What Is Genealogy
Why Study Genealogy?
How Far Can You Go?
3rd Party Stories
Cite Your Sources
Vital records are among the most modern type of documents available to genealogists, and one of the most useful. At the beginning of the Reformation, when the Church of England, broke with Rome in 1538, it instructed individual parishes to maintain registers of baptisms, marriages, and deaths. However, even though the practice of keeping them dates back to the 16th century, vital records were not uniformly required by statute or maintained as a standard practice in either Europe or the United States until the 19th or early 20th century.
The first laws requiring the keeping of vital records in the American colonies were passed in Virginia and the Massachusetts Bay. In 1632, the Virginia assembly decreed that the minister of each parish report annually to the court all births, marriages, and deaths in his jurisdiction, and in 1639 the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony introduced the same measure. Legislation of a similar kind was soon passed by lawmakers in other New England colonies.
However, even though Virginia legislated the keeping of vital records as early as 1632, the laws were not generally enforced. Even as late as the 19th century, there did not appear to be much concern about maintaining these records, particularly in the South. The failure to keep such records in a systematic way during the Colonial period and after can be attributed to the high rate of geographical mobility that era.
Families often migrated four or five times, especially in the decades after the American Revolution, always in search of new and productive land. Since the population was so unstable, inheritance of property, though always a serious matter, often occurred informally, sometimes before the death of the father or grandfather, and without the use of legal documents such as wills.
The attitude to vital records changed only when it was realized how useful such records could be for developing statistics concerning health and sanitation. Organizations such as the American Medical Association, the American Statistical Association, and the National Board of Health, were created in the mid-19th century, and were able to convince both federal and state leaders of the value of maintaining such records. Massachusetts was the first state to pass legislation requiring vital records to be maintained on a state level, and did so in 1841.
Another thing to bear in mind is that even if your family lived in a town where vital records were kept, their names still may not appear. Parents were responsible for making certain that their children's births were properly recorded, and even if they did so and carefully entered them in the family book, they may have failed to notify the town clerk. Additionally, names may be omitted from vital records because the town clerk might not have performed his duties diligently, or one or more of the town record books could have been lost over time.
When vital records do exist, they may sometimes be misleading, particularly if you do not know what to look for. In early New England, for example, it was often the custom to record births in family groups, usually one or two families per page in the record book. Births were typically recorded all at once (and sometimes before the couple stopped having children), and only occasionally shortly after they occurred. Therefore, the place where a birth is recorded is not necessarily the actual place of birth.
One thing to watch out for is that published vital records may incorporate unoffical information. For instance, in some volumes of published Massachusetts vital records, it was customary to take the dates of birth from gravestones or calculate them from death dates listing ages, then add the data among the town births, whether or not the individual was actually born there.
To summarize, vital records can sometimes be an absolute goldmine of genealogical information, but you should also be aware that due to the record-keeping practices of the past, they may sometimes be incomplete or misleading. Furthermore, the more familiar you become with the record-keeping methods of the time, the more that you will be able to glean from such vital records.
Copyright © 2006-2018, Answers 2000 Limited
CERTAIN CONTENT THAT APPEARS ON THIS SITE COMES FROM AMAZON SERVICES LLC. THIS CONTENT IS PROVIDED 'AS IS' AND IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE OR REMOVAL AT ANY TIME.
CERTAIN CONTENT THAT APPEARS ON THIS SITE,COMES FROM AMAZON EU S.à r.l. THIS CONTENT IS PROVIDED 'AS IS' AND IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE OR REMOVAL AT ANY TIME.
Disclosure: Our company's websites' content (including this website's content) includes advertisements for our own company's websites, products, and services, and for other organization's websites, products, and services. In the case of links to other organization's websites, our company may receive a payment, (1) if you purchase products or services, or (2) if you sign-up for third party offers, after following links from this website. Unless specifically otherwise stated, information about other organization's products and services, is based on information provided by that organization, the product/service vendor, and/or publicly available information - and should not be taken to mean that we have used the product/service in question. Additionally, our company's websites contain some adverts which we are paid to display, but whose content is not selected by us, such as Google AdSense ads. For more detailed information, please see Advertising/Endorsements Disclosures
Click privacy for information about our company's privacy, data collection and data retention policies, and your rights.
In Association With Amazon.com
Answers 2000 Limited is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.
In Association With Amazon.co.uk
Answers 2000 Limited is a participant in the Amazon EU Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising programme designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.co.uk.
As an Amazon Associate, our company earns from qualifying purchases. Amazon, the Amazon logo, Endless, and the Endless logo are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc. or its affiliates.
All trademarks are property of their respective owners.
All third party content and adverts are copyright of their respective owners.