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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.
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