United States Vital 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 sections.) 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.
- 1 General Historical Background
- 2 Regional Differences
- 3 Locating Vital Records
- 4 Birth Records
- 5 Marriage Records
- 6 Western States Marriage Index
- 7 Divorce Records
- 8 Death Records
- 9 Internet Links for US Vital Records
General Historical Background
The practice of recording civil vital statistics developed slowly in the United States. Early vital information was sometimes recorded in brief entries in register books until the twentieth century, when it became more common to create certificates. Some town clerks in colonial America (especially New England) recorded vital information, but these records are incomplete. The federal government has not registered vital records, except for some Americans born outside the country who were recorded in embassy or consulate records.
Records of marriages were generally the first vital records kept in a locality. In most states, the counties or towns began recording marriages as soon as they were established. Whether the marriage ceremony was performed by a civil or a church authority, local laws required the marriage to be recorded in civil records.
The local health departments of a few large cities began recording births and deaths by the mid-1800s. For example, records exist for Baltimore (from 1875), Boston (from 1639), New Orleans (from 1790), New York (from 1847), and Philadelphia (from 1860). The early records are usually incomplete. Many counties in the East and Midwest were recording births and deaths by the late 1800's.
Each state eventually developed its own laws and created a statewide registration system. Unfortunately, these records do not exist until the early 1900's in most states. Local offices did not always comply immediately with the registration laws. Within 20 years after registration laws were enacted, most states were recording at least 90 percent of the births and deaths. (See the state research outlines for more information.)
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” section of this outline 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.
Locating Vital Records
Records at the Family History Library
The Family History Library has copies of many vital records, primarily those before 1920. However, if a record was never kept, was not available in the courthouse at the time of microfilming, was not microfilmed, or is restricted from public access by the laws of the state, the Family History Library does not have a copy. You may use the records at the library for your family research, but the library does not issue or certify certificates for living or deceased individuals.
Vital records can be found in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under each of the following approaches:
[STATE] - VITAL RECORDS
[STATE], [COUNTY] - VITAL RECORDS
[STATE], [COUNTY], [TOWN] - VITAL RECORDS
You can find further information about vital records in research outlines available for each state.
The Family History Library has statewide collections and special indexes of vital records for most states. The library has good collections of county vital records for several states.
Locating Records Not at the Family History Library
Birth, marriage, divorce, and death records may be obtained by contacting or visiting state offices of vital records or the appropriate clerk's office in a town or county courthouse. Genealogical societies, historical societies, and state archives may also have copies or transcripts. To protect the rights of privacy of living persons, most modern records have restrictions on their use and access.
Current addresses and fees for obtaining vital records are given in:
- Where to Write for Vital Records: Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Divorces. Hyattsville, Maryland: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, March 1993. Some addresses and fees are outdated. This booklet can be purchased from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office Washington, DC 20402-9328.
Another helpful source of current fee information is:
- Kemp, Thomas J. International Vital Records Handbook. Third Edition. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1994. (FHL book 973 V24k 1994.) This includes samples of application forms that can be sent to state offices to request copies of vital records. It also provides telephone ordering numbers for most offices. Payment by bank card is generally accepted.
The Family History Library also has a guide to Vital Records in the United States that is frequently updated (not available at Family History Centers).
After deciding who has jurisdiction over the records for the time period you need, write a brief request to the proper office. Some offices will require that you submit a standard search application form. Send the following:
- Check or money order for the search fee ($1 to $15)
- Full name and the sex of the person sought
- Names of the parents, if known
- Approximate date and place of the event
- Your relationship to the person
- Reason for the request (family history, medical, etc.)
- Request for a photocopy of the complete original record
If your request is unsuccessful, search for duplicate records that may have been filed in a city, county, or state office.
Birth records generally give the child's name, sex, date and place of birth, and the names of the parents. Records of the twentieth century provide additional details, such as the name of the hospital, birthplace of parents, occupation of the parents, marital status of the mother, and the number of other children born to the mother.
If no record was filed at the time of an individual's birth, he may have arranged for a delayed registration of birth by showing proof of his birth as recorded in a Bible, school, census, or church record, or by testimony from a person who witnessed the birth. These registrations generally start in 1937, yet the birth may have occurred many years earlier. The registration is usually in the state where the birth occurred. The Family History Library has acquired copies of many delayed certificates, especially for the midwestern states.
A corrected record of a birth may be filed if a name was changed or added. Most corrections require affidavits of eyewitnesses or evidence from other official records. The library has microfilm copies of a few of these records.
Year US States began recording Births and Deaths
| Alabama 1908 | Alaska 1913 | Arizona 1909 | Arkansas 1914 | California 1905 | Colorado 1907 | Connecticut 1897 | Delaware 1881 | Florida 1915 | Georgia 1919 | Hawaii 1896 | Idaho 1911 | Illinois 1916 | Indiana 1882 | Iowa 1880 | Kansas 1911 | Kentucky 1911 | Louisiana 1914 | Maine 1892 | Maryland 1898 | Massachusetts 1841 | Michigan 1867 | Minnesota 1900 | Mississippi 1912 | Missouri 1910 | Montana 1907 | Nebraska 1905 | Nevada 1911 | New Hampshire 1905 | New Jersey 1848 | New Mexico 1919 | New York 1880 | North Carolina 1913 | North Dakota 1908 | Ohio 1909 | Oklahoma 1908 | Oregon 1903 | Pennsylvania 1906 | Rhode Island 1852 | South Carolina 1915 | South Dakota 1905 | Tennessee 1914 | Texas 1903 | Utah 1905 | Vermont 1857 | Virginia 1912 | Washington 1907 | West Virginia 1917 | Wisconsin 1907 | Wyoming 1909 |
Marriages were usually recorded by the clerk of the town or county where the bonds or licenses were issued (generally where the bride resided). You may find records that show a couple's intent to marry and records of the actual marriage.
Records of Intention To Marry
Various records may have been created that show a couple's intent to marry.
Banns and intentions were made a few weeks before a couple planned to marry. The couple may have been required to announce their intentions in order to give other community members the opportunity to raise any objections to the marriage. This was a rather common custom in the southern and New England states through the mid-1800's.
Banns were a religious custom in which the couple announced to their local congregation that they planned to marry. They may have also posted a written notice at the church. Intentions were written notices presented to the local civil authority and posted in a public place for a given period of time. The minister or town clerk recorded these announcements in a register, or you may find them interfiled with other town or church records.
Marriage bonds are written guarantees or promises of payment made by the groom or another person (often a relative of the bride) to ensure that a forthcoming marriage would be legal. The person who posted the bond was known as the surety or bondsman. The bond was presented to the minister or official who would perform the ceremony. The bond was then returned to the town or county clerk. These documents were frequently used in the southern and middle-Atlantic states up to the mid-1800's.
Applications and licenses are the most common types of records showing intent to marry. These gradually replaced the use of banns, intentions, and bonds. A bride and groom obtained a license to be married by applying to the proper civil authorities, usually a town or county clerk. These records have the most information of genealogical value, including the couple's names, ages, and residence. Later records also provide their race, birth dates, occupations, and usually the names of the parents. The license was presented to the person who performed the marriage and was later returned to the town or county clerk. Applications for a license are primarily a twentieth-century record. These often contain more detailed information than the license.
Consent papers may be available if the consent of a parent or guardian was required, often when the bride or groom was underage. The consent may have been verbal or written on the license or bond.
Contracts or settlements are documents created for the protection of legal rights and property. These are occasionally a part of a marriage application, especially in regions that were colonized by France or Spain.
Records of Marriages
In most cases it can be assumed that the couple married a short time after announcing their intent, even though you may not find proof of the actual marriage. A minister, justice of the peace, military officer, ship officer, or state official could legally marry a couple. You may find the following records that document the actual marriage:
Certificates. The individual who performed the ceremony or the civil office where it was recorded may have given the couple a certificate of marriage. This may be in the possession of the family. The clerk of the court may have a copy.
Returns and Registers. Town and county clerks generally recorded the marriages they performed in a register or book. If the marriage was performed by someone else, such as a minister or justice of the peace, that person was required to report, or “return”, the marriage information to the town or county clerk. This information may have been reported in writing or verbally or, more frequently, the official recorded the event on the license or bond and returned this document to the clerk. For this purpose, many licenses and bonds were printed with a separate section of the document designated as the “return.”
The information on the return usually included the names of the couple, the date and place of the marriage, and the name of the person who performed the marriage. Twentieth-century returns often add the residence of the couple, the names of the parents or witnesses, and the certificate number.
The town or county clerk recorded (“registered”) the marriage returns in a separate register or book, although you may find some early returns in court or town minutes and deed books. He may also have written on the license or the bond the date he registered the marriage.
Twentieth-century marriages are still registered by the county or town, but most states now require the counties to report the marriages to the state office of vital records. Many counties keep duplicates of the records they send to the state. Texas marriages from 1966-2005 can be searched from http://www.genlookups.com/texas_marriages/.
Personal Records of the Individual Who Performed the Ceremony. Before the twentieth century, the information on many marriages was not returned. If evidence of a marriage was not presented to a civil clerk, this information might be found only in the personal journal or other records of the official who performed the marriage.
Western States Marriage Index
The Western States Marriages web site contained 462,518 marriages as of 27 January 2007. Most of the marriages are pre-1930 with the majority being before 1900. You may search several states at the same time or narrow your search to one state.
|California||New Mexico (1700's)||Washington (eastern)|
- Names of the bride and groom
- Marriage date and place
- County and state
- Place of residence for the bride and the groom
Using the site
When doing a search be sure that the bride or groom selection is made correctly for the name you type into the name fields.
Divorces before the twentieth century were uncommon and in some places illegal. Records of divorces contain data on family members, their marital history, their property, residences, and dates of other important events such as the children's births.
Some of the earliest divorces were granted by state legislatures and may be listed in legislature records. County officials began keeping divorce records as soon as a court was established in the area. Early divorce actions are found in dockets, minutes, and case files of the county, circuit, or district court. In some areas of the United States, divorces have been under the jurisdiction of a chancery, common pleas, domestic, probate, superior, or supreme judicial court.
Divorce records are often open to the public and can be obtained by contacting the clerk of the court. You will also find clues to separations and divorces in local newspapers. The Texas Divorces Index 1968-2005 is hosted at http://www.genlookups.com/texas_divorces/. The few divorce records in the Family History Library are listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
[STATE], [COUNTY] - COURT RECORDS
[STATE], [COUNTY] - DIVORCE RECORDS
[STATE], [COUNTY] - VITAL RECORDS
You can find further information about where to find divorce records in research outlines available for each state.
Death records are especially helpful because they may provide important information on a person's birth, spouse, and parents. Some researchers look first for death records because there are often death records for persons who have no birth or marriage records.
Early death records, like cemetery records, generally give the name, date, and place of death. Twentieth-century certificates usually include the age or date of birth (and sometimes the place), race, length of residence in the county or state, cause of death, name of hospital and funeral home, burial information, and the informant's name (often a relative). They often provide the name of a spouse or parents. Since 1950, social security numbers are given on most death certificates. Birth and other information in a death record may not be accurate because the informant may not have had complete information.
Death certificates may be filed in the state where an individual died and the state where he is buried. Funeral home records are discussed in the “Cemeteries” section of this outline. The death records of men and women who died in the military, or who are buried in military cemeteries are described in the U.S. Military Records Research Outline.
The Social Security Death Index contains over fifty million records of deaths reported to the Social Security Administration from 1937 to 1995. The bulk of the records are from 1962 and later. The index provides the deceased person's birth date, social security number, state where the social security card was issued, month and year of death, state of residence at death, zip code, and state where death benefit was sent.