have statewide indexes of the existing records. Most New England states began statewide registration of births, marriages, and deaths between 1841 and 1897. Vermont began centralized registration in 1919, but individual town records go back to the 1700's. Except for New Hampshire (which began recording marriages as early as 1640), many New England marriages in colonial times were not recorded because of the laws and religious customs of the region.
Middle Atlantic. It is unusual to find any vital records before 1885 for New York and Pennsylvania, except in the larger cities. All of the states began statewide registration of births and deaths between 1878 and 1915. Statewide registration of marriages began between 1847 and 1906. New Jersey and Delaware have marriage records dating from the 1660's (or the creation of the counties), but systematic recording of marriages in New Jersey did not begin until 1795.
South. In the southern states, laws for civil registration of births and deaths were enacted between 1899 and 1919. Marriages were a legal contract which involved property rights, so the counties recorded them carefully, starting in the early 1700's (except in South Carolina where they began in 1911). Most states initiated statewide marriage files between 1911 and 1962. Virginia counties began recording births, marriages, and deaths in 1853, but stopped between 1896 and 1912. Church vital records often reach back into the 1700's.
Midwest. Government officials in the midwestern states began files of births and deaths as early as the 1860's in many counties. Statewide registration of births and deaths was initiated between 1880 and 1920. Officials began recording marriage dates as soon as each county was established and generally began statewide registration between 1880 and 1962.
West. The western states vary greatly in their registration of vital records due to their different settlement patterns. Most areas began statewide registration of births and deaths between 1903 and 1920. While most counties were keeping marriage records by 1890 or the date the county was created, statewide registration generally began between 1905 and 1978. Hawaii's records of births, marriages, and deaths start as early as the 1840's.