Vital records refer to the records of birth, marriage, and death. They represent the key genealogical phases in an individual’s life, and are the most universally kept records. The history of vital records in the United States has been, and continues to be, one filled with inconsistencies. This has made US research more challenging.
As the colonies in the United States began to be settled, they followed the pattern set by England, which had a state church. The Church of England had responsibility for recording christenings (and births), marriages, and burials (deaths) until 1837.
The colonies presented challenges, however, that the mother country did not have. Many individuals emigrated to the colonies because they wanted to practice a religion other than the Church of England. Immigration to the U.S. was also from many countries and those immigrants did not belong to the state church. Also, the population was more spread out than in England and churches had a more difficult time keeping track of all that happened.
The system of recording vital statistics grew slowly. One of the major factors that helped grow vital registration was disease. Doctors lobbied the legislatures to gather information so they could study and prevent the spread of diseases. Cholera and plague epidemics helped spur on the practice.
Another factor that has caused challenges in the United States vs. other countries in the world is that the limitation that the constitution placed on the Federal Government. Since the Federal Government was not granted powers in the area of vital records the task fell to the states. In most cases the counties maintained the records. This is still the case today. Unlike many countries, the United States does not have a central vital records index.
The outcome of each state and county recording information was that there were significant differences in what was captured. Standardization began to emerge in the late 1800’s as Congress created the National Board of Health that proposed standard record keeping practices. It was not until 1933, however, that a uniform recording system was adopted in all of the states in the Union.
Over the past few years vital records indexes have begun to be published. Many states have programs to digitize, transcribe, and publish vital records data online. In the coming years we may, for the first time, see a version of a national vital records index. I look forward to the day.
In the mean time the county records office and local church records remain the best place to search for vital records. The nature of these records have meant that genealogists have turned to other records like census, tax records, land records, and probate records, but vital records remain a valuable source of information in United States research.