About the Death Index of Virginia, 1853-1896
About the Collection
The Virginia General Assembly on April 11, 1853, passed a law requiring the systematic statewide recording of births and deaths. The law required every commissioner of revenue to make an annual registration of births and deaths in his district at the same time personal property subject to taxation was ascertained. The commissioner was to record births and deaths that occurred prior to December 31 of the preceding year and return the record to the clerk of court by June 1. Information was obtained from heads of family, physicians, surgeons or coroners, and the law imposed penalties for failing to furnish or collect the information.
The clerk of court in each locality was directed to enter the information supplied by the commissioner into registers. A copy of each register was forwarded to the Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts. The law went into effect on July 1,1853, and continued until 1896, when an economy-conscious legislature repealed the recording provisions.
NOTE: not all deaths were recorded during the period 1853-1896.
NOTE: the Library of Virginia does not have death records for the period 1896-1912.
Information found on death registers changed little between 1853 and 1896. Death registers contain the name of the deceased; the race and sex; the date and place of death; notations regarding slaves and the names of slave owners; name of the disease or cause of death; age at death (years, months and days); place of birth; occupation; marital status; name of parents of the deceased; name of person giving the information; and description of the informant (whether a physician, consort, head of the family or friend).
It is not unusual to find information missing from the records. If an infant had not yet been named at the time of death, the entry would record only the surname or note "Smith, Infant." The terms "Unnamed," "No name," and "Not named" are also used. Only the given name of a slave is recorded. Only the month appears for the date of death in some instances. The names of parents of the deceased are frequently omitted or unreliable since the person giving the information may not have known the names. Causes of death frequently are not known.
The Death Records Indexing Project is sponsored by the Virginia Genealogical Society. More than 60 volunteers, working in 15 states, are in the process of indexing the microfilmed versions of the local registers as part of a long-term, state-wide project to provide better access to local death records. Each index entry provides the name of the deceased, the date of death, information about slaves and slave owners if present, and the year and page number of the register where the death is recorded. As already mentioned, some information may not be available and some may vary from locality to locality. Once a city or county has been completed, database records are created from the indexing information and made available online via the Library of Virginia's Digital Library Program. The online database is fully keyword searchable and currently contains over 46,000 entries. The Virginia Genealogical Society volunteer coordinator for this project is Emily Rusk
Counties Represented in the Database
Currently index entries for the following cities and counties can be found in the database:
- Albemarle County
- Alleghany County
- Amherst County
- Appomattox County
- Bath County
- Bedford County
- Botetourt County
- Buchanan County
- Elizabeth City County
- Essex County
- Fairfax County
- Fauquier County
- Floyd County
- Goochland County
- Halifax County
- Henry County
- King George County
- Loudoun County
- Louisa County
- Patrick County
- Prince Edward County
- Prince William County
- Princess Anne County
- Southampton County
- Stafford County
- Warren County
- Washington County
- Wise County
- Warwick County
- Wythe County
Format of Original Documents
Microfilmed copies are available at the Library of Virginia. The originals registers are not served to the public. There are over 200 reels of microfilm. The film is arranged by county, by year within each county, and then usually chronologically (some are arranged alphabetically). There are usually less than 25 frames per any one year. The pages on the microfilmed copies are not numbered. The indexers, however, have supplied page numbers for each index entry in order to facilitate locating the original reference.
The microfilm was made in the 1940s, and many pages are difficult to read. Also many of the registers are duplicated in the Library's collection of county court records on microfilm, which is available through Interlibrary Loan. These reels are sometimes easier to read. See Related Resources below.
- Edwards, Conley L. Using Vital Statistics Records in the Archives at the Library of Virginia Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2000.
- The Library also has Virginia. Bureau of Vital Statistics, Death Certificates (Post-1912) on microfilm which covers 1912-1939. This series consists of 305 reels of film. The post-1912 death certificate microfilm is available via interlibrary loan.
- Guide to Virginia Local Court Records on Microfilm
There are numerous published abstracts of county death records. For holdings in the Library of Virginia, see the Books, Journals... Catalog. Search under the subject heading:
Registers of births, etc. Virginia [name of county]
Example: Registers of births, etc. Virginia Alleghany County
Obtaining Copies of Original Documents
Certified copies of death records for the period 1853 through 1896 and 1912-1939 are available only from the Office of Vital Records, The Shops at Willow Lawn, 1601 Willow Lawn Drive, Suite 275, Richmond, VA 23230, P.O. Box 1000, Richmond, VA 23218-8000 (804-692-3592).
The Library of Virginia does not make photocopies from the microfilm or original registers.
Researchers who visit the Library can make copies from the birth and death registers on microfilm in the collection.
Microfilm copies of vital statistics, including death registers, may be borrowed from the Library of Virginia through the Interlibrary Loan department of your local library.
Punctuation and capitalization are disregarded. Entries in this database are arranged in letter-by-letter alphabetical order. In addition to the regular searches, you may click on any highlighted element of a database record (such as a subject) to initiate a search on that element. Each record in the Death Records Indexing Project database consists of:
- the name of the deceased
- the other names
- the death date
- subject headings, which include the name of the city or county
Names of Deceased Individuals
Several conventions for recording names have been used:
- When both the surname and given name are known, the surname is recorded first, followed by the given name.
- "Not named" is often used when the name of a child has not been recorded. The parents' surname is often recorded in brackets.
- The given name only is usually recorded for slaves.
- "Unnamed slave" is usually recorded when the name of the deceased slave is not given.
- Hardy, Elizabeth
- Treakle, Walter
- [Stone], Not Named (an unnamed child)
- Lucy (a slave)
- Smith, No Name (a slave)
Some records list names of slave owners and parents of the deceased. Use a Basic (keyword) search, using Names in Subject or Words Anywhere, to locate these individuals.
To locate records for slaves, do a Basic (keyword) search (with Words Anywhere) using the word slave. Narrow the search by adding terms for name or location.
The date of death is recorded in a note. Dates are keyword searchable. Examples of death dates are:
- November 20, 1853
- October 1860
- ----------- 15, 1889 (month was not recorded in the register)
- ----------- 9, (only the day was recorded in the register)
- ----------- (no death date was recorded in the register)
Notes usually begin with the phrase: "Source of information:" and consist of the city or county and the page number of the register. The name of the city or county is keyword searchable.
Note that the page numbering repeats for each year. Thus, Alleghany County, page 1 in the entry for Emma M. Byrd, date of death March 28, 1888, indicates the first page for the year 1888 and not the first page for all the Alleghany County death registers.
Records for a few counties contain structured notes that provide additional information. These notes begin with captions that are also keyword searchable:
- Place of death
- Cause of death
- Age at death
- Place of birth
- Terms indicating marital status (Widow, Unmarried)
This information is keyword searchable.
- cause dysentery
- status widow
- gender male
- cause child birth
- unmarried adams
Each record contain the following subject heading:
Deaths – Virginia – [name of city or county]
The name of the city or county in the subject heading is keyword searchable.
For more detailed help with searching, click on the "Help" link on the main search screen and scroll down to "Search Functions" and "Search Tips."