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Using Vital Statistics Records in the Archives at the Library of Virginia
(Research Notes Number 2)

Laws requiring the recording of births and deaths in Virginia were enacted as early as 1632, when a law directed ministers or churchwardens in each parish to present a "register of all burialls, christenings, and marriages" yearly at the June meeting of the court. A similar act passed in 1659 stated that "enquiries are often made for persons imported into the collonie, of whose death no positive certificate can be granted for want of registers." Few records survive from these early decades.

In 1713 the General Assembly noted that earlier acts had "for a long time been disused" and once again directed the recording of births and deaths by the minister or clerk of each parish. A return made the same year noted that the list of births and deaths was not complete since many parishes failed to make returns "for tis a thing so new to the people that neither they care to Register their Births and Burials, nor are the Parish Clerks yet brought into a regular method of transmitting them."

The recording of vital statistics continued to be an ecclesiastical function throughout the colonial period. With the disestablishment of the Anglican church after the American Revolution and the rise of other religious denominations, the record-keeping process for vital statistics fell more and more to the individual family. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, medical science began to recognize the advantages of accurate birth and mortality information in controlling and treating communicable diseases. Pressure from local and national health organizations and medical professionals resulted in the passage of vital statistics registration laws. Virginia was one of the earliest states to pass such a law.

A law requiring the systematic statewide recording of births and deaths was passed by the General Assembly on April 11 1853.  Every commissioner of revenue registered births and deaths in his district annually, at the same time personal property subject to taxation was ascertained. The commissioner recorded births and deaths that had occurred prior to 31 December of the preceding year and returned the record to the clerk of court by 1 June. Information was obtained from heads of family, physicians, surgeons, or coroners.  The law imposed penalties for failing to furnish or collect the information.

The clerk of court in each locality entered the information supplied by the commissioner into registers and prepared an accompanying alphabetical index. A copy of each register was forwarded to the Auditor of Public Accounts. The law went into effect on 1 July 1853, and continued until 1896, when an economy-conscious legislature repealed the recording provisions.

Birth and death registers in the Library of Virginia are copies of those records made by local clerks from the lists compiled by the commissioners and forwarded to the Auditor of Public Accounts. The Auditor turned the lists over to the Bureau of Vital Statistics in 1918, and the registers were later transferred to the state archives. The records are an indispensable source for the most basic biographical facts about earlier generations of Virginians.

What the Records Show

Information found on birth and death registers changed little between 1853 and 1896.  Birth registers contain headings for: date and place of birth; name of child (if named); color (if "colored," whether slave or free); sex; whether born alive or dead; name of father or owner; father's occupation; father's residence (county or locality in the county); mother's name; how many infants at this birth (whether this was a multiple birth); deformities or any circumstances of interest; name of the person giving the information; and the relation of the informant to the person born.

Death registers record: name, race and sex of the deceased; name of the owner, if a slave; date and place of death; name of the disease or cause of death; age at death (years, months and days); place of birth; occupation; marital status; names 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).

Information is often missing from the records. If an infant had not been named at the time of birth or death, the entry would record only the surname or note "Smith, infant." Only the month appears for the date of birth or death in some instances. On death registers, the names of parents of the deceased are frequently omitted or unreliable.  Causes of death frequently are not known.  When John Doublin reported the death of his friend Charles Beasley in Lancaster County in November 1896, the only information given was that Beasley was 120 years old and had died from "old age."

An index to birth records between 1853 and 1896 is available on microfilm in the Library. The index is arranged alphabetically by surname in ten-year periods. The index lists the child's name, the names of the father and mother, the date of birth, the county in which the birth was recorded, and the page number of the birth register for the year of birth. After locating an entry in the index, the researcher should locate the county register for the birth year and examine the birth record.

There also is an index to slave births for the years 1853 through 1865. The index is arranged alphabetically by the name of the owner, overseer, employer, or informant. The slave's name, mother's name, date of birth, county of birth, and a page number are listed.

Although there is no statewide index to death records for the period 1853 through 1896, some county court clerks prepared indexes to births and deaths for this period. Microfilm copies of the indexes may be available among the county court records in the Library's collection. Examine the guides to county court records in the Library to determine if indexes are available.

The Library also holds microfilm copies of death certificates, 1912-1939, arranged chronologically by year and thereunder by month.  Certificates are numbered consecutively for each year.  Prior to 1932, cities are filed with the counties in which they are located.  Beginning in 1932, cities and counties are filed separately, with the cities at the beginnning of each month.  At the end of the year there is a volume of delayed filings for that year.

An index to death certificates is available on microfilm.  Obtain the year of the death and the certificate number from the index, then use the in-house finding aid to identify the appropriate reel.  The index is arranged chronologically by year groups and thereunder alphabetically by surname.  Although the index continues through 1954, the Library holds only those records filed from 1912 to 1939.

Other Sources

Family Records are the first sources to examine for vital statistics information.  Bible records, baptismal records, school records, scrapbooks, membership records for religious, patriotic, or social societies, military records, insurance records, and a variety of other records can contain important birth and death information. The Library has a collection of family Bibles that records births, marriages, and deaths. Vital statistics about slaves belonging to a household may be recorded since it was important for the owner to document the ages of slaves for tax purposes.

A Guide to Bible Records in the Library of Virginia (2 vols.) is available for check-out, and non-circulating copies are located in the Main Collection, at both the East and West Reading Room reference desks, and in the Archives Research Room. Bible records also can be accessed through the Library's Archives and Manuscripts Catalog.

Census Schedules for Virginia (1810-1880, 1900-1920) are available on microfilm in the Library. Prior to the 1850 census, only the name of the head of the household is recorded.  Other household members are identified by number and sex within certain age groups. Beginning in 1850 and continuing into the twentieth century, individuals in the household are identified by name, and their ages at their last birthdays are recorded.  Information concerning place of birth of each individual and parents of each individual appear on subsequent schedules. Among the types of information recorded on the 1900-1920 schedules are the age of the individual and the month and year of birth.

Special census schedules called mortality schedules are available for the census years 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880. These schedules record the names and causes of death of individuals who died in the twelve months prior to May or June of the census year. They are arranged by county, and except for the 1850 mortality schedules, there is no index to the records. While post-1920 census records at present are not available for public use, information abstracted from the records is available from the U.S. Census Bureau. Details and forms are available at the U.S. Census Bureau web site.

Church Records provide some of the earliest information concerning births and deaths in Virginia. Prior to the American Revolution, the Anglican church was the established church in Virginia, and vital statistics of members were recorded in local parish registers. The oldest surviving register in the Library's collection is that of Charles Parish in York County, which records some parish births and deaths from 1648 through 1789. There are twelve registers for other parishes covering various periods prior to the American Revolution, all of which are available in published form.

Other religious denominations followed various practices concerning the recording of births, deaths, baptisms, and marriages. Church records in the Library's collection are described in A Guide to Church Records in the Archives Branch, Virginia State Library. The guide is available for check-out, and non-circulating copies are located in the Main Collection, at the East and West Reading Room reference desks, and in the Archives Research Room. Other institutions that include church records in their collections are noted in "Genealogical Research at the Library of Virginia."

Cemetery records and tombstone inscriptions also are helpful in establishing birth and death information. Records of several cemeteries in the cities of Richmond and Petersburg are available on microfilm. The Library also has a small collection of copies of records from other counties and cities. A useful guide to locating cemetery sites is Virginia Cemeteries. A Guide to Resources, copies of which are located at the East and West Reading Room reference desks. Researchers should contact local historical societies for information concerning records on, or the location of, family cemeteries.

Newspapers are a valuable source of birth and death information, especially after the 1850s when local papers became more numerous. Obituaries appear more frequently than birth announcements. In most instances, there are no indexes to vital statistics recorded in local newspapers.  Microfilm copies of newspapers from across Virginia are available in the Library, and many are located in the Microfilm Reading Area. Newspapers published by religious denominations, such as the Baptist Religious Herald, the Episcopal Southern Churchman and the Presbyterian Standard, also are helpful.

County Records often contain copies of birth and death registers which can be found in the Library's collection of microfilm county court records. The records were maintained by the clerk of court in the locality and duplicate those records forwarded to the Auditor of Public Accounts. In many instances, indexes are available for both births and deaths. To determine if records are available for a locality, consult the black, bound volumes marked "County Records, A-Y" in the Microfilm Reading Area and at the West Reading Room reference desk.

Availability of Records for Research

Certified copies of birth and death records for the period 1853 through 1896 are available only from the Office of Vital Records and Health Statistics, P.O. Box 1000, Richmond, VA 23218-1000.  Details and forms are available at the Virginia Department of Health web site.   Researchers who visit the Library can make copies from the birth and death registers on microfilm in the collection.

Microfilm copies of vital statistics may be borrowed from the Library of Virginia through the interlibrary loan system of local libraries. The original registers of births and deaths have been withdrawn from circulation since microfilm copies are available.

Vital Records After 1896

There was no statewide recording of births and deaths between 1896 and 1912. To locate vital statistics during this period, the researcher must consult the alternate sources described previously.  Several metropolitan areas continued to keep records of births and deaths after 1896. The cities of Lynchburg, Newport News, Norfolk, Petersburg, Portsmouth, Richmond, and Roanoke, and the county of Elizabeth City, kept records for all or part of the period between 1896 and 1912. Contact the public health departments in these localities for information concerning available records. Systematic statewide registration began again in June 1912. For information from vital statistics records filed after that date, contact the Office of Vital Records.

Compiled by Conley L. Edwards, state archivist.
Revised February 2000